Ground zero in nuclear-power battle

Despite $7 billion in studies, debate rises over safety of Yucca Mt. as a radioactive storage site.

No public roads cross these jagged escarpments, where rubble and sagebrush carpet dusty desert peaks. No sound intrudes upon the serene flight of hawks gliding the updrafts generated by scorching heat.

The remote panorama comes from atop Yucca Mountain, a hump of ash dumped by an erupting volcano some 12 million years ago.

The height, depth, and geological makeup of this Nevada mountain - what one engineer calls the "most studied piece of real estate in the history of mankind" - is reentering the national spotlight in the wake of calls by President Bush to revive the nuclear power industry.

Despite the White House push, the key to the industry's turnaround may ultimately hinge on the rabbit warrens beneath this windswept ridge.

It's here that the US wants to establish a repository to store radioactive waste for the next 10,000 years. But even after 22 years of study and debate, the politics of where to put the detritus from the nation's nuclear plants remains as hard as lava rock. "This is about to get very interesting," says a Department of Energy (DOE) official at the site. "Those who oppose this are beginning to get involved, and we expect litigation for some time to come."

As part of his national energy plan, Mr. Bush called for licensing new nuclear reactors as well speeding up the relicensing of existing plants to ease the nation's power problems. He also endorsed the idea of a national waste dump, without specifying the site.

At present, the nation's 103 nuclear plants each generate an average of 3 to 6 tons of waste per year. That is in addition to the 77,000 tons now stored at some 70 sites around the country, including the grounds of existing reactors. But these temporary storage sites, where spent fuel is held in metal canisters surrounded by water or cement, are running out of space. Energy officials at each site must find more or, by law, shut down further production.

The US has studied different sites for such a repository, but since 1987 has stopped all serious consideration other than Yucca Mountain. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is holding meetings this week in Nevada to consider construction permits for the site.

Already a five-mile tunnel and several test "alcoves" exist in which scientists have been analyzing the geologic features of the mountain. They have been trying to determine how to safely keep radioactive waste away from humans - and without leaking into the environment or water table - until such waste chemically "degrades" and becomes safe, about 10,000 years by federal statute.

DOE is also taking public comments in coming months before forwarding recommendations to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who will advise the Bush administration.

But Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn (R), the state's congressional delegation, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman - whose city sits just 90 miles south - and most voters all oppose the project. So do a chorus of environmental, native American, and citizen lobbying groups. All are mounting campaigns within and without the state to generate opposition.

Yet many lawmakers from other parts of the country, not wanting a nuclear graveyard in their states, have supported the Nevada site.

While the politics of the issue swirls in Washington and elsewhere, the work of the engineers beneath the lava rock here is receiving more attention as pressure builds to open a repository. Already, more than $7 billion worth of study and testing have taken place. This has included probing earthquake movement, sediment layers, chemical content, volcanic activity, and water flow.

The proposed repository would be built at the end of a two-mile tunnel, 1,000 feet below the surface of the mountain and 1,000 feet above the water table. Government experts say no information has been yet found to disqualify the site as unsafe.

Surface water would have to descend 1,000 feet through volcanic rock, degrade the steel and ceramic cladding that surrounds the spent uranium fuel, descend another 1,000 feet to a water table, and then move horizontally 13 miles to the nearest exposure point. Tests show such a scenario would take far more than 10,000 years.

"Touring this site and seeing what tests they have performed and what protection exists should be very reassuring to even the biggest cynic," said Danny Keuter, vice president for Entergy Nuclear Inc., a nuclear firm.

While critics dispute these assertions, they note that storage isn't the only issue. Getting the waste to and from the facility is problematic, too. "The shipping campaign required to move waste to a repository would be the largest nuclear materials transport in history, involving more than 100,000 shipments and lasting more than 30 years," says Mr. Goodman.

His and other politicians' biggest fear: an accident or terrorism incident that ruins the state's tourist industry. DOE's own analyses estimate the cleanup of a severe accident in a rural area at $620 million and in an urban area at $2 billion, says Goodman. "If Washington makes the decision that this is where they want to bury it, you will see more than a little uprising all across this state," says Goodman aide Eric Pappa.

Still, in the end, if not Yucca Mountain, where? "As long as we have nuclear power, there is the necessity of putting this waste somewhere safe," says Dennis O'Brien, an energy expert at the University of Oklahoma. "We are about to witness a battle not over the scientific questions raised, but about the politics surrounding that science."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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