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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
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Gambling with Tomorrow

by William Poole

from Sierra, November/December 1992

Can lethal waste buried today remain isolated for 10,000 years? Political expediency is forcing the people of Nevada to play the highest-stakes game of all.

By Nevada measure, Yucca Mountain is scarcely a mountain at all. One hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, scattered with creosote and ankle-high scrub, its undistinguished ridge trends north to south about 1,000 feet above the bordering valleys. Views are open and spare: to the east the Nevada Test Site, to the west abrupt Solitario Canyon, and to the southwest Crater Flat, a broad expanse of desert punctured by the dark, inverted funnels of several small volcanoes.

But during the last decade Yucca Mountain has become the most studied—and disputed—landform in the history of the Silver State. That record may have formerly been held by Mt. Davidson, from which, beginning in 1859, the state's founders removed $400 million in silver and gold. At Yucca Mountain, however, it is not a withdrawal that is being contemplated, but a deposit: 70,000 metric tons of the nation's highest-level nuclear waste. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hopes that before long the "characterization," or formal study, of Yucca Mountain's suitability as a nuclear-waste repository will be fully under way. If all winds favor the DOE, the dump is expected to open by the year 2010. But that's a big "if." Local hostility to the project has been building since 1987, when Congress elected Nevada odd-state-out after a dithering, decades-long search for a politically acceptable site. The Nevada legislature has passed one law and two resolutions against the dump, and the state has attempted to slow the study through lawsuits and by denying key environmental permits—efforts eventually thwarted by the federal government.

Under the law that sentenced Nevada, the state was given money—$45 million so far—to monitor the Yucca Mountain study. Officials have put some of the funds to work to inflame the public revolt, greatly peeving the nuclear-power industry, which is paying the bill for the states vigilance, as well as for the characterization. The last thing the industry wants is a protracted dispute: more than 20,000 metric tons of irradiated fuel assemblies sit in cooling ponds and aboveground storage at U.S. nuclear reactors, and seven states have banned new nuclear facilities until waste disposal can be secured.

With no other sites under consideration, Nevada's biggest fear is that the dump will be licensed regardless of any drawbacks the ten-year, $6 billion investigation might uncover. "The industry is providing pressure across the board," says Bob Loux, director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. "There's just too much political and economic incentive for the DOE to approve this site no matter what the actual conditions might be." While the state does have veto power should Yucca Mountain be sanctioned, Congress can override that veto—a move that few Nevada residents doubt would occur.

Forty driving miles from Yucca Mountain, Beatty, Nevada, is the nearest town to the potential dumpsite with anything approaching a residential identity. (A few years back, after a big gold mine opened down the road, the population doubled to 1,800.) It is the kind of vest-pocket desert community where retired couples from Michigan park their RVs for the night, or for the winter. Beatty, which bills itself as The Gateway to Death Valley, is on average one of the drier hamlets on the continent, but I visited on a soggy, blowing, cloud-covered day.

I stopped at the DOE's local public-information office, where I pocketed a couple of free Yucca Mountain Project keyrings and some imprinted pens ("I'm Smart About Nuclear Energy"). I also picked up ten pounds of official DOE newsletters, briefing papers, backgrounders, flow charts, and overview documents, and surveyed the 6,300-page Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Plan.

Beyond the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino, beyond the Burro Inn and Casino, beyond the Exchange Club Casino, I stopped at a Chevron station, one of the very few Beatty businesses without a slot machine. The man who pumped my gas was contemptuous when I asked about Yucca Mountain. Didn't I understand that the dump would border the Nevada Test Site, where scientists have been exploding atomic bombs for four decades "Just 18 miles over that hill, you stick your head in the ground, youre dead in ten seconds. What difference does it make Its already 53-million-years polluted."

