Nevada has gained a reputation for converting harsh, barren desert land into thriving tourist destinations. This made its decision to create an empty county that much more curious. The new county had no residents, commerce, buildings, roads, or any private land. On top of that, its county seat was 270 miles distant. No one had any intention of converting the state’s newest county into anything that would attract residents or visitors.
How did this happen and why did anything think an empty county was in the state’s interests?
Yucca Mountain is a little more than 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It is a massive volcanic mesa surrounded by desert. The mountain is starkly beautiful, but the unforgiving climate that surrounds it does nothing to attract permanent residents.
By the mid-1980s, the growing supply of nuclear waste and spent radioactive fuel triggered a government plan for underground storage. The Department of Energy was authorized to find a site and build a facility that would be capable of housing all of the nation’s radioactive rubbish. In 1987, the shortlist was reduced to three possible sites. One of them was at Yucca Mountain.
The federal government recognized that few people would be thrilled at the idea of having nuclear waste anywhere in the vicinity. It offered some incentives for any state that would agree to host the facility. Among the incentives was a promise by the federal government to pay property tax at the privately-owned corporation rate. The tax money would go directly to the county that housed the facility.
The promised incentives got the attention of Nye County’s leaders. Yucca Mountain was within its county’s borders, but with very few people in that part of the county, housing the nation’s nuclear waste wasn’t as much of a concern as it would be in a more densely populated region. Welcoming the nuclear waste facility would bring welcome revenue to the county, so why not give it a try?
The idea may have been attractive for Nye County, but back in the state capital, Carson City, the legislature wasn’t as thrilled. From the state’s perspective, it got all of the stigma and risk from nuclear waste and none of the benefits from housing it. Since the money would go directly to Nye County, the state saw no advantage at all.
State Assemblyman Paul May proposed legislation to balance the scales. In the dead of night on June 18, 1987, the legislature created Bullfrog County. It consisted of 144 square miles carved out of Nye County and included Yucca Mountain and its immediate surroundings.
With no population, the control of the new county fell to the state. Carson City was designated as the county seat, despite being 270 miles away. County commissioners were appointed by the state, with annual salaries capped at $1.
The creation of the new county gave the state several advantages. If the waste facility ended up being built there, the federal money would go directly to the state, rather than Nye County. Additionally, with no residents or private property owners to object or otherwise be impacted by the decision, the property tax rate for Bullfrog County was raised to the maximum allowed by law — $5 in taxes for every $100 of assessed property value. This was three times that of Nye County and set Nevada up to receive $25 million per year in federal funds.
In their haste to create this cash cow for the state, the legislators overlooked a few trifling details. For one thing, no one thought to create a judicial system or assign the county a judicial district. With no legal system and no residents who could be used to impanel a jury, Bullfrog County became a place like Yellowstone’s Zone of Death where a person could legally get away with murder.
Nye County woke up on the morning of June 18, only to learn that the state had stolen a chunk of its land. The county sued the state, arguing that the legislation creating Bullfrog County was unconstitutional. After a two-year legal battle, the courts agreed. Bullfrog County disappeared as abruptly as it had been created.
Yucca Mountain emerged as the favored site for the nuclear waste facility. It was initially scheduled to be completed and fully operational by 2018. Ongoing technical, political, and legal challenges have prevented it from being more than a large tunnel. In May 2021, the Biden Administration announced that the facility would not be part of the nuclear waste storage strategy for the nation.
Bullfrog County, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, and all of the drama surrounding them ended up like so many get-rich-quick dreams that bring people to Nevada: failed, disappointed, and filled with bitter regret.
On a positive note, no one killed anyone in Bullfrog County during its brief lifespan, thus sparing us from resolving whether it was truly a Zone of Death.