Politics & Policy

Dead and Buried

The crazy debate over Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the April 8, 2002, issue of National Review.

The year, by the old A.D. reckoning, is 12,002. But Lothar has no way of knowing that, since Western civilization–and calendars–had gone the way of the dodo thousands of years before his grandfather was born. Lothar is the leader of a tribe looking to settle down and try their hand at agriculture. He has steered well clear of what used to be Las Vegas, because a fearsome people lives there–amidst the ruins of what all assume was a noble civilization, due to the fact that everyone seemed to eat out of one long communal buffet table. Lothar finds a spot in the shadow of a rust-colored low-slung mountain covered with lizards, scrub brush, and rocky soil. The gods have told him through a vision that this arid and desolate solar anvil is the perfect place for his people to start a new life. They dig many wells, but they all come up dry; finally, they find water. They use it for their crops and drinking water.

And here is the news that scientists, environmentalists, and Nevada senator Harry Reid feared ten millennia earlier: By settling down on a spot no human society found acceptable during the last 10,000 years, Lothar and his people will have increased their exposure to radioactivity by less than the amount you or I receive when flying in an airplane for twelve minutes.

Seriously: Critics of constructing a subterranean repository for nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain argue that if the fictional Lothar decides to live in this godforsaken patch of desert 100 centuries from now, he must not be exposed to more radiation per year than you or I receive from a single chest x-ray. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agree: Their minimum standard is for containment of the waste for no less than 10,000 years–at which point, even if the waste did seep into the groundwater and make its way back into the environment, its radioactivity would have decayed enough to be safe.

A little perspective is helpful. The first known city-state, in Mesopotamia, was formed about 5,000 years ago. Human beings switched from their hunter-gatherer existence, it is believed, somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. The lifetime of the United States, from the Declaration of Independence to the latest Britney Spears album, constitutes 2 percent of that time span. Which is to say: A lot can happen in the next 10,000 years.

“I hope you wore lead underwear,” said a blackjack dealer when I told him I had just visited Yucca Mountain. A cab driver in Las Vegas implored me, in his best X-Files stage whisper, to “tell the world” what was going on “out there in the desert.”

Critics of Yucca Mountain are fond of saying the site is “just 90 miles from Las Vegas” (though the more hysterical opponents start dropping the number of miles or saying it’s “just outside Las Vegas”). But the truth is, Yucca Mountain really is “out there in the desert.” Ninety miles of classic desert nothingness separate Yucca Mountain and Las Vegas. You don’t pass through miles of suburbs or small towns, just Joshua trees, mountain ranges, the occasional coyote, and–what the hell was that?!

“Those are the Thunderbirds, they practice here,” explained my guide as a squadron of F-16s blew by in tight formation. That’s another thing you pass on the way to Yucca Mountain: Nellis Air Force Base, the self-described “home of the fighter pilot.” Nellis is essentially where the Air Force practices blowing things up and killing things with the flying portion of America’s arsenal of democracy. (From everything I’ve read, they’re very good at it.) Nellis is the home of the Air Warfare Center, the Air Force Weapons School, and the international combat-training exercise known as “Red Flag.”

I bring this up for two reasons. First, the Thunderbirds were really cool. Second, if you are concerned about terrorists getting their hands on nuclear waste, where would you want to keep it? Option A: Scattered across 39 states, in 131 locations, near dozens of population centers, and accessible by thousands of roads and waterways? Or Option B: Stored neatly in a defensible pile under thousands of feet of rock 30 seconds from a squadron of F-16s and B-52s? Yucca Mountain is already secure from al-Qaeda types because it abuts the highly classified Nevada Test Site, where we have blown up hundreds of atomic bombs. To date, the only way to breach security at such a facility is to make a lavish contribution to Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign and, thankfully, that’s no longer a likely scenario.

Nevada’s leading politicians–including Democratic senator Harry Reid and Republican governor Kenny Guinn–claim that terrorism is an ad hoc, post-9/11 excuse for storing nuclear waste in their state. They’re probably right, considering the administration’s tendency to see everything through the prism of terrorism. But just because it’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s not valid. People who advocated tightened air defenses on December 6 could hardly be faulted for including Pearl Harbor in their arguments after December 7. Every day, we hear new revelations about how much al-Qaeda wants a “dirty” nuclear bomb.

