The U.S. Senate this July 9 approved the government's plan to create the nation's first permanent nuclear waste storage facility in the western state of Nevada. The bill, which has already passed the House, now goes to President Bush for his signature.
Tuesday's Senate vote was just the latest step in a two-decade long search for a place to bury America's nuclear waste. A growing stockpile is accumulating at 131 power plants and defense sites in nearly 40 states. Storage at some of these facilities, such as the Hanford site in the northwestern state of Washington, relies on methods devised decades ago, when the nuclear industry was just learning how to handle its waste.
Hanford's 177 underground tanks illustrate part of the difficulty of collecting the contaminated material. According to Energy Department spokesman Eric Olds, the waste includes liquids, sludge the consistency of peanut butter, and concrete.
"Ultimately a lot of this material is destined for a national repository, whether that be Yucca Mountain or elsewhere," he said. "Our most immediate concern is getting the waste out of the tanks, getting it into a form where it cannot move easily through the environment."
Mr. Olds said the tanks are leaking high-level nuclear contamination into groundwater near the Columbia River, which is a major waterway in the Pacific Northwest.
One of the benefits of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, according to the government, is its remote location an out-of-the-way place deep in the Nevada desert.
"This area was being characterized as uninhabited. I guess that makes us uninhabitants," said Ralph McCracken, who can see Yucca Mountain from his pistachio farm in Amargosa Valley, Nevada. He and several hundred others live within several kilometers of the mountain. "It's not a remote area," said Mr. McCracken's wife, Debby. "There are schools here. There are children here. It's a community with needs. They never looked at our needs."
But supporters of the Yucca Mountain Storage site said the needs of the nation are greater. Nevada is a sparsely populated state. A central nuclear waste repository would remove tons of contaminated material from more densely populated parts of the country. And, they say, storage in the underground tunnels of the mountain makes environmental sense.
According to project scientist Abe Van Luik, the waste will have no contact with ground water, because it will be stored in steel casks deep inside the mountain, where there is a barrier layer of unbroken rock.
"We expect to have containment in our engineered materials for tens of thousands of years," he said. "And then we expect that even after they degrade the natural barrier features, the slow water movement in the mountain will continue to allow for very little material to ever leave Yucca Mountain and escape into the environment. And the amount of material that does escape does not pose a threat to health and safety up to a million years into the future."
Volcanoes and earthquakes are unpredictable dangers. But Mr. Van Luik says they are unlikely at Yucca. "Seismically and volcanically, it's a stable area. However, we are not blind to the fact that we can have earthquakes here," he said.
Many of those who live in the isolated community near the mountain question more than just the effectiveness of these engineered and geologic barriers. Dairy farmer Ed Goedhart said the government keeps changing the project standards to suit its needs.
"Every time the mountain doesn't fit what they want it to fit they say, 'Well, we can make this work anyway.' They keep on changing the parameters as they go through it, leading us to believe it's not about science, it's about politics," he said. "I think the whole issue of trying to bury our waste and let our future generations deal with the consequences is not the right thing to do."
But even before the nuclear waste can be buried at Yucca Mountain, it has to get there, and the prospect of transporting some 45,000 metric tons of contaminated material from sites all over the country raises broad safety questions.
Peggy Johnson, executive director of the environmental action group, Citizen Alert, says the waste would travel through 44 states on its way to Nevada. "The dangers are absolutely outrageous to consider transporting nuclear waste by railway, by barge, from 131 spots in this country to one spot," she said. "And we are taking it through the backyards of America."
Patrick Rowe, a Department of Energy spokesman at Yucca Mountain, said that transportation was a critical aspect of the project's safety analysis. "The chance of releasing any radioactive material is so small, even in all of the transports that it would take to bring it here to Yucca Mountain," he said. "We do not anticipate any accidents that would actually result in the release of radioactive material."
He points out that the nuclear industry has a history of safe waste shipments, nearly 3,000 over 30 years, with no harmful release of radioactivity.
But that assurance isn't good enough for Nevada lawmakers, who say the fight against the facility will continue before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and in the federal courts. Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn has promised to pursue at least five lawsuits the state has filed challenging the project.
The political opposition to Yucca Mountain is concentrated in Las Vegas. The vibrant entertainment capital, 150 kilometers southeast of the facility, is home to more than a million people.
After Tuesday's vote in the U.S. Senate, Mayor Oscar Goodman said President Bush and the Energy Department were "willing to play a game of Russian roulette with America's cities." He added, "Uniformly, the populace has taken the position that we don't want any part of Yucca Mountain. We don't want nuclear waste coming through our community."
Ironically, Las Vegas welcomed aboveground atomic testing near Yucca Mountain in the 1950's. Department of Energy scientists assured residents there was no danger. But years later, people living downwind of the tests developed high rates of cancer. This has made Nevadans like the McCrackens, suspicious about current government claims of nuclear safety.
"Fifty years ago, those same scientists were saying, 'Come on out and watch our mushroom clouds. Sit in these bleachers,'" said Debby McCracken.
The Yucca Mountain site is expected to open in 2010, and transporting the waste to it would take more than two decades. The spent fuel will remain radioactive and dangerous for more than 100 centuries.