The Danger Within: Nevada ready to argue Yucca's risks

Southern Oregon University student Sterling Ford gets a few questions answered from John Hadder of Citizen Alert, a group traversing the nation in protest of Bush administration plans to transport nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain for storage. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell

“I'm not happy about that. I don't want that stuff here,” local Grace McKown told me Friday as we stood outside Henderson’s Paseo Verde Library. She’s miffed the US House breathed life back into Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuke waste dump northwest of Las Vegas that would house nuke waste from all over the country.

Thursday the US House voted by a large margin to restart the licensing process, which had been starved and stalled by the Obama administration.

“If they got waste, why don't they find a way to keep it in their own yard. Don't put it in ours. We don't need that,” McKown says.

Grace speaks for a lot of Nevadans.

“What they've done doesn't change our plan of action at all,” says Robert Halstead, who speaks for the State of Nevada. He’s the Executive Director of the state’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, which is spearheading the official fight to stop Yucca from opening.

“The concerns fall into three areas,” Halstead told me by phone from his office in Carson City.

First is the 50 to 100 years waste will be brought here. Nevada says radiation could leak in transit or be vulnerable to an accident or terrorist attack.

RELATED | Nevada promises fight, as House breathes life into Yucca Mountain

The second is the several hundred years the site will actually be operating.

“You have large surface facilities where a highly radioactive material is handled. Now that’s the period of time when the greatest concern is frankly to the workers at the site,” says Halstead.

But Nevada says the most dangerous comes at the end: when Yucca is sealed and the waste is entombed.

“The big concern is water from the top of the mountain infiltrating through the fractured rock in the mountains through the tunnels, dissolving radioactive materials from the waste package, traveling down the water table, then being transferred into the aquifer under the Amargosa Valley,” Halstead says.

Yucca Mountain will contain between 11,000 to 26,000 so-called “waste packages”, casks of high-level nuclear waste. The debate about water will be crucial Halstead tells me.

“That's really going to be the issue in licensing,” he says, as experts examine whether the repository can prevent groundwater contamination for one million years.

The government says the waste will be shielded and protected, surrounded by titanium drip shields that will stop any leakage. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff estimate only small amounts of contamination would happen during the first 200,000 years, although Nevada contends contamination would happen much faster: the state claims a 10,000-year standard would be exceeded in less than 900 years, and the million year standard could be exceeded in 2,000 years.

Halstead tells me other nations store waste under the water table. Yucca would be different, says Congresswoman Dina Titus, D-Nevada.

“This sits above the water table so if anything leaks it goes into the water that serves the valley and that would be a problem,” she tells me.

Today Yucca sits empty, with only a five-mile-long exploratory tunnel that cannot be used for storage. The repository’s infrastructure – staff and office – ended when the project withered. A restart would be expensive, Titus tells me.

“They’ve already spent $15 billion. They’ve left – all the people are gone. It’s just a hole in the ground,” Titus says. “They’ve estimated between $80 and $100 billion more to really make it operative, and that’s money that I don’t know where they’re gonna get.”

Yucca Mountain has its supporters, too. It sits in neighboring Nye County, which sees the project as a potential economic boon.

“It’s a huge game-changer for my county, but it would boost the economy of the whole state,” says Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen. “This is a multi-billion dollar, a multi-generational project that would rival the Hoover Dam.”

Schinhofen sees a project that would create “thousands of jobs during construction, thousands of jobs when it finally gets open.”

“Our position has always been let’s follow the rule of law, let’s have the science heard by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission). It’s been heard by the national labs, who all agree it could be constructed and operated safely,” says Schinhofen.

The House bill that restarts the licensing process now heads to the US Senate, where Nevada’s two US Senators, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Dean Heller, promise to fight and kill it.

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