However hyperbolic, this mix of resignation and macho recklessness did not surprise me. Around Beatty and Amargosa Valley, a one-saloon settlement down the road ("Home of Yucca Mountain, Champagne Air, and Million-Dollar Sunsets"), there is some sentiment toward accepting the dump and mining the brief prosperity it might provide. But most Nevadans—75 percent at last count—are repulsed by the idea. A more characteristic response was the one I got from a secretary in the governor's press office when I called to set up an interview. "Can I tell him what this is about she asked. And then, on hearing my answer: Yucca Mountain Oh, yuck!"

Governor Bob Miller is one of several Nevada politicians whove been washed into high office by a rising river of anti-dump populism. He is a lean, high-rise Democrat who wears cowboy boots to work and occasionally plays celebrity basketball. "There's a national misconception that this entire state is a wasteland and good for nothing but dumping," he told me in his quarter-acre office in the silver-domed statehouse. To date Miller has enjoyed plenty of peer support for this position: Not one statewide politician has come out for the project. Who would dare with so many voters against it?

Last fall, in an attempt to blunt the opposition, the American Nuclear Energy Council (ANEC), an industry trade association, launched the Nevada Initiative, a $9-million campaign to convince Nevadans that the dump would prove an innocuous neighbor. Early TV spots lectured on radiation science: In one, a pitchman displayed a simulated fuel pellet to the camera and explained that nuclear fuel was a solid, not a liquid, and so "could not leak." In another, nuclear-waste transportation casks on speeding trucks and trains survived seemingly devastating crashes.

But the ads, if styled to be reassuring, were widely greeted with ridicule—especially after the industry's campaign plan was leaked to the media. Bristling with militaristic jargon, the initiative proposed establishing a "political beachhead" and providing air cover for politicians who wished to switch to a pro-repository position. It told of industry PR flacks training DOE researchers to act as a "scientific truth response team" to refute opposition criticism.

To Nevadans, who like to suppose themselves sophisticated about matters of chance, perhaps the biggest insult in the industry scheme was the implication that they could be suckered. The initiative spoke of creating a "sense of inevitability" about Yucca Mountain, which to many Nevadans meant that the industry intended to talk them into the dump whether they liked it or not.

John Ralston, a political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the state's largest newspaper, calls the release of the Nevada Initiative memo "the most devastating thing to happen to ANEC since they came to the state. No longer could they claim to be benevolent truth-disseminators. Their campaign was revealed to be a calculated plan to make people think that the dump is coming in order to speed the process along."

Soon ANEC's commercials were being broadly lampooned by Ken Johnson and Kim Tofte, disk jockeys on Las Vegas radio station KKLZ. Every new pro-dump ad provoked a Johnson and Tofte satire. In one send-up an industry spokesman explained that "nuclear waste couldnt possibly hurt you, even if you sprinkled it on your cereal. (I like their ads better than ours, industry executive Rodney Smith said at a recent nuclear-power conference. In terms of public opinion, I think they touch the right political buttons.")

In a series of TV ads for a local auto dealership, Johnson and Tofte dressed as a two-headed Yucca Mountain miner in a single voluminous pair of overalls. In this guise they urged viewers to "double your automotive value" at Fletcher Jones Mazda/Mitsubishi. Of the miners two heads (the deformity, they noted, was due to Yucca Mountain water), one preferred Mazdas and the other Mitsubishis. Worth noting is that the auto dealership is owned by the family of Jan Laverty Jones, the mayor of Las Vegas.

Whatever the real danger from a nuclear dump, Mayor Jones told me in her glass-walled office ten stories above the carnival neon of the downtown casino district, even the perception of risk might divert Las Vegas' much-courted tourists to less worrisome locales. "All it would take," she says, "is one incident."

Las Vegas (population 799,000) is among the fastest-growing cities in the country, with a rapidly diversifying economy. Even the resort business is adding wholesome, Disneyesque entertainments to its rolling dice and shimmying dancers. But Jones believes that most Americans, especially easterners, do not understand that Vegas is neither Sodom nor Gomorrah. "There's a perception that we deserve this nuclear waste dump," she says. "They think if you're going to put it next to a city, you might as well put it next to a city like Las Vegas, where everybody lives in casinos and nobody goes to school."

