« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Can Nevada bury Yucca Mountain?

 

Note: two related articles accompany this story under these headlines: "A bitter valley waits" and "The greening of the Nevada Test Site."

Nevada's quest to lose its reputation as a wasteland didn't begin auspiciously in the new millennium. In fact, it looked as if the state was politically doomed to become the home for a nuclear waste repository that would remain dangerously radioactive for many millennia.

At the start of 2001, with Republicans in control of the House and Senate and President Bush in the White House, few thought that Nevada could stop plans to bury 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive in Yucca Mountain, an unimposing desert ridge just 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A year earlier, a bill to send nuclear waste to a temporary facility in Nevada passed both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President Clinton. Nevada's senior senator, Harry Reid, was able to muster the 34 votes necessary to prevent the Senate from overriding the veto.

Now, without a presidential veto to rescue it, Nevada was vulnerable.

"The future looks scary," said Kalynda Tilges, nuclear-issues coordinator for Citizen Alert, a group that was formed 26 years ago to fight plans to bring waste to Nevada.

As the Bush administration took office, Congressman Joe Barton, R-Texas, who had championed the temporary repository a year earlier, brought back his bill. In the Senate, lawmakers buoyed by California's energy crunch introduced bills to boost nuclear power production, extend the life of existing nuclear reactors and provide incentives for building new plants.

Worse yet, President Bush appointed Spencer Abraham, who had been a cosponsor of the temporary waste repository in the Senate, to be the new Energy secretary. Drafts of the president's energy bill were said to call not only for renewed nuclear power production but for finalizing the decision at Yucca Mountain. After spending more than 20 years and $6.7 billion to build a case that nuclear waste could be safely laid to rest for 10,000 years in tunnels inside Yucca Mountain, the Energy Department was expected to make a recommendation on the site this summer.

Even Bruce Babbitt jumped on the bandwagon. "I believe Yucca Mountain is an appropriate and safe site," the former Interior secretary told a conference organized by Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's political arm. "There's not much left to quarrel about out there."

The nuclear juggernaut seemed unstoppable. The Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, a state watchdog committee, warned the governor and state Legislature that an affirmative recommendation was "overwhelmingly likely." The state would have to contend with "a single-minded, coercive federal effort to turn Yucca Mountain into a radioactive waste disposal site at any cost and by any means," the commission said, noting that "science has given way to raw politics." It asked the governor and the Legislature to fund last-stand legal maneuvers following the inevitable decision.

Harry Reid gamely stuck to his guns. "I am opposed to Yucca Mountain," he said at a hearing in mid-May. "Always have been. Always will be." But even though he was the second most powerful Democrat in Washington, all he could really do was argue over the budget for the project. "I worry that we are giving you too much," Reid told the Energy Department.

But what a difference a day can make.

That day was May 24, when Jim Jeffords, the Republican senator from Vermont, became an Independent. Now Democrats have gained control of the Senate, and Reid is no longer just the minority whip, in a good position to harass Republican legislation. He is the majority whip, able to stop any legislation from moving through the Senate.

Some credit Reid with persuading Jeffords to leave the GOP; in June, Reid gave Jeffords his seat as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That gesture was certainly appreciated by Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat and new Senate majority leader. When reporters asked Daschle about Yucca Mountain on a recent visit to Las Vegas, he said: "As long as we're in the majority, it's dead." The Senate shift "will allow us to put Nevada's agenda on the national agenda," Daschle said.

His statement, which in Nevada was celebrated as proof of Reid's new power and political savvy, garnered headlines around the country.

But Reid and Nevada face a much tougher battle than Daschle's off-the-cuff comment suggests. The fate of Yucca Mountain is still in Bush's hands; the Energy secretary can still recommend the site and Bush can approve it. The recommendation is now expected by late this year, although it could be delayed because of the new balance of power in Washington.

If the Bush administration forges ahead, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has already vowed to file a notice of disapproval with the federal government. But that will send the decision to Congress, where a simple majority of both the House and the Senate can override the state. And even Reid concedes it "would be very hard" to win an up or down vote on Yucca Mountain right now.

