- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Another act in the radioactive drama of Yucca Mountain began last week.As expected, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham gave a glowing review to developing the mountain (located somewhere near "Nowhere, Nevada") as a storage facility for high-level nuclear waste. This provoked a heated response from Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, who complained, "This decision stinks."

The governor and the administration will probably be exchanging a few more unfriendly lines, since President Bush is expected to approve the project, and Mr. Guinn is expected to veto it. Since Congress has ultimate authority in that case, and since Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has already vowed to kill the project, the sequence would set the stage for (sigh) another election-year confrontation between the administration and Senate Democrats.

All of this is entirely predictable. In the first place, taxpayers have already fronted nearly $7 billion for the project's development. While (predictably) no one, including the Energy Department, is certain how much the final project will cost, it could rise to $50 billion. That's serious money, even by Beltway standards.

However, so is the problem that the repository has been designed to solve, namely, the continuing buildup of high-level nuclear waste. Each year, about 2,000 tons of excess plutonium, spent nuclear fuel and other high level radioactive waste are added to the already existent 40,000 tons. That waste is currently being stored at 131 different sites in 39 states around the country. However, those sites are running out of room the Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that by 2010, when (hopefully), the curtain will officially lift on the repository at Yucca Mountain, nearly 80 percent of nuclear power plants will have exhausted their storage capacities.

Such short-sighted storage has scripted a tragedy in-waiting. Mr. Abraham correctly cited national security as a primary reason for moving forward with the Yucca repository, since by explosively releasing containment, a terrorist could turn any one of those storage sites into a "dirty" radioactive bomb. A consolidated repository at Yucca would fulfill the solution offered by Mark Twain's Puddn'head Wilson, "Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket."

Moreover, if a terrorist did somehow penetrate security at the Yucca repository, he would face the problem of having to penetrate a mountain to cause a radioactive problem. Such a drama would play out a long way away from any significant population centers, but near the Nevada Test Site, where numerous explosive nuclear dramas have already run.

It can only be hoped that Senate Democrats decide to respond with a chorus of "Ayes" at the denouement of the decision on the Yucca repository later this year.

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