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Federal Nuclear Dumping in Nevada Stirs Statewide Resentment via U.S. News

Federal Nuclear Dumping in Nevada Stirs Statewide Resentment

By Michael Green

Nevadans can be forgiven for thinking they are in an endless loop of “The Walking Dead” TV series. Their least favorite zombie federal project refuses to die.

In 2010, Congress had abandoned plans to turn Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, into the nation’s only federal dump for nuclear waste so radioactive it requires permanent isolation. And the House recently voted by a wide margin to resume these efforts.

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While teaching and writing about the state’s history for more than 30 years, I have followed the Yucca Mountain fight from the beginning – as well as how Nevadans’ views have evolved on all things nuclear. The project could well go forward, but I believe that it probably won’t as long as there are political benefits to stopping it.

The Roots of Statewide Resentment
Two-thirds of Nevadans oppose this plan, according to a 2017 poll. The state’s experience with federal actions, including nuclear weapons and waste, may help explain the proposed repository’s long-standing unpopularity.

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A Magnet for Federal Projects
Tourism, however, became central to Nevada’s economy. So did federal projects, like Hoover Dam, which enabled southern Nevada to obtain most of the water it needs to survive.

World War II and the Cold War prompted numerous federal projects that benefited southern Nevada. A wartime gunnery school evolved into Nellis Air Force Base, and a magnesium plant led to the founding of the city of Henderson.

In 1951, seeking a cheaper domestic location for nuclear tests and research, the Atomic Energy Commission chose part of Nellis. Until 1963, the Nevada Test Site was the scene of about 100 aboveground atomic tests, with more than 800 additional underground tests to follow until nuclear testing ceased in 1992.

When aboveground testing began, Nevada cashed in. The governor welcomed the chance to see the desert “blooming with atoms.” Las Vegas marketed the mushroom cloud as a tourist attraction, as well as an atomic hairdo and cocktail. Atomic Energy Commission pamphlets and videos declared the tests to be harmless to those living nearby.

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The ‘Screw Nevada’ Bill
As nuclear testing waned, the federal government scrambled to find somewhere to stow the spent fuel from nuclear power plants that had piled up in 39 states. In 1982, Congress approved a plan for the consideration of sites in Washington, Texas and Nevada.

But five years later, without getting conclusive findings based on those studies, lawmakers voted to consider only one site – Yucca Mountain, about 20 miles west of the dump for less- radioactive nuclear waste in Beatty. The state’s leaders and pundits protested this “Screw Nevada” bill, which they ascribed to the state’s lack of political clout.

Around that time, Nevada created a new state agency to deal with nuclear issuesand a state commission charged with warding off nuclear waste. A bevy of new state laws made it harder for federal officials and private contractors to obtain and pay for licenses needed for work on Yucca Mountain, and the state filed numerous lawsuits.

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Around that time, Nevada created a new state agency to deal with nuclear issuesand a state commission charged with warding off nuclear waste. A bevy of new state laws made it harder for federal officials and private contractors to obtain and pay for licenses needed for work on Yucca Mountain, and the state filed numerous lawsuits.

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