Is the latest power shift in Washington merely a temporary reprieve from an inevitable future? Or will it give the rest of the country the time to rethink a nuclear-waste strategy that has stumbled along for more than two decades despite mounting evidence of serious flaws?

"I'm a pessimist about most everything," says Reid, "so I'm staying pessimistic." But, he adds, Nevada's prospects for stopping the Yucca Mountain waste site look "a lot better than before."

No other option

There is no sign at the junction of U.S. Highway 95 and State Route 373 pointing the way toward "The Future Home of America's Nuclear Legacy," though there might have been a quarter of a century ago. Then, Nevada was thrilled to find itself at the center of the atomic age, and people like Harry Reid, who grew up in southern Nevada, excitedly watched for the flash of light in the sky and then counted the seconds until sound waves from the blast of nuclear weapons tests rolled over them.

It's difficult to pick out Yucca Mountain from the jumble of broken ridges that line the northern horizon from the crossroads at Lathrop Wells in Amargosa Valley. Shimmering in dusty heat waves, the barren ridge looks like a low-lying wave rising from the Nevada Test Site and breaking to the west. But it's not going anywhere. The 1,200-foot mountain is made of layers and layers of ash and chunky cinders deposited millions of years ago when a giant volcano erupted just 20 miles to the north.

At first glance, this looks like a perfectly reasonable place to bury nuclear waste. And that partly explains why the Energy Department has often prominently displayed photographs of the place on its reports. There is little love lost on Yucca Mountain.

From the 1950s to the early 1990s, hundreds of nuclear weapons were exploded over and under the basins and mesas just to the east of Yucca Mountain (see story page 12). Each of the underground explosions created a glassy cavern of fused rock and radioactive elements. When the federal government was searching for a place to stash the nation's high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel in the 1970s, the test site was high on the list, and the state welcomed the proposal with open arms.

The government had promised utilities that it would take responsibility for the waste generated by their nuclear reactors because the plutonium in that waste could be used to make bombs. All kinds of options were considered, from blasting the waste into space to burying it in deep ocean trenches, but a permanent geological repository seemed to be the best solution. Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, directing the Department of Energy to study sites for two repositories, one in the East and one in the West. In 1983, the department selected nine places in six Western states as potential sites for a first repository, and sites in 17 Eastern states for the second.

But in 1979, a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island had raised public fears about the dangers of fallout, galvanizing a grassroots anti-nuclear movement. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, even Nevada was having second thoughts about taking the waste. Instead of competing over a federal pork-barrel project, the states were competing to prove that they weren't the best site for it. In 1987, Congress put an end to that, and directed the DOE to consider only one place: Yucca Mountain.

The nuclear waste that could be destined for Yucca Mountain originates in 39 states, at 104 operating commercial nuclear reactors, 14 shut-down reactors, 10 nuclear weapons plants run by the Department of Energy, and 47 small research reactors mostly run by universities and hospitals. A map produced by the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office depicts the volume of waste headed for Yucca Mountain as a river that gathers force as it heads west. The headwaters of the stream come together in New England and along the Atlantic Seaboard, joining into mighty rivers in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. By that time they have taken in spent fuel from most of the nuclear reactors in America.

But instead of flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, like real rivers, these head straight west, joined by smaller tributaries across the Plains and into Colorado and Utah, where another waste tributary comes in from the Northwest. This great river of waste then turns down Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City toward Las Vegas and Yucca Mountain. In reality, the waste would not flow like a river; it would cross the country on highways and railroads in canisters on the backs of thousands of trucks and railroad cars.

Over the past 20 years, the Energy Department has produced dozens of engineering and science reports and environmental documents to support its decision to bring this waste to Yucca Mountain. With a budget of around $1 million a day, the Yucca Mountain Project has paid a virtual army of scientists to analyze the data produced by a massive drilling and tunneling and experimental program. Yucca Mountain may be the most intensively studied piece of real estate on Earth.

The agency maintains it hasn't made a decision yet. But no one questions that it has been building its case and figuring out how to get around any problems at Yucca Mountain - because it has no alternative.

In the beginning, federal officials operated under the assumption that unsuitable characteristics at a proposed site would oblige them to look somewhere else. But that has changed, says Steve Frishman, a geologist and technical adviser to the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office. The complex computer models now being used by the DOE won't even recognize such "showstoppers."

