An attempt to reopen the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada, where it was built to store nuclear waste, was recently shot down in Congress. The state’s refusal to become the nation’s central repository for nuclear waste means that we are forced to store it at 80 sites across 35 states — an impractical, expensive and less safe solution. It’s time to tempt Nevadans with an outside-the-box approach: Let’s pay them.
Yucca Mountain has been a political football for decades, stretching all the way back to when it was devised under the Reagan administration. Nevada was selected because powerful politicians from Texas and Washington states refused the project. Reagan didn’t want it placed in the eastern United States. That meant Nevada drew the short straw.
Ever since, opposition to the Yucca facility has come primarily from two camps. The first is environmentalists, many of whom are not only opposed to dealing with the reality of nuclear waste but also reject nuclear power outright. Their ideological rigidity is based on the notion that wind and solar alone can solve climate change. Alas, they cannot.
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Grease the wheel with a payout for citizens
The second is a bipartisan group of Nevada politicians. The retirement of Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who was staunchly anti-Yucca, provided an excellent opportunity to reopen the project. But lo and behold, Republican Sen. Dean Heller filled the void, voicing his opposition.
Ultimately, there is not a strong incentive for Nevada politicians to be pro-Yucca. This makes sense because the nation is essentially forcing its nuclear waste onto Nevadans while offering nothing in return. Though years of careful study have shown Yucca Mountain to be a safe place to store nuclear waste, from Nevadans’ perspective, it’s all risk and no benefit. Let’s change the equation by offering to pay Nevadans for hosting the site.
If the state agrees to open Yucca for business, the federal government could pay each Nevadan, say, $500 in “rent” each year. With a population of roughly 3 million, this totals to a bill of $1.5 billion annually. To prevent this from becoming a never-ending transfer of wealth from the other 49 states to Nevada, the policy could be sunsetted after 10 years, after which Congress would have to vote to reauthorize. (To put that number into perspective, we have already spent $15 billion building Yucca.)
Likely, this would change the debate immediately for Nevada’s politicians. The state’s gross domestic per capita ranks in the 30s in the country, which means that the average Nevadan would benefit from the annual payments. Serendipitously, this proposal could fit well inside the infrastructure bill that President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer say they want to pass.
There are legitimate objections to this policy proposal. Most obviously, it would appear that offering Nevada such a deal would incentivize opposition to otherwise uncontroversial projects in the hope of scoring a bribe from Uncle Sam. That seems unlikely, however, because most projects involve the construction of things that people actually want, like federal office buildings, bridges and mass transit — things we used to call “earmarks” or “pork.”
Nevada should be treated like Alaska
Critics may also say the proposal is too expensive. Unfortunately, if we continue business as usual (i.e., storing waste on-site), the Department of Energy will be forced to pay nuclear power utilities “damages” for not collecting the waste. The bill could be anywhere from $23 billion to $50 billion. Either way, we'll be paying somebody to store it.
Others may find it distasteful to pay citizens for doing absolutely nothing. But Alaska has been doing just that since 1982. Every year, Alaskans receive a check, ranging in size from several hundred dollars to over $2,000, from the state’s oil wealth trust fund.
In a perfect world, politicians would follow the science and do the right thing by storing the country’s nuclear waste in a safe, centralized repository in the middle of nowhere. But sometimes, getting politicians to do the right thing takes a little financial prodding.
Alex Berezow, a microbiologist and vice president of scientific affairs at the American Council on Science and Health, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexBerezow
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yucca Mountain is the safest spot for nuclear waste. We should pay Nevada to use it.