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July 23, 2017

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People who live closest to Yucca Mountain weigh in on whether to build nuclear waste dump

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Steve Marcus

A view of Yucca Mountain, center, as seen from Amagosa Valley town offices Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.

Revisiting Yucca Mountain

The road to Yucca Mountain is fenced off near Amagosa Valley Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Launch slideshow »
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According to a recent report, water would carry radioactive material from Yucca Mountain to Amargosa Valley.

What's next

Want to talk with nuclear regulators about Yucca Mountain? Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be in Amargosa Valley and Las Vegas to field public comments about the latest Yucca study.

• The first is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Embassy Suites Convention Center, 3600 Paradise Road, Las Vegas.

• The Amargosa meeting will be from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Amargosa Community Center, 821 E. Amargosa Farm Road, Amargosa Valley.

The dangers of transporting nuclear waste

It’s been said that all roads and rail lines lead to Las Vegas. If Yucca were to open, some fear transporting nuclear waste through metropolitan areas on the way to the mountain, just 90 miles from Las Vegas, is courting disaster. The Energy Department in 2002 estimated 9,600 rail shipments and 1,200 truck shipments to the site, passing through such cities as Pittsburgh, Pa.; Cleveland; Kansas City, Mo.; and Chicago. If terrorists were to attack, or an accident were to happen, the department reported cleanup costs could be $10 billion.

The Senator and the President

With Sen. Harry Reid and President Barack Obama leaving office in January 2017, the anti-Yucca crowd is losing two of its strongest advocates. The two have maneuvered to eliminate funding for the program and promise that it will never be a reality. All Congress needs to reopen the project is Energy Department approval and funding — two things that many Republicans think they can get. After 40 years of debate, Congress in 2002 designated Yucca as the federal nuclear waste storage site and has spent more than $8 billion constructing and researching the project.

In her mobile home in the Timbisha Village in Death Valley, Pauline Esteves remembers the mushroom clouds and white light ripping across the eastern sky.

A lifelong resident of the cracked desert, she had a front-row view of many of the 928 above- and below-ground nuclear blasts that cratered the earth at the Nevada Test Site. The explosions were her first connections to federal nuclear projects — but not her last. Today, she worries the federal government will place a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.

The site was selected in 1987 to store 70,000 tons of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste 1,000 feet under the mountain’s surface for at least 10,000 years. The design includes 40 miles of tunnels that would house waste in corrosion-resistant containers. It has since been defunded, but some politicians have not abandoned the idea of reviving it.

As the crow flies, Yucca Mountain sits 30 miles from the homeland of Esteves’ Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. In August, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards at the Nuclear Regulatory Committee released a study claiming that if Yucca were operational, groundwater would carry a small amount of radioactive waste into the nearby town of Amargosa Valley and — if conditions were right — into tribal lands in Death Valley. The project would require congressional approval, something that retiring Sen. Harry Reid vows will never happen.

But with Reid’s upcoming retirement, and the chance that President Barack Obama could be replaced by a Republican more friendly to the project, the possibility that the Yucca Mountain project could move forward seems greater than ever.

With that in mind, we spent a scorching day in late August in the region, meeting with activists, a retired nuclear engineer, an elected official and everyday people. To each, we posed the same question: What do the people who live in the shadow of Yucca want?

• • •

The Funeral Mountain range divides Nevada’s Amargosa Valley from California’s Death Valley — but the two places share many markers of desert life: bad cellphone service, extreme temperature swings, no hospitals, few police and, most importantly, a complicated relationship with atomic weapons and nuclear power.

On one side are people like Esteves. At 90, she is a tribal elder and an anti-nuclear activist dating to the 1960s. Esteves gleefully recalls her civil disobedience — cat-and-mouse run-ins with federal security contractors and an arrest alongside Martin Sheen and 490 protesters rallying against the test site in the 1980s. The desert is her home. “I feel lost when I am somewhere else,” she says.

For Esteves, rocks, water, plants and animals matter as much as people do. “I believe the land and everything that lives upon it are there to do good, not for radioactive materials,” she says.

