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Unanswered Questions

Oversight of the study of Yucca Mountain resides at multiple levels in more than a dozen organizations. Ranging from the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, to the Senate Energy Committee to the Nuclear Waste Project Office at the state level, these entities have a duty to ask tough and even embarassing questions of the Department of Energy and the scientists studying Yucca Mountain.

The anti-repository lobby in Nevada has in contrast not been required to justify its positions on Yucca Mountain with the same rigor. Senators Bryan and Reid, Governor Miller, the Sun newspaper, the Nuclear Waste Project Office and the environmental special interests that have invaded Nevada seem to have promoted their political agenda with little concern for whether nuclear waste is in reality safe to transport or store. This has distorted the public's views of the dangers of nuclear waste, inciting mass panic.

Nevadans who have attempted to keep an open mind about the nuclear waste issue have been brutalized by media attacks, hounded by elected officials and had their professional motives ridiculed by outside anti-nuclear agitators. While it is not suggested that those opposing Yucca Mountain should be subjected to these same tactics, the environmental lobby has left unresolved a number of unanswered questions about its logic and motives which it seems fair they be asked to address:

1) Nuclear bombs made from the same types of radioactive materials that would come to the Yucca Mountain waste site and capable of incinerating all of Southern Nevada fly over Las Vegas into Nellis Air Force Base every day. Nuclear annihilation is a terrifying risk, yet none of Nevada's politicians have suggested shutting down Nellis Air Force Base because of this kind of nuclear transport. If the dangers posed by Nellis AFB are so remote as to be inconsequential, why are the smaller dangers of Yucca Mountain viewed as a threat?

2) Las Vegans watched above-ground multi-megaton nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site from their backyards 35 years ago. Each of those explosions spread at least as much nuclear waste around the Vegas Valley as could be expected from the worst disasters that can happen at the Yucca Mountain repository. If Nevada's politicians and environmentalists are sincere about their concerns of contamination from the repository site, shouldn't Las Vegas be evacuated to save Nevadans from the much greater surface contamination left over from previous bomb testing?

3) If the dangers of earthquakes are so great at Yucca Mountain that it's too dangerous to store nuclear material there under a thousand feet of rock, then shouldn't Hoover Dam be dismantled? A fault runs under the dam and an earthquake of the magnitude that would disrupt the waste site could conceivably break the dam and send a cascade of water into Southern California. Is it logical to be for the dam but against the waste site, given that earthquake damage to Hoover dam is potentially more life threatening?

4) If there is a major earthquake danger in Southern Nevada, should Nevada have allowed the building of Steve Wynn's Mirage casino, Bill Bennett's Luxor and other thirty story highrises that could collapse and kill ten thousand people inside in an instant. The resorts are only a few miles from McCarran Airport; surely a 747 crashing into the Mirage would be catastrophic (as was a similar jet crash into an apartment complex in Amsterdam in mid 1992). Rationally, the anti-nuclear coalition should favor closing McCarran International Airport and banning high density highrises.

4) If there is a major volcano risk at Yucca mountain, shouldn't Las Vegas be abandoned before the city is subjected to the risk of annihilation? Volcanic activity at Yucca Mountain sizeable enough to disrupt the repository might be as great as the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo in the Phillipines and would likely destroy Las Vegas, only 90 miles away. If the volcano risk at Yucca mountain makes that site unusable, does this also condemn Las Vegas?

5) If exposure to radiation levels of the sort expected for Nevadans during nuclear waste transport are intolerable, isn't there an obligation to ban air flights into Las Vegas' McCarran Airport? High altitude flight in an airliner exposes humans to measurable cosmic ray radiation. If even slight increases in radiation exposure due to nuclear waste transport are intolerable, then so should be the radiation exposure due to air travel.

6) The potassium in human bones is radioactive and a married couple is exposed to radiation levels similar to that which Southern Nevadans would be exposed to from the waste dump. Should Senators Bryan and Reid introduce a bill in the Senate to ban sex?

7) Should television be banned (the screen gives off X-ray radiation), should microwave ovens be outlawed (microwave radiation), should sun-tanning salons be illegal (high levels of UV radiation), and should post offices be condemned (uranium traces in their granite walls)? These radiation sources present cumulative risks similar in magnitude to Yucca Mountain.

8) Thirty-five percent of adult Nevadans smoke and that smoke has proven high levels of cancer causing radiation (greater than the waste repository will ever expose Nevadans to). Nearly 2000 Nevadans per year die of smoking related disorders and over ten thousand years that represents twenty million Nevadans who will die from cigarettes. Should cigarettes be outlawed in Las Vegas, the smokers paradise?

9) Among the things that will kill thousands of people over the next ten thousand years of the nuclear repository's existence are: drunk drivers, pool drownings, cigarettes, guns, the common cold, AIDS, smog, icy sidewalks, drugs, airplane crashes, kitchen knives, pit bulls, football, ad infinitum. For example, each year there are about twelve child pool drownings in Southern Nevada and over ten thousand years that comes to 120,000 deaths. Should Nevada introduce a legislative ban on swimming pools?

10) The Pepcon rocket fuel blast in 1989 that rocked the Las Vegas valley and damaged Henderson, Nevada, suggests the nearby Kerr McGee plant is more dangerous than truckloads of inert nuclear spent fuel headed towards a repository. The acid cloud from the Timet titanium metals plant in Henderson, Nevada may well kill more people over ten thousand years than the nuclear waste site. Explosions of tankers of gasoline that travel Nevada's highways and rails will kill many times the number of people that will ever die from the waste repository (e.g., the 1992 Bakersfield train wreck). Should all risks similar to Yucca Mountain be banned?

11) Should lifesaving forms of medical radiation be banned, since they present similar (though vanishingly small) radiation risk levels to the general population as Yucca Mountain. Indeed, Citizen Alert in 1991 espoused such a view in a position paper.

12) Nuclear power doesn't cause acid rain, it doesn't strip-mine coal fields, it doesn't put radiation in the air (not like burning natural gas and coal with natural radioactive elements does), it doesn't create unhealthy smog, it doesn't affect the ozone layer, it doesn't cause the greenhouse effect. Could the environmental protest against Yucca Mountain lead to the degradation of the environment and the deaths of thousands of people?

These are tough questions. However, the Yucca Mountain opposition seems not overly concerned with logical consistency or answering tough questions. Senators Reid and Bryan, Governor Miller, Bob Loux and the vast network of anti-repository organizations all have a vested interest in keeping the population afraid of nuclear waste. The resulting mix of nuclear hysteria and political ambition is perhaps a nuclear madness more dangerous than radiation from Yucca Mountain will ever be.