Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018 | 2 a.m.
“It’s not like we’re asking you to accept nuclear bomb testing again.” This is a statement I have heard several times over the past 30 years, both from people working for the Department of Energy and the commercial nuclear industry, as they tried to convince us that we should approve of a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. My response was something like, “Well we know Yucca Mountain is not a safe place to contain waste, and transporting it through the state to get there is risky and a killer for our economy. And you are right; we would not accept nuclear bombs being exploded here again.”
Welcome to 2018 and President Donald Trump’s plans for Nevada. We know there is enthusiasm in Congress and the administration for a restart of dormant Yucca Mountain licensing, and now we read in the latest issue of Time magazine that a plan is afoot to begin building and testing atomic bombs here.
On Jan. 27, 1951, the first atomic bomb was exploded at the Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada National Security Site. It is often said that Nevadans were fine with bomb testing. But the state’s 168,000 people were never asked for their consent. Full-scale testing, after 1969, was done underground until 1992. Many of us who have been here for a long time know that the Test Site was a major employer and contributor to the economy of Las Vegas, but as time went on, more became known about the health costs that were being borne by the workers and down winders. By the time testing ended, large public demonstrations were being staged demanding that testing stop. Prominent doctors, scientists and church leaders, as well as Carl Sagan, Howard Hughes and Hank Greenspun, the father of the Las Vegas Sun, all opposed bomb testing.
Many years of legal and political battles were waged to get compensation for sick and dying workers and their families. Now all these years later, at 3 million strong, we see daily television ads for free home health care for nuclear weapons and uranium workers. No one wants to create another generation of workers needing compensation for having been harmed by bomb radiation.
This is part of Nevada’s history, and we learned many lessons from it. The government and nuclear industry people who tried to tell us we would have nothing to worry about if nuclear waste were to come to Yucca Mountain are not believed because we were told that about nuclear testing, and it wasn’t true. “We didn’t know then what we know now,” they say. Their message is that testing was dangerous but nuclear waste disposal is safe. But we have seen accidents happen with atmospheric tests, where clouds were carried off by unexpected winds to places where they were not forecast to go. We also remember several underground tests that vented and caused harm to those nearby. We know of frequent transportation accidents every day that would be dreadful if they were carrying nuclear cargo, and there have been unexpected nuclear power plant incidents that have been catastrophic.
The Time article notes that Trump would like to have a new generation of weapons quickly and points out that these bombs would not be necessary for the reasons that the original U.S. nuclear arsenal came to be. It is not to match an adversary like we had during the Cold War. This new weapons program also would not test and study the capability of weapons in the stockpile. Rather, a National Nuclear Security Administration official said these bombs would be quickly built and detonated for “political purposes.”
Nailing Nevada with a Yucca Mountain dump simply because it was the only site that was selected for study is unsafe, unscientific and wrong. To reopen the Nevada Test Site (as we still call it) for a rushed bomb blast for political purposes is beyond wrong and, worst of all, would launch a new and far more dangerous international nuclear arms race.
Judy Treichel is executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.