Socioeconomic Issues Associated With A High-Level Radioactive Waste Repository At Yucca Mountain


When the United States Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and the amendments to the Act of December, 1987, it recognized the potentially significant socioeconomic dimensions of siting, constructing, and operating facilities for the storage and disposal of high-level radioactive wastes. Specific provisions were written into the Act to enable prospective host states, tribes, and local governments to carefully and comprehensively assess socioeconomic impacts associated with waste disposal facilities and activities.

The State of Nevada formally initiated a study of the socioeconomic impacts of a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada in 1986 after the Nevada site had been chosen as a potential waste disposal site. The State study recognized that the effort would need to go well beyond what is traditionally considered adequate for socioeconomic impact assessment because of the unique nature of the repository project. Between 1987 and 1996, the State's study produced over 300 reports and work products, plus numerous publications in the scientific and academic literature.

Stigma or "Special" Impacts

The greatest threat to Nevada's economy and way of life from the proposed repository stems from the what has been termed the "special effects" of the project. These are impacts related to intense negative perceptions and stigma associated by the public with a high-level radioactive waste repository, combined with the vulnerability of the Nevada economy to changes in its public image. Because of the high profile nature of the whole nuclear waste disposal program, the potential exists for Nevada to become associated with these negative perceptions to the detriment of its attempts to attract tourists, conventions, migrants, and diversified new industry to the state. This is especially troublesome in the event of a nuclear waste accident in or near Las Vegas that might stigmatize the area and cause visitors to stay away in significant numbers.

This overall conclusion of the research to date suggests that Nevada faces considerable exposure with respect to such risk-induced effects. Given the uncertainties associated with how the repository program and its consequences will be perceived, and about the way in which people will react to repository-related accidents and occurrences, the State must be alert to the possibility that these effects could be very negative and very large.

The actual size of these potential negative effects has not been determined yet, and the subject remains under study. However, the study concluded that each one-percent decline for Clark County in spending by visitors, retired people, and investors relative to the baseline levels assumed to occur in some future year (e.g., 2010) could produce an annual loss of 7,000 jobs and $200 million in income. It is not clear how large a percentage decline could be expected as a result of repository-related perceptions, nor how long it would last, but corresponding cases involving risk-related declines in tourist spending indicate that such decline could be well in excess of the conservative one-percent illustrated here. Further research into analogous cases is planned to test these assumptions.

"Standard" Effects

Looking to the more conventional economic dimensions of the project, the proposed facility, like other moderate sized construction projects, could provide a very modest economic stimulus to the Nevada economy with possible total annual employment of about 3,000 to 4,000 jobs(1) during the period the repository would be accepting waste. Associated population impacts could be 6,000 to 7,000 persons. However, such repository-related employment and population change would be less than one percent of the overall Clark County workforce and population, so these effects of the repository may be difficult to even measure and would almost certainly not be felt in the overall economy.

Most types of economic growth and diversification are viewed positively in Nevada. However, one result of the State's current tax structure is that public services and facilities are already under stress. This fiscal structure means that any growth that does not increase the contribution of revenues from visitors (i.e. sales and gaming taxes) will not pay its own way. In recent years the phenomenal growth of gaming and tourism has kept pace with other forms of development. However, it cannot be assumed that the structure of the economy or the tax structure will remain the same into the next century.

These "standard effects" associated with additional repository-related population growth could, therefore, generate negative fiscal impacts for state and local jurisdictions. Although such negative fiscal impacts would result for any non-gaming industry economic development, there is a distinction between the state's willingness to subsidize desired economic diversification and its willingness to subsidize the fiscal effects of a repository.

The goal of economic diversification programs in Nevada is to reduce the risk of economic losses in the event of a down turn in the state's all-important tourism industry. A repository could enhance the risk to this very industry because of its stigmatizing potential. Thus, the repository is generally not considered attractive from an economic development standpoint because it has the potential to bring about precisely the opposite effects on the economy as other forms of development.

One way to examine the potential economic effects of a project such as the Yucca Mountain repository is to compare project benefits such as jobs and revenue with potential losses. Since it is extraordinarily difficult to do such an analysis with respect to the entire economy of southern Nevada, one way of assessing relative magnitudes is to compare the repository in economic terms with a representative economic initiative that could be at risk if negative impacts do occur.

To do this, the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects undertook an analysis comparing the repository as a generator of jobs and revenue with a single large hotel/casino project in the Las Vegas area. Since the visitor/gaming sector of the state's economy has been identified as being at risk through previous state studies, the question was posed, "What would be the effects on the state's economy if, as a result of the repository, one large hotel/casino project were canceled or chose not to locate in Las Vegas?" A second question and one that allows a measure of comparison is, "What are the costs of losing such a project compared with the jobs and revenue associated with the proposed Yucca Mountain repository?"

The analysis showed that, should the repository project cause just one such hotel/casino not to locate in Nevada in the future, the immediate impacts to southern Nevada could be upwards of 14,200 jobs and almost $500 million in revenue lost to the local economy annually.

Public Perceptions

Research has also shown that there is wide-spread opposition to the repository based on health and safety concerns (especially in regard to transportation), the potential threats to the economy, the creation of divisive policy issues, distrust of the Department of Energy, and the fear of diminished quality of life. Native American residents consider the repository program a threat to their cultural values traditional beliefs. State studies over the past six years have shown that consistently over two thirds of Nevada's citizens oppose the project, with opposition levels between 69% and almost 80%.

Specific Issues and Concerns

The results of the many different research efforts indicate that state and local governments must work under the assumption that the high-level radioactive waste repository proposed at Yucca Mountain has the potential to result in significant negative impacts for the state's economic base, revenues, public services, and community life. This could be especially true in the increasingly competitive gaming marketplace of the future where any negative perceptions about Nevada or Las Vegas could affect the State's share of tourists, and a nuclear waste accident - even a relatively minor one - could have serious economic consequences. Such impacts could dwarf any expected benefits to be derived from employment and income generated by the project.


1. This includes both the jobs that are directly associated with the repository project and the secondary jobs that may be generated in the wider economy. Direct employment is not expected to be more than 2,500 workers during peak construction and less than 1,500 workers during waste emplacement. Once waste has been loaded into the facility, employment will drop off to several hundred jobs.

2. This is the conclusion of the State's research team in its "Interim Report on the State of Nevada Socioeconomic Studies," published in June, 1989.

3. This observation was made by the Technical Review Committee, which oversees the State's Yucca Mountain socioeconomic studies, in its "Interim Statement on the State of Nevada Yucca Mountain Studies" of 1990.

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