The Hill
The Hill

Yucca Mountain site poses many problems

By Sen. Harry Reid

June 13, 2001

Once thought to be down for the count, nuclear power is now poised to play a major role in America's energy future. Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force is breathing life into a declining industry, a revitalization it's feeling for the first time in decades. But the Task Force ignores the economic realities of building new plants and avoids the dangerous consequences of the pollution this industry generates.

Nuclear energy may some day be an important facet of our national energy policy, but a number of important issues must be resolved first. It would be irresponsible -- and dangerous -- to promote the nuclear industry without admitting to some stark economic and environmental realities.

In the last 50 years, American taxpayers have doled out hundreds of billions of dollars for nuclear power in government subsidies. Still, with all that investment, nuclear power accounts for only 7 percent of our nation's total energy consumption.

No nuclear power plants have been ordered since the late 1970s because they are just too costly. When you include the costs of decommissioning, pollution clean-up and construction, nuclear power is one of the most expensive energy generation options.

More important than economic concerns, however, are severe risks to public health and the environment. The industry generates thousands of tons of nuclear pollution each year -- pollution which remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years.

Supporters of the industry point to deep underground storage as the best way to deal with this waste. But this out-of-sight, out-of-mind "solution" never puts people and the environment out of danger. Why? The Department of Energy (DOE) is only studying one possible site for the repository of this deadly waste: Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The results of this research show significant uncertainties about the long-term performance of the repository, even though the DOE claims to be on the verge of recommending the site. Ignoring these problems could have a devastating impact on millions of Nevadans living near Yucca Mountain and in nearby Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

Nevadans are not alone in this predicament. Burial of waste in Yucca Mountain would require thousands of shipments of dangerous high-level radioactive waste on highways and rail corridors throughout the United States. Most of the nuclear power plants are east of the Mississippi and getting the nuclear waste to Nevada means thousands of trips through 43 states.

These shipments would provide a steady stream of high-level waste, each one a potential target for terrorists or a devastating accident. The DOE, however, has not done a detailed environmental assessment of the impacts of these shipments. In fact, the DOE has not even determined the shipping routes and whether rail or trucks will be used. Every member of Congress should demand answers to these questions before putting constituents at risk.

My biggest concern, of course, is the safety of the people in my home state of Nevada. Scientific evidence has still not proven the Yucca Mountain Repository to be safe. There is a significant threat to the groundwater below the site. This resource is vital to the nearby communities for human consumption, irrigation and other farming activities and livestock. Contamination of the groundwater is the most likely way radioactive material will get out of the repository.

Water is our most precious resource in the West, and any leak of radiation into the groundwater would be devastating -- and deadly.

Plus, geologists are finding plenty of fault, or faults, with the selection of Yucca Mountain. There are 33 known faults near Yucca Mountain. About 600 seismic event have occurred near the site in the last 20 years alone, with a 5.6-magnitude earthquake occurring as recently as 1992. There is also evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity in the area.

Even without the relicensing of new nuclear power plants, nuclear power will continue to provide electricity for our nation in the short term. We have an historic opportunity to make a better choice for our future -- an opportunity to encourage renewable energy instead of wasting resources sustaining the outdated nuclear power industry.

We need to invest our resources in the true energy sources of the future: wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. And we need to promote efficiency and conservation. In fact, a 10,000 square-mile region of Nevada could supply our nation's entire electricity needs with existing solar technology. Developing these resources will ensure that we leave future generations the energy they need instead of the nuclear waste they'll regret.

Sen. Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and Senate majority whip.