COLUMN: Steve Miller

Las Vegas Tribune

February 28, 2001

A Reality Check on Yucca Mountain

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

The appointed members of the Clark County Environmental Quality Review Board 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.

As a member of the Environmental Quality Review Board I was alone in accepting the first invitation to tour the proposed nuclear dumpsite. No other Nevada elected official would dare go on the tour at that time in history. It was and still is considered politically suicidal to take an interest in this subject. It was as politically correct then to bury your head in the sand as it is now to pretend to protest the soon-to-open dump.

Recently, politicians and wannabe's are grabbing headlines by bragging that they will be the first to lay down in the middle of the Spaghetti Bowl to stop the semi-trucks; the same trucks that have been carrying low level nuclear waste 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?

When I arrived at Mercury located 90 miles north of Las Vegas; my tour began with a drive past dozens of imploded underground test sites. I was then escorted down into a tunnel that had been drilled for a future nuclear test.

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 the water was constantly being pumped from within the tunnels.

I then asked if the nuclear tests were performed within the water table and I was told they were - of course. I asked if there had ever been events when contaminated water had migrated out of the test site boundary and I was told that it had on one occasion. I was then shown the five test wells that surround each previous underground test.

These wells test to see if contaminated water is migrating away from ground zero. In all but one case the water was not found to be moving out of the immediate area of the test. Unfortunately, in the one instance, the radioactive water was discovered to be moving at a rate of several feet per year. 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!

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

Most of these caverns have imploded. 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 are still un-imploded. In other words several huge bubbles formed of crystallized earth still remain thousands of feet under the surface of the test site. These sites continue to be monitored and are expected to implode sometime in the future.

The scientist's only concern is 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 the burst bubble and become contaminated.

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 stones throw from previous high yield underground nuclear tests!

What I learned during that amazing coffee klatch was that there is underground water everywhere throughout the atomic test site.

I also learned that the soil in that God forsaken place is radioactive and will continue to be deadly for the next million years. 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!

Should we consent to the Yucca Mountain High Level Nuclear Waste Disposal Site existing in our back yard?

It's already here!

To be practical, our only real duty is to make positively sure that the migration of ground water at the now closed test site continues to be monitored, and 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 to experiment with a nuclear Super Collider. We rejected it. The Super Collider project was moved to Texas.

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. We said no.

All of this was to be in trade for our compelled blessings of the use of Yucca Mountain as a high level nuclear repository. Our state's political leaders refused to deal and our bargaining position faded away.

Reality check: The Yucca Mountain repository is almost finished and will soon be accepting our nation's nuclear garbage. There is also renewed talk of more atomic power plants being built to keep up with our growing power needs.

Meanwhile the taxpayers are now saddled with the expense of building the bridges and roadways to keep this crap away from our back yards and its a rank publicity stunt when grandstanding politicians and wannabes are now - and only now - hooting about laying down in front of semi-trucks to stop the inevitable.

Welcome to politics - Nevada Style!

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