Fresh Ideas by Abby Johnson: Tunnel vision's affect on nuclear waste

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"Tunnel vision - a narrow outlook; specifically the focus of attention on a particular problem without proper regard for possible consequences or alternative approaches" - Webster's New World Dictionary, 2010

Tunnel vision is taking on new meaning in Nevada in the aftermath of the nuclear power disaster in Japan. While workers at the beleaguered nuclear power plants cope with radioactive contamination from the earthquake-tsunami extreme event, some U.S. lawmakers and media are taking a second, short-sighted look at Yucca Mountain and its lone access tunnel.

Yucca Mountain has a tunnel running through it, drilled for exploration and testing by the Department of Energy to learn more about the mountain's ability to contain the waste and respond to the radioactive material's intense heat for thousands of years.

Recent media reports imply that Yucca is already a labyrinth of tunnels. Wrong. The proposed repository design exists on paper, not underground at Yucca. What's missing is a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not a giant key or a ribbon cutting. The licensing process is at a near standstill awaiting a decision from the NRC about whether DOE can withdraw its license application and walk away from Yucca.

Increased focus on nuclear power has renewed concern in the U.S. about the safety of spent fuel rods stored onsite in pools at nuclear power plants, although these pools are essential for the operation of the nuclear plant.

It is beyond ironic that some policy makers are again seizing on Yucca Mountain as a viable solution despite geologic vulnerabilities similar to the Japanese plants. Yucca Mountain is crisscrossed with earthquake faults and potentially vulnerable to magma should the young volcanoes nearby come to life thousands of years in the future. An earthquake zone is not the safest location for the above ground waste handling integral to repository operations.

For Yucca Mountain, and likely for the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan, regulators average the disaster scenarios of low probability high consequence events with less severe events, often creating a sense of false security. Worst case scenarios have not been considered fully or treated seriously at Yucca Mountain.

The tragedy in Japan has caused some decision makers to renew interest in proceeding with Yucca Mountain rather than acknowledge that the Yucca Mountain site is defective. Earthquakes faults, volcanoes, fast pathways for radionuclides to get into the groundwater are major flaws, some of which would have disqualified Yucca Mountain before DOE changed its own siting guidelines.

The Japanese nuclear disaster should not become the latest excuse by policy makers to sanction an unsafe repository site in Nevada. Instead, the unfolding radiation disaster should stimulate broader thinking about managing nuclear waste safely rather than more Yucca Mountain tunnel vision.

• Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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