Newspaper column: How to make use of those Yucca Mountain tunnels

Obama and Reid tour Nellis AFB solar panel site. (R-J pix)

Sometimes things just naturally come full circle.

For decades Nevada’s former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid constantly pounded on two themes: Blocking nuclear waste from being stored in Yucca Mountain in Nye County and pressing for more and more solar panels to be thrown up on thousands of acres of public land and on rooftops across the state.

When Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s sole nuclear waste dump in 1987, Reid said two things, no and hell no. As he rose in seniority in the Democratic Party to become Senate majority leader, he finally found the power to make those words stick and steadily turned down the funding spigot for the project until President Obama shut it down entirely.

As he neared retirement, Reid declared Yucca Mountain dead, though President Trump and his Energy Secretary Rick Perry have been trying to breathe life back into it.

Meanwhile, Reid campaigned vigorously for green energy, bragging about his role in the state investing $6 billion in green energy and creating 20,000 jobs. The projects include sites such as the 3,000-acre Copper Mountain Solar project outside Boulder City and the 15-megawatt solar panel installation on Nellis Air Force Base.

Almost every year at his long-running green energy conference in Las Vegas, Reid would drag out some dignitary from the base to repeat the boast that the project was saving taxpayers $1 million a year in power costs — without ever bothering to mention the panels cost $100 million in 2007 and would reach obsolescence in 25 years and need to be disposed of.

Which brings us to the closing of the circle.

An alert reader recently brought to our attention a report from a Berkeley-based group called Environmental Progress. It seems that when you do the math, solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy output than nuclear power plants.

This prompted our alert reader to suggest it is time to contemplate the Yucca Mountain Solar Panel Repository.

“We talk a lot about the dangers of nuclear waste, but that waste is carefully monitored, regulated, and disposed of,” Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, an advocate for nuclear energy, told the National Review. “But we had no idea there would be so many panels — an enormous amount — that could cause this much ecological damage.”

The Environmental Progress report states, “If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).”

Those innocent looking solar panels contain elements such as lead, chromium and cadmium — known carcinogens. The panels are difficult and expensive to recycle. The process is labor intensive and the price of the resulting scrap material is low, according to the National Review. (Never mind the toxic waste created during the manufacturing process.)

But, since they are already imbedded in glass and plastic and would not necessarily have to be protected by water shields like nuclear waste canisters if they were buried in those miles of tunnels at Yucca Mountain, it seems like a solution to the problem of what do with that $15 billion project sitting idle in the desert. The main problem is that it may not be big enough.

The United States has more than a million solar energy installations, many of which are nearing the end of that 25-year life expectancy, and more are being built, though currently solar produces only about 1.3 percent of the world’s electricity, compared to 10 percent for nuclear power.

As for the nuclear waste, we never thought it a good idea to dump it in a hole in the ground, when it can be recycled, as many countries currently do. It would be rather easy to haul the stuff to the desert at or near Yucca Mountain and store it above ground in dry casks until it can be recycled, possibly on site, which would create a number of high tech jobs.

Don’t you love it when mislaid plans come together?

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Yucca Mountain entrance. (ABC pix)

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Some media beginning to explore the root cause of the Oregon protest

While most of the media attention is focused on a handful of protesters camped out in a vacant building on a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and the plight of the Hammond family ranchers is dismissed as justice being served, a few accounts are beginning to explore the underlying cause of the controversy — overreach and abuse of power by federal land managers.

The situation is being compared to others across the country that indicate a pattern if not a conspiracy.

One of those comparisons is to the Hage ranch litigation that has lasted more than two decades and outlived the father and mother of the current owner of the ranch near Tonopah.

At one point a federal judge said this about the federal land managers:

After the filing of this action, the Government sent trespass notices to people who leased or sold cattle to the Hages, notwithstanding the Hages’ admitted and known control over that cattle, in order to pressure other parties not to do business with the Hages, and even to discourage or punish testimony in the present case. For this reason, the Court has held certain government officials in contempt and referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In summary, government officials … entered into a literal, intentional conspiracy to deprive the Hages not only of their permits but also of their vested water rights. This behavior shocks the conscience of the Court and provides a sufficient basis for a finding of irreparable harm to support the injunction described at the end of this Order.

An article at the National Review cites this case and others as examples of the long brewing Sagebrush Rebellion.

The article also cites the case of a Wyoming rancher who refused to grant the BLM a right-of-way across his property. He lost at the Supreme Court but a dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was scathing in its assessment of the federal government. She wrote that the BLM “demanded from (rancher Harvey Frank) Robbins an easement — for which they did not propose to pay — to replace the one they carelessly lost,” due failing to file on the deed before Robbins bought the ranch. According to Ginsburg, Robbins became the target of “a seven-year campaign of relentless harassment and intimidation to force [him] to give in.”

Also National Review writer David French notes that the feds had been taking over Oregon ranches near the wildlife preserve for years and that by the 1990s, the Hammonds were among the few ranchers left. Some were forced to sell when the feds diverted water that flooded grazing land and made it unsuitable for ranching. “The protesters allege that the government then began a campaign of harassment designed to force the family to sell its land, a beginning with barricaded roads and arbitrarily revoked grazing permits and culminating in an absurd anti-terrorism prosecution based largely on two ‘arsons’ that began on private land but spread to the Refuge,” he writes.

If the Hammonds sell the ranch, the government has the first right of refusal.

A Wall Street Journal article points out the brazenness of federal land managers, citing a Texas example.

The Aderholt family had grazed cattle on a ranch near the Red River for seven decades until the BLM told them in 2013 that 650 acres of the ranch’s 900 acres belonged to the federal government because it was adjacent to the river.

“This land was bought and paid for and people struggled to acquire it, so for them to just come in and swoop in and say it’s theirs is pretty devastating,” the article quoted the rancher as saying.

The writers note that a neighbor of the Hammonds in Oregon was forced out by the feds, because the ranch’s grazing land kept getting reduced. “They just kept cutting back and cutting back on the grazing leases,” the rancher was quoted as saying. “They want to turn it all over for birds instead of cattle.”

Just a year and a half ago dozens of ranchers met in Austin, Nev., to try to figure out what to do about grazing reductions imposed by the BLM.

“I have worked hard my entire life to get along with the BLM and I have never been cited for trespass,” one rancher said. “But then one man with some sort of vendetta comes in and, with a snap of his fingers, he makes a decision that can ruin the lives of my family. It’s terrible.”

Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal editorial declares:

Many in rural Oregon view this as a government vendetta. Rusty Inglis, who worked for the Forest Service for 34 years and now runs a local Oregon farm bureau, recently told a trade magazine that it’s “obvious” that “the BLM and the wildlife refuge want that ranch.” The Oregon Farm Bureau called the sentences “gross government overreach.” The ideology of “national” land has become the club to punish private landowners who are the best source of economic stability and conservation.

While many in the press mistakenly say the Hammonds set fires on public lands, they actually set fires on their own land and it accidentally spread to the 140 acres of public land near the 187,000-acre federal refuge that has grown from its original 89,000 acres in 1908.

The Hammond family

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden:

Walden: “More than half my district is under federal management, or lack thereof.”

Walden also noted that federal agents set a back fire on private land that jeopardized the private land owners who were fighting fires in the area,  but no one was ever charged with a crime.