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Nevadans Riled By Plan To Bury Nation's Radioactive Waste In The Desert
To understand their skepticism is to understand that the land is contaminated and people here continue to suffer from the fallout of 1,000 or more nuclear test explosions, the last in 1992.
It is to understand that Yucca Mountain, which is supposed to provide safe storage for 10,000 years, may not be the stable, waterproof warehouse the government originally thought it was.
And it is to understand the competing forces at work in a state that is mostly desert and federal land, but now has the fastest-growing city in the nation 90 miles from Yucca Mountain, with residential subdivisions sprawling closer every day.
The U.S. House has already endorsed Yucca, and an imminent Senate vote is the key step left in what has been a 20-year effort to get the project approved.
Yucca's philosophical fallout is spreading across the country with issues that include the safe transportation of nuclear waste through densely populated areas in the East, West and Midwest. But here in the silent desert, where scrubby gray-green creosote bushes and cactuses cling like burrs to the earth's brown hide, the stakes are the highest, the issue most personal.
Kalynda Tilges maneuvers her lace-curtained Dodge van into a Las Vegas hotel parking lot early on a recent morning.
Tilges, in blue batik and sandals, her salt-and-pepper hair a tangle of curls, hops out and opens the balky passenger door for a visitor with barely a pause in her running monologue.
"I came out to the desert in 1979 to clear my head and think," says Tilges, 45, a Texas native who like many second-chancers was drawn West in the hopes of leaving behind bad choices and regret.
"Now," she says, back in the driver's seat and downshifting hard on the van's three-on-the-tree gear shaft, "I've got a grandkid."
After decades of searching - working as a slot machine mechanic, a psychic (when her given name "Karen" morphed to "Kalynda"), a comedian on the Vegas Strip and a mother of three - Tilges has a cause.
As the nuclear issues coordinator for the statewide environmental group Citizen Alert, she's the most public local voice and face working to block the Yucca Mountain project.
Tilges is the one who loads up her 26-year-old van with water and pretzels, her 9-year-old son, Chasen, her mutt, Scooter, and any interested visitor. She'll drive for hours through the Amargosa Desert for a close-up view of Yucca, its people and the far-flung, dusty little towns in its shadow - a rattletrap round she calls the "People's Tour." It's a bare-bones alternative to the extensive guided coach bus tours the U.S. Department of Energy offers of the mountain and the 6.8-mile horseshoe-shaped tunnel that now snakes through it.
Tilges rattles off her concerns about plans to store radioactive waste in Yucca: It could leak contaminants into the groundwater; fault lines running through the mountain could shift and break up the repository; and thousands of trucks and train cars carrying dangerous waste could be rumbling through Nevada, past schools, homes and businesses.
"It's the moral equivalent of throwing your garbage onto your neighbor's property," she says, bells and crystals tinkling from her rearview mirror as the van heaves over another bump in a gravel road off I-95.
But Tilges, who lives in Las Vegas, is perhaps most eloquent when she talks about her love of the desert and her anger at what she characterizes as the federal government's disregard for its stark, strange allure and its forgotten people.
"When I'm driving back home from the desert and the sun is low, I see the mountains changing from purple to rust color to red," she says. "Sometimes I cry, I'm so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place."
For a land that supporters of the nuclear repository at Yucca are apt to describe as remote and desolate, the Amargosa Desert can captivate. Mountains, including Charleston Peak - still snowcapped in late spring - rise from the desert in every direction. Ahead to the west there's an isolated collection of enormous, undulating sand dunes, and on the other side of the highway is a string of dormant black volcanic cones.
Between it all is the desert itself, rolling out from the artificial glitz and irrigated lushness of Las Vegas into Nye County. Dust devils - mini-funnels of wind-whirled sand - dance along the side of the road.
"It's beautiful and magical in a different way," says Tilges, as the van wheels down a two-lane road marked with an arrow pointing to Death Valley Junction.
Just before you hit California is Doris Jackson's place, the Stateline Saloon and Gambling Hall, a single-story building so blasted by wind and sand that it looks half swallowed by the desert.
Its painted signs promise "Slots," "Cold Beer" and "Cocktails." Inside, patrons in jeans and T-shirts drink shoulder to shoulder at the bar, watching NASCAR races on a television.
