TCS Daily

The Least Worst

By Craig Winneker - November 19, 2002 12:00 AM

MERCURY, Nevada - Perhaps the first thing you notice standing on the summit of Yucca Mountain, in Area 25 of the Nevada Test Site, is the collection of relatively young cinder cones on the near western horizon.

Recent volcanic activity and the safe, long-term storage of nuclear waste would not seem at first to be compatible concepts. But it is precisely this geological situation that makes scientists and politicians certain that Yucca Mountain, a 1,200-foot ridge located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the perfect place to stash America's spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) proposes to store this material some 1,000 feet below the surface and 1,000 feet above the water table, in rock known as volcanic tuff, where they say it will be safe from water and other external forces. Currently this waste is deposited at 103 sites around the country, and since the early 1980s the federal government has been looking for a suitable single location in which to put it all. After considering sites at nine different locations in six states, then whittling this list down to candidates in Texas, Washington state and Nevada, the government in 1987 put all of its radioactive eggs in one basket. It would be Yucca Mountain or nothing at all.

The DOE has spent the years since then studying the site's suitability for use as a nuclear waste repository, and also trying to win over the public and the Nevada state government to their proposal. Success on both fronts has been mixed, to say the least.

Proponents of the site say its geological profile and unique location make it the ideal choice for the nation's nuclear waste repository. They say volcanic tuff is perfectly suited to the stable long-term storage of radioactive materials. They are certain that containers of spent nuclear fuel will be safer underground (even above the water table) than anywhere else.

But opponents, most notable among them the state of Nevada, are not convinced. They are fighting tooth-and-nail to have the project scrapped. Leave the waste where it is, they say.

Both sides claim to have sound science on their side. A panel of experts appointed by the White House recently cast some doubt on the DOE's safety claims for the site, but the pro-Yucca forces clearly have the momentum. This year Congress successfully overrode Nevada's effort to block the project, and President Bush in turn signed legislation that paves the way to application for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Once obtained, this would allow the facility to open for business as early as 2010.

But Nevada isn't through yet. The state has a half-dozen different lawsuits pending against the project, and is certain to take the fight all the way to the US Supreme Court. (This will be expensive, especially in a state that is currently running a budget deficit.)
Unusually for such a politically sensitive issue, the Yucca debate is relatively civil. No one is chaining himself to any fences or railroad tracks - yet. The antagonists know each other well and their arguments are well-trodden. The DOE has even worked out a deal with officials from the state government, allowing them to go along on tours of the Yucca Mountain site, where they can offer their dissenting views.

One of those opponents is Steve Frishman. He and his fellow Yucca foes laid out their case to reporters earlier this month in a dreary banquet room in the bowels of the Circus Circus hotel and casino in Las Vegas, at a meeting set up by the nuclear power industry (see how everyone gets along?).

Over chicken wings, fried mozzarella sticks and Bud Lights they claimed the site will provide minimal protection over and above the containers that hold the waste. They added that the site is at risk for seismic events; and they argued there is a strong danger that runoff from the waste will work its way into the water supply.

"As a geologist I'm disturbed that we aren't taking geological impacts into account," Frishman says. "We're hoping the courts will administer justice because we haven't had it."

But DOE officials dismiss these claims, and have been doing extensive testing at the site to determine just how safe the material will be for the next 10,000 years or so. Michael Voegele, the chief science officer for Bechtel SAIC, which is building the facility, says the fears of an earthquake or volcano are vastly overblown. He says there is one chance in 10,000 that a volcano will erupt over the next 10,000 years.

The DOE also notes that even seismic activity is unlikely to affect the underground site. The proof? The fact that the government's own nuclear testing during the last half-century did not damage mine tunnels in the immediate vicinity. Voegele even points to a local geological phenomenon known as "desert varnish" as evidence that seismic activity in the area is negligible. In this process, wind-blown sand burnishes boulders and rocks until they obtain an iridescent dark brown color. These rocks, many of them perched on steep inclines, never seem to move, even after thousands of years. If they did, it would be easy to tell, as their lighter undersides would be exposed.

This is not the kind of argument that will persuade everybody, but at the Yucca Mountain Science Center they're certainly trying. Located in a Las Vegas strip mall, where it blends in somewhat sheepishly with manicure salons and dental clinics, this is the public-relations nerve center of the project. Walk-ins are welcome, and even encouraged, to tour the educational exhibits.

The center gets some 10,000 visitors every year - people curious about what the government is planning to put in their neighborhood. Every Saturday DOE takes groups of about 200 people on public tours of the site.

"When people do go there, their attitude changes," says Allen Benson, the YMP director of public information. "The mystery is gone."

To be fair, not everyone in Nevada is against the site. In fact, swimming decidedly against the political tide are the citizens of Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is located. The government and voters of the county (some 40,000 people live there) have come to the conclusion that the facility is inevitable, and they are working with the federal government to get themselves the best deal for when it starts up. This hasn't made the county too popular with other Nevadans.

"We're the red-headed stepchild of the state," says Jeff Taguchi, the chairman of the Nye County Commission. But he says attitudes will eventually change. "The politics of the state will change sooner or later. They know it will happen."

That may be an overly optimistic assessment, as Nevada has shown it is willing to play hardball when it comes to Yucca Mountain, even in its current status as a "site characterization project." One of the state government's recent gambits was to cut off water rights to the site. Visitors there now have to drink bottled water and use Porta-Potties.

The one thing on which everyone can agree is that the nuclear waste is out there, and something has to be done about it. The worst idea is probably to leave this material where it is, scattered around the country, sometimes in facilities close to large population centers.

Yucca Mountain may not be the perfect alternative, or even the best, but it appears to be the least worst. That nearly everyone agrees on this except for the state of Nevada won't stop the issue from being radioactive for a long time to come.



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