COMMENTARY: Steve Miller

Las Vegas Tribune

January 30, 2002

Our Nuclear "Suppository!"

In the early 1990s, the Federal Government made a quiet offer to the citizens of Southern Nevada.

The Clark County Environmental Quality Review Board members were the first to be told that the Feds were prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building bridges and roadways around the metropolitan Las Vegas area for the purpose of transporting high level nuclear waste to the-then newly proposed Yucca Mountain waste site.

Few of us realize that low level nuclear waste has been trucked through our valley for several decades. Keep in mind that for many years the A-bombs and H-bombs were assembled at a plant near the intersection of I-15 and Cheyenne in North Las Vegas. Also remember that there has been a nuclear arsenal at Nellis Air Force Base since the end of World War Two!

Not in our back yard? Since when?

As a member of the Environmental Quality Review Board, I was given a tour of the Nevada Test Site prior to the ban on underground tests. When I arrived at Mercury located 90 miles north of Las Vegas; my tour began with a drive past dozens of imploded underground tests. I was then escorted down into a tunnel burrowed deep into the side of a mountain.

In my ignorance I asked one of the scientists who escorted me to explain why we were sloshing ankle deep in water most of the time we were underground? I was casually told that we were below the water table and that water was constantly being pumped from within the test tunnels.

Realizing that nuclear tests were performed under the water table, I asked if there had ever been events when contaminated water had migrated out of the immediate area of a test? I was told that it had on only one occasion. I was later shown the five wells that surround every previous underground test location. These wells are there for one purpose: to see if contaminated water is migrating.

In all but one case, the water was not found to be moving out of the immediate area of the test. Unfortunately, in that one instance, the radioactive water was discovered to be moving at a rate of several feet per year toward the sparsely populated Armagosa Valley. This movement was of great concern to the government scientists who pledged to continue to drill test wells to follow the flow. I hope they keep their word for centuries to come!

I learned that with each underground test a crystallization of the earth had taken place and the nearby ground water was supposedly vaporized near the temporary cavern created by the blast. What matter remained was trapped - usually - within the crystallized test area. These areas are supposed to safely contain the radioactive matter for tens of thousands of years.

Most of the caverns created by the blasts have imploded or collapsed. The ground above them is usually seen falling into the cavern immediately following a blast. We have all seen the film footage of the ground sinking during or immediately following an underground test.

I was surprised to learn that some of the caverns were still un-imploded at the time of my tour. In other words, several huge bubbles formed of crystallized earth still remained thousands of feet under the surface of the test site. These sites continued to be monitored and were expected to implode or collapse sometime in the future.

The scientist's only concern was that when the ground finally implodes into the caverns, that the bubbles do not vent radioactive matter into the atmosphere as one accidentally did in the 1960s, or that nearby water does not enter and become contaminated as it once had done.

My learning experience was highlighted by lunch at one of the outposts near the tunnels and command center. While I sipped coffee with several nuclear physicists, I wondered out-loud where the water in my coffee came from? I was told that it came from a well behind the commissary. I almost choked! I asked to see the well.

I have seen many desert wells in my life but the one I saw that day was quite different. It had a myriad of scientific monitoring equipment attached to it that would shut it down any time the devices detected radioactive materials. Keep in mind that the outpost was less than a mile from the nearest spent underground test and I was drinking coffee made from the water being pumped a stone's throw away!

What I learned during that atomic coffee klatch was that there is underground water everywhere throughout the test site whether we like it or not.

There is no deadlier place on Earth than that only 90 miles from our back yards, and it is - and always will be - a high level nuclear repository.

I came to the conclusion that man had carelessly and permanently ruined the precious Earth so near our town and there is nothing we can do to redeem it. This is truly what nightmares are made of!

Our main concern should be that transport of hazardous materials stay away from our populated areas. Otherwise there is little we can do this late in the game. The rest is "spilt milk."

"Spilt milk," such as the Federal Government once offering to pay for construction of a branch of the University of Nevada near Death Valley Junction in Armagosa Valley to conduct experiments with nuclear energy. Being politically correct, we rejected it.

In order to keep trucks carrying nuclear waste away from populated areas, the Federal Government once offered to pay for the entire cost of the beltway around our valley; the bridge over the Colorado River just south of Boulder Dam; and a bridge from Pierce Ferry to Mormon Mesa up near Mesquite. Being politically correct, we said no.

Our state's political leaders refused to deal, and our bargaining position faded away.

Reality check: The Yucca Mountain repository is almost finished and, unless Mayor Oscar Goodman can convince the Federal Government otherwise, will soon be accepting our nation's nuclear garbage. There is also renewed talk of more atomic power plants being built to lessen our dependence on Arab oil, along with talk of a resumption of underground nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, if Mayor Goodman in not successful in his last minute efforts, Nevada taxpayers are going to be saddled with the expense of building the bridges and roadways to keep this crap from being driven past our back yards.