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Editorial: Whistle of nuke train gets shrill

May 9, 2002

We expected a lopsided House of Representatives vote on Yucca Mountain and we got one. But even months of anticipation hardly prepares you for the final moment when 306 leaders from throughout the country cast a vote laced with so much potential for harm. If this potential was confined to Nevada the vote could be explained on the insidious theory that lawmakers valued a nuclear waste solution -- not a sound solution but a solution nonetheless -- over one sparsely populated state.

But with the waste destined for precarious travel through 43 states, can it be said they valued the solution more than safety in practically the whole country? What other explanation can there be for the House voting 306 to 117 to proceed with Yucca Mountain? If this burial site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas is approved by the Senate this summer, it means that a miracle will be needed (such as federal officials suddenly recognizing the plan's flaws) to prevent a minimum of 77,000 tons of nuclear waste riding the nation's rails and highways round-the-clock for a minimum of 24 years beginning in 2010.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Tuesday urged his colleagues to vote yes on Yucca Mountain, giving as his reasons "the current hodgepodge" of storage sites at nuclear plants (including 11 in his state) and the fact that Yucca Mountain is a "scientifically proven safe single storage facility." Wrong on both counts.

With the nuclear industry currently producing 2,000 tons of waste a year, there will always -- for as long as nuclear plants are operating -- be a hodgepodge of storage sites. There will never be a time when nuclear plants are free of waste. Additionally, since when has Yucca Mountain been scientifically proven as safe? Hastert did not mention the ground water danger and the need for 100,000 years of geologic stability in an area that is the third most seismically active in the nation. Just 10 years ago a magnitude 5.6 earthquake took place eight miles southeast of Yucca Mountain, rattling homes and hotels in Las Vegas. Since 1976 there have been 621 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater within a 50-mile radius of Yucca Mountain. The notion that this area will safely contain the world's deadliest material for 100,000 years is absurd. Finally, Hastert made no mention of the 293 technical and scientific issues concerning Yucca Mountain that government scientists have as yet been unable to resolve.

Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., warned their colleagues during many pre-vote forums of the dangers Yucca represents to Nevada and the nation. Nevertheless, the political momentum of this solution driven by the nuclear power industry was too much to overcome in the Republican-dominated House. The representatives who voted for this measure will have some explaining to do when the inevitable accident or possible terrorist attack takes place in their districts. Every inch of the transportation route is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

The U.S. Senate vote on Yucca coming up this summer represents the last chance in Congress to stop this terribly flawed plan. Nevada is making a gallant effort to educate senators and the nation of the extreme dangers associated with the burial itself and the transportation. Nevada and the country can still win if people can, just for a few minutes, stop what they're doing and "hear that train a-comin'."

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