"They've had to rely on changing the rules because they couldn't live with them," he says.

Frishman, with a handful of state-paid staff and other consultants, pores over the studies and documents produced by the Yucca Mountain Project. He says DOE scientists have, in fact, found a showstopper: Waste from Yucca Mountain will not stay put. "It's not a question of will the waste be contained, but how fast will it leak out," he says.

Even though this is a desert, and Yucca Mountain looks bone-dry, water constantly seeps down through the mountain's layers of compressed volcanic ash to a desert aquifer 1,600 to 2,600 feet below. That aquifer flows southwest toward the Amargosa Valley, where dairy farmers produce organic milk for markets throughout the West, and on to Death Valley, the lowest point in the country.

Nobody is certain how long it would take water percolating through Yucca Mountain to reach Amargosa Valley, but estimates range from 300 to 600 years. That's pretty quick when you consider the 10,000-year timeline mandated by Congress for the life of the repository.

But the Energy Department's computer model shows no contamination reaching any populated areas for 10,000 years, with the peak exposure coming some 310,000 years from now. Even then, the radiation dose to a person living near the site would increase by about 120 millirems a year, added to the current background level of radiation in this part of the country, which is around 340-390 millirems a year, according to the DOE. The Yucca Mountain project's predictions are based on a computer model called a Monte Carlo simulation. If that evokes eerie echoes of the gambling down on the Strip, 100 miles to the south, never mind; it's called that because the computer randomly picks from combinations of possible conditions (such as how fast water might flow through Yucca Mountain) to predict probable performance of the repository. In this case, "performance" is defined as the radiation dose to people living in Amargosa Valley who grow and eat their own food (see story next page).

But the reason the computer model concludes Yucca Mountain won't leak radiation for more than 10,000 years is that 10,000 years is the approximate lifespan of the waste canisters. Made of a new corrosion-resistant metal called Alloy 22, the canisters are supposed to endure at least 12,000 years. When they begin to fail, the mountain will leak, the DOE concedes. But by that time the radiation will have diminished and much of it will be absorbed by the rock and diluted by the water that runs through Yucca Mountain.

Citizens, arise

Few Nevadans knew to ask, let alone be concerned about, such questions 25 years ago. When the state Legislature invited the government to bring nuclear waste to the Nevada Test Site, where atomic bombs were regularly being exploded, "People didn't realize how dangerous this stuff was," says Harry Reid.

Reid wasn't in the state Legislature then, but his colleague, former Sen. Richard Bryan, who voted with the majority, was: "We were all pretty naive at the time." The project was seen as being good "for the economy and good for jobs," Bryan says.

But the Legislature's attitude provoked a grassroots movement called Citizen Alert, which challenged the state to live by a new motto: Nevada is Not a Wasteland. In the beginning, Susan Orr and Katherine Hale, the two women who started Citizen Alert, had a hard time drumming up concern, though they crisscrossed the state, holding meetings about nuclear waste.

Then the federal government proposed to expand the MX missile system to the Great Basin. Nuclear weapons were to be hidden in tunnels in the mountains and run around on railroads in the valleys of Nevada and Utah as a kind of sprawling shell game to fool the Soviet Union. Opposition was intense and widespread. A coalition that included ranchers, miners, Indians, environmentalists, and eventually the Mormon church, formed. People still speak feelingly about it nearly 20 years later.

Bob Fulkerson, a former director of Citizen Alert, says the fight over the MX gave Nevada gumption. "It showed we weren't just this colony that has to sit down and take everything the military wants to throw at us," he says. "We can rise up and win."

As the DOE and Congress focused more and more closely on Yucca Mountain, Nevadans grew steadily more opposed. In 1983, the state government formed a watchdog Agency for Nuclear Projects. In 1989, two years after Congress told the Energy Department to focus exclusively on Yucca Mountain, the Nevada state Legislature passed a law outlawing the importation of high-level radioactive waste to the state.

"There was a time when politicians were on the fence about Yucca Mountain," says Abby Johnson, who came up with the slogan "Nevada is Not a Wasteland" in the early 1980s, when she was director of Citizen Alert. "Now all politicians, at least publicly, oppose Yucca Mountain. That's a big change."

