Las Vegas Sun

July 17, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Latest show of incompetence reinforces skepticism of Yucca Mountain project

Trust us. Nothing will go wrong. We know what we’re doing.

For decades, the federal government has been feeding Nevada some version of that dreck in response to our concerns about Yucca Mountain.

It was never a comfort. But after this week’s news that the Department of Energy may have mistakenly made dozens of shipments of dangerous nuclear waste to Nevada, it’s been reduced to the punchline of a sick joke.

Experts don’t mislabel highly dangerous nuclear waste as low-grade material. They don’t inadvertently ship it thousands of miles across the country. And they sure as hell don’t make 32 of those shipments over a six-year period.

Yet that’s exactly what the DOE admitted it may have done. Note the words “may have,” which are alarming — if controls are so lax that officials aren’t sure what happened, that’s as bad as the shipments. Officials say they’re investigating the situation.

Naturally, they’re also claiming there was no danger to the general public or workers involved in handling the shipments. But they notified state officials that reactive materials may have been included in the shipments at issue, which is scary. Those materials can react violently if they come into contact with other substances.

This is more than just incompetence. It could be lethal malfeasance. And it’s yet another reason why Nevadans will fight the resurrection of the project with everything we’ve got.

We’re supposed to trust these people to design and build a waste repository that will safely store highly radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years? Trust them to safely transport more than 70,000 metric tons of that nightmarish stuff across the country and through the heart of Las Vegas on its way to Yucca Mountain?

No way. Forget it.

Keep in mind, we learned only a few weeks ago that the feds shipped a half-ton of weapons-grade plutonium to our state last year and kept it secret for months.

Trust? It’s gone. And on that note, here’s another message to the feds: No, we’re not taking your word that there were no health or safety risks from any of these shipments.

To their credit, Nevada’s congressional and state leaders have come out swinging over the latest news about the mislabeled shipments.

“Yet again, the DOE has violated its mission, broken Nevadans’ trust and failed to follow its own compliance procedures,” Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen said in a joint statement. “We intend to immediately determine whether the mixed waste shipped to Nevada poses a hazard to the health and safety of Nevadans and will take every action necessary to hold the DOE accountable.”

Go get ’em, senators. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has made it abundantly clear that he’s no friend of our state, as he’s not only ultimately responsible for the shipments but has worked to restart Yucca Mountain.

The bottom line here is what Nevadans have been saying all along about the waste dump: Accidents can and will happen, especially with a project as complex as Yucca Mountain.

Human errors, design or construction flaws and unforeseen acts of nature all are threats. And when something happens — not if, but when — the consequences for Southern Nevada could be cataclysmic. Considering that the waste is so highly radioactive that it will be measurable within a half-mile even when encased in heavily shielded casks, think of what could happen in the event of a transportation accident or a terrorist attack on a shipment in Las Vegas.

Now think of waste at Yucca Mountain seeping into the water table through fissures in the rock. That seems like a bracingly real possibility in light of the two earthquakes we experienced this past week in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, though, federal officials continue to contend that Yucca Mountain is safely designed, and that the transportation systems present no dangers.

That’s pure arrogance. Given that these same officials can’t guarantee they can handle something as simple as affixing the proper labels on waste, it’s farcical to think they can meet the enormous challenges of designing and operating a facility that’s supposed to last tens of thousands of years.

Rest easy, they tell us.

But their actions show us that we can’t let our guard down for one second until this project is permanently discontinued.