Yucca Mountain: The silent bomb
May 2, 2017
"Suppose that nuclear plants had been operating during Christ's lifetime. Assume that their operators had stored the radioactive waste … produced by modern plants. We would have been guarding these wastes for less than one percent of the time that they would have to be isolated from the environment." ("The Silent Bomb," 1977, p. ix.)
About 35 years ago, I met Peter Faulkner, the author/editor of a book titled "The Silent Bomb." The title refers to the dangers of radioactive waste. Faulkner had been a systems application engineer for the Nuclear Services Corporation of California, a consulting firm. He was fired from his job after testifying before a Senate committee in 1974 about the hazards of nuclear power. He began writing his book about these problems, and his life was threatened as a result. The nuclear industry doesn't like opposition.
In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed. It was designed to select and study sites for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste. One provision of the act said that state governments could veto the decision to put a waste repository in their state. This veto would stand unless both houses of Congress voted to override it.
The Department of Energy (DOE) began studying possible sites for the permanent repository. On Dec. 19, 1984, the DOE announced they had chosen 10 possible sites. After more study, the list was narrowed down to three possible sites: Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
In 1943, Hanford was established as part of the Manhattan Project, with nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing plants. The last reactor was decommissioned in 1987, leaving Hanford with about two-thirds of America's high-level radioactive waste. Since then, employees working to clean it up are getting sick and dying from radioactive contamination in what is called "the most toxic place in America." "We're told daily that it's safe," said a man who currently works at Hanford. "[That] there's nothing to worry about." "They're a bunch of liars," said a female employee. (NBC News, Nov. 29, 2016)
Since Hanford is already so contaminated, it might seem the logical site for a long-term nuclear waste repository, but on Dec. 17, 1987, congressional representatives from Washington and Texas met and narrowed the choice to one site – Yucca Mountain. On Dec. 22, the "Screw Nevada" bill was signed into law. Was this done because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that Yucca was the safest site? No. Nevada didn't even have a representative in the room when the deal was made. Texas had 32 representatives, Washington had 12, and these states held the power in the House of Representatives. Nevada didn't stand a chance. As then-Governor Richard Bryan said, it was "raw, naked politics."
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Is there any existing location we can evaluate to see what could happen at Yucca Mountain? Yes. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is the deepest repository in America, licensed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How's that working out?
After WIPP was built, with all the promised safety mechanisms, the first nuclear waste was deposited in 1999. In 2014, a drum of radioactive waste exploded. Safety mechanisms failed and 21 workers were exposed to radiation; 13 tested positive for radiation. The site had to be closed and wasn't reopened until Jan. 9, 2017.
The nuclear industry keeps telling us that radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain will be safe, even though the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office says Yucca Mountain is unsafe for radioactive waste because it's "geologically and hydrologically active and complex." The possibility of radioactive leaks is real. It reminds me of Big Oil, which insists oil pipelines are safe, even though hundreds of pipeline leaks have defiled people's drinking water, ruined neighborhoods, and caused environmental and economic problems that will last for years.
In the same way, the nuclear industry can't guarantee that Yucca Mountain won't have an incident that will cause irreversible harm. How many lives are an "acceptable risk" for a few hypothetical jobs? Can protection for life and property be guaranteed for tens of thousands of years? I think the workers in Hanford, Washington, and Carlsbad, New Mexico, would have something to say about that.
President Donald Trump has included $120 million in his budget to restart Yucca Mountain no matter what Nevada wants. The nation's nuclear waste does have to be stored some place, but Nevadans shouldn't get stuck paying a bill we never incurred in the first place.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.