Put It In Crawford, Texas


Nevadans are already familiar with seeing things put in the middle of their desert that have no business being there. Las Vegas, for instance.

But some ecological (and aesthetic) nightmares are worse than others. Thus, local opposition is virtually unanimous, in a Republican-dominated state, to the bill signed by President Bush this week that authorizes creation of a central repository for much of the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Obviously, having much of the country's -- and potentially the world's -- nuclear waste in your backyard is going to generate some local concern no matter where such a facility would go. But opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan have far more on their side than simple NIMBYism and the usual challenge of convincing outsiders that desert land is not, by definition, "wasteland." (If anything, the Nevadan desert's fragility, as well as beauty, is an argument for putting such toxic material in a place where the local ecosystem could more easily absorb the impact of a lesser catastrophe. Crawford, Texas comes to mind.)

Yucca Mountain itself sits atop an active earthquake fault; if the goal is to find a place whose geologic stability prevents humankind's most toxic wastes from ever escaping, Yucca Mountain isn't the worst possible choice, but it's well below average. And while the adjacent Nevada Test Site is already heavily contaminated from nearly a half-century of above- and below-ground tests of America's nuclear arsenal, there's one major presence downwind that wasn't there when the Test Site was created: a major American city. In the 1950 census, Las Vegas registered only 24,624 people; in 2000, greater Clark County rang in with 1,375,675 residents -- plus tens of millions of annual visitors. Las Vegas continues to be the fastest-growing city in the U.S., if not anywhere in the developed world. The majority of the United States' nuclear waste is now slated to sit 65 miles upwind, a decision that seems clinically insane.

Ultimately, however, the decision to have any central repository for nuclear waste at all is the biggest problem. At first glance, it seems sensible: why not confine the risk to one place, where the best safeguards humans know how to construct can be built, rather than the current situation of hundreds of "temporary," ill-suited, and overflowing locales? The problem is twofold: first, "the best safeguards humans know how to construct" still aren't very good. They certainly aren't good enough to outlast the waste itself; it's fairly likely, in fact, that the human race itself won't outlast this stuff. Second, moving any waste from its current home -- an assortment of weapons plants, nuclear power facilities, and low-grade industrial settings -- is something we're even less good at than storage. The possibility of a nuclear leak, accident, theft, or terrorist attack while transporting hazardous nuclear material is far greater than if it sits where it is, and the map of where such materials would need to travel to get them all to Yucca Mountain looks a lot like the nation's interstate highway map -- in other words, it passes through or around almost every major population center we have.

But the primary motivation for creating a central nuclear waste dump isn't safety -- it's money, and money explains why Dubya has been positively eager to buck his fellow Nevadan Republicans by authorizing Yucca Mountain. The nuclear industry is desperate to get Yucca Mountain, or something like it, approved and in place. For the first time in 30 years, it has an administratiom aggressively committed to nuclear power as a centerpiece of future domestic energy policy. The biggest obstacle to making that happen is the public's fear that nuclear production isn't safe.

It isn't. Many problems remain with nuclear production, and the biggest remains as far from a good solution as it was when early proponents said "we'll solve that later" a half-century ago: what to do with the waste. We still have no way to safely dispose of it, we still keep creating more, and we have no idea what to do with it all. The only way -- the only way -- to not have more of a problem tomorrow than we have today is to simply stop making more nuclear waste, which means to stop all nuclear production -- power plants, weapons production, industrial applications, every bit of it. Shut it all down -- or we'll just create more waste we have no way of safely disposing. There is, for the imaginable future, no third option.

Authorizing Yucca Mountain is the attempt by Bush, and the nuclear industry, to convince the public that we've got the nuclear waste thing figured out -- that our worries of the past are now dealt with, and that we can move on to fulfilling those promises of plentiful, cheap, safe energy that nuclear advocates made 50 years ago.

It's a fantasy, now as then. And the Nevadan desert has already seen more than enough of humans and their fantasies.

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