Vision: Watching the Nuclear Disaster in Japan from Nevada's Nuke-Free, Earthquake-Prone Yucca Mountain

Editor's note: The following is a vital story by an activist who helped lead one of the most important successful environmental campaigns in recent history -- the effort to stop the plan to make Yucca Mountain into the US nuclear waste repository. Peggy Maze Johnson reflects on the campaign in light of the disaster in Japan.

1975: I was living in Seattle and was named to a committee to choose a contractor/consultant to look at Seattle’s energy needs for the next 15 years. After selecting a consultant, the City Council asked if we would like to continue to oversee the work of the consultant. We did and added several more citizens to our committee. The reason for the study? Seattle was being pushed to join the Public Utility Districts in completing and financing additional nuclear plants in Eastern Washington. The new generation (no pun intended) of plants was to be named WPPSS for Washington Public Power Supply System. There was a lot of pressure because Seattle’s population brought the majority of the monies to complete this project. The committee broke down and we all studied different facets of the study. At the end, in February of 1976, the report titled “Energy 1990” was finished and presented to the City Council and the Mayor. We said NO! Our finding indicated that if Seattle instituted an aggressive conservation program there would be no need for WPPSS 3 and 4. What a concept! Whoops!

2002: I was hired as Executive Director of Citizen Alert, an environmental justice organization, started in 1975 (a coincidence? I think not) to fight the proposal being talked about in Washington, DC, to transport nuclear waste from nuclear reactors, situated mainly on the East Coast, and bring it to Nevada. The specific site was not named and we were one of a handful of states under consideration, but from the beginning there was no doubt that Nevada would be the one, We had a delegation of 3 and we had no power (again, no pun intended)! And, we had so much land owned by the Federal Government. So, here I am back to the world of all things nuclear.

2004: Finally, I am allowed to tour Yucca Mountain, the proposed final resting place for nuclear waste known to Nevadans as the “the dump”. Deep in the bowels of this desecration of Native American holy grounds, I noticed water seeping in through cracks in the composition of the “mountain”. The studies we had seen from noted scientists said that this site was totally unsuited for the nation’s waste. It sat over a huge aquifer, and there was a fault line nearby and the danger of earthquakes. I asked the scientist employed by our Department of Energy what could happen if there was a huge earthquake. “Not to worry,” said the scientist, “Yucca Mountain has been engineered to withstand a 6.5 earthquake”! As a native San Franciscan I had to ask what would happen if there was a 7.5 or even and 8.5 quake. “That won’t happen”, said he.

2011: In a land far, far away, there was a horrific earthquake, and I remembered those words of that scientist when we were told that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan had been engineered to withstand a 6.2 earthquake. I had to wonder if someone touring the facility when it was being built was worried about the possibility of a larger earthquake, like maybe a 9.0 and was told, Don’t worry, that won’t happen”!

I do understand that the tsunami, hitting shortly after the earthquake did cause huge damage. I do understand that in San Francisco in 1906 it was the fires that caused huge damage. But these historic events began with an earthquake.

I was dismayed that our President chose the day that Fukushima was exploding to tell us that nuclear power will be a part of our energy future. Why did he choose that day? And, why does he think it should be a part of our energy future, sounding like it is some kind of renewable energy solution?  

Nevada has been experiencing earthquakes the past few weeks. Am I worried? You bet I am. Some scientists are saying that climate change is causing the unpredictability in our weather phenomenon, like stronger than expected earthquakes that hit Fukushima, in Japan. So, in engineering Yucca Mountain did they put climate change into the equation? I think not! So, Don’t worry, that won’t happen, gives me little comfort.

The Answer?  Is not Yucca Mountain. There is now a growing concern that we need to get the waste out of the cooling pools and re-start the Yucca Mountain conversation, the conversation that has been stopped by our Senator, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. There are still the same scientific concerns and issues that made Yucca Mountain unsuitable since it was conceived. There is still the transportation of waste across 46 States, endangering millions of people. 

I believe that the answer is to safely store the waste on-site or close to the reactors. But, the ultimate answer? Don’t build any more nuclear power plants. In 1975, in Seattle, we took a chance and we instituted an aggressive conservation policy. In 1990, revisiting the study, showed that we had not even hit the levels that we predicted we would in that year. I believe that this Congress will try to get more subsidies for building these plants. We, as citizens must fight to stop them. Nuclear is not clean (the radiation levels for those living nearby is dangerous and it leaves waste that can hurt us for more than a million years), it is not safe (just say Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushima) and it is certainly not affordable (if we reduced the subsidies for nuclear power the cost to us, the consumers, would be prohibitive). 

Help me send a message to our President and to our Representatives and Senators, that we cannot afford nuclear power. Stop building those damnable plants, phase out the ones we have that are a danger to the citizens close by, especially Indian Point in New York and the plants in California and in Braidwood, Illinois and let’s get renewable energy fast tracked. We deserve it! And, as our elected officials they owe it to us! 


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