Yucca Mountain: did politics trump science?

In this April 13, 2006 file photo, Pete Vavricka conducts an underground train from the entrance of Yucca Mountain in Nevada
The entrance of Nevada's Yucca Mountain - site of a proposed permanent nuclear waste depository - is seen in this April 2006 file photo.
AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

For more than 50 years, the debate has raged over where to store radioactive nuclear waste in this country. The solution was supposed to be at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But the multi-billion storage project has been shelved. CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reports a congressional committee wants to find out why.

Is there nuclear waste in your state?

Nuclear waste is the radioactive guest on the doorstep of many of America's most populous cities. There are nearly 70,000 tons from 104 reactors nationwide, often piling up just 50 miles from cities like New York, Chicago, and San Diego.

In the high desert of Nevada, Yucca Mountain was one site designed to store all of our nation's waste. But today, the government won't let CBS News cameras anyone near the site. It's shut down, locked up, and caught up in what critics charge was nothing more than pure politics.

Gary Hollis and Darrell Lacey are key officials in Nye County, Nevada. They want the waste - for the jobs and money it would bring.

Lacy, director of community development, said, "the people in this area are all fairly comfortable with Yucca Mountain. Many of them have worked at Yucca Mountain."

Four previous presidents funded safety reviews of the project. But last year, the Obama administration kept its campaign promise and shut down Yucca Mountain.

Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must decide if it wants to re-start what is already a 25-year, $14 billion project - in the face of tough opposition - like that from Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority leader from Nevada.

Nuclear safety expert Jeffrey Lewis said, "if the U.S. government wanted to do Yucca Mountain, it would have to shove it down Harry Reid's throat."

A former staffer for Sen. Reid, Greg Jaczko now chairs the NRC. Jaczko recently came under fire after shutting down the agency's safety review of Yucca Mountain and after key safety recommendations were redacted -- cut out -- from a long-awaited NRC report.

Three NRC staffers formally protested the decision to "derail" the safety review - charging it caused "confusion, chaos and anguish..."

Today, Yaczko told us the safety report was "preliminary, a draft" and that he had nothing to do with the redactions.

Responding to critics who charge that he was simply doing the bidding of his former boss, Sen. Reid, Jaczko said, "it was a difficult decision because it is such a controversial program but it is one that was made in I believe the best interests of the agency."

The NRC Inspector General and Congress are now investigating the decision to shut down the safety review. Still nuclear waste is scattered across 35 states while Yucca Mountain sits silent, and empty.