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Bullfrog County: How an Empty County Tried to Prevent Nevada From Becoming The Nation’s Nuclear Waste Dump

Deep in southern Nevada’s Nye County, in the harsh, sun-drenched desert, there was once a small county named Bullfrog. It was one of the most recent counties to join and leave the United States of America, having been created in 1987 and dissolved two years later in 1989. During its brief existence as an enclave of Nye County, Bullfrog County had no residents, no businesses, no buildings, no roads and no private land of any sort. Three-fourths of it consisted of military bombing ranges, while the remaining quarter was owned by the Bureau of Land Management that few people visited. So why did a 12 miles square patch of wilderness in Nye County became its own county for two years?

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The Yucca mountain with the drilling site in view. Photo credit: United States Department of Energy

The answer lies in Bullfrog’s most prominent geological feature—the huge volcanic mesa called Yucca Mountain rising out of the desert floor. This region, located 110 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was one of three sites shortlisted by the United States government as a possible underground repository for tons of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste piling up in nuclear plants all over the country.

The storage of radioactive waste produced by commercial nuclear power plants and the military is a major issue that was first tackled decisively in the 1980s, when the federal government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that directed the Department of Energy to find a site and build an underground facility where the entire country can dump all of its radioactive waste.

Originally ten sites were chosen, out of which three were approved for intensive study. Yucca mountain was one of the finalists. The other two sites were Hanford, Washington and Deaf Smith County, Texas.

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Spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste is currently being stored in dry casks like these. Photo credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Naturally, the prospect of getting all of the nation’s radioactive waste dumped in their backyard was incredibly unpopular in all three of the states, and each state lobbied hard to take itself out of the consideration. To make the deal lucrative, the federal government promised that it would pay property taxes on the dump site as if they were a private corporation. Furthermore, this money would go directly to the county that housed the dump rather than to the state.

This was attractive for the people of Nye County, the majority of whom supported the creation of the nuclear dump, but Nevada was still against it. Nevada also knew that they had no power over the federal government, and if there was nothing to stop the U.S. Department of Energy from building the dump in Yucca Mountain, they might as well make Congress pay for it. But that last part of the deal—the money going to the county rather than to the state—meant the state wouldn’t see a penny.

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“This is a statewide issue, not a county issue," said State Assemblyman Paul May of Las Vegas to LA Times. May noted that he and "nearly all of Nevada's elected officials are dead set against having a nuclear dump in our state. But if it happens, it would seem tragic not to take the federal government for all the money possible."

On his suggestion, Nevada passed a bill in the dead of the night on June 18, 1987, that carved a new county around Yucca Mountain. This new county, measuring 144 square miles, was named Bullfrog after a now-defunct gold mine in the area. Because Bullfrog had no population it was controlled by the state, and so if the feds did build a nuclear dump site there they would have to pay taxes directly to the state and not to Nye County. Its seat of government was placed 270 miles to the northwest in Carson City, Nevada’s capital. Commissioners were appointed by the state, rather than elected, and their salaries were set to $1 per year.

In order to make the deal as profitable as possible for Nevada and prohibitively expensive for the federal government, the tax rate for Bullfrog County was set to $5 per $100, the maximum allowed by the state and more than three times that of Nye County. This meant the federal government would have to pay $25 million per year to host a dump site at Yucca Mountain.

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Location of Bullfrog County (red) in Nevada.

The obvious loser of this legislative plan was Nye County. The state had stolen a chunk of their land, and with it taken a ton of potential tax revenue and other economic benefit. Some leaders were also concerned that the creation of Bullfrog might give federal officials an impression that the state was not opposed to the nuclear waste repository and that it would be acceptable if the price was right.

Besides, in their haste to push the bill (it was passed at 3 am in the morning), the state government had forgotten to provide a court of law and legislation placing it in a state judicial district. Bullfrog County had no legal system, and since it had no residents, there was no way to empanel a jury. This created a situation just like Yellowstone’s Kill Zone—anybody can commit a crime in Bullfrog County and get away with it.

In the end, the gambit didn’t work. Nye County sued, claiming the law was unconstitutional, and in late October 1987, a state judge agreed. In 1989, Bullfrog County was dissolved.

Despite all the political and legislative drama, Yucca Mountain became the chosen site for storing radioactive waste. The repository was supposed to have been completed nearly two decades ago, but legal challenges, concerns over how to transport nuclear waste to the facility, and political pressures delayed the project, and as of 2018, construction on the repository is still ongoing on.

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The nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain will sit inside a long ridge, approximately 1,000 feet beneath the surface and 1,000 feet above the water table. Consisting of 40 miles of tunnels, the repository will accommodate an estimated 77,000 tons of nuclear waste. Graphics by the US Department of Energy.

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The entrance to Yucca Mountain as in 2007. Photo credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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