And besides, the last people who should be complaining about arguments made out of desperation are opponents of Yucca Mountain. The politics of the issue are straightforward: Nevadans don’t want nuclear waste in their backyard and environmentalists don’t want nuclear waste anywhere. The bizarre upshot of this marriage of convenience is that environmentalists are disparaging the normally sacrosanct EPA and lauding federalism, while generally pro-nuclear Nevada sounds more like the Sierra Club every day.

Their desperation is understandable. The logic and necessity of putting this waste in Yucca Mountain is, basically, an unstoppable force. America’s 103 nuclear power plants provide 20 percent of our electricity. Roughly 42,000 metric tons of nuclear waste have piled up around the country like dirty socks in a bachelor’s apartment. The federal government is required by law and necessity to do something with the stuff. Since the 1950s the U.S. has owned all nuclear waste; in 1998 the Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling that the federal government has an “unconditional obligation” to take the waste off the hands of utilities. In short, the waste can’t stay where it is for much longer; and, as a nuclear-waste lawyer explained it to me, there are 98 senators who don’t want the junk in their states, but only two senators who don’t want it in Nevada.

There’s one more inconvenient fact for the opponents of Yucca Mountain: “There is no Plan B,” says Allen Benson, the spokesman for the Yucca Mountain Project, during our 7 a.m. orientation the day of my tour. By this he means: If Congress says no to Yucca Mountain, there won’t be another hamper for our radioactively dirty laundry available for decades. Indeed, even if all opposition ceased tomorrow, it wouldn’t be until 2008 that the first canisters would make it into the tunnels of Yucca Mountain. So, for a new site to be chosen, studied, and approved–with an anti-nuke movement emboldened by success at Yucca–could easily take 50 years.

This would probably deliver a mortal blow to the nuclear-power industry, because the old plants are getting, well, old (there hasn’t been a new one built since 1979); and nobody’s going to build any new plants until the question of how to deal with waste is settled. If this problem can be solved, there will be lots of new, cleaner, and more efficient plants–in no small part because the U.S. is under pressure to emit fewer greenhouse gases, and nuclear energy emits none. Environmentalists still hate it and have actively lobbied to exclude nuclear from any formulas for reducing greenhouse emissions. Both the nuclear industry and the anti-nuclear industry understand all of this, which is why Yucca Mountain has become, in effect, a proxy war over nuclear energy in general.

This is why the arguments have become so shrill and, often, absurd. Opponents claim that the area is “geologically unstable,” in the words of The Nation. Britain’s Independent was hysterical: Under the headline, “Bush to Dump Nuclear Waste in Earthquake Zone,” the “reporter” called Yucca Mountain a “geological nightmare” and lambasted Bush for flying in “the face of scientific opinion.”

In fact, almost no credible scientist in the world considers Yucca Mountain unstable, and, as the Energy Department is fond of pointing out, the Yucca Mountain Project has been the most scientifically studied and reviewed enterprise in human history. True, there are earthquakes in the region. But the scientifically illiterate don’t understand that earthquakes don’t do much damage 1,000 feet below solid rock. Think of a whip cracking: The tip flails about, but the handle barely moves.

Opponents also point out that there has been volcanic activity in the past in the area. Again, no credible scientist is particularly concerned about that either. In fact, it’s good news that there’s been volcanic activity in the past, because that makes it a lot less likely there will be some in the future. The forces responsible for eruptions are moving westward, away from Yucca Mountain. “Don’t buy property in Bishop, California, in 40,000 years,” explains my guide, a senior engineer at Yucca Mountain.

Nevada politicians and other opponents are also trying to scare the bejeebers out of the rest of the country by decrying the “mobile Chernobyls” that would carry the waste to Yucca Mountain. This is the reddest of all herrings. There’ve been over 3,000 nuclear-waste transports since 1964, without a radioactive release. (FYI: Nuclear waste doesn’t “spill,” because it’s cooked into dry little pellets.) Some critics try to conjure a terrorist threat to the transports, but these are actually less of a target than the current temporary facilities–because they aren’t sitting ducks. Even if some group were to catch up with a transport, and then hold off the U.S. military for a prolonged period, they still couldn’t get at the waste: Even with all of the right tools, it takes a full day to get these things off their transport beds.

