Yucca Mountain Update -- A Publication of the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects

Volume 2 Issue 5 ~ May 3, 2004






- Railroaded by the DOE, by Geoff Schumacher, editor, Las Vegas Mercury

- Additional information on rail shipments to Yucca Mountain

- Outrage of the Week


Railroaded by the DOE
by Geoff Schumacher, editor, Las Vegas Mercury

Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

April 15, 2004

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced earlier this month that it intends to use trains rather than trucks to transport most of the nation's high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.  The federal agency's reasoning is that trains are safer than trucks.

This may be true, considering that trains don't encounter nearly as many variables as trucks negotiating America's perilous highways.  But it would be a stretch to suggest that trains eliminate the possibility of accident or disaster.  Anybody who keeps a casual eye on the news knows that trains sometimes derail and crash, sometimes run into each other and sometimes are terrorist targets.

The DOE also has released the preferred route of its planned rail line between Caliente, site of an existing rail hub in
Lincoln County, and Yucca Mountain.  Like so much of the DOE's activity concerning Yucca Mountain, this scheme is completely lacking in common sense.  The route, starting in Caliente, heads west, then veers north, then west again, then south, skirting the Nevada Test Site and Nellis Range, not to mention Area 51.  This circuitous route measures about 320 miles--three-quarters of the mileage between Las Vegas and Reno--with cost estimates starting at $880 million.  As the crow flies between Caliente and Yucca Mountain--directly across the high-security federal installations--the distance is half that.

Click on image for larger version. (Graphic courtesy Las Vegas Review-Journal)he DOE's primary motivation for the meandering rail route is to appease Las Vegas.  For years, the strongest opposition to Yucca Mountain has come from Las Vegas, which fears the dump would put its economy and the safety of residents and tourists at tremendous risk.  Particularly alarming has been the prospect of trucks laden with deadly radioactive waste coursing through the city.  The horrors of a nuclear waste shipment being involved in an accident in, say, the Spaghetti Bowl are not difficult for Las Vegans to imagine.

The government thinks that by keeping the waste out of the Las Vegas area--thus, the railroad option--it will reduce opposition to the dump.  But Las Vegans know this issue too well to be swayed by this relatively minor maneuver.  "If the DOE thinks the Nevada [congressional] delegation's commitment to halting the Yucca Mountain project will somehow lessen because they have bypassed more heavily populated areas in favor of Caliente, the department is completely mistaken," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Most of the rail route is on federal land, which means the government wouldn't have to buy up many private parcels.  But it's more complicated than that.  Much of the 300,000 acres of public land the DOE covets is used by ranchers for grazing cattle.  The ranchers have been leasing this land for decades, putting up fences and digging wells at their own expense.  Cutting a wide swath through this rangeland for a rail line could put some of them out of business.  Longtime rancher Joe Fellini told the Las Vegas Sun last week: "It takes years and years to build these ranches, and with one stroke of a bureaucrat's pen, they're gone.  Hell, we've been here 130 years."

Some folks in Lincoln
County support the nuclear waste dump--as well as this new railroad project--in the belief that it could boost their economically stagnant region.  The railroad's construction certainly would bring some good jobs to the area, but once it's finished in a couple of years, the work disappears.  Its unlikely Yucca Mountain would create more than a handful of permanent jobs in Lincoln County, and that meager benefit could be offset by losses in the ranching industry.

The DOE has received support from Congress and President Bush to proceed with Yucca
Mountain, and the agency is acting as if it's a done deal.  But it's premature to consider Yucca Mountain a foregone conclusion.  The state's lawsuits against the DOE are still pending, with possible court rulings this summer.  Plus, the state is now considering other lawsuits it might file.  Meanwhile, the DOE has yet to apply for a license to operate the dump.  The process of obtaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is likely to start toward the end of this year and take at least two years.  The licensing process is based primarily on science, not politics, which puts the DOE at a disadvantage.

The Yucca
Mountain project's momentum also could be slowed significantly, if not halted altogether, by November's presidential election.  Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic Party nominee, voted against Yucca Mountain in 2002, and he has gone out of his way in recent months to draw a sharp distinction between his and President Bush's stance on the issue.  If Kerry wins the election, the project's future is far less certain.

Nevadans undoubtedly have Yucca
Mountain fatigue.  It's been a long, drawn-out fight, with ample reasons to lose hope that it can be won.  But they must not give up now.  The federal government wants Nevada, which does not even have a nuclear power plant within its borders, to bear the entire nation's nuclear waste burden.  This is wrong and unfair, not to mention unsafe.

For Nevada, Yucca
Mountain is, first and foremost, an idealistic fight.  It's not about a handful of jobs in depressed rural counties.  It's not about which transportation option is safer, because they are all inherently unsafe.  It's not even really about whether the government can invent a metal canister capable of containing the waste for 400 years or 4,000 years.

Mountain represents a galling abuse of political power, a venal manipulation of the democratic process by the nuclear power industry and its puppets in Washington.  Nevada is right and the federal government is wrong.  The government's plan to sacrifice Nevada so that other states can be rid of the waste they created must not be allowed to stand.

(Used with permission of Las Vegas Mercury.  For more information visit

Additional information on rail shipments to
Yucca Mountain

(1)  A Caliente rail spur does not prevent waste from being shipped through Las Vegas


Studies done for the State of Nevada on rail routing suggest that the railroads could find it expedient to route spent fuel (SNF) and high-level waste (HLW) shipments along southern cross-country rail corridors, meaning that shipments would come west on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to Barstow, Calif., and then back up the Union Pacific line through Las Vegas to Caliente.  That's because (1) according to DOE’s pronouncements, it will be the railroads that will ultimately select the rail routes for SNF and HLW shipments and (2) bad weather and heavy traffic congestion along northern cross-country rail corridors would very likely make the southern routing option attractive, at least for a significant portion of each year.  Under this scenario, Las Vegas could see over 80 percent of waste that is destined for Yucca Mountain, even if a Caliente rail spur is built.


