Nuclear Option

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NOVEMBER 1, 2004

Nuclear Option

Yucca Mountain, Nevada

Someday, this hunk of rock may be packed with lethal radioactive
waste, and, in two weeks, it could be blamed for costing George W.
Bush the presidency. But, for now, the view from atop Yucca
Mountain is quite peaceful. In one direction are the Funeral
Mountains rising over California's Death Valley. In another, the
dim outline of the faraway Rockies. And all around stretches a
yellow-brown desert valley. This view has probably remained
unchanged for millennia. Although I'm in the middle of a U.S.
military training area, no signs of civilization are visible--only
scrub brush, rocks, and the occasional brown lizard slithering
across a boulder.The Energy Department guides who have led my tour group up here are
eager to show that storing waste in Yucca Mountain won't disrupt
human activity. One of them, a chipper fellow named Max, even jokes
that it could be good for business. Noting that one of the proposed
rail lines to bring waste to Yucca would run just past Nevada's
Shady Lady brothel, Max adds cheerily, "The owner said she wouldn't
mind so long as we set up a work camp right behind it!"

Not many Nevadans would laugh along. Locals despise the Yucca
Mountain project, which, if all goes according to current plans,
will turn this site into the country's central repository for
commercial nuclear waste. Within a decade, up to 77,000 tons of
lethal radioactive material from around the nation would be shipped
here by truck and rail and sealed in tunnels deep inside the
mountain. There it would stay, ensconced in thick casks and mountain
rock, for tens of thousands of years as it slowly deteriorates into
harmless junk.

Nevadans tend to see that future differently. They talk of terrorist
attacks on waste shipments, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions,
contaminated groundwater, three-headed lizards, and the like. Those
sentiments could have profound political implications for Bush on
November 2. Campaigning here four years ago, Bush was vague about
his position on Yucca, leaving some people with the impression that
he opposed the project. He carried Nevada by four points. But, in
February 2002, Bush backed an Energy Department recommendation to
proceed with waste storage at Yucca, and Congress went along.
Locals shrieked of betrayal.

This year, anger at Bush over Yucca has helped to make Nevada among
the most highly contested of swing states, and, in a close
election, its five electoral votes could prove decisive. Pouncing
on the issue, the Kerry campaign, MoveOn. org, and the Democratic
National Committee have all hammered Bush with ads accusing him of
tricking Nevada voters. And Kerry has offered a stark Yucca
alternative. "When I'm president of the United States, I'll tell you
about Yucca Mountain: Not on my watch! No!" he bellowed at a summer
rally in Las Vegas. "Yucca Mountain is the number-one issue facing
Nevada," explains Jon Summers, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic
Party. "This is a character issue. We've been misled on Yucca just
like we've been misled on Iraq."

If Yucca Mountain turns out to be the cause of Bush's defeat, it
would be a shame for two reasons. The first is that Bush never did
lie to Nevadans about his plans for Yucca. He merely pledged to
veto any plan to establish a "temporary" storage site in Nevada, a
proposal under discussion in 2000, and he vowed to proceed with a
permanent site only after studies had established the Yucca plan
was based on "sound science." The second, and more important,
reason is that the Yucca Mountain project is a good idea. Storing
America's nuclear waste here is the safest practical option now
available. Indeed, it's a rare Bush policy decision that would
benefit the national interest but could cost him electoral votes.
(As opposed to, say, Bush's use of steel tariffs to pander to
states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.) With so many good
reasons for Bush's defeat, it would be more than a little ironic if
the final blow was prompted by something he actually did right.

A trip to Yucca Mountain begins in Las Vegas, which lies 90 miles to
the southeast. I meet an Energy Department tour bus at one of
several Yucca Mountain visitor centers now open in Nevada cities to
educate and assuage the public. The center looks like the site of a
high school science fair, filled with easy-to-read signs and
diagrams explaining the nature of radiation, nuclear power, and the
mountain itself in simple and reassuring terms. ("All nuclear waste
destined for repository disposal will be in solid form and is not
flammable or explosive," assures one leaflet.) A handbook titled
"The Nuclear Waste Primer" is available, as are souvenir
mock-uranium fuel pellets.

Our bus rolls up a desolate desert highway for a couple of
hours--one Yucca opponent tells me these buses purposefully drive
slowly to make the site seem as distant as possible--until we
arrive at the Nevada Test Site, a huge swath of desert that the
Energy Department uses to tinker with explosives, rockets, and
nuclear weapons. Special Forces train here, too. At the entry gate,
where photos are forbidden, armed guards in black sunglasses
inspect our bus before we're allowed to ride the final 30 miles to
Yucca.

The mountain itself is less an archetypal rocky peak than a big
sloping hill. After donning bright red construction helmets and
plastic goggles, we file into the one long tunnel that has been
bored through the mountain to allow for geological research and
experiments as the political and regulatory processes surrounding
the project play out. The narrow tunnel, floored with a metal
walkway and lined with long ventilation tubes, has a science-fiction
look reminiscent of those claustrophobic spaceship corridors from
Alien. It's a fitting scene for the discussion at hand.

"One system we're looking at is a flying robot," says a no-nonsense
Energy Department engineer named Bruce Reinert. He's explaining
what would happen inside the mountain should the nuclear waste ever
arrive. Sealed in huge, reinforced steel casks, the waste would be
stored in yet-to-be-drilled tunnels throughout the mountain. The
hot spent fuel will turn those tunnels into 400- degree ovens,
making them very difficult to monitor. One idea is to pack cameras
in dry ice and quickly roll them in and out of the tunnels;
occasional passes by flying robots is another.

