Wasted potential

Kyle Gillis

For years antinuclear politicians called Yucca Mountain the nation’s “nuclear waste dump.” Now they’ve made it into a tax dump.

Nuclear reprocessing at Yucca Mountain, say advocates, could convert highly valuable nuclear byproduct into usable power and bring thousands of permanent jobs to Nevada.

Yet the politicians who’ve repeatedly derailed that possibility regularly boast of the relatively tiny number of jobs and energy that their tax-subsidized “green” technologies might someday create.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is a case in point. He opposes Yucca not only as a nuclear materials storage facility but even as a site for nuclear reprocessing. Yet, he touts stimulus spending on other “green” projects, which create significantly fewer jobs than reprocessing at Yucca would.

Recently, the Obama administration granted Reid’s wish by pronouncing the Yucca project “dead” and eliminating funding for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. This terminated all remaining Yucca employees.

Just two years ago, the Yucca project employed 2,700 people, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Now, no employees work on the site.

Yucca is now the graveyard of a $10 billion investment of taxpayer money that sits unused.

While the Obama administration says it will invest another $500 million in new “green” jobs in the United States, renewable-energy technologies create a mere fraction of the jobs a national nuclear reprocessing center would create — and also a mere fraction of the energy.

According to data from the Obama administration’s own recovery.org, a $138 million stimulus grant for Smart Grids, a program designed for “…creating jobs, streamlining operations, and reducing peak demand” has created only 47 jobs in Nevada.

And while Nevada Solar One, a Boulder City solar power plant that received a $2.9 million federal grant, produced 800 jobs during its construction, only 30 permanent jobs ensued.

Even at their height, these two projects, combined, created barely a third of the permanent jobs the government phased out at Yucca Mountain.

In comparison, the US Nuclear Energy Foundation (USNEF), a Sparks-based advocacy group, estimates a nuclear reprocessing facility at Yucca would create 12,000 jobs during the construction-and-design phase and 2,500 permanent jobs.

Gary Cerefice, assistant professor of health physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, points to the over-100 nuclear reactors now sited in 31 states and argues that the resultant production and transportation of depleted nuclear materials would provide a “constant revenue stream” for Nevada’s reprocessing center. Since only 5 percent of nuclear byproduct is actual “waste,” Cerefice believes Nevada would hit an economic jackpot.

“By not reprocessing it, you’re throwing away a product that wasn’t made to be thrown away,” said Cerefice. “If you don’t separate it and [you] treat it all as waste, you’re throwing away potential money and energy.”

Gary Durate, director of USNEF, says privatizing nuclear energy would maintain the “constant revenue stream,” while fostering job growth in both Nevada and the nation.

“Nuclear energy, spent fuels reprocessing and reclamation should be the responsibility of the private industry,” said Duarte, “but no private company will invest massive resources until such a time [when] the government establishes a permanent policy direction.”

The federal government’s policy was originally spelled out in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s central nuclear repository. Years of subsequent political opposition to the Yucca project, however, eventually succeeded when the Obama administration pronounced the project “dead.”

Now, national nuclear-energy policy is largely in the hands of a Reid nominee who, according to his resume, “led efforts to defeat proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.”

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko — originally a Reid scientific advisor — only received a spot on the NRC in 2005 after Reid threatened to block all commission appointments by then-president George W. Bush.

In 2009, President Obama named Jaczko NRC chairman. Since then, not only was the Yucca project denied, but no new private nuclear reactors have begun construction anywhere in the United States.

Proposals for private reactors become bogged down in the NRC’s licensing process. Areva, an energy company specializing in emission-free technology, has spent more than $900 million during its application process since 2007, according to USNEF. The website of NuScale Power, an Oregon-based nuclear design company, reveals that the company spent four years filing “pre-application requests” and will not finish the “pre-application” phase until 2012.

With a five-year “pre-application” process for reactors and a chairman with an antinuclear history — Jaczko worked for U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., before Reid — the NRC is killing any opportunity for Nevada to become the “Silicon Valley of reprocessing,” says Randi Thompson of Nevadans 4 Carbon Free Energy. Instead, all it allows is the Obama-Reid “green” energy agenda.

Solar is a favorite Reid “green” technology, but solar plants create few jobs, their operating costs are high and they produce usable energy at a significantly lower rate than nuclear plants.

According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2011, the lifetime cost of operating a new nuclear plant is $133 per megawatt hour. The cost of a new solar plant, on the other hand, is $210 per megawatt hour — 57 percent more expensive.  

Additionally, while nuclear plants now operate at a 90 percent capacity factor — meaning they generate at 90 percent of their maximum possible energy-production rate — solar plants operate at only 25 percent capacity.

It has been political “green favoritism” that has prevented construction of the much more efficient nuclear plants, says Thompson, and that limits transportation of depleted nuclear materials.  

“There have been over 3,000 [such] shipments across the country without incident,” said Thompson. “There’s a proven safety track record.”

Even though lawmakers discourage reprocessing resources from entering Nevada, the state still imports nuclear-produced energy from other states.

NV Energy gets 1.38 percent of its electricity from out-of-state nuclear power plants. By contrast, NV Energy produces .22 percent of electricity from solar and wind sources, and 9.53 percent from geothermal.  

Denis Beller, professor of nuclear engineering at UNLV, notes that nuclear energy is still cheaper to produce than other forms of “green energy,” even with government subsidies, and that a Yucca reprocessing center could produce great quantities of this less-expensive energy.

“Our schools [UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno] have some of the top radiochemistry programs in the country. And having a large center for recycling research would absolutely help the state,” said Beller.  

Rather than focusing on how Yucca would help the state, opponents cite risks of weapons proliferation and radiation poisoning. While worthy of attention, says Cerefice, these concerns shouldn’t suppress Yucca’s economic and scientific potential.

“I’m working hands-on with this [nuclear] material every day and I’m confident it can be handled safely,” Cerefice said.

On a national level, House Republicans included a revived Yucca project in their proposed budget. Additionally, the states of Washington and South Carolina announced plans to challenge the Obama administration’s decision in court, claiming federal law prohibits the administration from abandoning Yucca without approving another site.