- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

"We will fight on Capitol Hill. We will fight it in the heartland. We will fight it in the court of public opinion."

So proclaimed Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who is preparing for a fight of Churchillian proportion over President Bush's recent decision to authorize construction of the nation's only repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The mayor's opposition is understandable: After all, the Yucca repository represents a radioactive NIMBY nightmare. It will eventually store up to 80,000 tons of high-level reactor waste 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas if it ever opens.

Unfortunately for the mayor, the 40,000 tons of high-level waste already generated by nuclear reactors (primarily spent fuel rods) has created a crisis of Churchilian proportions especially since 2,000 tons of newly spent fuel are added each year.

Those metallic masses are currently being stored in 131 on-site short-term above-ground storage facilities in 39 states. Many of those storage areas are rapidly running out of room, but much more troublesome is the fact that 161 million Americans live within 75 miles of those sites, making each one a potential target to a terrorist intent on creating a weapon of mass disruption. (Terrorists who attack spent fuel rod storage areas almost certainly won't be able to set off a nuclear explosion, but if they succeed in breeching containment, the contamination problems could be enormous.)

The repository offers a solid solution to removing such a threat literally. It will be drilled into one of the thicker layers of volcanic rock in Yucca Mountain, about 1,000 below the surface between two of the mountain's three faults (the one running through the planned repository is tiny). The area is extremely stable geologically, and aside from terrorists, the biggest threat to containment is the slow drip of water eventually rusting some of the hardened storage containers, causing a radioactive leak. That should take some thousands of years, since the repository will sit about 1,000 feet above the local water table, and that the arid area in which Yucca stands receives an annual average of 7 inches of rain each year.

Such a radioactive leak would take even longer to raise the risk of cancer in any of the local residents, considering the desert environment of the government land upon which Yucca sits. That land, it should be noted, is adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, where the government used to test nuclear devices. Above that residual radiation is Nevada's somewhat carcinogenic atmosphere from both Las Vegas' smoke-filled casinos and its sun-filled skies. In fact, Nevadans tend to have higher than national averageratesof melanoma (skin cancer) mortality, a partial consequence of the higher than national average levels of ultraviolet radiation shining on the Silver State.

Given those burning facts, anti-Yucca activists have fallen back on fears of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca. In a press release, Michael Marionette, executive director of the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), called such shipments "mobile Chernobyls." Mr. Goodman proclaimed that with his decision, Mr. Bush had chosen to "expose millions of Americans in 43 states to potential nuclear holocaust."

However, 2,500 shipments of spent fuel have arrived safely at their destinations since 1965 according to the Energy Department, and each transport cask will be built to survive both a beating and a biting by "Iron Mike" Tyson. Besides, keeping the material where it is still exposes millions of Americans to radioactive risks.

There simply isn't a way to achieve the zero risk solution that many of the anti-Yucca groups seem to be demanding. While NIRS and other anti-nuclear power groups seem to be alarmed about finding atoms everywhere (what else to make of NIRS' numerous campaigns for "nuclear free zones") otherwise reasonable Nevadans may be more concerned that their state will lose much needed tourism money.

That would explain why the American Gaming Association may put up to $500,000 in the anti-Yucca campaign, and the Nevada Resort Association plans on chipping in another $250,000. Yet those fears seem somewhat farcical as well. After all, nuclear waste isn't usually the first concern of couples intent on forming nuclear families (especially those intent on doing so to oaths administered by an Elvis impersonator), and compulsive gamblers with a burning tip don't usually pause at the airport gate to check in with the Pentagon.

The repository at Yucca would help the Pentagon though, considering that 40 percent of the Navy's fleet depends on nuclear power. So do millions of Americans 20 percent of their electricity also comes from nuclear power.

So while the Yucca repository is not a perfect solution to the problem of high-level reactor waste, it does offer a reasonable answer to a series of problems whose outcome would otherwise be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Indeed, if it does eventually open, it might well be said that never in the annals of waste disposal was so much owed by so many to a single site.


Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages and an editorial writer for The Washington Times.


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