YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. -- Driving northwest into the desolate vastness of the Nevada Test Site where the nation's nuclear arsenal was tested, one sees a spindly tower, outlined against a ridgeline, rising 1,527 feet out of the desert. That is the approximate height at which the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. The tower was used to study radiation effects on life at different elevations.
Beyond the ridge is Frenchman Flat, where above-ground nuclear tests were a spectator sport between 1951 and 1962. Residents of Las Vegas took lawn chairs into the mountains to watch mushroom clouds rise into dawn skies. The Flat, still flecked with seared and twisted metal from vehicles and structures exposed to the blasts, is 65 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
That is America's nuclear past. The future -- perhaps; Nevada says ``never!'' -- is beneath this mountain, 25 more miles northwest. Here a crucial component of the nation's nuclear capability, civilian and military, is being built.
So far, preparing this nuclear waste repository has cost $5 billion, most of it from fees paid by customers of utilities generating electricity by nuclear power. The rest of the money is government's payment for the military's waste.
Sculpting the mountain's interior -- carving 41 miles of storage tunnels and 16 miles of access tunnels -- and doing the science to gauge its geologic suitability is a challenge almost as daunting as the construction of the Panama Canal. It is supposed to solve this problem:
One-fifth of the nation's electricity is generated by nuclear power. Were that share substantially increased, that would reduce dependence on fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) that have large environmental and geopolitical drawbacks. Also, 40 percent of the Navy's fleet is nuclear-powered. Nuclear power plants have created almost 50,000 metric tons of spent fuel, with more produced daily. Once solidified, today's 100 million gallons of nuclear waste from prior reprocessing activities will also be placed in the repository.
Nuclear waste is stored at 125 above-ground -- inherently temporary and insecure -- sites located in 39 states, mostly near rivers, lakes and seacoasts, and within 75 miles of 161 million Americans. Most nuclear power plants are located near population centers to reduce the loss of power during transmission.