DOE gives a nod and wink to Yucca's flaws

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I have a question for you this morning: Who do you think contributes more money to political campaigns, (a) the nuclear power industry and its highly paid lobbyists or (b) Nevada middle school students?

If you answered "a," you win the prize (to be determined), and you probably understand why Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is the only site under consideration to become the nation's permanent nuclear waste dump.

In 1987 our Congress, in its infinite wisdom, made a blatantly political decision to dump all of our country's radioactive nuclear waste into a sparsely populated western state with little electoral clout. No alternatives were considered.

And now, the U.S. Department of Energy is saddled with the task of "cooking" scientific data in an environmental impact statement that will support a 13-year-old political decision. That's what was going on behind the scenes when DOE held a Dec. 2 public hearing on the Yucca Mountain site at Carson City's Legislative Building.

DOE officials were exceedingly tolerant and ever so polite as a parade of Nevadans, including several bright young Carson City Middle School students, urged the Feds to put their nuclear waste someplace else or keep it where it's generated - at 77 sites in 35 states, none of which is in Nevada. (By the way, these attentive, neatly dressed students were quite a contrast to the troublemakers who infest some of our area's middle schools).

"If Nevada doesn't generate any nuclear waste, why do we have to store it here?" asked one of the students. Good question.

"I've lived in Nevada all my life and I want to keep it safe for my generation and future generations," added another student.

The DOE bureaucrats smiled tolerantly and nodded knowingly, but after the students had left the hearing room I saw some of them exchanging smirks and winks. They already knew what their decision would be, and it isn't going to be to ship the radioactive material to California or New York, where the electoral votes are.

I did my civic duty by sending a letter to DOE's North Las Vegas-based Yucca Mountain project manager for inclusion in the public record. In it, I recycled an Appeal column that I wrote last February asserting that "although the waste dump would be a financial bonanza for the nuclear power industry and its lobbyists, the potential (environmental and human) costs to Nevada and Nevadans far outweigh any benefits."

And I quoted Gov. Kenny Guinn, who said in congressional testimony earlier this year that "this (nuclear dump) legislation throws science out the window ... and places raw political expediency as the driving force for dealing with difficult problems involving technology and the environment."

Finally, I urged DOE to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, "which requires you to 'take actions that protect, restore and enhance the environment.' The Yucca Mountain Project does none of the above."

But DOE's final environmental impact statement will finesse that requirement even though the law says the statement "shall serve as a means of assessing the environmental impact of proposed agency actions, rather than justifying decisions already made," which is exactly what is happening in this protracted bureaucratic charade.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, weighed in early this month when he accused DOE of attempting to change siting rules in the middle of the game.

Reid said a DOE proposal published in the Federal Register would lower the standards by which the nuclear waste dump could be located at Yucca Mountain. "This is a transparent effort to change the rules of the game in the third quarter," Reid wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. "It's a rule change that could threaten the health and safety of the people of Nevada."

Earlier, Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Reno, who holds a master's degree in geology, had noted that continuing seismic activity at Yucca Mountain - more than 620 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater in the past 20 years - "is just another serious warning about the unsuitability of the Yucca Mountain site." And what was DOE's response to our Nevada legislators? A stone wall of silence.

At the Carson City hearing, I asked one of the DOE officials about the earthquake problem and he responded that seismic activity at Yucca Mountain is only "moderate," well within tolerable limits. But then, he probably doesn't live in southern Nevada, which would bear the brunt of the earthquake threat.

Transportation of radioactive waste poses another hazard to several Nevada cities and towns. Some of the waste would be shipped south by train from the Idaho-Nevada border to U.S. 95 near Tonopah, then to Yucca Mountain on 220-foot-long, heavy-haul trucks.

Proposed truck routes run through or near Tonopah, Goldfield, Beatty, Indian Springs, Caliente and, believe it or not, Las Vegas. Just imagine the human, economic and environmental fallout from a nuclear accident on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Even though the 1987 congressional decision prohibits DOE from considering other possible storage sites, many of us favor a so-called "no action" alternative including the option of storing nuclear waste where it's generated for the next 100 years or so, or until a viable plan can be developed.

In the meantime, because we're the fastest-growing state in the nation, we should use our increasing political clout to pressure Congress and Secretary Richardson to consider alternative solutions to the nuclear waste problem.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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