The Yucca Mountain Project Office occupies an airy storefront across the street from one of Las Vegas' trendier malls. A couple of workspaces are tucked into the back with a conference room and a small library, but the bulk of the office is dedicated to snazzy public persuasion. Centrally displayed are three nearly life-size cardboard cutouts of happy workers with hard-hats or clipboards, along with a label bragging of the employment created by Yucca Mountain—"an important resource for Nevada." Other exhibits include a scale-model waste repository, an interactive nuke-knowledge computer quiz, a facsimile nuclear-fuel assembly (columnar complexes of slender metal tubes containing uranium-oxide pellets), technicolor charts and maps, and a full-size mock-up of a subterranean repository chamber, complete with recorded narration and an in-one-side-and-out-the-other elevator that traps the visitor momentarily and shakes and rumbles in imitation of descent.

I depart from this office-cum-museum-cum-amusement park one overcast morning to Yucca Mountain in a DOE van accompanied by no fewer than three officials. I have been assigned a press escort, of course—a reserved, broad-shouldered man named Darwin Morgan—as well as Tom Bjerstedt, a Ph.D. geologist wearing a blue Yucca Mountain baseball cap, and an enthusiastic young environmental scientist named Greg Fasano, who carries a sheaf of notes on things I need to know.

We slice north across creosote-brush flats, up the four-lane highway that shrinks to two lanes precisely at Mercury, entry village and de facto capital of the Nevada Test Site. From here on the roads we will take do not appear on over-the-counter maps.

Some miles beyond the test site's guarded entry gate, past Skull Mountain and across scrub-scabbed Jackass Flat, we arrive at a cluster of buildings, the largest of which looks like the headquarters of a small computer firm or other suburban business. In these formerly abandoned buildings, where in the 1960s and '70s government scientists tinkered with nuclear-powered rockets, the DOE is assembling its on-site Yucca Mountain team. The mountain itself lies several miles beyond, and comes at us like a wall until the road finds a climable grade and we ascend to the summit. To the north, the landscape gradually accumulates into higher country. Here, between 8 and 16 million years ago, magma rising through Earth's crust exploded into hot glass shards and crystals. Some of this outflow migrated south and was compressed into a type of rock known as "welded tuff." From atop the Yucca Crest, the formation of tuff into which the DOE hopes to quarry its dump lies 1,000 feet down --more beneath the mountain than within it.

We zip our jackets against the breeze and watch laggard clouds smother the higher hills. Tom Bjerstedt has brought along an aerial photo, and he holds it up now for a lecture, doubling the surrounding landscape against his knees. It is Bjerstedt's job to convince me that the violence evident around us—the cinder cones on Crater Flat, the fault that formed Solitario Canyon, the black volcanic Swiss-cheese rock beneath our feet—is but distant and untroublesome history. The state has demanded that the Yucca Mountain site be disqualified because of its volcanic and unstable heritage. Last June an earthquake registering 5.6 on the Richter scale caused a reported $1 million damage to the DOE field operations buildings. Could not tension gradually accumulate along any of the areas 32 earthquake faults, leading to some disastrous future slip?

According to Bjerstedt, these worries betray a misunderstanding of geologic history and process. Most of the earthquake faults haven't moved in hundreds of thousands of years, he says, and even though a nearby volcanic cone may be only 20,000 years old, a new eruption probably wouldn't disturb the waste vault. All the volcanoes are out in the valleys, he notes, "not on the mountaintops."

Even a solid shaking wouldnt hurt anything, Bjerstedt insists, since the rock around the repository would probably remain intact. Surface buildings, where waste would be prepared for burial, would be built to withstand the largest earthquake that might be expected. He is full of reassurances. "We have to educate people in geology," he says. "We have to help them understand geologic processes and the enormity of geologic time."

