San Diego Union Tribune

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Going nuclear over Yucca Mountain

September 10, 2007

In the newspaper business, there's the “straight news lead” – an introductory sentence or two that should offer the plain, unvarnished facts about the story to follow.

Here's an example:

“The chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee plans a comprehensive hearing on the safety of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.”


 

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Then there's the lead you might see in a column such as this one. It's a slightly different version of what you just read:

“Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who would rather chew worms than watch the nation build a radioactive waste dump in Nevada's desert, will assemble anti-dump experts before her committee to make a case about the depository's flaws.”

Not that we fault Boxer for this approach, because the simple fact is this: Although the issues surrounding construction of the Yucca Mountain dump are hugely technical, enormously complicated and best left to scientists, it is those with a keen political interest in the proposed repository – Boxer, President Bush, lawmakers who want radioactive waste out of their states – who will have the most to say about whether it gets built.

CRUNCH TIME APPROACHES

The Yucca Mountain dump has been decades in the making, but the coming months are a critical time for it. By next summer, the Department of Energy plans to go to the with an application for a construction license. From there, federal regulators will review the case for the dump – the geology, seismology, hydrology, transportation routes, waste canisters and more – to answer questions of great concern to lawmakers such as Boxer.

Can water infiltrate and carry radioactivity to drinking water? How easy might it be for terrorists to attack the facility? Could an earthquake damage waste canisters and release radioactive materials into the environment? Is it possible those canisters might corrode prematurely and expose their radioactive contents within the underground dump?

As the race to submit the license application accelerates, just about every hearing you'll read about – whether it's before Congress or before a regulatory agency – is likely to be too colored by politics to offer impartial answers to those questions.

If Bush could have his way, he would have opened Yucca Mountain yesterday to advance his nuclear-power-dependent energy initiative, which, to be successful, requires a place to store the resulting radioactive waste.

If a dump doesn't open, the courts will continue socking the Department of Energy with heavy penalties for failing to take the waste off the hands of reactor operators. And because the Department of Energy is ultimately answerable to the president, imagine the strings that will be pulled to make Yucca Mountain look as safe as a 6-year-old strapped into a Volvo.

IT'S ALL PERSPECTIVE

Ask just about any lawmaker in Nevada – Democrat or Republican, local councilman or the governor – to opine on the “science” of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, and the consensus is that it's really bad for the environment and really, really bad for public health. It is a consensus practically unheard of in such a diverse group of politicians, except when it comes to matters of regional self-interest.

Boxer, who took the reins of the Environment and Public Works Committee after Democrats seized control of the Congress in the last election, has promised that in coming months she will assemble a hearing to examine the safety, health and permitting issues surrounding Yucca Mountain. For context: Boxer is a long and active foe of Yucca Mountain, having voted against it in 2002.

As for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it's a five-member body led by a Bush appointee who was once assistant to the secretary of Defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs. Another is a former GOP staffer who had a long career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. And a third once worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who would just as soon toss a grenade at the dump site as look at it.

Now that should make for some lively discussions – all of them based purely on science, of course.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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