- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2005

Ronald Reagan may have gotten it wrong. The closest thing to eternal life in Washington is not a government program. It’s e-mail.

Once again, e-mails surfacing from the past have erupted into scandal, complete with congressional hearings and even possible criminal investigations. These particular e-mails were written by scientists conducting studies on the government’s plan to create a deep geologic storage site for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert.

While the significance of the e-mails remains in doubt, anti-nuclear environmental groups and Nevada politicians have jumped on the issue in the hope of stopping final approval of the nuclear waste repository.

Each group has long opposed Yucca: the environmentalists because closing the site, which has been intensely studied for more than two decades now, will effectively doom the future of nuclear power in this country (if we can’t store nuclear waste in the almost ideal conditions of the Nevada desert, we won’t be able to store it anywhere). The politicians are simply responding to their constituents, who, like all Americans, have been subjected to over three decades of fear-mongering on nuclear power and quite naturally — though unnecessarily — are apprehensive about the waste being stored in their state.

Given that more heat than light is bound to be generated by the coming investigations, it’s worth putting the issue in perspective. The e-mails in question concern computer models of possible water seepage at the site, which might then eventually carry radioactive residue into the nearby, sparsely populated Amargosa Valley. (The Yucca aquifer is separate from, and poses no threat to, Las Vegas, which is 100 miles distant.) In order to obtain licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, scientists will likely be required to demonstrate that the repository will pose no significant health risks for somewhere between 10,000 and several hundred thousand years.

Give that one a moment to seep in.

Ten thousand years ago was the beginning of the Mesolithic era, when the Ice Age was ending, Great Britain became an island, and human beings started to take up agriculture. If Yucca is still a problem in 10,000 years, it will only be because our civilization has completely collapsed and we’ve all reverted back to the Stone Age.

Nevertheless, the models currently estimate that nearby residents will receive little to no radiation from Yucca in the next 10,000 years. Three hundred thousand years from now, nearby residents might receive an additional 260 millirem per year, assuming earth hasn’t been demolished by an asteroid by then. You could expose yourself to almost as much extra radiation by becoming a frequent flyer.

We certainly don’t want scientists doctoring statistics — if that is indeed what happened — but the more important issue is why the waste from nuclear power is being held to such an extraordinary standard to begin with. A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant produces about 88 pounds of radioactive waste every day because the coal it burns contains trace amounts of radioactive elements. About 1 percent of that or more will be released into the atmosphere, the rest ending up on the slag heap, along with highly toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

The fact is, whatever the ensuing investigations into the computer models reveal, we have every reason to believe Yucca will be safe even by the exceptional standards being asked of it. Throughout the Southwest, scientists have found underground rat nests — made up of droppings and other organic debris that would easily rot if exposed to water — as much as 50,000 years old. The Egyptian mummies attest to how well dry climates preserve things.

The nuclear waste at Yucca is going to be vitrified into solid glass, sealed in non-corrosive casks, and stored in caves 1,000 feet underground that are designed to keep moisture away. Even in the unlikely event that these double and triple precautions don’t suffice, careful monitoring of nearby ground water would provide ample time to take remedial action.

We’re not the only ones to deal with this issue, either. Canada, France, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have all conducted their own studies and plan to store their nuclear waste in geologic repositories. Needless to say, these will mostly be located in much more heavily populated areas.

Recent world events have brought home how precarious it is to rely on Middle Eastern oil to supply our energy needs, especially as so many of our petrodollars end up in the hands of terrorists and their sponsors, and — in the case of Iran — help to finance the construction of atomic weapons. These are real dangers measured in years, not millennia. Also real is the danger of continuing to store our nuclear waste, as we do now, in some 131 temporary facilities in 39 states.

Any rational energy policy will have to include nuclear power generation in the mix of resources our nation relies on in the future. The errant e-mails should certainly be investigated, but short of any major revelations, we should move ahead with the licensing and construction of Yucca Mountain with all deliberate speed.

Joshua Gilder is a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute.

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