According to DOE guidelines, the radioactivity would have to be isolated from the environment for 10,000 years—about twice the length of recorded human history. The waste-fuel assemblies would be locked into metal canisters and deposited in the rock, one canister per hole, like the larvae of some outsize high-tech insect. The canisters might last 500 or 1,000 years —the numbers are only guesses. It is the rock itself, 1,100 feet thick, that would be expected to contain the demon's brew: strontium 90, cesium 137, and, far less abundantly, plutonium, which remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

The most likely way for radioactive poisons to escape to the environment would be through water. One of the reasons Yucca Mountain attracted DOE investigators as far back as the late 1970s was the extraordinary depth of the water table—about 1,000 feet below the potential repository. Subsequent soil measurements have shown that little of the region's six inches of annual rain percolates to dump level.

But climates change, critics point out. Who can guarantee that the desert will not be sprouting forests in 10,000 years To that question, and to most scientific objections, the DOE gives its standard reply: "We want to study that."

In fact, many of Yucca Mountain's 1,100 scientists and technicians are preoccupied with water, as I learn when we leave the mountain and I am taken to meet Lorraine Flint in the project's hydrology lab. Flint, a friendly soil physicist in her 30s, has been with the project for six years and is one of 200 scientists on site. She is the only one in this lab today. "Where's everyone else?" I ask her, surveying the deserted room. "It's been raining," she says. Everybody's out in the field.

Flint shows off meteorological charts and punches up bright graphs on her computers. Groundwater movement, historical weather cycles, and infiltration (how deep the water goes after how much rain) are all included in the hydrology research. Scientists are also studying how the waste's considerable heat will affect the hydrology and chemistry of the surrounding rock. Flint presents samples of tuff, fine-grained and a lovely red-dish brown where they have been polished smooth by the lab's rock-cutting saws.

In 1987, DOE geologist Jerry Szymanski launched what has become the project's most virulent scientific controversy—and not surprisingly, it also centered on water. Szymanski suggested that the dump might swamp from below if earthquakes compressed flooded fissures in underlying rock. Radioactivity might then flow southwest to springs in Death Valley National Monument. In the worst case, water might surge into the super-heated vault, flash into steam and decapitate the mountain in a Chernobyl-like disaster, a scenario Tom Bjerstedt calls "absurd."

Szymanski's theory is one of the most puzzled-over geologic scenarios of the last few years. In December 1991 a panel of five scientists delivered a split decision; two panelists chosen by Szymanski found for his theories, three others found against. Then, last April, a 17-member panel selected by the National Research Council unanimously dismissed Szymanskis concerns in a 240-page report.

But no amount of reassurance on specific scientific questions relieves the state's larger suspicion that the research at Yucca Mountain is fixed, that the projects characterization plan has been designed not to study the site, but to confirm it. "They selectively interpret the data and they construct the program so that the data they collect prove their point," says Bob Loux. "If the state would recommend what tests they'd like us to do, wed probably do them," responds Carl Gertz, "the DOE's Yucca Mountain project manager. If at any time we find conditions that would make the site unsafe, we're out of here."

The DOE's credibility, however, is subverted by its four-decade history of obfuscation over clandestine pollution at the nation's nuclear labs and weapons factories. And because the DOE is also a nuclear cheerleader, promoting and developing new technologies, critics suspect that it is illicitly allied with the industry—a suspicion sharpened by the Nevada Initiative revelation that industry PR flacks were coaching Yucca Mountain scientists.

Public uneasiness with the DOE's record is one reason Congress built so much oversight into the Yucca Mountain study. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has to license the repository, regularly reviews the DOE's progress, as does the National Academy of Sciences and a Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board appointed by the president. "One of my biggest challenges," Gertz says, "is when people say, 'You messed up before. How can we trust you?' My answer is, Don't trust me. Trust the oversight."

