Wasting a Good Solution

Posted: Aug 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Our country has a problem. And we have a solution. But politics is threatening to interfere.

The problem: Tens of thousands of tons of dangerous nuclear waste are stored at more than 125 sites around the nation. The solution: Bury the waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Yucca would become a giant underground repository. It?s designed to contain nuclear waste for 10,000 years -- long enough for it to decay to safe levels. At Yucca, our waste would be stored safely underneath 1,000 feet of solid rock.

Now comes the politics. ?One of the biggest environmental and security challenges facing Nevadans is the threat that Yucca Mountain will be turned into the nation?s nuclear waste dump,? John Kerry warned during a recent campaign stop in the state.

But Kerry and others who want to block Yucca ignore the fact that our nuclear waste has to go somewhere. We can?t simply dump it in the ocean or blast it into space.

And we know Yucca Mountain is ideal, because it?s probably the most-studied location in the world. The federal government started investigating whether the site would be suitable for storing nuclear waste back in 1978.

Located in a quiet area of Nevada, some 100 miles from the outskirts of Las Vegas, Yucca has all the traits necessary for the long-term storage of radioactive waste. The climate is dry. That means little rain, which might erode the canisters that nuclear waste is stored in. The geology is stable, so it?s unlikely an earthquake would disturb the waste. And the water table at Yucca is contained, so if there?s a leak, it won?t contaminate the water supply anywhere else.

Of course, when it comes to storing nuclear waste, most people (understandably) say ?not in my backyard.? But right now, the waste is in our backyard.

All high-level nuclear waste is the responsibility of the federal government. While we?re dithering over Yucca Mountain, this waste is piling up at temporary sites in almost 40 states. Most of these are near water, and many are in urban or suburban areas. Today, an estimated 161 million people reside within 75 miles of temporarily stored nuclear waste, and each storage site is a potential terrorist target.

Contrast that with Yucca Mountain. The federal government owns almost 80 percent of Nevada. Nuclear waste stored there will be far from populated areas. In fact, the site?s nearest neighbor is the Nevada Test Site, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island and is one of the largest restricted-access areas in the United States. That, combined with the fact that Yucca is also surrounded on three sides by Nellis Air Force Base, should help keep the waste safe from potential terrorist attack.

Of course, getting the waste to Nevada will pose a challenge. ?Under the Yucca Mountain plan,? Kerry warned recently, ?more than 50,000 shipments of waste would travel just yards away from homes, hospitals, parks and playgrounds in states across this country.?

That?s true, but nuclear waste already is traveling around the country, and the safety record is admirable. In the past 30 years, the government has safely completed more than 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel, and there hasn?t been even a single injury from the release of radioactive materials. With the proper security measures, nuclear waste will be delivered safely to Yucca Mountain.

The price of oil is hovering around record highs, and there?s no doubt our country needs to develop alternate sources of energy. Nuclear power is cheap, safe and generates no greenhouse gasses. However, the United States hasn?t opened a new nuclear plant since 1979, partly because we haven?t had any place to put the radioactive waste.

But we will -- if we can stop playing politics and get Yucca Mountain open.