Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Debate over Yucca continues

Debate over Yucca continues
With Department of Energy taking major step toward construction, educators and lawmakers weigh in
The controversial Yucca Mountain Project took a giant leap forward June 3, when the United States Department of Energy submitted its licensing application for approval to begin construction on the proposed nuclear waste repository.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission now has 90 days to review the application to determine if it is complete. If accepted, the NRC will have three to four years to determine if construction can begin.

Yucca Mountain, which has come under fire since 1978 when talks of the project first began, is again creating a buzz among Nevadans who are adamant in halting its production.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a longtime opponent of the project, said the application "is shoddy at best."

"I'll say it as clear as day: Yucca Mountain will never happen," Reid said. "For more than two decades, I've fought the terrible idea to store all of the nation's dangerous nuclear waste in Nevada tooth and nail, and we have been successful in fending it off at nearly every turn."

Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles from the Las Vegas metropolitan area, and due to various delays, there is currently no official date set for its opening.

Despite decades of research on the project, the current application from the DOE has not addressed some of the most important concerns associated with the facility, according to Reid.

"The DOE application is as flawed as everything else the government has proposed about the dump," he said.

Because the site is relatively close to Las Vegas' major groundwater supply in an area known for earthquakes and volcanic activity, Reid said the application should, but does not prove the safeness of the water storage containers, partly because they have not yet been designed.

He added that the DOE knows the containers will eventually corrode, allowing radiation to contaminate Nevada's drinking water supply. The application's lack of an emergency response plan is another issue, he said.

David Hassenzahl, chair and associate professor of the Department of Environmental Studies at UNLV, is an expert on the topic and said the most pressing concern with Yucca Mountain is that transportation of the waste would be too dangerous.

"The biggest risk is most likely the … large, heavy trucks and trains moving across the country," he said. "We can reasonably expect a number of accidents if we ship it across country, [but] we won't have these accidents if we don't ship it."

Reid agrees, saying that shipping 77,000 tons of nuclear waste across the country is an "invitation for trouble," and that these "rolling dirty bombs" could serve as a target for terrorists.

Many opponents argue that there's no rush to bury the waste, but that because the government is legally bound to collect it, politicians are prematurely pushing for completion of the project.

UNLV Environmental Studies Professor Helen Neill, has done extensive research on the Nevada Test Site and said that through her work on the subject, she has found that Nevadans are hesitant in accepting the Yucca Mountain plan based on past experiences.

"There is a healthy dose of skepticism out there," she said. "This skepticism is based on history. [It's] a recognition that we do already have contamination out there."

Instead of pushing this risky project, Hassenzahl suggests an on-site dry cask storage system. While it would be costly up front, he said, it would be much safer in the long run. Additionally, the submittal of the DOE's application is again putting Yucca Mountain in the headlines and pitting presidential hopefuls senators Barack Obama and John McCain against one another.

According to her research so far, roughly 35 percent of people – the majority of whom live in areas close to the proposed site – have responded in the open-ended section of the survey that Yucca Mountain concerns th

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