Rep. Dan Newhouse stood at the top of Yucca Mountain. As the wind whipped his hair, he took in the view in every direction.
“You can’t see any cities or towns from the top of that almost 5,000-foot peak,” the Sunnyside Republican said during a call with reporters after returning Friday to Yakima.
He came away impressed with the Nevada site’s remoteness and the work conducted by scientists to determine that the mountain could safely store high-level radioactive waste for 1 million years.
The Hanford vitrification plant is being built to glassify high-level radioactive waste in logs that would be held in stainless steel containers, with the waste package and treatment designed to meet criteria for disposal at the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. Other Hanford waste, including 2,300 tons of irradiated fuel, also was planned to be sent to Yucca Mountain.
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On Thursday, Newhouse and five other members of Congress toured the repository, which has seldom been opened up for visitors in recent years.
Congress cut off funding for the project after Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., became majority leader in 2007, and the Obama administration moved to shut the project down.
Republicans control the Senate and House, and Reid has announced plans to retire after next year.
“I came away feeling very optimistic this is a workable site — one we as a country invested a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of money determining whether it would suffice,” Newhouse said. He sees potential to move forward with the site as a repository.
The nation has spent almost three decades considering Yucca Mountain and spent up to $15 billion, he said. The repository has been proposed by Congress for the disposal of both defense waste, much of it coming from Hanford, and used commercial nuclear fuel, including fuel now stored at Energy Northwest’s nuclear power plant near Richland.
The Obama administration wants to start over to pick one or more sites for the nation’s high-level waste repository, only accepting sites that are volunteered by states and local communities. Nevada, with the exception of the area near Yucca Mountain, has strongly opposed playing host to the nation’s nuclear waste repository.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., did not join the tour and called it “a disingenuous, political sideshow” to build support for a project Nevada does not want.
Newhouse said he has grave concerns about anything that would prolong the process of establishing a nuclear repository, leaving high-level radioactive waste stored longer at Hanford.
Another 30 or 40 years might be needed to approve a new site and upwards of $15 billion might again be spent to study new sites, Newhouse said.
“If we need another site, and potentially we will in the future, certainly that could move forward concurrently,” he said. “But I would hate to take the focus away from all the work done and investment made so far.”
Even if the Yucca Mountain project were to start moving forward today, it would still require 10 to 15 years of work before the repository could accept its first waste shipment, he said.
A good next step would be to budget money to continue work at Yucca Mountain, he said. Congress also should address concerns of the state of Nevada and the communities nearest Yucca Mountain, Newhouse said.
Nevada wants the authority to inspect shipments of waste entering the state, and there are land acquisition and water right issues, he said. The project requires a railroad, and it could be located to provide local economic benefits.
Congressional legislation is the appropriate way to make those accommodations, he said.
Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., who is new to Congress, said during the tour that he is willing to support the project if Nevada gains benefits like schools, roads and water resources in return.
The tour was organized by Rep. John Shimkus. The Republican’s home state of Illinois has 11 nuclear power reactors.
Nevada state officials objected that they were not included on the tour to give a state perspective. Newhouse said space on the tour was so limited that officials from nearby counties that favor opening the repository could not join the tour.
Newhouse described taking a bus from Las Vegas on an almost two-hour ride out to the repository. Congressional leaders rode ATVs through the 5-mile exploratory tunnel drilled through the mountain as most others waited outside.
The tunnel has 1,000 feet of rock above it and the groundwater table is 1,000 feet beneath it. Waste would be stored in a honeycomb of tunnels 1,000 feet below ground.
“It’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic,” he said.
As the tour visited the top of the mountain, Newhouse felt at home, he said. The desert topography and geology is somewhat like that of Eastern Washington.