Las Vegas Sentinel Voice

Neal bedfellows with dump proponents

Louie Overstreet

July 19, 2001

Special to Sentinel Voice

How many of you remember Senator Joe Neal's ill-fated campaign for governor a couple of years ago? If so, you may also recall that in his stump speeches he suggested that the State of Nevada should consider cutting the best deal it could with the Federal Government for having Yucca Mountain serve as a repository for spent nuclear fuel.

Elected officials took perverse delight in suggesting that Joe was not sound of mind. In fact he took a proverbial "butt whuppin" for intimating that leveling with the citizens of the state about our chances of keeping nuclear waste out of Nevada would be the statesmanly thing to do. "While I do not agree with most of what the senator has to say, there is very good chance that "Crazy Joe" in the near future will become known as the "Prophet of the Mountain."

While in-state politics dictate that elected officials oppose the storage of spent nuclear fuel in Yucca Mountain, the realities of economics, science and national politics all point to the fact that "Yucca Mountain is coming."

Since 1982, the federal Government has spent nearly seven billion dollars on Yucca Mountain. The mountain is surrounded by thousands of square miles of federal land. The result of the scientific research., both past and ongoing, are due to be submitted to the President of the United States by the end of this year. Further, the site is the only one remaining under active consideration. The states of Washington and Texas were clever enough politically to tag Nevada as "it."

The research is based on observing and measuring a multitude of physical phenomena and then extrapolating these data over geological time. Forecasting the probability of an, event occurring over geological time is something like the difference between what creates a nuclear explosion (infamous mushroom cloud) and what could occur at Yucca Mountain.

There is no chance for a nuclear explosion occurring based on spent nuclear fuel reaching critical mass necessary to cause a catastrophic explosion. What could occur at Yucca Mountain is the remote potential of subsurface water being contaminated by leakage from vessels in which the spent nuclear pellets are stored. The rate of flow of radioactive material leaking into the surrounding nonporous rock and being transported an average of 11,000 feet down by water, to the water table anywhere from 500 to 1,200 feet below the stored fuel, is measured in geological time.

Most of our understanding of time is measured in decades totaling less than one hundred years. This is basically the time spanning from the oldest grandparent to the youngest grandchild. Now contrast this with geological time. Yucca Mountain was formed by an eruption of a now, extinct volcano from 11 to 14 million years ago. While there are several volcanoes in the area, that by definition would not be considered extinct, the chance of one of these erupting in the next ten thousand years is one in 70 million per year.

Speaking of ten thousand years, a period longer than recorded human history, the containers for the spent fuel are designed to remain intact well beyond that time frame. Only then, long after 10,000 years, could the spent fuel begin to dissolve, move out of its and migrate from them to the nearest well, presumed by the Environmental Protection Agency to be miles away. The whole process would take thousands of years more than 10,000. Ten thousand years, in our reference, is one hundred times the lifetime of a person who lived to be 100 years old.

Now, let us deal with the, reality of national politics. Presently, over 40,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel is being stored on an interim basis in 34 different states. (This amount could more than double by 2035 if all currently operating plans complete their initial 40-year license period.) Some of the fuel has been stored for over 50 years. When the issues comes before congress, how do you think elected officials from these states are going to vote on the issue of getting it out of their states and shipping it to Nevada? That is right, the yeas have it by a resounding margin!

Moving thousands of tons of nuclear waste is going to take years. In fact, projections are that by transporting 3,000 tons a year, it will take 24 years to move all the spent fuel presently in existence.

Nevada is in a similar position as the State of Alaska was 20 years ago. l served on a blue ribbon citizens' committee that was so naive that we thought we could go to Washington D.C. and sell our point of view to elected officials about it being a bad idea to make 217 million acres of federal land a virtual park. Designating this land as wilderness closed it to any development activities that could produce tax revenue for that state. Man, elected officials from other states ate our lunch, laughed us off.