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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Sierra Magazine

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Lay of the Land

Salmon | WWatch | Ad Critique | Yucca Mountain | Coca in Columbia | Save Energy | Bold Strokes | Updates

Good Enough for Government

Playing fast and loose with nuclear waste

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

The Bush administration hears what it wants to hear, even when the issue is one of the most serious facing the country today: radioactive nuclear waste.

In 1987, Congress created the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and told it to evaluate the Department of Energy’s research on Yucca Mountain, a proposed nuclear-waste repository in Nevada. For 15 years, the independent board scrutinized the department’s scientific and technical data, and on January 24, 2002, it sent its findings in a letter to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham. The board was highly critical of the DOE’s estimates of how well Yucca Mountain would perform in isolating and containing radioactive waste.

"When the DOE’s technical and scientific work is taken as a whole, the Board’s view is that the technical basis for the DOE’s repository performance estimates is weak to moderate at this time," the letter stated. "Consequently, although at this point no individual technical or scientific factors have been identified that would automatically disqualify the Yucca Mountain site, the Board has limited confidence in current performance estimates generated by [the DOE]."

Later that same day, a DOE press release stated: "The Department welcomes the Board’s statement that ‘no individual technical or scientific factor has been identified that would automatically eliminate Yucca Mountain from consideration.’"

Three weeks later, Abraham sent a letter to President Bush recommending the Yucca Mountain site. "I have considered whether sound science supports the determination that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically and technically suitable for the development of a repository," he said. "I am convinced that it does."

Though the dangers of plutonium persist for thousands of years, it took the White House less than a day to react. "The president’s decision to recommend Yucca Mountain is based on sound science," Bush’s press secretary announced. "It follows decades of scientific study and a determination by the secretary of energy that the site can be safely used to store these materials."

In April, Nevada governor Kenny Guinn exercised his right to veto President Bush’s endorsement of Yucca Mountain as the place to bury 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. Congress is now deciding whether to override that veto.

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