Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What Happens At Yucca Mountain Stays At Yucca Mountain

What Happens At Yucca Mountain Stays At Yucca Mountain

By Jack Laleigh
| Issue 40•46

Jack Laleigh

The name "Yucca Mountain" is synonymous with danger and excitement. It's so much more than some single-industry desert town with a lot of unusual buildings—the entire place surges with activity and pulses with the thrill of the forbidden. The eerie luminescent glow lights the Nevada sky all through the night. Everyone has heard stories, but no one who hasn't visited can truly understand Yucca Mountain. Why's that? Well, my friend, I'd like to tell you, but folks who work here have a little saying: What happens at the Yucca Mountain Federal Nuclear Waste Disposal and Encasement Facility stays at the Yucca Mountain Federal Nuclear Waste Disposal and Encasement Facility.

I can tell you firsthand: There's no place like this in the entire country. The instant you see the strip—the one they pin to your coverall to measure your exposure to radiation—you understand how high the stakes are. Yucca Mountain isn't for the faint of heart. You never get used to the surge of adrenaline you feel watching the Geiger counter whirl, or the frenzy that fills the lab when someone's number comes up. And bubbling below the surface all day—and all night—are the rumors about what immoral things go on behind closed doors, who really runs the place, and who's making the big money.

Discretion is the legally binding watchword for everyone who walks the facility floor. Whether you come for business or just to take a tour, your secrets stay at Yucca Mountain when you go. Hell, would you want your wife to know what happened during that weekend with your Secretary of Energy? Of course not. That's why you wouldn't want to let, oh, say, Mr. Media catch wind of the words you overheard escaping from a nearby Hilton Hyatt table occupied by the seven-man board of Nuclear Regulatory Commission attorneys.

Face it, there's a reason they call this place Synthetic-High-Radiation-And-Weapons-Research-Byproduct-Disposal City. You can try to sell it as a safe, clean site for the long-term storage of 80 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste all you want, but the truth remains that humans have certain desires. The desire for more electricity ain't going to just disappear overnight, and neither are its byproducts. As long as there are people, there will be a need for places like Yucca Mountain. And you didn't hear any of that from me, friend.

We don't like to talk about what goes on at the nation's first geological repository. It simply isn't wise. Even so, stuff gets out. We don't know how—mind you, we'd love to find out. When we do, I can tell you this: There are a few tattlers who'll be sorry. Very sorry. Not that anyone believes the leaks anyway. They're just legends and fragments of tall tales told by loonies found wandering the Mohave with no memory of how they got the burns on their bodies and lesions on their faces. Stories of roller-coaster rides on the wings of probability, people betting it all on a wink from lady luck and one number of the Periodic Table, and then spiraling down into a pit of despair and reinforced concrete when it all goes wrong. Well, believe what you want. No one at Yucca Mountain is talking.

If there's one thing that you can't stop, it's rumors. Do what you will—they'll continue to fly. Maybe you heard the story that was circulating a year or so ago about a couple boys from Utah, name of Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, and a little problem called the Goshute Reservation Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility proposed for their own state. Story says they took a gamble backing Yucca Mountain all the way to Congress and won big. But maybe that never happened. Hard to say. And, if you've heard that Nevada senator Harry Reid used the clout of his position as minority whip to make hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2005 Yucca Mountain budget disappear—why, I wouldn't know. I've been too busy watching the beautiful birds circling our little mountain here. You really do have to see them yourself to understand.

Hell, there are things we don't even talk about ourselves. Sometimes, it's wise not to let the left manipulator arm know what the right manipulator arm is doing, if you follow. Those guys in the fancy suits who fly out from Washington are always looking to score big and bust the place on a technicality of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But in the end, we're the ones who control the embankment around the repository. Us and the little birdies. If the EPA thinks we keep a lead-lined, reinforced-concrete lid on things 24-7, well, so much the better. But those of us who are around every day know the real story. Believe me, there were days when we were a hair on a horse's ass away from an absolute meltdown. But it's better all around that we forget to mention it if—just as an example, mind you—we suffer some big losses because of cask cracks. Or if someone starts acting crazy after drinking a little too much of the water down river. Or if the shipment of "pills" from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant shows up a little short. No need to worry the brass about it. Nothing they could do about it anyway, is there?

Yeah, Yucca Mountain is the land of opportunity, as long as you know two things: how the numbers work and how to keep your lips sealed. With exposure to the legal limit of 15 millirem of radiation per year, the risk of developing a fatal form of cancer is 3 in 10,000—ask me, those are pretty good odds. So if you hear any rumbles coming from Yucca Mountain, or the adjoining Nevada High Plains Test Site, hey, don't worry. It's just someone, or something, blowing off superheated ionized steam.

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