Nye County officials on Yucca Mountain: ‘Let’s sit down and talk’

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Wade Vandervort

Liaison Commissioner for Nuclear Issues, Nuclear Waste Repository Project Office for Nye County, Nevada, Leonardo Blundo speaks during the Radwaste Summit at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.

Sun, Sep 8, 2019 (2 a.m.)

Nevada leaders from Gov. Steve Sisolak and current members of the state’s congressional delegation to past governors, senators and representatives have long pushed back against the development of a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Yet officials in Nye County — home to the proposed nuclear dump — have been much more willing to discuss the issue.

Congress has designated Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas, as the only permanent nuclear waste repository in the nation, but the administration of President Barack Obama cut the funding to license and open the facility. With Donald Trump now in the White House, congressional efforts are underway to restart that process.

Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo is the board’s liaison on nuclear issues and has been avowed in his support for the project. Blundo, along with Darrell Lacy, director of Nye’s Nuclear Waste Repository Project Office, recently sat down with the Sun to discuss Yucca Mountain.

What is Nye County’s position on the Yucca Mountain project?

Lacy: If it can be shown that Yucca Mountain is safe, then we feel a need to be open-minded about potential benefits. Economic development in a rural county is always tough. We’re not willing to sell our safety for a few dollars, but if it can be shown to be safe, then the benefits as far as jobs, as far as health care — we had to shut down a hospital in Tonopah because we don’t have the funding at the county level to keep it open. So, if things like Yucca Mountain or other federal projects can help support that … we at least need to be open-minded to discuss it.

It’s frustrating from our position that people say ‘no way’ without having the facts. A lot of the issues that are brought up are either misinformed or fearmongering. We would love to see — as Commissioner Blundo said, let’s have a discussion, let’s sit down and talk about it.

Is it safe?

Blundo: The county’s current position is to support and advocate for Yucca Mountain. That was a past board decision.

Lacy: The resolution says if it’s determined to be safe, then we want to have a seat at the table to negotiate for benefits and other options.

Blundo: And that was a resolution in the 2000s that was adopted by board and that’s what we’re currently operating under. The safety is paramount for our residents, for Nevadans — that’s the first and foremost concern on everyone’s mind. I’m a real big proponent of finding solutions. We’ve been handed down this issue. We have an obligation to the safety of our communities, our residents, our constituents, Nevadans. What’s important in looking at this is that everybody does care about a solution here. I think everybody’s just looking at it from a different perspective.

I invite our federal delegation to look at it from a different perspective and let’s just continue to try and find a solution. The state has its contentions, the federal delegation has its contentions, we, locally, actually have our contentions. One of the key ways to address these issues and ascertain the safety thereof is to go through the licensing hearing.

Lacy: And that’s all we’re truly advocating for right now is just finish the licensing.

Blundo: All we’re asking is to have that seat at the table. We want to have a discussion. Safety is paramount to us, locally — it is in our backyard. I invite that discussion because I want to understand their perspectives and I’d like them to also look at our perspective. I believe everybody’s hearts are all in the right places. We all believe we’re fighting for and protecting the constituents, the residents — Nevadans.

Let’s talk about some of the safety concerns that have been brought up. What about the issue of transportation?

Lacy: The nuclear waste for Yucca Mountain is primarily going to be handled by rail. We don’t have a rail line to it today, so part of the project was to build a new rail line. We have proposed routes that totally avoid Las Vegas. The state of Nevada will never even sit down to discuss it.

The existing lines today go through Las Vegas and you will have people try to use that from a fear perspective to say "look, all this waste is going to come through downtown Las Vegas" when they know it’s not true. But because there’s not another line built, or route even finally selected, then as they see DOE hasn’t built another line, so the only other option is to bring it through Las Vegas.

What about groundwater?

Lacy: The water does not flow in the direction of Las Vegas, yet you will have people who try to claim that it’s going to poison the water in Las Vegas. The water from there flows toward Death Valley, it does not flow toward Las Vegas, and it flows very, very slow. The questions about it ever even getting to the water are, is it going to be 100,000 years or 300,000 years of 700,000 years before the first drop of radiation gets into the groundwater. Is that really a major concern to somebody living today?

What about seismic activity around the site?

Lacy: That was one of the biggest issues that was looked at, and one of the biggest challenges for the scientists on Yucca Mountain.

There were a lot of the scientists involved in the project that said “the numbers that we are using are bigger than the physical properties that the earth can handle.” It does not get to that kind of ground movement. It was always a magnitude higher than whatever we’ve seen out there before in the past.

They empaneled a United States Geological Survey-led panel of industry experts from around the country and they went through and said that the numbers used in the Yucca Mountain license application not only are unreasonable, they were physically impossible. They came back with numbers to use that are significantly lower than that.

As people come up now and say, “Oh there was an earthquake in Ridgecrest (Calif.)” that was several orders of magnitude less than what Yucca was designed for. Why does that make Yucca more dangerous now?

So, if you’re not worried about an earthquake in Las Vegas, you shouldn’t be worried about one in Yucca Mountain? Is that fair to say?

Lacy: In Yucca Mountain, you’ve got a 200,000-pound chunk of steel sitting on the ground. In Las Vegas, you’ve got some 30- 40-story high rises. The same ground movement is going to cause tremendously more damage in Las Vegas than it is to a 200,000-pound chunk of steel sitting on the ground.

Blundo: But let’s be realistic for one quick moment. Over at the Nevada Test Site (Nevada National Security Site in Nye County), you currently have low-level waste being stored there. We talk about Yucca and nuclear waste, well we, daily, have nuclear waste going to the test site. But we won’t talk about how the earthquake affected that.

It’s inconsistent and we’re comparing one-half of what we think sounds good here, to another half of a fact here, and we’re making our own facts and we’re presenting that.

So how do constituents react to Yucca? Are people in Nye County for or against the site?

Blundo: A huge majority are for it.

Does it get frustrating having this discussion for so long?

Blundo: Something I learned when I took office is the problems I’m trying to solve today are not problems that we created today. They’re problems of a past quarter-century. They’re problems of 10, 25, sometimes 50 years in the making.

I’m humbled to be able to have the opportunity to tackle this head on and say, “Here’s a hard issue, let’s work on a solution.”

Lacy: If Yucca’s not the solution, then let’s make a decision and move on to the next one. By not solving this problem, there is waste sitting in many sites. If we don’t solve the problem, we’re leaving it for our kids and grandkids to solve.

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