- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2002

By officially authorizing construction of the high-level nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, President Bush put taxpayer's money on the best bet available for an increasingly high-stakes problem. Those stakes have to do with the vast number of spent fuel rods (about 40,000 tons worth) currently being stored in 131 above-ground facilities in 39 states. Approximately 161 million Americans live within 75 miles of those sites, making each location an odds-on favorite for a terrorist strike. And while there is practically no chance that attackers could set off a nuclear explosion, any breach of containment would cause an enormous decontamination problem, disrupting the lives of thousands of Americans.
Those storage problems, with their attendant risks, are a certainty, since about 2,000 additional tons of high-level waste pile up each year. As planned, the repository at Yucca offers at least a partial solution: It will isolate nearly 80,000 tons of that waste in a desert area about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the closest major metropolis. Opponents of the plan, namely every political player in Nevada, complain that the repository's science still isn't sound, that the state was picked on due to its paucity of political pull and that the risks from transporting materials to Yucca far outweigh the benefits of storage there. While there is no sure bet that the transports bringing waste to Yucca won't wreck, the federal government has so far maintained an enviable safety record since 1965, over 2,500 shipments of such spent fuel have arrived safely at their proper destination. Each of the casks that will be used for transport will supposedly have survived a series of tests that any Battlebot engineer would envy, including a 30-foot drop onto an 'unyielding surface', a 40-inch free-fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, a 30-minute trial by a fire burning at about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and an hourlong immersion under more than 650 feet of water.
If those casks do arrive for storage at Yucca, it might well be partially due to the state's lack of political influence, but it will also be due to Yucca Mountain's geographic and geological suitability. There simply aren't that many other places in the United States with Yucca Mountain's unique combination of ultra-dry conditions, dense volcanic walls, and height above the local water table. Moreover, taxpayers already have at least a $4 billion stake in seeing the project through, and if the science behind Yucca's 10,000-year storage life is still not absolutely certain (as if anyone knows what they will be doing in 12002), it's still a safe-money bet. While Nevada's NIMBY-esque opposition to proceeding with the repository is understandable, it's no reason to fold the project. Hopefully, Congress will follow the administration's lead in deciding that high-level nuclear waste should be dealt to Yucca.


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