Fact vs. Fiction

Having introduced the proponents and opponents of Yucca Mountain, we can begin to examine whether it is science or ideology which separates the battling factions. Pro-nuclear forces claim the engineering and science at the repository, while complex, is not inherently beyond human capabilities. In contrast, charges leveled against the Department of Energy's study of Yucca Mountain by environmentalists and Nevada political entities tend to paint the study as hopelessly doomed by human incompetence and the unique dangers of radiation. While there are many legitimate scientific questions still unresolved at Yucca Mountain, our interest is primarily in the objections professional opponents have to the site and whether these are legitimate questions or manufactured concerns.

The hailstorm of objections raised by opponents of the repository have been vetted in various forums. The environmental community position is represented by publications and media releases of the Safe Energy Communication Council, Citizen Alert, the Nuclear Information Resource Service, and an array of similar activist environmental organizations. The state of Nevada publishes its Nuclear Waste News and produces a radio show called Fact vs. Fiction which highlight its differences with the DOE's study of the repository. The media have also taken an activist role in supporting opponents of the repository with favorable coverage. There is, however, a certain convergence of the negative charges which echo through the environmental community, the media and NWPO, implying a certain synchronicity of these concerns.

Perhaps most representative of the entire range of opposition arguments is a position paper produced in 1993 by NWPO titled Why Nevada Is Opposed To Yucca Mountain, which is in reality an amalgam of all the environmental positions. Addressing the issues raised by this paper helps sort the chaff from the wheat, separating scientific statements of the repository opposition from their political statements.


NWPO STATEMENT: "Waste considered for Yucca Mountain would contain tons of plutonium, an extremely toxic radioactive byproduct. One billionth of an ounce, if ingested, can cause cancer or genetic defects."

Given the containment of plutonium in a nuclear waste matrix and its enclosure in multiple layers of shipping cask, overpack and geologic overburden this threat is virtually meaningless. However, environmental activists have promoted plutonium anxiety because they link it to possible bombmaking by terrorists, also extremely improbable. Plutonium paranoia is an example of a NWPO and environmental concern which is actually more political and fear inducing than scientific.

NWPO STATEMENT: "Numerous studies, both by federal government scientists and independent contractors, suggest that Yucca Mountain is scientifically unsuited for holding most dangerous nuclear material and keeping it out of the environment for the extraordinarily long time required."

Actually, considering the complexity of site characterization there are relatively few studies which question Yucca Mountain's suitability, none of which have passed rigorous peer review. An often cited example is former DOE geologist Jerry Szymanski's theory that groundwater could well up at Yucca Mountain. Utterly refuted after a two year study by a special review panel (the National Research Council) from the National Academy of Science, the panel rejected Szymanski's theory by a vote of 17-0.

NWPO STATEMENT: "The tiniest amount of radiation to the reproductive cells can cause mutations. . . . The National Academy of Sciences has also concluded that exposure to any level of radiation is harmful and may lead to ill health effects."

This again appears to be fearmongering rather than useful science. If no level of radiation exposure is safe, then sunlight, microwave ovens, TVs, airplane flights, etc. would all be threats to our health. The real question at Yucca Mountain is whether unreasonable levels of radiation would be emitted, a question that is still being resolved. This points, however, to the possibility that many in the opposition to Yucca Mountain may have crossed over from reasonable concern over health risks posed by a repository to a kind of nuclear paranoia.

NWPO STATEMENT: "The site is affected by recent volcanic faulting, and nearby young volcanoes, evidence of a young and active geologic setting."

While there are young volcanoes nearby, the real question is whether they are of a type that could disrupt the repository itself. The volcanoes are small cinder cones, not of a violent nature, and do not appear to be a threat. This is still a subject of research.

NWPO STATEMENT: "The area has a history of earthquakes, including one in 1932 . . . the same magnitude as the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. A 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck an area less than 12 miles south of Yucca Mountain in 1992 . . ."

This is a manufactured concern. Earthquakes have substantially diminished effects below the earth's surface (miners rarely feel earthquakes). Tunnels at nearby Skull Mountain, nearly on top of the 1992 earthquake, were unaffected. This is another example of a quasi-scientific statement used for its political effect.

NWPO STATEMENT: "Yucca Mountain is situated within a world-class precious metal mining district. Millions of dollars of gold and silver may be located in the area.

