Nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
David Pred
July/August 2002

The nuclear industry and its friends in the federal government are pushing forward plans to develop a high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, in an effort to sell the public and policy makers on an "out of sight, out of mind" solution to the nuclear waste problem. If they get their way, 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants and the Department of Energy weapons complex would be shipped through 44 states and the District of Colombia to the proposed repository, putting some 50 million people at risk. Over 2,300 trucks or 220 trains of these mobile Chernobyls will pass through Florida on its way to Nevada.

It doesn't get any nastier than high-level radioactive waste. Stand within three feet of unshielded waste, and you're terminal within three minutes. Cancer or genetic damage is a strong possibility within 30 seconds. Full-scale casks that would carry the waste have never been physically tested, the government instead opting to bash around a few mini-casks and run some computer simulations. Even the government admits there will be crashes. In its conservative estimates, the DOE predicts that as many as 310 crashes could occur involving waste shipments to Yucca Mountain and that a single crash could contaminate a 42-square-mile area and cost $620 million to clean up. In as much as exposure can be successfully treated, hospitals and emergency response teams usually aren't equipped to do it. No wonder the nuke industry worked so hard to get the Price-Anderson legislation renewed so that their liability is limited in the event of such a disaster.

Yucca Mountain, located about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is in an active earthquake zone and an aquifer beneath the site is the only source of drinking water for nearby residents. The proposed repository is certain to leak radio nuclides, contaminating the surrounding environment with radioactivity.

The industry also claims it is safer to concentrate the waste at Yucca Mountain than keep it where it is now, at 77 reactor sites nationwide. That argument is fallacious, however, because operating reactors must keep waste on site for five years while it cools enough to be handled. The Yucca Mountain Project is merely a distraction. By putting on this atomic road show, the industry is betting Americans will think we are solving the nuclear waste problem while they get to shed some more liability to the people and continue to generate power for another forty years. What they don't want us to know is that America's operating reactors continue to churn out thousands of tons of nuclear waste each year. On-going operations and waste generation means that in 2040, when Yucca would be full, there will still be as much waste stored on-site at reactors as there is today! Instead of solving the nuclear waste problem, Yucca just guarantees that the nuclear industry will have room to make more of it.

On February 14th, 2002, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (who accepted more than $82,000 from the nuclear industry during the last election cycle) officially recommended to the president that a nuclear waste dump be developed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Less than twelve hours later, President Bush (who accepted over $300,000 from the nuclear industry in 2000) approved this 1000-plus-page recommendation and referred it to Congress. As expected, the State of Nevada vetoed the site recommendation, but Congress can override Nevada's objection with a majority vote in both Houses. The House, which is swimming in radioactive PAC money, cast aside their ethics, concern for public safety and whatever previous passions they had for states' rights, and voted overwhelmingly to override Nevada's objection.

In response to a last minute appeal I made to my representative, Karen Thurman (D-Florida), urging her to oppose the Yucca Mountain Project, she wrote: "By passing pertinent legislation Congress has the opportunity to establish a storage facility that would be easier to monitor, more economical and located at a remote location - far away from our schools and homes."

I doubt the people of Nevada would appreciate their state being referred to as a "remote location," where America can dump its most vile garbage. I doubt that the people of Nevada, who do not manufacture an ounce of nuclear waste, want 77,000 tons of the stuff near their "schools and homes." And far from being a "remote location," or a suitable storage site for America's nuclear waste, Rep. Thurman and her colleagues should be aware that Yucca Mountain is sacred land to the Western Shoshone Nation. They were granted title to this land in the Treaty of Ruby Valley 1863, a document the federal government has never had too much respect for. It should be unthinkable that the United States government could afford to perpetrate one more injustice on Native Americans, let alone one that will poison their land for thousands of generations. It should also be unthinkable that so many of our representatives had no ethical dilemma about imposing on one state what they would never accept in their own state.

So, you ask, "If we don't ship waste to Yucca Mountain, what will we do with it?" It's a good question. Too bad the government has never asked it. Incredibly, there has never been a rigorous scientific search for the best long-term options to deal with the nuclear waste problem. Instead, the government has single-mindedly focused on one and only one site for a nuclear waste dump - Yucca Mountain. Yucca hasn't been studied. It's been targeted. With four electoral votes and only one representative when Congress designated Yucca as the only site that would be studied in 1982, it made an easy target for America's nuclear waste dumping ground.

But Nevada at least got the opportunity to say no to nuclear waste. Florida doesn't even get that, although transporting waste through Florida on its way to Yucca Mountain risks our health and safety, too. Our Senators Graham and Nelson can do what Thurman and most of our representatives failed to do, and deliver a de facto veto from Florida by voting to uphold Nevada's veto.

Nuclear waste can't be "disposed" of. We can't get rid of it. We can only hope to contain it. We might want to stop making it. Conservation, energy efficiencies and a national dedication to renewable energy sources could displace nuclear power. It will take time and commitment, but the sooner we start, the sooner we can put the brakes on at least part of the nuclear waste problem. After all, if the problem is that we are knee-deep in water, a good first step would be to turn off the faucet.

Stopping the Yucca Mountain proposal would not be the end of the nation's struggle to find an answer to the nuclear waste problem. It would, however, end the government's obsession with the obviously wrong answer to that problem. And it would-it must-mark the beginning of an honest search for the best solution, a solution that is based on science rather than the moneyed interests of the nuclear industry.

David Pred is the Assistant Coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice, a statewide coalition of over fifty environmental, peace and social justice organizations.

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