During the Gold Rush, Barbara Durham’s grandfather saw the first white men come onto the lands now known as Death Valley. Durham, who now serves as the tribal historic preservation officer, said her people once roamed freely between Yucca and Death Valley, hiding from the heat while searching for food and water. They’ve lived there “forever.” Now her tribe owns 7,000 acres across a few patches of land. There are 400 members of the Timbisha Shoshone nationwide, of which 30 live in the village.

For her, a dump at Yucca is out of the question: “Who would want it in their backyard?” she asks.

Turns out several people across the mountains in Amargosa would.

From 1962 to 1987, Ken Garey spent his professional life behind the fence, as a train engineer 10 miles east of Yucca at Area 25, transporting nuclear rocket engines. Today, he is an 87-year-old Nevada history buff. Wearing a belt buckle that reads “Nevada Test Site,” he dreams of a future in which nuclear power plants replace coal- and natural gas-fired plants — and of a waste repository.

The town’s chief employer is Ponderosa Dairy. Gold mines and the ABC pulp mill have come and gone. Graduation rates are low and the town has some of the lowest income levels in the state.

Though the Longstreet Inn and Casino is the entertainment hub for the town, no customers are drinking or gambling there in the late afternoon. Customers may have been drawn to its only competition, the Area 51 Travel Center, which boasts a diner, gas station and brothel.

For the blue-collar women working at Longstreet, a nuclear repository could turn their sleepy establishment into a hot ticket. “Yucca would be awesome,” said Karen Gilligan, a waitress.

In his modest office that doubles as a storage room, Mike Cottingim, the Amargosa Valley town manager, surrounds himself with mementos of Nevada’s nuclear past, including faded 2-foot-wide photos of the mountain and the NASA-like interiors of the spent fuel facility. But he doesn’t need to be reminded what the mountain looks like — he can see the peak 12 miles from his window, just over the hood of his pickup truck parked outside.

“There is no one thing that can save Amargosa,” he says. “But Yucca, that one thing, is going to drive a lot of other things.” For Cottingim, the economic benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Even if disaster strikes, Cottingim isn’t worried. “You gotta go sometime,” he says.

For their neighbors to the west, that’s an affront. “Amargosa just got here,” Esteves says.

• • •

Standing at the chain link fence that blocks the access road to the repository site, Yucca looms over an elusive geological landscape, where appearance doesn’t always match reality.

Though it’s called a mountain, it’s more of a ridge. Formed by volcanic activity that began 15 million years ago, the peak marks the meeting place of two faults. The Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects puts the yearly chance of an earthquake there around 1 in 70 million.

Though it’s in the middle of a desert, signs of water are everywhere. Above ground, parched washes and streams snake southward from ridges to coalesce in the basin in which Amargosa Valley sits.

Thanks to underground water, a small amount of radioactive material would travel southwest through washes, canyons, aquifers, fault zones, tufts and an intermittently flowing river. From the repository, the water would push into Amargosa Valley and, if the upward pressure from pumping in Pahrump were ever to cease, from there into Death Valley.

According to the recent Nuclear Regulatory Committee report, the peak radiological dose would be 1.3 millirems per year, which is far lower than the background radiation dose — the natural amount that is always present — of 300 millirems per year. In other words — not much. The report says the potential impacts would be “small.” But that is, of course, presuming an earthquake doesn’t rip open the repository, sending a much larger dose of radioactive material downstream.

• • •

The debate over Yucca Mountain is filled with dualities — some of which revolve around jobs and money.

Proponents say Yucca Mountain could bring up to 4,500 jobs during construction and as many as 2,500 afterward, but those trying to block the project contend those numbers are far lower. Clark County, which has passed several resolutions opposing the site since 1985, estimates that 1,500 permanent jobs would be created.

A UNLV report said Yucca could boost the economy by as much as $228 million a year during the peak of the construction phase, and by as much as $102 million a year over the transportation and operations phase. But opponents worry about property values and the loss of tourism dollars.

No matter the finances, some opposition is implacable. For Esteves, who lives in what the Shoshone call the Valley of Life, no amount of money or jobs would change her mind.

“I have lived very poorly and here I am, 90 years old and still alive,” she said. “If people looked at what the land really means, they would protect it.”

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