Nevada demonstrated solidarity again in the most recent legislative session, which ended in June. A bill was introduced that would have designated alternative routes for nuclear waste, so that the trucks wouldn't be routed through Las Vegas, if Yucca Mountain is approved. It was immediately denounced by both Democrats and Republicans as sending the wrong message and promptly quashed. Meanwhile, the state Legislature voted to create a $4 million fund to sue the Department of Energy at every step it takes.

The state is already in court challenging the federal government's appropriation of water for the project. And legal challenges are being mapped out for the future: from the Energy secretary's recommendation for the future of Yucca Mountain, through licensing of the repository by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all the way to the permits for the first shipments of nuclear waste.

Last stand

Steve Frishman, for one, is itching for that fight. Although the state has been dogging the Yucca Mountain project for decades, it has yet to have a formal opportunity to challenge the project in a neutral court. Clark County, home of Las Vegas, will contribute another $1 million to the campaign. Stephen Cloobeck, a resort executive in Las Vegas, has vowed to raise another $10 million from his colleagues on the Strip to fund an advertising and public relations campaign. The goal is to raise concerns about hauling nuclear waste through the hundreds of communities along the transportation routes to Yucca Mountain.

Where Las Vegas once used the atomic bomb as a tourist attraction, the chamber of commerce now has an official position against Yucca Mountain, saying that "one accident, no matter how minor, could create hysteria."

"Our reputation is at stake," Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman told a meeting of the state commission on nuclear projects this spring. Goodman said that when he looks out his tenth-floor office window at the busy confluence of I-15 and Highway 95 in downtown Las Vegas and sees an accident, "I think, 'God forbid it should be carrying nuclear waste.' "

Goodman is girding for a last stand to keep the waste from coming to Yucca Mountain. But even with Reid in a position of unprecedented power in Washington, Goodman is not optimistic. "The deck has been stacked against us," he says.

Reid concedes that he doesn't have the votes to stop Yucca Mountain right now. To get a 51-vote majority, he would need not only all of the votes he got last year against the temporary repository (an uncertain prospect since many of those senators come from states that have radioactive waste). He would also need the nine new Democratic senators elected in 2000, all but one from states that have nuclear waste. Most important, he would need 11 Democratic senators who previously voted for sending their waste to Nevada, in defiance of party leaders. That doesn't seem likely.

The Bush administration is already turning up the heat. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham bluntly told CNN's Moneyline in May: "If we can't provide a repository for the waste, then it is very unlikely we would see new plants built." More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney publicly chastised Sen. Daschle for prematurely ruling out Yucca Mountain. And on June 20, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., announced that he is ready to support Yucca Mountain if the DOE finds the site safe.

But Reid is hoping that concerns about shipping nuclear waste across the country will persuade other senators to consider leaving the waste where it is - in dry cask storage that is safe for 100 years or more - while other options are studied. And Reid now has the ability to make his fellow senators think twice. While declining to "tip his mitt," Reid says, "I have some plans to surprise and confuse the secretary of Energy, who I think, if he does recommend this, is wrong."

Even if the administration recommends Yucca Mountain, and the Congress approves, that "doesn't mean it's going to happen," Reid says. There will be more drawn-out battles ahead in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must license the repository, and in the courts.

"It's a bit like a roller-coaster ride," Abby Johnson says of the many twists and turns the Yucca Mountain saga has already taken. "You hang on for dear life."

Those twists and turns have already helped Nevada change its image of itself; it may never again be a willing wasteland. But derailing the nuclear train will take more than political finesse. Harry Reid and Nevada have an opportunity to force the rest of the country to reconsider a flawed radioactive waste disposal strategy. It's a long shot, but it's the best - and maybe the last - chance Nevada will get.

Jon Christensen writes from Carson City, Nevada.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • State of Nevada, Nuclear Waste Project Office, 775/687-3744, www.state.nv.us/nucwaste;
  • Department of Energy Yucca Mountain Project, 800/967-3477, www.ymp.gov;
  • Citizen Alert, 702/796-5622, www.igc.org/citizenalert.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Christensen