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Yucca Mountain and nuclear power

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The House of Representatives voted on May 8 to approve President Bush's plan to store up to 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada ? on land still claimed by the Shoshone people under their Treaty of Ruby Valley. Large representations of Shoshone, including the Western Shoshone National Council, oppose the proposed storage site, which is located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They are not alone.

The House vote, which dismisses not only the objections of Native peoples, but of environmentalists and most of Utah's residents, is part of a plan that intends to break the national impasse over the growth of the nuclear power industry, significantly stalled for 30 years. In fact, the House vote, which overrides Utah Gov. Kenny Guinn's veto, seeks to authorize nuclear waste storage in the state above and beyond the wishes of local residents and a nearly united official state position. It would also usher in the crisscrossing of the United States by trucks and trains carrying radioactive "spent" fuel rods from nuclear power plants to the Yucca Mountain site.

President Richard Nixon in 1974 projected one thousand nuclear power plants for the United States by the end of the century, but the number has been limited to 104 for decades. Nuclear power presently supplies some 20 percent of the nation's energy needs. But the Bush Administration has nuclear power on the fast track, raising, as the New York Times put it, a "renaissance of expectations" on the potential revival of a moribund industry. The new attitude in the oval office, reportedly led by Vice President Cheney, is full-speed ahead toward a much-heralded nuclear-powered future, opening once again the specter of a thousand nuclear plants.

The passage of the Yucca Mountain Project in the House, over the objection of area and state-wide populations, reminds us of the many "eminent domain" cases used against Native nations ? with federal mandates dictating terms to an objecting but suppressed local and regional population that has very good reason for its objections.

This is a policy direction that should have "boondoggle" stamped all over it. Nuclear power has a huge problem that became completely obvious already 30 years ago ? it generates an intensely toxic radioactive waste that might never cease to be deadly, not for at least 100,000 years. Nobody has solved this overwhelming danger from nuclear waste that threatens to harm underground water systems as much as the over-burning of fossil fuels is doing to the atmospheric systems. The waste problem has manacled the industry for decades. Yucca is touted as the way to open the floodgates, but it is no answer to an overwhelming issue. Knowledgeable critics point to hundreds of safety issues yet to be addressed at the Yucca Mountain site, among them serious risk of earthquake for an area located near several fault lines.

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One tongue-in-cheek argument made by Vice President Cheney is that nuclear is a cleaner burning fuel than coal, which is true on its face and which is all the more true given the declining state of coal-generation regulation. However, the deeper reality is that nuclear's principal use is to generate electricity. It does not fuel vehicles. Since nuclear energy does not serve to supply transportation systems, it primarily competes with the cleanest burner in the market for generating electricity: natural gas.

Nuclear's main virtue has been the severe limitation that succeeding governments ? both Republican and Democrat ? have imposed on its growth as an energy industry. This is largely due to the enormous liability that potential nuclear accidents are expected to generate. Insurance companies generally have shied away from such risk, particularly since the horrendous and ongoing tragedy suffered by thousands of people at Chernobyl and the very dangerous, although controlled, 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.

Right now the industry is using its power and connections in the Administration to squelch the points of greatest objection, not by addressing the issue, but by going around it. This means passing the buck to an inattentive public. Industry advocates now push for renewal of legislation to limit liabilities in the event of a nuclear power accident ? the so-called Price-Anderson Act, adding to the existing doubt about the safety of energy plants that cannot be regularly insured for fear of "catastrophic disaster." Again, the consequences at Chernobyl have been deeply disturbing; permanent genetic mutations are now emerging in children whose parents drank the water and ate the food from the tainted region.

Additionally, in an increasingly terroristic world, the advent of large numbers of plutonium-producing nuclear plants augurs horribly. It signals a security nightmare, as weapons-grade radioactive elements become more easily available to terrorist groups.

There is much opposition. Members of the Western Shoshone Nation organized a 200-mile protest race while congressmen from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Washington have expressed intense concern about the safety of their constituencies as the highly toxic materials are to be routinely transported across Indian country. They are particularly angered by the Administration's down-your-throat approach. Some, such as Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., have charged Bush with using the Sept. 11 attacks to lobby the Yucca Mountain project and thus override serious scientific questions about the project.

The Yucca Mountain project may open up the floodgate to a thousand points of radioactive light but it signals the potential for a truly horrifying scenario. It also continues to move the country's energy policy in precisely the wrong direction, steering emphasis away from the need for serious technical development and investment in renewable energy generation. The concentration of effort now moves to the Senate. We urge the Senate thoroughly to debate this issue. There are way too many unanswered questions.