Gertz admits there is no 100-percent guarantee when predicting events 10,000 years into the future. The enabling legislation, he notes, calls only for "reasonable assurance" by "scientific consensus" that radiation will not escape into the environment over ten millennia. "What's reasonable assurance to you may not be reasonable assurance to me," Gertz says. "And what exactly is scientific consensus? Is it 51-49? Is it 80-20? Is it 99-1?"

If the characterization proceeds, the meaning of reasonable and consensus may ultimately be up to NRC licensers, and may be tested further in court. Scientists at Yucca Mountain document every step of every experiment for future review. Every specimen must be logged as to origin and handling—this in the wake of an embarrassing lapse a few years back in which drill-core samples were so loosely documented as to be useless in certifying the work.

But if shifting forces eventually disrupt the Yucca Mountain project, they are more likely to be political than scientific. Tensions have been accumulating along the nation's nuclear-waste fault for more than 40 years.

It was not supposed to be this way. Nuclear technology was to have redeemed its horrific birth through peaceful electrical generation. Nuclear power "too cheap to meter" was to have spurred boundless development and human progress. In those optimistic early decades it was easy to ignore the paradox that nuclear fuel grows progressively more radioactive—even as its usable energy is consumed.

At one time or another scientists have proposed blasting radioactive waste into space, or burying it in Antarctic ice or the deep-sea floor. In the United States and most other nuclear nations, deep geologic burial evolved into the solution of choice for high-level radioactive waste. But while U.S. legislators approved the notion in principle, their usually dependable enthusiasm for federal projects decayed dramatically when the project in question was a nuclear dump—despite broad hints of benefits Congress might tender.

In 1982, after years of not-in-my-backyard political wrangling, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a delicately balanced compromise that almost immediately began to teeter. Under the act, multiple sites would be studied and two would be selected for characterization, one in the East and another in the West. Many eastern study sites were to be in granite formations, similar to those under scrutiny in some European countries. Unfortunately for Nevada, the distribution of granite in the United States parallels the distribution of people—and of political power.

When the eastern search was finally abandoned in 1986, Nevadans began to quip that you didn't have to be a nuclear physicist to predict what would happen next. One of the remaining sites, at Hanford, Washington, was all but on the banks of the Columbia River. The second, in Texas, was beneath the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's largest, and in the home state of both the then-vice-president and the speaker of the House of Representatives. Finally, in 1987 Congress passed what is known locally as the Screw Nevada Bill, terminating all investigations except the one at Yucca Mountain. Despite the site's manifest uncertainties—its history of geologic turbulence; its potential, as a world-class mineral district, for being quarried by unsuspecting future miners; its unlikely location, thousands of miles from 90 percent of the nation's 110 nuclear-power plants—Congress was persuaded by one simple fact: With fewer than a million people and but four legislative representatives, Nevada was the weakest kid on the block. "It was the shabbiest, sleaziest political maneuver Ive ever seen," says former governor Grant Sawyer, now chairman of the state's Commission of Nuclear Projects.

But five years later, the same polls that trace Nevadans' opposition to Yucca Mountain reveal a creeping sense of inevitability. "If they want to build it, they're going to build it," the man behind the desk in a Carson City motel told me. This wearing down of the popular resistance, according to the Nevada Initiative, is one of the nuclear industry's goals.

At the same time, the DOE is working to crash through Nevada's objections and propel the characterization forward. In that effort the agency has allies in Congress, which recently passed legislation that strips Nevada of its authority to oversee environmental permits. With Szymanski's theory discarded and the states objections overruled, the site study proceeds apace.

Though their legal challenges have been exhausted, the state of Nevada and many environmentalists are now calling for an extended time-out at Yucca Mountain. According to the General Accounting Office, the industry could store its wastes for at least another century in pools or above-ground casks at nuclear reactors. In that time, the industry might regain the trust of the people, laying the groundwork for a siting program based more on geology and less on political oomph. Waste-disposal technologies more predictable than deep geologic burial might be developed. One political step would be to strip the process from the DOE and establish a truly independent agency, as both the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and the National Research Council's Board of Radioactive Waste Management have suggested.

