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Senate Expected to Vote on Moving Nuclear Waste to Nevada

Aired July 6, 2002 - 08:16   ET


ROBIN MEADE, CNN ANCHOR: In the next few weeks, the Senate is expected to vote on a plan to ship thousands of tons of nuclear waste to Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Well, the House has already given its approval to the plan, which is sparking much debate.

CNN's John Vause reports today on the Yucca Mountain controversy.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Nevada desert, arid, desolate country, still radioactive after decades of nuclear testing. And it seems almost certain that once again this will be the place for another great American nuclear experiment. This could be the world's first centralized storage area for radioactive waste, the final resting place for all of this country's spent nuclear fuel, the biggest nuclear graveyard on the planet.

SCOTT NORTHARD, XCEL ENERGY: We think the preponderance of evidence does show that, in fact, Yucca Mountain is a suitable site for spent fuel disposal.

VAUSE: The U.S. Department of Energy wants to bury 77,000 tons of nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain, waste from 131 different sites in 39 states, which has slowly and steadily been building up for almost 50 years. Steel drums covered by titanium shields will hold the waste, buried in eight miles of tunnels, 1,000 feet under the mountain.

MAYOR KEVIN PHILLIPS, CALIENTE, NEVADA: It may be the very best place in our nation at this time to do this thing.

VAUSE: The Department of Energy is convinced that a combination of nature and high tech engineering will keep Yucca Mountain a stable, waterproof, airtight warehouse for the next 10,000 years. There are many who disagree.

GOV. KENNY GUINN, NEVADA: I think the preponderance of the science would show that at this point it hasn't been proven to be safe.

VAUSE: Environmentalists have found unusual allies in Nevada's governor and the mayor of Las Vegas.

MAYOR OSCAR GOODMAN, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA: If they want to say that's safe, they are nuts.

VAUSE: Yucca Mountain rises on the western edge of the nuclear testing range. Scientists estimate between 12 and 15 million years ago, continental plates collided. The volcanic activity which followed former the rugged, sharp peaks. There are layers of tightly packed granite like rock, old and young rock fused together. It all adds up, say supporters, to an ideal location to store radioactive waste.

MICHAEL VOGELE, CHIEF SCIENCE OFFICER, YUCCA MOUNTAIN: And so all the way down there you're going to see the same types of experimentation.

VAUSE: For the past 20 years, about twice as long as it took to put a man on the moon, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars studying Yucca Mountain.

VOGELE: This is the tunnel up here.

VAUSE: In the past five years, digging a network of tunnels, conducting experiments, building computer models and trying to predict the future tens of thousands of years into the future.

VOGELE: We're doing tests on how the heat from the nuclear waste could affect the behavior of the rock. We're doing tests about how the chemistry of the rock and water in the tunnel would affect the behavior of some of the components that would be in that repository.

A 10,000 year period is what's really of interest to model.

VAUSE: Michael Vogele is the chief science officer for the Yucca Mountain project. These days, he's more tour guide and salesman, convincing reporters and Nevada residents that the project is safe, that the Department of Energy has it right. For a few days every month, the site is open to the public.

(on camera): And the importance of that is what?

VOGELE: It gives people an opportunity who want to see what's going on out here a chance to come out and talk to the scientists and see what this tunnel looks like.

VAUSE (voice-over): In the battle over Yucca, the P.R., it seems, is just as important as the science.

VOGELE: Every experiment we're doing here is to understand how to build a computer model which will allow us to predict the behavior of this rock with a repository in it over 10,000 years.

VAUSE: Scientists have built a smaller replica repository with heat from electricity instead of nuclear waste, running heaters for 36,000 hours at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. And so far, no surprises. The mountain and the rock, they say, have reacted exactly as predicted. But there are still some concerns.

VOGELE: Well, I think the biggest danger would be that if were completely wrong on how much water could move through this mountain. I think that is the situation I'd be most worried about. We take the earthquakes into consideration in our models. We take the volcanism into consideration in our models and we do the best we can trying to take the movement of ground water into consideration. And I think that if there were something that could cause a significantly larger amount of water to move through the mountain, I think that could be of concern.

VAUSE: Scientists estimate that for the next 600 years, less than five millimeters of water will move through the mountain every year. But if they're wrong, more water could cause the manmade canisters holding the waste to corrode and break down faster than thought, allowing radioactive particles to wash into the water supply.

Yucca Mountain is about 90 miles from Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the United States. And here, among the 1.4 million residents, there is overwhelming mistrust.

The director of Nevada's Nuclear Agency, Bob Loux.

BOB LOUX, NEVADA NUCLEAR AGENCY: I certainly think that they're very politically motivated. I think there's incredible political pressure from the nuclear industry, from the Congress, to get these things going, and I think that in many cases they're probably willing to say anything in order to try to get the project in a more favorable light.

VAUSE: The State of Nevada has been fighting the repository for years, and the battleground has been on the scientific front. It's a confusing, often heated argument with both sides accusing the other of blatant misrepresentation.

One example, the containers which will store the radioactive waste, made of Alloy 22, a new nickel and titanium based metal. The Department of Energy has faith the containers will stand the test of time.

