Politics & Policy

Yucca Fear Mongering

John Kerry's junk-science politics.

It was H. L. Mencken who said of Truman’s 1948 campaign, “If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country, Harry Truman would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayer’s expense.”

As John Kerry continues to talk tough on foreign policy, his promise to block the Yucca Mountain Project shows that he’s running as a Truman Democrat on domestic policy, too.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada is the intended resting place of roughly 77,000 metric tons of deadly nuclear waste, which is currently strewn across the country like socks and beer cans in a frat house. The goal is to put the stuff in a single, safe location. Nevadans like the idea, except for the part that involves keeping it in their state.

In 2000, President Bush promised them he wouldn’t support the Yucca Mountain Project unless science said it was safe. Kerry says Bush broke that promise when the president okayed Yucca in 2002–even though Kerry himself has voted in favor of procedural measures that advanced the project. Kerry responds that his only “substantive vote” in favor of the Yucca Mountain repository was in 1987, and it simply authorized further study of the most studied parcel of land in the known universe.

“We were presuming at that point in time, though, that they were going to do a safe analysis,” Kerry told Nevada journalists last week. “My opposition has been on the basis of the analysis that has come back,” Kerry said.

Now, I’ve been to Yucca Mountain and interviewed the scientists there and read quite a few of the studies. And, frankly, I have no idea what Kerry is talking about. Yucca Mountain is indisputably the safest conceivable installation for nuclear waste in America–and, quite probably, on the planet. If terrorists wanted to, say, crash a 747 into Yucca Mountain, they’d pretty much have to get past the Nellis Air Force base, where the Air Force practices blowing things up. It’s also the home of the Air Warfare Center and the Air Force Weapons School. It is where the Thunderbirds practice and the site of the International combat-training exercise known as “Red Flag.” Yucca Mountain also abuts the highly secure Nevada Test Site where we’ve blown up a kajillion atomic bombs.

Oh, and I should add that even if the terrorist-seized plane got through and smacked the repository head-on, it wouldn’t even rattle the canisters under thousands of feet of Yucca Mountain rock. In fact, a direct nuclear strike would mean next to nothing in terms of safety.

But hey, even in the hugely unlikely scenario–and I really mean hugely unlikely–that some nuclear material did get out, it would still be in the middle of a godforsaken desert. Even what little groundwater there is there–on the edge of Death Valley–is self-contained.

Anyway, I could go on, but the science on this issue is so settled that no one really disputes it. That’s one reason why we’ve heard so much hyperbole in recent years about how dangerous it would be to transport the waste to Yucca Mountain. Once the waste is there, it’s not going to bother anybody.

The fear mongering over these so-called “mobile Chernobyls” is bogus too. The containers can withstand virtually any imaginable attack. In tests, they even drop the things from way up high onto steel spikes and nothing happens. There have been more than 3,000 nuclear waste transports since 1964 without a single release.

Besides, if the fear is that terrorists can get their hands on this material, why is it preferable to keep the ingredients for dirty bombs at countless unguarded, disparate sites around the country? Even if transport is risky, isn’t leaving this junk scattered across the country riskier? Kerry has criticized the administration for not acting fast enough to collect and secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, why does he want to prolong the process here at home?

Now, you might have heard that a recent court ruling dealt Yucca supporters and the Bush administration a setback. Indeed, that’s probably the science Kerry is referring to when he says the Yucca plan is flawed, since pretty much all of the other scientific and legal questions have been resolved.

Well, the issue here is whether or not Yucca Mountain can be guaranteed to be safe to the “public”–residing in the facility’s immediate vicinity–for only the next 10,000 years or for the next 300,000 years. Yucca opponents say 10,000 years is too short. Some perspective: Humans switched from hunter-gatherers some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Also, if we come up with better science in the next, say, 300 years, we can simply go into Yucca Mountain and pull the junk out. Or if the creators of Star Trek are right, we can beam it out.

John Kerry likes to say that the future doesn’t belong to fear. O.K., but why make America less safe today out of fear that in 10,000 years the desert near Death Valley might be slightly more dangerous than a chest X-ray?

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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