Fifty years into the nuclear age, no country has begun permanent geologic disposal of its high-level radioactive waste. Still, nuclear advocates have proposed doubling the number of U.S. nuclear plants over the next 40 years—a vision supported by Congress, which recently "streamlined" nuclear-power-plant licensing by removing opportunities for public review after a facility has been constructed. With 200 plants, the nation would need to site a Yucca Mountain-size dump every decade, would have to persuade a new populace that the repository is safe, that science had ruled in its selection, and that humans could reasonably predict nature tens of thousands of years into the future.

Southeast of Yucca Mountain now, as we dash back over Jackass Flat toward the guarded gate at Mercury, the DOEs Greg Fasano launches into a soliloquy on the intricate environmental safeguards built into this characterization program: air-quality monitoring stations and water-sampling wells and dust-suppression and animal-survey grids; Fasano shuffles through his list. We all understand, myself and my DOE minders, that he has been sent along specifically for this performance, and we listen quietly until he's done. Then there is silence again until Fasano asks me if I have reached any conclusions from my day. Do I understand how hard they're trying? Can I see that science does rule this process, whatever has gone on before? "What I seize on as a geologist," Tom Bjerstedt contributes, "is that however we got here, a lot of us believe this site is worth further study."

I sit with this for a while. Then I tell them that it may not matter—that the project's political foundation has been so corrupted, the public mood so hostile, that it may not be able to survive. Alternately, the momentum of the DOE and the nuclear industry may be too great for Nevadans to reverse. In either case, the decision will be informed as much by politics as by science.

"But were only doing what Congress asked us to do," Darwin Morgan shoots back, and I can hear in this the fraying edge of his public-relations composure.

"All I'm saying is that it may not matter," I reply. "The science may no longer matter at all."

William Poole is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Wasted in America

If and when the dump at Yucca Mountain opens, it will house spent fuel assemblies from civilian nuclear-power reactors. This high-level radioactive waste represents only one percent of the nation's waste by volume, but it accounts for 95 percent of that waste's radioactivity. Irradiated fuel is currently stored in cooling ponds adjacent to nuclear reactors; at some plants, it is later shifted to shielded dry casks on site.

As progress toward a permanent high-level repository falters, the Department of Energy (DOE) is pushing for one or more monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facilities—aboveground, temporary storage bunkers. Congress has authorized a special nuclear-waste negotiator to tempt states and Native American reservations into hosting such dumps; $100,000 grants are being offered simply to study the possibility, and "benefits" as high as $10 million have been mentioned. Many environmentalists oppose MRS facilities, fearing that they will inevitably become permanent. Somehow deceptively named, low-level radioactive waste is defined as neither high-level (e.g., from fuel rods), nor mill tailings from uranium mining, nor tansuranic waste (which contains radioactive elements with a higher atomic number than uranium) above a certain concentration. Nuclear-power plants are the major nondefense source of low-level waste, with smaller fractions coming from industrial and medical sources. Most low-level waste takes the form of contaminated clothing, tools, laboratory animals and the like. Under current law, individual states are responsible for the disposal of their own low-level waste, and are charged with establishing state or regional dumps. In many parts of the country, the siting of low-level dumps is proving as contentious as the struggle at Yucca Mountain.

But all levels of nuclear waste are generated by the defense industry and the DOE in the production of nuclear weapons. Some high-level defense waste may eventually end up at Yucca Mountain. The DOE hopes to start burying transuranic defense waste in underground salt caverns at its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. For years the DOE insisted that WIPP was an experimental facility and therefore exempt from environmental oversight. More recently, the project has been opposed by many New Mexicans concerned about the sites safety and about the transportation of waste over the state's roads.

To date the House Interior Committee has blocked the opening of WIPP by refusing to transfer the land from the Bureau of Land Management to the DOE until more rigid environmental safeguards are in place. In the meantime, defense waste is stored at DOE laboratories and bomb factories throughout the nation. —William Poole

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