Outside the north portal of the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste repository, a guided tour group was having lunch Thursday inside the "change house."
Seated at folding tables under fluorescent lights, members of the Northern Nevada Development Authority, which meets monthly at either the Carson Nugget or the Carson Valley Inn, were eating croissant sandwiches, small apples or oranges, potato salad and a pie wedge.
A poster on the wall described how the 77,000 tons of waste to be trucked to Nevada from commercial reactors and the government's nuclear weapons program "cannot burn, explode or leak."
Having just finished a tour of the underground facility led by a senior engineer on the project, group member Bill Casparos was saying to the others at the table, "Coming in to this thing with no knowledge, listening to that one guy for a few hours -- I'd say they're doing everything they can to make it safe."
"You know, even if they gave up on that tunnel for politics -- where are they gonna go?" wondered Casparos, president of Cambill Investments in Carson City.
Many of the development group members, like Casparos, said they think the site was not only inevitable, but maybe even safe.
"The notion that we can't transport and store that stuff is ludicrous," said J. Paul Sutton, president of Corporate Planning and Finance in Reno. Sutton, who was "involved slightly" in the Apollo space missions of 1963-72, believes the nation has handled more daunting challenges than the safe storage of high-level nuclear waste. "When they were preparing to land on the moon, they didn't know if it was 15 feet of silt or solid rock."
Sutton said people who are fighting the proposed repository, on which the Department of Energy has spent $4 billion since the mid-1980s, are acting on pure emotion, as opposed to scientific fact.
"Businesses -- especially in engineering and building -- are not built on emotion. When you're ignorant you're dealing with emotion -- not fact."
Figuring out the answer is a matter of using a "risk-reward ratio," he said.
"We can get a lot of economic benefit out of this and there's very little risk," he said.
Not everyone on the tour was ready to accept the nation's nuclear waste -- without a price.
Group member John Knott, a manager at C.B. Richard Ellis commercial real estate, listed the five points he said he would require of the federal government before giving the OK to dump nuclear waste in Nevada.
Sitting on the "white ride," a train which hauls workers and tour groups two miles into the mountain, he listed the preconditions:
-- unlimited water for all Nevadans;
-- transfer of all federal lands in Nevada to the state;
-- no federal income tax for any Nevada resident or their heirs into perpetuity;
-- the right to final safety oversight at Yucca Mountain;
-- no reduction in federal spending in Nevada.
"It's my five-point plan," he laughed while rolling past 480-volt tunnel lights.
While the tour seemed effective at convincing Nevadans of the Yucca project's credibility -- even if they had a list of qualifiers -- Nevada's chief critic says he wasn't allowed on the tour.
Bob Loux, head of Nevada's Nuclear Projects Agency, said from his Carson City office Friday the Department of Energy did not welcome him or his scientists along on the tour because they "refuse to allow an objective presentation."
He also said there are no benefits the state could get that would make the Yucca Mountain project worth the risks for Nevadans.
He said if Nevada "knuckles under" and allows the repository to go ahead, then the effort to acquire any benefits would distract Nevadans from the most important concern.
"Then the issue of whether or not the repository is safe for Nevadans goes by the wayside," he said. "Regardless of the promotional information they provide on these tours, the main argument against it is it's not going to work," he said.
He said the Department of Energy has ignored the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which required the site's welded and non-welded tuff geology to be the "primary isolation barrier" in containing the waste. Because the energy department cannot guarantee geology which will stop ground water flow, Loux says, it has instead resorted to "engineered barriers" to contain the waste. The current waste containers would have two layers of metal -- a 2-inch thick inner layer of stainless steal and an inch-thick outer layer of corrosion-resistant nickel alloy. These canisters, designed to last thousands of years and tucked 1,000 feet underground under drip shields, are not enough, Loux said.
"I think it's important to note the DOE has never, ever built a facility that has worked. Ever," he said. Of the 127 facilities it runs, Loux says, 124 have "completely failed."
That leads to the DOE not only paying for the projects, but also having "to compensate the victims who have been exposed to radiation from the DOE's failed facilities."
Loux supports legal challenges to the Yucca Mountain repository.
Nevada filed its sixth constitutional challenge to the site Thursday. The newest lawsuit alleges not only the state of Nevada is being "unduly burdened" by the federal government against its will, but that the standards used to assess the suitability of the Yucca site for a repository are different and less strict than those used to assess suitability of any other site.
"It doesn't take a constitutional scholar to figure out that this is both unfair and absurd," wrote Brian Sandoval in the Thursday filing. Sandoval was sworn in as Nevada's attorney general on Monday. He took his first step toward fulfilling campaign promises by challenging the federal government on the dumping of the nation's spent nuclear fuels in Nevada.
ON THE NET
DOE Yucca site: www.ymp.gov
Anti-Yucca fight: www.state.nv.us./nucwaste
A chronology of developments on a national nuclear waste repository:
1957 -- National Academy of Sciences concludes radioactive waste can be safely disposed of underground. Nationwide screening for suitable repository sites begins.
1978 -- First test hole is dug at Yucca Mountain in Nevada as part of a nationwide search for a nuclear waste site.
1982 -- Congress orders development of a permanent national disposal site for waste from commercial nuclear power reactors.
1986 -- Government pledges to take responsibility for high-level nuclear waste from commercial plants by 1989 and narrows potential sites to Nevada, Texas and Washington state.
1987 -- Congress designates Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied in what Nevada officials call the "screw Nevada" bill.
1989 -- Nevada vetoes the Yucca Mountain site, banning construction of any nuclear dump in the state. DOE wins a court order to proceed with site study.
1994-96 -- Nuclear utilities sue the Energy Department because it won't meet a 1998 deadline for accepting waste. Federal court sides with industry and says government is liable if it fails to meet deadline. Work starts on the 25-foot diameter repository tunnel.
1998 -- Energy Department fails to take waste as promised.
2001 -- Interim Energy Department report finds no "show-stoppers" in scientific review of Yucca Mountain site. Estimated cost for construction, operation and monitoring over 100 years is put at $58 billion.
February 2002 -- President Bush concludes Yucca Mountain is scientifically sound and announces plans to seek a permit for the waste site.
April 2002 -- Nevada vetoes Bush's decision.
May 2002 -- House votes 306-117 to override Nevada's veto.
July 2002 --Over Nevada's protests, President Bush signs a bill making Yucca Mountain the nation's central repository for nuclear waste.
2003 -- Courts likely to rule on first of six lawsuits filed by Nevada challenging the Yucca project .
2004 --Energy Department plans to apply for construction permit in 2004. Licensing process before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission likely to take up to four years.
2005 -- DOE expects to receive authorization to begin construction.
2010 -- Construction is expected to be completed.
2010-2034 -- Shipments of 3,200 tons of waste a year to arrive at the Yucca site.
Sources: Nuclear Energy Institute, 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the Energy Department.