Yucca Mountain Site Heats Up

Energy officials campaign for it as nuclear waste-dump site; scientists say it's too dangerous. CONTROVERSY OVER SPENT FUEL RODS

BATTLE lines first drawn a decade ago over the proposed United States nuclear dump site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain are deepening into trenches.

The federal government has spent well over $1 billion since 1981 testing whether the site northwest of Las Vegas is geologically fit to become the nation's first and only repository of highly radioactive spent fuel rods and debris. Polls have long shown both state officials and residents are overwhelmingly against it.

In the past three months, three items have rekindled debate to new levels of contention:

* In October, a confidential report sent to the American Nuclear Energy Council (ANEC) outlining a strategy to minimize Nevada resistance to the dump was made public. In the report, a 7- to 10-year, multimillion-dollar advertising campaign was laid out to "educate" viewers about nuclear waste and its dangers, as well as discuss the pros and cons of the suggested site.

ANEC spokesman Scott Peterson holds that the campaign was designed not to advocate Yucca Mountain as the eventual site, but rather to explain why it is important to study it. But a Nov. 17 editorial in the Las Vegas Sun held the campaign "intends to subvert the public will, and is virtually an assault on a sovereign state."

* An independent poll Nov. 21 showed that "the vast majority of Nevadans continue to oppose [the] ... multimillion-dollar campaign to site the nation's only high level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain." Three million dollars of ads - money donated by ANEC member utility companies countrywide - began airing in September. But the poll conducted by Decision Science Research Institute of Portland, Ore., showed that 32.1 percent of Nevadans were even less supportive of the dump after viewing the ads.

"Rate payers of the utility companies who have paid for these ads would be very surprised to learn what a flop this program has truly been," said Grant Sawyer, chairman of the State's Commission on Nuclear Projects.

* In December, a panel of five geologists split 3 to 2 on whether an earthquake could drive water from beneath the mountain to flood the dump. The theory was first proposed by Yucca project geologist Jerry Szymanski. Rejected by three scientists appointed by the Department of Energy (DOE), the theory holds that the area is tectonically active - meaning both earthquake prone and volcanic.

"Both sides agree that if it does flood, the situation would be very serious," says Dr. Charles Archambeau, a geophysicist at the University of Colorado who co-wrote the minority report. "The other side simply feels the evidence doesn't support such an eventuality." A National Academy of Sciences panel is also looking at the flooding prospects. It's expected to release its findings this spring.

Bob Loux, head of Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office, the state's nuclear watchdog agency, says the Nevada public has lost its faith in scientists and the scientific process because of these latest developments. "We think the DOE has invested so much money in studying this that they will use any political tool to make it work," says Mr. Loux. "The only kind of science they know is political science."

But according to Samantha Williams, public affairs officer for the DOE, the ad campaign is in no way backed by any federal agency. Study of the site, currently costing about $1 million per day, is likely to continue 10 more years, delayed in part by the state's reluctance to issuing environmental study permits.

If and when studies are conclusive, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will license the repository as directed by Congress, based on DOE recommendations. The evaluation process is being stalled by "officials and people of Nevada who are acting on very one-sided information," says Alan Keesler Jr., chairman of Edison Electric Institute's executive committee. "There simply needs to be more understanding about the national imperative for such a repository, without fear tactics from either side."

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