Even if the railroads do not employ a southern routing strategy, hundreds of shipments of spent fuel from all of the California, Arizona and Texas reactors (and possibly from reactors in Washington and Oregon) would reach a Caliente rail spur via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, connecting with the Union Pacific line in Barstow and on to Caliente through Las Vegas. 

Theses findings are contained in a study done for the State of Nevada by Planning Information Corporation (PIC) of Denver, titled, “The Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Waste:  A Systematic Basis for Planning and Management at National, Regional, and Community Levels.”  In that report, PIC examined recent rail industry mergers and acquisitions, traffic levels, and weather considerations along the northern cross-country rail corridor.  PIC concluded that the railroads might very well seek to avoid nuclear waste shipments along the high-traffic-density mainlines, especially through Nebraska.  Under these circumstances, the report found that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line from Kansas City to San Bernadino County, Calif., would become the primary east-west rail corridor, meaning that most waste would still pass through Las Vegas to reach a Caliente rail spur or intermodal facility.


(2)  DOE’s estimates of the numbers of rail shipments are substantially understated


DOE has been asserting that only 175 rail shipments per year would be needed to move waste from reactors around the country to Yucca Mountain.  DOE's mostly rail scenario in the Environmental Impact Statement for Yucca Mountain indicates that it would take between 10,725 shipments over 24 years (447 per year) and 22,057 shipments over 38 years (580 per year) to move spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste from generator locations to the proposed repository.  The estimate of 175 shipments per year was invented by DOE in an attempt to minimize public concerns about the actual number of shipments.  It assumes that all waste would be transported by rail using large rail shipping casks, with at least three casks per train.  It ignores the fact that almost 2,500 barge and/or heavy haul truck shipments would be needed to get waste from reactor sites to the nearest railheads.  It also ignores the thousands of heavy haul truck shipments that would be required to move the large overweight casks from the railhead in Nevada.


DOE’s recently announced alternative of shipping legal weight truck casks by rail to a Caliente intermodal transfer facility would dramatically increase the number of shipments required – to as many as 108,000 over 38 years.   Even if DOE is able to ship five casks per train, there would still be 21,600 cross-country rail shipments required and another 21,600 truck shipments within Nevada.  These numbers do not count the thousands of shipments needed to move waste from reactors to rail yards at the point of origin in order to put together trains for the cross-country trip.

Outrage of
the Week

DOE’s True Colors Shine Through in Dispute with
New Mexico

For those officials and citizens who think Nevada can negotiate with the DOE over Yucca Mountain and conclude agreements for benefits or anything else that are worth more than the paper they’re printed on, listen up.  The State of New Mexico, which long ago rolled over and went along with a DOE repository for lower level transuranic waste, found out again this week just how much DOE’s promises are worth.


In a dispute with the State’s Environment Department over the permissibility of disposing highly radioactive sludge from DOE’s Hanford, Washington facility at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, DOE has abruptly cut off funding for the state’s technical oversight agency.  In response, the New Mexico Environment Evaluation Group (EEG) has had to issue lay off notices to its staff and announce that the agency will close its doors effective April 30th.


Never mind that the creation of EEG and DOE’s commitment to fund it were cornerstones of New Mexico’s decision not to oppose the WIPP program in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  True to form, DOE resorted to retaliation and extortion when the state had the audacity to demand that DOE adhere to the law and state and federal environmental regulations in determining what waste can be disposed of at WIPP. 


New Mexico and the federal government have, over the years, worked out very specific and supportable criteria and regulations governing transuranic waste at WIPP.  But DOE, seeking to shortcut the process for dealing with troublesome waste at Hanford, decided unilaterally that it could simply define away the problem.  Just call the Hanford waste “transuranic” and ship it off to New Mexico.


When the state’s regulatory agency balked and pointed out that DOE would be in  violation of federal laws as well as state regulations, not to mention DOE’s own waste acceptance criteria for WIPP, DOE retaliated by cutting off funds to the state’s WIPP oversight entity.  DOE would undoubtedly have preferred to cut off money to New Mexico’s regulatory agency, but since DOE wasn’t providing money to the Environment Department, it went after the nearest target of opportunity, the EEG, which is the state agency that deals with oversight of DOE’s technical program and activities at WIPP.


This isn’t the first time New Mexico has been subjected to this type of blackmail.  In January, 2000, DOE unilaterally withheld the annual $20 million payment of highway funds that Congress had directed DOE provide to the state as part of the negotiated “benefits” package contained in the land withdrawal legislation for WIPP.  DOE took the action in retaliation for New Mexico seeking to enforce a requirement that DOE post a surety bond for the WIPP facility.  DOE’s action cost the state over $7 million in bond payments that came due and could not be paid using the WIPP highway funds.


Nevadans have no reason to think that DOE will act any differently with this state than it has with New Mexico.  We’ve already had a taste of DOE’s disregard for the state and its citizens when imperatives of cost and schedule come into conflict with health and safety considerations in the recent revelations about the intentional exposures of Yucca Mountain tunnel workers to dust containing deadly silica and other hazardous minerals. 


If DOE cannot live up to even the most fundamental agreements involving established and well-recognized environmental and health and safety regulations, how can anyone, with the possible exception of self-delusional nuclear industry lobbyists, expect the Department to honor agreements dealing with benefits and other commitments? 


Nevada should not have to re-learn the lessons that New Mexico and other states have had to learn the hard way.

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