Could Privatization Defeat the Yucca Mountain Project?

D. Muska

The Department of Energy continues to investigate whether Yucca Mountain is a viable location to store the high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) produced by America’s commercial nuclear reactors. Nevada’s elected officials, fully aware that their political lives depend on resistance to the Yucca Mountain Project (YMP), continue to fight the proposal. The rhetoric they employ to oppose the YMP usually features apocalyptic scenarios—fantasies of terrorist attacks or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. It is unfortunate that YMP foes rarely advance the free-market argument that the federal government should not be responsible for disposing of waste generated by for-profit corporations. Events in Utah may bring attention to this oversight—a possible interim storage facility in the Beehive State suggests that the HLRW problem does not require a government-dominated solution.

Running Out of Room

In 1982, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Contrary to the deregulatory zeitgeist of the early 1980s, the Act essentially nationalized the disposal of HLRW—the Department of Energy was charged with finding, constructing and operating a repository for the spent fuel rods of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors. Five years later, the "Screw Nevada" bill was passed, naming Yucca Mountain as the only site to be considered for the nation’s HLRW graveyard. The facility was to be operational by January of 1998, when the federal government became legally responsible for spent nuclear fuel. However, the DOE has not met its deadline, and the YMP is now 12 years behind schedule. A "viability assessment" of Yucca Mountain’s suitability is due later this year, but regardless of the DOE’s findings it will be at least a decade before the government brings a repository at Yucca online. As a result of DOE delays (exacerbated, no doubt, by the state of Nevada’s unsuccessful delaying tactics), the on-site storage facilities of many utilities are close to capacity. Legislation to establish interim storage of HLRW at the Nevada Test Site is currently in limbo on Capitol Hill. Although majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives have voted for temporary storage near Yucca Mountain, President Clinton has threatened to veto such a bill if it crosses his desk. Thus, several waste generators have joined together to address their storage problems collectively. Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a limited liability company owned by eight utilities, has contracted with a tribal government to establish its own interim facility. In December of 1996, PFS agreed to a 25-year lease (with an option for another 25 years) of 820 acres on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation. The tribe sees an interim facility as a way of remedying decades of intractable poverty. Tribal members stand to benefit from increased employment, spinoff business opportunities and a stable source of revenue for public projects. While some Goshutes object to the proposal, tribal leaders are attracted to the economic benefits their people will likely see. The terms of the PFS/Goshute financial agreement have not been disclosed, but many speculate the compensation package could approach $250 million, approximately $2 million for each member of the tribe. Goshute Tribal Chairman Leon D. Bear scoffs at critics who charge his people are placing themselves in danger for mere money. "As far as being stupid out here, we’re not," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. "But if we’re stupid, so be it. We’ll be stupid all the way to the bank."

Why Utah? Why a Reservation?

PFS finds the Goshute reservation, located 52 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, an ideal location for a number of reasons. The industry consensus is that Yucca Mountain will someday house the nation’s HLRW, so the proximity of the reservation to Nevada is believed to be an advantage. The tribe’s land is also in a barren, sparsely populated region where undesirable facilities abound. According to Deseret News reporter Karl Cates, "the … reservation is in the heart of probably the biggest assortment of weapons and hazardous/toxic waste storage or test sites in America." And certainly, the tribe’s unique status as a sovereign government—it signed a treaty with Washington in 1863, before Utah was even a state—frees PFS from the political and legal challenges it would face in an attempt to build such a facility on public or private land.

Utah’s Massive Resistance

Not surprisingly, most opinion leaders in Utah have demonized the PFS plan. A Nevadan who reads the anti-nuclear statements made by Utah’s politicians and media elite would feel an eerie sense of familiarity. Governor Mike Leavitt calls the proposal an "over-my-dead-body issue." He once referred to HLRW storage in his state as "morally wrong." Earlier this year Utah’s legislature voted to impose heavy (and potentially unconstitutional) fines and regulations on the transportation and storage of HLRW within the state. In addition, Leavitt engineered a state takeover of the only paved road leading to the Goshute reservation, a usurpation of local control that reminded some Utahns of President Clinton’s declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. And predictably, out-of-state anti-nuclear agitators have descended upon Utah to ritually demonstrate their fear of the atom. (Apparently the environmental left is all for Indian empowerment and tribal sovereignty, but only when tribal governments approve politically correct projects.) The nuclear war in Utah promises to drag on for some time, since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will spend at least three years studying the PFS license application.

An End to Nevada’s Nuclear War?

Nuclear utilities are prohibited by law from permanently disposing of their HLRW—for now, it is the job of the federal government alone. There are no bills before Congress to deregulate the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. But the partnership of PFS and the Goshutes might be the first crack in the decades-long belief that the HLRW buck stops at the federal government. Wishful thinking? Perhaps not. In Wyoming, a separate group of utilities, calling themselves NEW Corp., is studying the feasibility of interim storage at a site in Shoshoni. With two temporary storage facilities in place, the market could start to work its magic. "There might be competition for customers," said PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin. Private-sector operation of interim storage facilities could build confidence in the notion of a privatized solution for permanent HLRW disposal.


The PFS/Goshute effort stands in stark contrast to the nation’s present HLRW policy. The utility consortium has made it economically attractive for the Goshutes to host a waste facility on their land. The tribe has educated itself about nuclear waste, and chosen to take advantage of the considerable economic opportunities presented. Similar arrangements could begin to expose the incoherence of America’s nationalized HLRW policy. And in time, permanent repositories run by profit-making corporations could eliminate the need for one at Yucca Mountain. Advocating an end to nationalized HLRW storage could be a valuable tactic in Nevada’s effort to defeat the YMP. It remains to be seen whether Silver State politicians at the state and federal level are willing to make the compelling case for privatization.

D. Dowd Muska, a non-smoker, is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s monthly magazine. He can be contacted at