YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. -- Things have a grand scale out here. The Nuclear Test Site adjacent to this mountain is bigger than Rhode Island but smaller than Nellis Air Force Base, which also is adjacent. But the biggest thing is the dispute, now roiling a second decade, about carving a nuclear waste repository in this mountain's innards, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The Bush administration says that sound science proves this: Because of the aridity of this eastern end of the Death Valley hydrologic basin, and because of what scientists have learned about the mountain's reaction to the sort of heat that will be generated by the slowly decaying waste, and because metallurgical advances will make waste containers extraordinarily durable, no significant corrosion can threaten the structural integrity of containers that will hold the waste for at least 10,000 years -- and probably 80,000.
Not so, says Steve Frishman, a geologist employed by Nevada. He insists that enough water will reach the metal containers to cause, within just 200 years, seepage of radioactive waste that will threaten the groundwater and irrigation systems. He says that by emphasizing metallurgy, his adversaries prove that they have to disregard the principal criterion for a satisfactory repository -- that ``geology is the workhorse.'' He says geologic disposal of nuclear waste is feasible in rock less porous to water than this mountain is -- in granite deposits of a sort found from Minnesota to North Carolina. For Nevadans who are not scientists, all they want to hear is: Not here.
NIMBY -- not in my back yard -- is a normal response, but Nevada is mostly back yard: 92 percent of the state is owned by the federal government. And Nevada has a history of being put to unusual uses.
In 1864 it was rushed into statehood before it had the required number of residents, because President Lincoln thought he might need its three electoral votes. When the Comstock Lode's silver was exhausted, so, too, was Nevada: Between 1880 and 1900, while other mountain states' populations tripled, Nevada's declined from 62,266 to 42,335. Some Easterners, thinking that one senator for each 22,500 people was ridiculous, suggested stripping Nevada of statehood.
But Nevada, practicing ``entrepreneurial federalism,'' built a gaudy future from the marriage of divorce and gambling. Some states had competed for the ``migratory divorce'' business -- people shopping for the most permissive laws. In 1931 Nevada crushed competitors by enacting a six-week residency requirement for divorce, and legalized gambling.
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