Yucca scientists–and the thousands of kibitzers looking over their shoulders–have run every conceivable scenario through their models. Huge planes crashing into Yucca Mountain, nuclear attacks, tsunamis, catastrophic failures of every kind, even the return of disco. Nothing scares these guys–except water: Water is the enemy. For a week, a year, a century, we can keep water out of almost anything. But when you start talking about a drip like the one from your kitchen sink lasting thousands of years, water can get through rock. And, even more inconvenient, neutrons–and other particles thrown off by radioactivity–love water more than Chesapeake Bay retrievers do.

This is why almost all of the manmade stuff intended for Yucca Mountain is designed to stop water. On its own, Yucca’s rock can fend off the earthquakes and nuclear attacks. But technology is needed to slow the pace of water. Yucca Mountain was selected because all scientists agree that a geologic repository must be dry. Sitting next to Death Valley, Yucca Mountain gets, on average, seven inches of rain a year. Ninety-five percent of that rain either evaporates or is consumed by the ecosystem. Some of the remaining 5 percent–less than four-tenths of an inch per year–can, after at least a thousand years, reach repository depth. Indeed, almost all of the serious concerns about Yucca Mountain revolve around how long it will take that water to reach the containment area.

And, even according to the alarmists, it will take a very long time. First of all, the rock and tuff around Yucca has been dry for millions of years. Water, especially under very little pressure, doesn’t move through dry rock very well. Also, because the containment area is surrounded by fissures and faults that serve as natural rain gutters, most of that tiny amount of water would move around the container, not into it. To date, scientists have found no evidence that any water actually makes it into the tunnels at repository depth; also, remember, the actual waste packages will be very hot for the first few hundred years–around 400 degrees–and extreme heat repels water.

But let’s assume that, after a few thousand years, the incredibly unlikely happens and some water manages to penetrate the containment area. This water would then hit a thick titanium drip shield. It would have to eat through that. It would then hit the waste canisters. Current designs for these things include a wad of corrosive-resistant metal, and then another wad of stainless steel. Okay, let’s assume Super Water makes it through that. It would then hit the waste. The nuclear waste itself consists of water-resistant ceramic pellets with metal cladding. But let’s assume the water dissolves the pellets and the now-radioactive water eats through the bottoms of the waste packages and hits the floor. It would then have to go through 800 feet of dry rock and tuff, which contains minerals called zeolites, which are natural filters of radioactivity. After 800 feet the nucleotides would hit 1,000 feet of wet rock; and then, finally, they’d hit the water table.

Uh-oh.

Well, not really. Another attribute of Yucca Mountain is that it sits on a completely self-contained “hydrologic basin.” The water under Yucca doesn’t go anywhere. Sure, there are a few hundred people living around Yucca, but we’d have an early-warning system of, say, 5,000 years to get them evacuated if there were a problem. But even if the groundwater were contaminated, the worst that would happen is that someone living 18 kilometers from Yucca Mountain, drinking the water and eating crops grown in the ground, would receive about 150 additional millirems of radiation a year. That’s a bit less than the radiation you would get from living in La Paz.

And another thing: The best projections say that this worst-case scenario would only take place 480,000 years from now. You see, this waste isn’t particularly dangerous after the first few hundred years. Moreover, the whole project is intended to make the waste retrievable for anywhere from 50 to 300 years after it’s put in the ground. Most scientists believe we’ll get better at making nuclear waste less dangerous; if scientists discover a better way to store or neutralize it, we will be able to go back in and get it.

This is why Sen. Reid and other opponents are so dishonest when they cite a recent study from the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board that declared some of Yucca’s scientific modeling “weak to moderate.” Reid said, “I can’t believe the administration would settle for weak to moderate science as a basis for this decision.” But the review board was looking at the modeling for thousands of years from now; of course we don’t know for sure how these waste packages will hold up in 10,000 years (though the Yucca scientists believe all of their models are very conservative). Reid’s position is essentially that until we test a waste package for that long we can’t be confident it will work.

What’s more important is that the review board said there was no reason not to move forward with the Yucca project. Reid, who has all but accused Dick Cheney of using Enron executives to smuggle hazardous nucleotides into the Cheerios of Nevada’s children, should be applauded for wanting to protect constituents like Lothar tens of thousands of years from now. But I have bad news for him: Lothar’s a Republican.

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