Las Vegas Sun

July 22, 2019

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GUEST COLUMN:

Proponents of nuclear waste dump have a new strategy: Just buy us off

A new tactic is coming to light in the decades-long effort by other states to get a nuclear waste dump rammed into Nevada. And like other strategies in that effort, it’s astonishing — in a bad way.

An opinion piece in a national newspaper suggested that the best way to get Nevadans to stand aside and let high-level radioactive waste roll into Yucca Mountain would be to pay rent to each of us once a year for 10 years. 

What a terrible deal: We would give up all ability to fight any injustice or infringement of the rules while waste was transported through our state. We’d get just 10 years of rent payments for a facility that is supposed to house waste for a million years.

More preposterous yet, the suggested amount is $500 per year per person, which looks more like a small tax refund than a hedge against a facility that could easily lead to a calamity. If a nuclear waste train passing behind the resort corridor in Las Vegas derailed — as a train in Northern Nevada did recently — the damage to our economy could be very severe and long lasting. 

But to even suggest that we would consider a payoff in exchange for accepting the nation’s nuclear waste is offensive. The suggestion assumes that we are stupid.

That’s wrong. We are not only knowledgeable, but also experienced on this issue. Nevada learned a painful lesson during and after atomic weapons testing. It took 50 years of begging and legal action for some of the victims’ families to finally be paid a set sum. We are not going to walk into that situation again, regardless of the amount of the bribe.

Another large fallacy in the thinking of those who would plot to buy Nevadans is the belief that Yucca Mountain is a repository, ready and waiting for the nation’s waste.

Yes, billions were spent there but all that is there is a tunnel where some experiments were done. There are no waste emplacement tunnels or receiving facilities. In addition to the money spent over a 20-year period, the Department of Energy estimates that over $100 billion of new money would be needed.

In addition to the huge amounts of money that Congress would have to appropriate year after year, the time required to get to an operational Yucca Mountain repository is significant. 

If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process resumes, it will require years of hearings to consider the hundreds of challenges to the Department of Energy license application. Nevada has refused, and will continue to deny water permits for this use, and the state as well as affected Native American nations will not approve land withdrawal for a nuclear waste repository. And if the license is issued, years of litigation will follow.

If all of the legal obstacles are overcome, the building and operation of the repository is another giant undertaking. Forty-some miles of emplacement tunnels — double that if there is no second repository — with rail access, plus a multitude of surface facilities would be needed. All waste emplacement would have to be done robotically because of high radiation from the unshielded containers.

No humans can fix problems inside the repository near the waste. Robots able to operate in high heat, high radiation and dusty conditions will have to be developed for precise work. And if all of that is accomplished, thousands of pure titanium drip shields will have to be installed robotically and precisely locked in place.

These extraordinary measures are only required at a site like Yucca Mountain, where the rock is known to be incapable of isolating the waste. Recent Department of Energy studies show that a repository in other types of geology would be easier and cheaper to develop.

Existing railroads, including the Union Pacific line through Las Vegas, would be used for waste transport and then more than 300 miles of new rail would have to be built over, around or through seven major mountain ranges for the massive transport casks to be brought to Yucca Mountain.

But none of this has stopped pro-nuclear people from trying to shove this waste down our throats.

For years, they’ve complained that our elected representatives do not understand or accept the science they say shows that Yucca Mountain is completely safe. The claim is that we are either hysterical or ignorant if we question the ability of the site to isolate the waste for a million years; or the ability of thousands of trains, trucks and barges to make all shipments free of accidents.

Originally, it was thought that if a federal law was passed — naming Nevada as the place for waste — we would all just accept our fate. We didn’t. The science that was supposed to convince us of safety consisted of studies, using very complicated models and then risk analyses showing that the chances of a catastrophe were about the same as hitting Megabucks on a slot machine.

But does the unexpected happen? Of course. Just ask an employee at a sports book. 

It is time to stop trying to fool us, shame us or bribe us. Nevada says no.

We have proved that forced siting is wrong.Studies have determined that success only comes with public acceptance. The most worthwhile action that Congress could take is to permanently end the Yucca Mountain project and take steps to make the waste as safe as possible where it is now.

If or when some trust has been established, a new program to consider concepts that have been developing during the past 30 years could be undertaken, and perhaps consent is possible somewhere else. 

Judy Treichel is executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.