Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2014

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Brian Greenspun: Where I Stand:

Yucca has allies, even as Japan suffers

Catastrophe shows risk of storing nuclear waste

We are constantly reminded of Mother Nature’s cruel bent: Hurricanes named Andrew and Katrina and now, earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan that have culminated in, as I write this, untold thousands of deaths, many times more injuries, hundreds of billions of dollars in destruction and, perhaps worse yet, a nuclear meltdown.

That’s why it should give Nevadans pause when we hear Republicans in Congress threaten to reopen Yucca Mountain.

This is not a political column. Rather, it is an attempt to separate the politics of money from the policies of good government and sane stewardship of the environment and the right of the people to live secure in the belief that their government is not going to do them in.

The Las Vegas Sun, more than any other media organization in this state and, for a period of time the only medium to do so in Nevada, has been railing against the thought of using Yucca Mountain as the dumping ground for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste for almost 30 years. In the early days we were alone in warning about the accidents that were inevitable. The political reality decades ago — little or no competent representation in Washington — allowed Nevadans to be set upon by larger states that didn’t want the deadliest substances known to man to rest, uncomfortably, in their backyards. We were singled out for special treatment by the nuclear power industry, its desire for riches at our expense and its lackeys in Congress only too happy to shove that stuff down our underrepresented throats.

It took Nevada’s senior U.S. senator, Harry Reid, together with President Barack Obama, to finally drive a stake through the heart of the radioactive beast that threatened our lives and livelihoods. But, just like the vampires of old and new movies, that beast just doesn’t want to stay dead.

Instead, the nuclear power industry in this country, working through its minions in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, is doing its best to breathe life back into the moribund Yucca Mountain. Fighting to revive the dumpsite is just one of the consequences of the last election.

What is interesting, though, is that the reasons given for the resurrection: Nuclear waste disposal in Nevada is safe, and we don’t want to happen here what just happened in Japan. That’s what is coming out of Washington these days despite indisputable evidence to the contrary. It makes you wonder what planet these folks in Washington think Nevadans are living on! We may vote for crazy people from time to time, but that doesn’t mean that we are.

At the heart of the Yucca Mountain debate is this: The federal government and the Yucca support staff always believed it was responsible, reasonable and desirable to build a nuclear waste dump in the middle of the third most active earthquake zone in the country. And, deep geologic burial would take place in one of the most porous mountains around — that means water flows from its top through the nuke canisters, corroding them on the way through, and then into the water table below — and you have the makings of an environmental disaster.

Cutting through the miles of paperwork defending the decision of politicians almost 30 years ago, the truth remains that Yucca Mountain is the wrong place for the dump. And, knowing what we know today, it is highly likely that burial is the wrong answer to the question of what to do with the most poisonous substances known to man.

So, what can we learn from the tragedy unfolding in Japan?

Assuming the worst hasn’t happened by the time this goes to print, the threat of and, hopefully, the avoidance of a nuclear meltdown are both the most horrific consequence of man’s arrogance and the luckiest of outcomes for people who depend on government and industry to keep them safe.

Assuming it gets worse? Just further proof of how wrong we can be.

Inherent in the Yucca Mountain argument, as I am certain it was in the Japanese decision to place nuclear power generating plants at the water’s edge — let’s not even talk about California’s decision to build nuclear plants on fault lines throughout the state — is the belief that science can engineer around any potential challenges.

Those who argue to open Yucca Mountain have to believe that drip shields — which do not exist today — can be built to keep water out of the mountain and away from canisters holding nuclear waste for thousands of years. They have to believe that canisters — which do not exist today — can be built of sufficient strength and durability to keep that garbage out of the environment regardless of what natural or unnatural calamity should occur. And they have to believe that thousands of trucks and trainloads of radioactive waste can be safely transported across the country, through towns and cities, without a hint of an accident. Once they get all that down, they have to believe that an earthquake will not happen over the next thousands of years, causing all the deadly garbage to drop into the water table that nourishes much of the Southwest, including Las Vegas!

That is a lot to believe, especially in light of what the Japanese people had to believe to build the nuclear plants where and how they did.

First, they had to believe the plants could withstand an earthquake. It appears they mostly did. Then they had to believe they could survive a resulting tsunami that would devastate the region and cause all kinds of power outages. Or they had to gloss over that risk and assume it would never happen. Then they had to believe that the fail-safe programs at the plants, the backup generators and cooling systems that were designed by top-notch engineers, and the simple things, such as electrical connections, would all work flawlessly.

I am not picking on the Japanese thought process or the people — if anything, we have to admire their discipline and heroic selflessness as they try to prevent an even worse disaster — for thinking the way they did. If they didn’t rationalize those problems away, they could never have built those plants the way they did.

But I do take issue with any American lawmaker who believes that the problems inherent in Yucca Mountain can or should be rationalized away on the altar of engineering solutions and current science. We have living — and dying — proof that that kind of thinking just doesn’t work.

The Japanese people fooled with Mother Nature and lost big time when she decided to throw a few curveballs their way. The best engineering and scientific minds on the planet were no match for Mother Nature once she decided to show us her stuff.

What makes anyone in this country think we know more or know better than the Japanese? What makes anyone think earthquakes and truck accidents and terrorist missiles and just plain, old stupid mistakes will not happen over the next few thousand years, potentially unleashing thousands of tons of high-level radioactive poison on the lives of Americans who expect their government to protect them, not destroy them? With so many lives in the balance, what makes us believe we should fool with Mother Nature?

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.