New administration, no Harry Reid: Time to make progress on nuke waste storage

Our state is justifiably proud of the contributions made to victory in World War II, notably Boeing’s massive airplane production and the important work done at Hanford. Unfortunately, we continue to pay a price for the latter.

Great minds labored in secrecy at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford, driven by the need to develop a nuclear weapon ahead of Nazi Germany. The brilliant Dr. Enrico Fermi directly oversaw the work at Hanford, and stepping into his office is a highlight for tourists at the historic B Reactor.

Decades later, Hanford remains a contaminated site. Our state has used every means at its disposal to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire on Hanford’s clean-up. It’s been a long and laborious process, with many setbacks along the way.

The Hanford site was originally selected because of its remoteness. That has no doubt contributed to the slow clean-up. The Columbian wryly noted recently, “It is unfathomable to imagine the federal government ignoring the issue if Hanford were located, say, along the shores of the Potomac River, but Hanford has remained out of sight and out of mind.”

A permanent depository is required by law
Congress passed a law in 1982 requiring construction of a permanent national depository for nuclear waste, including the legacy wastes at Hanford. In 1987, Congress selected Yucca Mountain in Nevada as that depository. Three decades later, we have no permanent depository, at Yucca or elsewhere.

We need a long-term solution, but have gotten only dithering. It’s important for many states, but especially for our state and South Carolina, which, like us, is saddled with legacy wastes at the Savannah River Site. A permanent solution is important for the nation’s energy future as well.

Proud to stand in the way
The single greatest impediment to a permanent depository at Yucca was Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). He strangled funding for the project, packed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with anti-Yucca members, and made sure the Obama administration caved on Yucca licensing appropriations. He was proud to be a roadblock.

With Reid now retired and a new administration in place, there’s new hope for momentum to construct a permanent depository. Some Nevada House members are open to the project, and the areas around Yucca publicly lobby for it. While both of Nevada’s senators (a Republican and a Democrat) remain opposed, Reid will no longer be there to ensure the governmental and party levers remain pulled against Yucca. There is yet hope.

Even a federal court ordering the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make a decision on Yucca had little effect. With Harry Reid blocking the government from spending money to pursue a license, the effort has remained stalled.

But the law still requires a permanent depository, and the Hanford clean-up demands one. Whether that’s Yucca, New Mexico’s WIPP, or some other site, it needs to happen.

A new administration and a Reid-less Congress is a new opportunity to make progress. We can’t afford another three decades of dithering.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.