This is a half-truth. Yucca Mountain itself is composed of mineralogically worthless volcanic tuff rock thrown out by a huge, ancient volcanic caldera. It is the distant edges of the caldera that contain precious metals. The nearest mineralized bedrock is many thousands of feet below Yucca Mountain or many miles distant on the surface and no commercial companies have filed claims.

NWPO STATEMENT: "Economic studies reveal that, if built, the repository and its operational activities . . . could negatively affect future investment in Las Vegas, discourage businesses relocating to the area, and cause tourists not to visit Nevada."

There is no empirical evidence of this being true. Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing communities in the nation, even though Yucca Mountain has long been near the top of its political and media agenda.

NWPO STATEMENT: "Nevada believes that the waste should be stored in dry casks at existing sites for several decades . . . Such an arrangement would simplify eventual disposal by allowing the waste to cool thermally and radioactively before being shipped, handled and disposed of . . . This would allow spending at least 40-60 years actually searching for a scientifically sound, publicly acceptable approach to the solution of the nuclear waste problem."

This is the environmental lobby's standard answer to the nuclear waste problem - delay the solution indefinitely. Activists in their more candid moments have admitted that this is a ruse to cause a bottleneck at nuclear reactor sites forced to store their waste and lead to the shutdown of the nuclear industry [e.g., a conversation with Diane D'Arrigo, Nuclear Information Service]. NWPO has never done its own studies of on-site storage and relies on DOE and the nuclear industry for its data, though it does not trust their findings regarding Yucca Mountain. Noted anti-nuclear activist Marvin Resnikoff now admits that on-site storage may make later transportation of casks from reactor sites problematic because of the breakdown of the fuel rods over time.

NWPO STATEMENT: "A major concern is that radiation from nuclear waste will work its way from the proposed dump into water supplies and the air, which could expose large segments of Nevada's population.

Time scales and geologic factors at Yucca Mountain make this exposure scenario extremely unlikely and of so limited effect as to be inconsequential. Water from Yucca Mountain drains into a natural dead end in Death Valley. Emissions to the air are expected to be near that of a single operating reactor - exceptionally small. Natural barriers to the movement of radioactive nuclides is why this site is being studied as a site for nuclear waste disposal.

NWPO STATEMENT: "The radiation that emanates from this type of nuclear waste which would be buried at Yucca Mountain is so intense that anyone with direct contact would receive a fatal dose of radiation instantly."

This same material is now handled daily at 110 reactor sites nationally with zero fatalities, pointing to the fearmongering aspects of arguments posed by opposition to Yucca Mountain. The danger of radiation exposure is the entire reason for doing deep geologic burial.

NWPO STATEMENT: The Department of Energy's credibility is so low, especially with respect to waste issues, that it is probably not capable of carrying out a program like the repository."

If the DOE is incapable of carrying out this mandate, then there is likely no government or private entity which can complete the task. Actually, the persistent paranoia about DOE which runs throughout environmental tracks is more the result of anti-war political concerns and a penchant for conspiracy theory than due to DOE's lack of credibility. While DOE does have problems, in large part the result of the complexity of its task and the legacy of the Cold War, these problems are being systematically addressed, as evidenced by the activities of current DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

NWPO STATEMENT: The DOE pledged a "good faith effort" to help New Mexico acquire funding for highway bypasses, compensation for lost mineral royalties, and money for emergency management and preparedness. To date, the DOE has requested no such appropriations in its budgets."

DOE is not a lawmaking entity and highway bypasses are not a normal part of their budgets. However, in the Fall of 1992 a very favorable bill was passed in Washington D.C. that provides compensation ($431 million over 15 years) to New Mexico for their acceptance of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP). DOE did not oppose this legislation and in fact supported it. Ironically, it was Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada who filibustered the WIPP compensation package.

Dismissing the criticism voiced by NWPO and the environmental movement does not imply a lack of valid technological questions at the repository. Instead, our point is that the concerns voiced by DOE and its independent contractors over the suitability of Yucca Mountain are nearly inverted from those of NWPO and the environmental movement. This suggests there is an entirely hidden level of meaning to be found between the lines of the political and scientific battle over the nation's proposed nuclear waste repository. While we will return in depth to technical issues later, the hidden levels of political ideology expressed in opposition statements is what concern us most in the chapters to come.