(on camera): And do we know how long that would last before it's corroded?

VOGELE: The Alloy 22?


VOGELE: The models show it would last tens of thousands of years.

LOUX: The Alloy 22, the material that will be used for the waste packages, scientists again, corrosion people working for us say no metal is going to survive more than 1,200 years underground at Yucca Mountain, they don't care what it is. It's a reducing, oxidizing environment because of lead and mercury and other heavy metals in the water at Yucca Mountain. It will chew up any sort of metal underground at Yucca Mountain.

VAUSE: There is also debate about the potential volcanic activity. In mid-June, the region was struck by a magnitude 4.4 earthquake. Scientists at Yucca Mountain, 12 miles from the tremor's epicenter, say they found no damage. Opponents say that is proof the region is unstable and even without an earthquake, they say the mountain itself will not offer complete protection from the radiation.

So what's the truth?

KEVIN CROWLEY, NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCE: There is no yes or no answer to that question.

VAUSE: Kevin Crowley is a scientist with the National Academy of Science in Washington, a think tank formed by Congress to give independent information to the government.

CROWLEY: All of the science is not in. There's more work that needs to be done.

VAUSE (on camera): So right now the best that can be said about Yucca Mountain is that it's potentially adequate?

CROWLEY: In my personal opinion, yes, it's potentially adequate.

VAUSE: That's it?

CROWLEY: That's it at this point.

VAUSE (voice-over): Hardly a ringing endorsement, but enough, say supporters, to move this process to the next stage, to get congressional approval to just apply for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

CROWLEY: So I think it's important to recognize that if Congress decides to move forward with Yucca Mountain, that does not mean that we will have a repository there. What it means is that the Department of Energy will be allowed and given the funding to develop a license application.

VAUSE: The Department of Energy must then prove overwhelmingly that the project is safe. If it does, the NRC will authorize construction. But there is a feeling in Nevada that the decision has already been made. No matter what is said or done, the repository will be given the go ahead. And for many here, there's good reason to doubt anything the federal government says when it comes to anything nuclear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two, one, zero time, area four.

VAUSE: Forty years ago, the people of this state were assured that above ground nuclear testing was safe, not only was it safe, but they were invited to sit on park benches to marvel at the blinding flash of light, the bright orange and red colors in the sky, the spectacular mushroom clouds.

GOODMAN: Now, they are paying those folks $50,000 for double mastectomies, for dying of horrible cancers. VAUSE: Oscar Goodman is the mayor of Las Vegas. He is brash, outspoken, has even threatened to use his police force to arrest truck drivers carrying nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. That scenario is unlikely, but the mayor knows how to get publicity.

GOODMAN: I don't believe Washington. I don't them one minute. They're trying to create a fraud upon Nevada and it's going to backfire because it's going to affect other parts of the country.

VAUSE: If Yucca Mountain is approved, it's unlikely to be operational before 2030, so right now Mayor Goodman and other Nevada politicians are trying to convince the rest of America it, too, is at risk.

GOODMAN: The nation's problem is how you get the junk out here. It has to travel through the entire United States. So it's a national problem.

VAUSE (on camera): One of the main arguments for Yucca Mountain is national security. U.S. officials say after September 11, it's crucial that the country's nuclear waste is kept in one safe and secure location. But opponents are also arguing terrorist threats, only they say the transportation of radioactive material, thousands of shipments by road and rail every year for 30 years, is far more dangerous than leaving it where it already is.

SEN. HARRY REID (D), NEVADA: The only way it can get here is through the highways and railways of this country. And remember, they're talking about hauling over 100,000 truckloads and over 20,000 train loads of this stuff. It goes through people's neighborhoods, through their school yards or by their school yards. Everything we do in America is going to be affected by this stuff.

VAUSE: Even the Department of Energy concedes there will inevitably be accidents during transportation. But it says the special lead lined canisters like the one seen here in this video have undergone rigorous testing, through fire and collisions, dropped from cranes.

Marvin Fertel represents the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington lobby group pushing hard for Yucca.

MARVIN FERTEL, NUCLEAR ENERGY INSTITUTE: There's been about 20,000 shipments of used nuclear fuel over in Europe and actually if you think about it, Europe has had terrorism for many, many years. Nobody has attacked their shipments because they're well protected and also it's very hard to damage it. I mean these are in very robust containers of steel and concrete a foot and a half to two feet thick. They're designed to withstand almost any kind of accident that you can foresee.

So, I mean, yes, the answer to your question is yes, we can protect it if we ship it.

VAUSE: In the United States, there have been 2,700 shipments of radioactive material over the past 30 years, all without public harm. Today, most of the nuclear waste is being stockpiled at the nuclear power plants, medical facilities and military bases. And if the anti- Yucca forces had their way, they'd leave it there until a better alternative can be found. And it could remain there safely, officials say, for the next hundred years, maybe longer. But when it comes to radioactive waste, which remains deadly for hundreds of thousands of years, a hundred or so years can pass very, very quickly. After all, the waste has already been piling up now for almost half a century.


MEADE: And stay with CNN. In the next hour our John Vause will take a closer look at the problem of nuclear waste and he visits a Nevada town that is open to the proposed plan.




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