If the Republican-controlled Arizona State Legislature has its way, the state could become the nation's dumping ground for nuclear waste.
The debate on what to do with America's spent nuclear fuel has been ongoing since the 1980s. The United States Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, which instructed the Department of Energy to locate, build and operate a permanent underground disposal facility for the nation's nuclear fuel. In 2002, Congress approved President George W. Bush's decision to build the site under Yucca Mountain, which is in Nevada about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
In 2008, the DOE announced it was raising the project's budget from $57.5 billion to $96 billion. President Barack Obama and his administration rejected the use of the site in the 2010 United States Federal Budget by eliminating all funding except what is needed to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The decision was made, according to Democrats, because of the skyrocketing price tag and a laundry list of scientific, technical, public health, legal and safety problems. While Democrats said the site was initially chosen for political reasons, Republicans cite the political affiliation between President Obama and Nevada Senator Harry Reid (D) as the primary reason for its demise. Some states subsequently filed lawsuits seeking to force the federal government to honor the license application of the NWPA and insist the site be opened to accept nuclear waste.
In the meantime, President Obama created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to recommend alternatives to Yucca Mountain.
Recently, District 26 Arizona State Senator Al Melvin (R) of Tucson sponsored a memorial that requested Congress grant the Arizona Legislature access to the United States Nuclear Waste Fund to build a nuclear recycling and geologic waste storage site. The site would be the nation's first permanent nuclear recycling and waste storage site and would likely store more than 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste – some of which could be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. Currently, the waste is stored in temporary locations, mostly at nuclear power plant sites where it is produced. An additional 77 million gallons of military nuclear waste is stored in steel tanks mostly in South Carolina, Washington and Idaho.
The memorial was co-sponsored by District 5 Sen. Sylvia Allen (R) and supported by District 5 Rep. Brenda Barton (R) who voted for the memorial. Five potential Arizona sites were identified by the Arizona Energy Education Fund Coalition, including the Hualapai Valley north of Kingman; the Colorado Plateau province of the Holbrook Basin; the Luke Basin west of Phoenix (where there is a nuclear power plant nearby); the Picacho Basin southwest of Picacho Peak and the San Simon Valley southeast of Safford. Except for the Luke Basin, the areas are supposedly under consideration due to a variety of factors, including being somewhat rural areas and the solid salt content of the ground.
Sen. Melvin said he was touting Arizona for the project because it would bring 50,000 jobs, including 10,000 construction jobs.
Safford Mayor Chris Gibbs said the memorial is akin to the Legislature sending a postcard to the federal government to show its interest in being considered as a location to store nuclear waste. He expressed his disappointment that our state representatives didn't bother to ask local government leaders how they felt about being considered as a nuclear waste dumping ground.
"Senator Allen and Representative Barton – I spoke with both of them on Friday – neither one wanted to discuss why they did it without speaking to the people in the community," Gibbs said. "In general, it was party-line voting."
Gibbs said the economic impact alone wouldn't sway him to support the project, and, as a mayor and an engineer, there would have to be a significant amount of study performed before he would even consider the option.
Safford City Manager David Kincaid concurred with Gibbs and said his initial reaction is that he would be hard-pressed to support such a facility in the Safford area despite the economic impact.
"It brings up all sorts of concerns about aquifers and our water sources and what it really means," Kincaid said. "So I think our initial reaction would be to resist anything of that nature. They talk about the significant economic impact it would bring to the area, (but) I'm not sure that outweighs the other potential problems."
Kincaid questioned the safety of such an installation since the Yucca Mountain project was halted shortly before it was to open.
"They spent $100 billion trying to get Yucca Mountain ready and then pulled the plug one year before it was to open," he said. "Obviously, somebody determined there was significant potential harm in dealing with (nuclear waste)."
While the State Legislature may be attempting to solicit the federal government for the job, Gibbs reassured the community that this is nothing but a proposal at this point.
"There's nothing binding; there's nothing in the works," Gibbs said. "There's no government (request for proposals) going out saying how do we build this."