But all that remains years away. It will be at least 2010 before any
waste arrives at Yucca. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission still
needs to sign off on the undertaking--a three- to four-year
process--and then a massive, $58 billion construction project will
be needed to hollow out the mountain and build rail lines to its
entrance.

Congress first approved Yucca as a repository site in 1987--as part
of what is known here as the "Screw Nevada" bill--to make good on
its 1982 promise to dispose of nuclear reactor waste, which creates
huge liabilities and security problems for utility companies. But
the project has been delayed by Nevada's endless stalling tactics,
including the Republican governor's efforts to cut off the site's
water supply. That's too bad. September 11 underscored the folly of
storing, as we do now, huge amounts of nuclear waste at 131 sites of
varying security in 39 states, many of them near urban areas, such
as New York, Denver, and Dallas. As The New Republic's Gregg
Easterbrook recently argued, "If you're against Yucca Mountain,
you're in favor of keeping atomic waste in rusting holding ponds"
("Turn On," October 18).

Yucca opponents offer two central objections to the plan. The first
is that the mountain itself is an unsafe site. One top aide to a
senior Nevada politician sums it up this way: "Would you want
seventy-seven thousand tons of the deadliest substance known to man
buried in a volcanic region near a fault line amongst rising water
tables forty-five minutes from your front door?" But this is
alarmist. There is volcanic activity in the region, but none within
Yucca. The Energy Department estimates the chances of an eruption at
Yucca at one in 70 million per year. There is a nearby fault line,
but it's been 50,000 years since the last significant earthquake.
And quakes do almost all their damage above ground: The waste at
Yucca would be buried 1,000 feet under the mountain. Finally,
geological evidence shows that never in the past few million years
has the water table, which is currently 1,000 feet below the
proposed repository, risen more than 400 feet. Yucca opponents also
complain that the government can't promote that the site will
remain safe for a mind-warping 300, 000 years, when the waste will
become harmless. But the Energy Department has pronounced the site
safe for the next 10,000 years, making Yucca the closest thing to a
permanent solution man can devise.

The second objection is that transporting all that waste across the
country is far more dangerous than just leaving it where it is.
That is the case Las Vegas's Democratic mayor, Oscar Goodman, makes
when I visit his office. A few years ago, Goodman--no doubt
horrified by what "glowing" Vegas Strip jokes could do to
tourism--passed an ordinance outlawing the shipment of high-level
waste through his city. Goodman argues that waste shipments would be
highly vulnerable to accidents and, especially, terrorist attacks.
"I'm not worried about the mountain. I'm worried about the
transportation," Goodman says. "The rails that go right through my
city and"--he points out the window--"right past my office are
going to be carrying this crap." Other Yucca opponents fulminate
about "one hundred thousand dirty bombs on the road," traversing the
country and passing through major urban areas.

But this argument, too, doesn't hold up. The government has ferried
spent nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons material via highways and
rails since the 1950s without a major accident. And enormous
precautions would be taken with waste sent to Yucca--everything
from armed escorts to decoy trucks to satellite- based GPS tracking
systems. The transport casks are also astonishingly resilient. On
the bus home from Yucca, we are shown a short film featuring an
almost comical sampling of stress tests performed on them. These
include a transport truck crashing into a wall at high speed, a
rocket-powered train plowing through a parked dump truck, and a
cask dropped into a 1,400-degree jet- fuel fire for 90 minutes. The
casks survived it all.

Just in time for the campaign's home stretch, a new round of Yucca
ads hit the Nevada airwaves last week. "George Bush broke his word
as president, pushing ahead with a nuclear dump that is a danger to
Nevadans," says the state's popular Democratic senator, Harry Reid,
in the latest spot. "John Kerry has stood with us. He has fought
Yucca in the past, and as president he'll stop it once and for all.
... Nevadans need John Kerry as president to protect all our
families."

While it's not fair to say Bush "broke his word," the GOP has
undermined its high ground by happily reciprocating the dishonesty.
Bush ads have accused Kerry of--can you guess?--flip-floppery:
"Listening to John Kerry, you'd think he has been against Yucca
Mountain his entire career. But Kerry voted to establish the
nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain. Kerry voted seven times to
make it easier to dump waste at Yucca." That's misleading: Kerry's
ostensible votes for Yucca were actually votes for a much larger
bill with pro-Yucca language in it that only Nevadans saw as a
single-issue vote. As the Associated Press has concluded, "Each
time Kerry has faced the simple choice of voting whether or not to
send waste to Yucca Mountain, he has voted against it."

For the moment, Bush appears to be clinging to a small but shrinking
lead in Nevada, and Yucca seems to be costing him. Nevada is a
generally Republican state, where seven of eight statewide
officials are GOPers and where the economy is outperforming the
nation's with a mere 4 percent unemployment rate. The consensus
here seems to be that Yucca will be a--and possibly the--deciding
factor. "If only a few thousand votes are going to decide who wins,
maybe Yucca can ... make the difference," says Las Vegas political
commentator Jon Ralston. As one Nevada Democrat puts it, "If Bush
wasn't concerned [about Yucca], they wouldn't have gone up with an
ad trying to muddy the issue by saying that Kerry flip-flopped. ...
[I]f Kerry carries the state by a few points, it's because of Yucca
Mountain." And thus, if Nevada decides the election for Kerry,
George Bush will have met a fate worthy of Greek tragedy: defeated
for a rare act of political courage.

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