Energy Secretary Rick Perry traveled to Capitol Hill last month, asking Congress for $28 billion in funding for everything from nuclear weapons to clean-coal research. Yet one of the most controversial elements in his department's budget proposal was a request for a relatively tiny $120 million to restart work on Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site.
Congress decided in the 1980s that Yucca was to be the permanent home of the country's large and increasing pile of spent nuclear fuel. In a forbidding desert landscape about 100 miles outside Las Vegas, the site would appear to be an ideal choice for an unbreachable underground vault. The federal government spent more than $15 billion studying the place. Just a couple of years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the facility would be technically sound, considering everything from seismic activity to accidental human intrusion, on time scales of up to a million years. Locals in Nye County, which would stand to benefit from employment related to the site, are on board.
But practically everyone else in Nevada opposes the Yucca project, and state leaders have waged a so-far successful not-in-my-back-yard campaign, even though federal law is clear that the site is to be the nation's nuclear waste storehouse. The state has denied the Energy Department the water rights it would need to build the depository. For years, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., successfully blocked funding for its development, with the help of President Barack Obama, who made an exception for swing-state Nevada from his pledge to run a science-based administration.