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July 21, 2019

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Nuclear scare strengthens our resolve in fight against Yucca


Ted S. Warren / AP

In this July 9, 2014, file photo, a sign warns of radioactivity on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash.

The collapse of a tunnel containing high-level nuclear waste May 9 in Washington state is cause for an urgent discussion about how to handle the thousands of tons of similar radioactive material being stored unsafely at sites across the nation.

The emergency at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was an accident waiting to happen, and more will follow if leaders don’t start working aggressively to solve the storage problem.

But as awful as the collapse was, it in no way should prompt any movement toward resurrecting the long-stalled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

As officials in Washington try to get the situation under control, don’t be surprised if Yucca proponents try to scapegoat Nevada for the problem. A story from the Associated Press hinted in that direction by mentioning a plan to bury the Hanford waste at Yucca Mountain, “a project that has been on the drawing board for three decades but has run into resistance from Nevada politicians, including former Sen. Harry Reid.”

But Nevada deserves none of the blame for what happened in Washington.

It’s not our fault, for instance, that the waste at Hanford isn’t currently in a form that would allow it to be transported to Yucca Mountain or anywhere else. It needs to go through a process that would embed it in glass logs that would make it transportable, and the facilities needed for that process haven’t been built at Hanford.

In addition, Nevada isn’t to blame for the fact that Yucca Mountain is a disastrously flawed project. Located in an area with seismic activity, it’s a geologically unsound place to store waste that will continue to be radioactive for thousands of years. Then there are the inherent hazards involved in transporting waste from across the nation — 77,000 tons of it — on highways and rail routes to a common site.

An accident or a terrorist attack could have catastrophic consequences given the lethality of this waste, which if unshielded can generate a fatal dose of radioactivity even years after it is removed from a reactor.

The fact that a portion of the transportation routes pass through the heart of the Las Vegas Valley is even more reason that Yucca should remain forever mothballed. Not only would the route put the valley’s 2 million-plus residents at risk, but a radiation emergency in the tourist corridor could demolish the economy of a state and community that depend on visitors.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., got it right in assessing the Hanford situation.

“This incident is a reminder that things can and do go wrong, especially when bad politics trump good science,” she said in a statement.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., also was on point in saying the tunnel collapse was a “chilling reminder of what could happen in our backyards” if Yucca were to move forward.

It’s a tragedy and a national shame that waste being stored in places like Hanford isn’t being stored safely. We’ve had decades to deal with the problem, which stretches back to the development of the atomic bomb in World War II, and still we have situations like the tunnel collapse.

But that’s not Harry Reid’s fault. It’s not the fault of anyone in Nevada, and residents of the state shouldn’t have to pay for it by becoming the national dumping ground for deadly radioactive material.

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