Rail line to Yucca divides small towns
December 11, 2006
SILVER SPRINGS – June Mick fled to this rural Lyon County community six months ago to get away from the crime and high costs of south Florida.
She and her husband paid $230,000 for a manufactured home and 4.7 acres of jackrabbits and sagebrush near an infrequently used railroad track. Only recently did Mick learn the track in her backyard was under study as the rail line on which Energy Department trains would carry high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.
“I don’t want that stuff,” she said. “What if there is an accident? There is no telling what could happen.”
Mick’s thoughts were shared by neighbors a few blocks away. Retired Navy veteran Robert Brittain moved to his track-side Silver Springs home last year. Ruth Curtis purchased her manufactured home 16 years ago.
“I’m pro-military. But I don’t care for Yucca Mountain. Ammunition is different. It’s for national security,” Brittain said.
“Nuclear waste?” Curtis questioned, then answered herself: “Oh, no.”
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Ninety percent of homeowners interviewed in Silver Springs oppose the proposal to haul nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain through their inexpensive but rapidly growing community.
They’ve found peace and quiet in Silver Springs’ wide-open spaces. They knew trains have occasionally carried bombs past their homes to the Army Ammunition Depot at Hawthorne since the 1930s. But they were not aware that the Energy Department was considering using the same tracks to carry waste from commercial nuclear power plants across the country to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
State laws require county planning departments to notify homeowners when new developments are planned in their neighborhoods, but the federal government isn’t obliged to notify people when it wants to haul radioactive waste through their backyards.
The Energy Department placed advertisements in Fallon’s Lahontan Valley News about a recent hearing at which residents could discuss the railroad plan, but in Silver Springs, news travels largely by word of mouth.
Whether hauling 77,000 tons of radioactive waste within a few yards of Silver Springs’ bedrooms poses any danger depends on whom you ask.
Bob Loux, executive director of the state Agency for Nuclear Projects, said a terrorist with a shoulder-held, anti-tank missile launcher could put a hole in a cask containing nuclear waste.
“If 1 percent of the cargo escaped, it would contaminate a 42 square-mile area and take a couple of decades and $8 billion to $10 billion to clean up,” Loux said.
It is not just Silver Springs residents who have reason for concern, he added. Trains from power plants will move along the main Union Pacific line paralleling Interstate 80 from the east and west. Nuclear waste would be hauled through downtown Reno.
The nuclear trains would veer off the Union Pacific line north of Fallon and head more than 300 miles south to Yucca Mountain along a route near U.S. Highway 95 that goes through Silver Springs and close to the rural communities of Schurz, Hawthorne, Mina, Tonopah and Goldfield.
Costs of constructing this “Mina Corridor” route, including laying 209 miles of track from Hawthorne to Yucca Mountain, have been estimated at more than $1 billion.
Allen Benson, director of external affairs for the Energy Department’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, does not share Loux’s alarm.
He noted the federal government has been hauling nuclear waste by truck for 50 years with no problems, including more than 4,000 shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico.
“The safety record is quite remarkable,” Benson said.
Benson noted the waste going to Yucca Mountain would be in solid, not liquid, form. If a cask were penetrated, some pellets might fall onto the ground, but a hazardous materials team would be sent out “to clean it up and move on,” he said.
Security officers will accompany the trains, according to Benson, and the Energy Department “is not going to advertise” when shipments will move. He anticipates about two trains a week over a 24-year period.
“There is no such thing as a 100 percent safety guarantee,” Benson said. “But this is definitely not Chernobyl. People have this fear of nuclear. We understand that. But nuclear is medicine. Nuclear is electricity.”
The public reaction to the word nuclear is far different farther south in economically depressed rural Nevada. Of 25 people interviewed in Goldfield, Hawthorne, Tonopah, Schurz and Mina, 22 expressed support for the rail line.
Hawthorne businessman Rex Mills expressed their views during a hearing in Hawthorne. He said rural Nevadans want the Energy Department to share its Yucca Mountain track with commercial trains.
“If they put the railroad here, it will be great,” Mills said. “It will give an incentive for companies nationwide to move into a lower-taxed area. The waste is going into Yucca Mountain, whether we like it or not.”
So far the Energy Department has spent $9 billion on the project. Costs could top $58 billion, based on an estimate made in 2001.
Postmistress Theora Janis and resident Dollie Murillo stood in front of the Mina Post Office and discussed the desperate need for economic revival in their community.
The town’s population has dropped to about 100 people, most of them senior citizens. Many homes and businesses are abandoned. The elementary school was closed five years ago. The train tracks were pulled out 10 years ago.
“They already carry (hazardous) waste through here by trucks,” Janis said. “We need jobs. A railroad would help us.”
Whether the Energy Department allows private business to share its Yucca Mountain line has not been determined.
Bob Halstead, a transportation consultant for the state, said the Energy Department has been trying to win favor for the new rail line by suggesting that the line will be shared with commercial trains.
Loux said a new rail line would provide little upside to rural Nevada.
“They had a rail line to Mina for 50 years and it didn’t do anything for them,” Loux said. “Every rail line there in the past has been torn out.”
The only reason the Energy Department can contemplate construction of the Mina route is because of a change in thinking by the Walker Lake Paiute Indian Tribe, Loux said.
The tribal council in 1991 rejected an Energy Department move to study moving waste through the reservation by rail. Last April, council members agreed to the study.
Ammunition bound for the Hawthorne depot is carried by rail past tribal headquarters, homes and a school in the town of Schurz. Under the Energy Department study plan, the rail line would be relocated about four miles outside of town.
Chairwoman Genia Williams responded to questions by handing out a prepared statement saying the council opposes the new rail line unless the Energy Department addresses all safety issues and agrees to ban shipments of nuclear waste by truck on U.S. Highway 95.
“Historically our tribe has been a victim of federal government decisions,” Williams said. “I do not like the idea of Nevada being a dumping ground for nuclear waste, but this may be a chance to make my tribal community safer from nuclear waste that may come through our community on a highway,” she added.
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