The longer Donald Trump remains President and Harry Reid remains retired, the greater the chances that canisters bearing more than 3.5 million pounds of nuclear waste from the shut-down San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) will end up beneath a mountain about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
And the closer this proposed solution to a serious problem comes to reality, the greater the chances it will pit well-meaning Californians against each other, both sides with legitimate environmental concerns that so far appear of little or no interest to Trump’s administration.
The waste involved, say San Diego-area consumer groups, is extremely deadly and could remain potentially lethal for about 250,000 years – much longer than the known history of the human race. Planned burial of the canisters near the beachfront abutting the SONGS site along Interstate 5 at the San Diego-Orange county line may be delayed as Edison and consumer lawyers try to negotiate another disposition for them. Those negotiations have already postponed a civil trial that had been scheduled to begin April 14.
Should the canisters stay beneath the beach and leak, they could endanger more than 8.4 million persons living within 50 miles, not to mention freeway drivers and passengers on an adjacent coastal rail route.
Enter Yucca Mountain. The hollowed-out mountain was considered in the 1990s as a prime candidate for storage of nuclear waste from around the nation, now scattered widely in supposedly temporary sites.
Then Reid, the recently retired Democratic Nevada senator and longtime Senate Democratic leader, stepped in along with now-retired California Democrat Barbara Boxer. Both expounded a theory that radioactivity from Yucca Mountain could trickle into underground water supplies that eventually flow to the Colorado River upstream from the aqueduct belonging to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides significant supplies to about half of all Californians. They warned that stored waste at Yucca Mountain could pollute much of California’s and Arizona’s water supply for generations to come.
Any threat to those water supplies can only create pressure to draw more water from rivers in Northern California.
Yucca Mountain also became highly unpopular in Nevada, whose citizenry resisted becoming a dumping ground for the most toxic waste in America when there isn’t even a nuclear power plant in that state.
Now comes the Trump administration, which has seemed to care little about polluting anything, from air to water to the airwaves, where it admits purveying “alternative facts.” That’s another phrase for lies, distortions and exaggerations. Meanwhile, no one has either proved or disproved the potential threat from a Yucca Mountain dump.
So far, Trump proposes spending $120 million to restart the licensing process for the site. But Yucca Mountain could end up costing more than 1,000 times that much – a possible $100 billion for things like 300-plus miles of new railroad track to bring waste there, advanced robots to work underground with waste canisters, and building of massive underground titanium shields designed to keep waste from most of the 48 contiguous states contained for hundreds of thousands of years beyond the lifetime of anyone alive today.
Trump’s aim is to keep nuclear power plants operational as long as possible. They currently supply about 20 percent of America’s power, with more than two dozen now storing radioactive waste on or near their own sites on a longstanding “temporary” basis.
The renewed controversy would not be happening if Reid were still leading the Senate.
The strong push by San Diego County residents to move SONGS waste far away from them will only add pressure to the drive for Yucca Mountain.
There is no doubt America needs a waste storage site, as all existing ones are at capacity. Yucca Mountain got its newest boost the other day, when Energy Secretary Rick Perry – a determined rival of California during his eight years as Texas governor – quietly visited the area.
But Nevada officials, including Democrats like Reid successor Catherine Cortez Masto and Republicans led by Gov. Brian Sandoval, are united against it. So far, no California official has been involved in the new push for the site.
More and more, this looks like a political landmine, with legitimate environmental worries on both sides of a decades-old dispute.