Jackson, 71, wearing a black satiny jacket embroidered with the phrase "Bad 2 the Bone," is Amargosa Valley's "Mom" and a 20-year veteran in the fight against Yucca Mountain - going back to the days when nuclear testing was still going on.
"Everything surrounding underground nuclear testing was very hush-hush; it was like a fraternity," Jackson says. "People in the valley knew that if their husband wasn't home for the weekend, they were doing underground testing.
"They were good-paying jobs, but it amazes me how even today, people will be dying of cancer, and they'll blame it on something else."
Jackson says she believes the mountain will leak and contaminate the water table that runs through her property, through Ed Goedhart's cattle farm and irrigated alfalfa fields and through all the scrappy little towns this side of Death Valley.
But just in case the repository is approved, Jackson and other town advisory board members - she's chairwoman - are considering a resolution that would require the government to educate local children so they can get some of the many jobs proponents say the mountain will bring and to compensate Amargosa Valley property owners.
"We want them to recognize that people do live out here," Jackson says, describing the desert as a place where a visitor staying long enough to wear out a pair of shoes will never want to move on.
It wasn't a shoe, but a tire that New York actress and dancer Marta Becket wore out nearly 40 years ago in Death Valley Junction just over the state line in California.
On tour and waiting for a replacement tire, Becket fell in love with what was essentially a ghost town - a wide spot in the road with an abandoned community hall and a collection of small cottage-sized homes shaded by salt cedars.
She never left.
Becket created the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House to which she continues to draw hundreds of visitors every year to see her perform dance and mime with her longtime partner, Tom Willett.
"I'm now calling this `nuclear highway,'" Becket said recently, gesturing to the two-lane Route 127 that passes through the junction and just feet from the front of her opera house. It's one of the routes being considered for transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.
Becket, nearly 80 and still dancer-slim, fears the waste trucks roaring through her odd little town - a collection of dilapidated buildings whose permanent residents are scruffy wild burros and horses, cats, and a family of pet peacocks.
"It's a fragile town," says Becket, the subject of "Amargosa," a 2000 Academy Award-nominated documentary. "The beauty of this place could be ruined with one accident."
As the shadows lengthen and Tilges steers her van back toward the glow of Las Vegas, she says she's disappointed no coyotes were spotted that day.
"I like to see coyotes," she says. "[People] have tried to kill them off and they persist. I like that."
Yucca Mountain is a rather grand name for a long, desolate ridge slung between sharper peaks in an area that geologists call the "tattered zone."
Here, 12 million to 15 million years ago, in an area once covered by a shallow ocean, the continent's plates bumped into each other and crumpled. The collision formed the mountains and created layers of limestone and sandstone - older rock and younger rock thrust upon each other - that the Department of Energy argues makes an ideal natural container for nuclear waste.
A sealed "charcoal filter," if you will.
That, at least, was the original argument in 1987, when the government offered Yucca as the only site among the three initially considered in 1982 when Congress ordered a repository be established.
"It provides a tremendous natural barrier," says Patrick Rowe, an Energy Department scientist who has been employed at the test site and in repository development for 22 years. "It's arid, it has a deep water table, its water doesn't tie into the water basin of Las Vegas and there are barely 1.5 people per square mile out here - not many."
But the Energy Department's own testing over time has shown that the mountain is less stable than originally thought - "tectonically active," scientists say. There are five major fault lines among the dozens running through Yucca. A small earthquake that caused no damage struck nearby on Friday. The last major quake, which registered 5.6 on the Richter scale, shook the area in 1992.
Rowe says the quake and 2,000 aftershocks left underground work areas unscathed. But it damaged buildings at Jackass Flats, where nuclear waste would be held before it goes into the mountain. The Yucca region is also home to a collection of inactive volcanoes, at least one with a potential to blow.
And then there is the question of whether Yucca is waterproof. Even though rainfall averages only 7.5 inches annually, the issue of water is key: Not only could moisture corrode nickel-plated storage canisters containing the radioactive waste, it also could transport leaking waste through the site and into the area's water system.
Scientists originally believed that Yucca, formed from layers of compressed volcanic ash called tuff, would protect the canisters from water. Their opinion changed, however, when they discovered contamination from 1950s nuclear tests 800 feet down in the mountain - a strong suggestion that rainwater travels through fissures in the mountain much faster than anyone anticipated.
Scientists are still studying how the high heat generated by stored spent nuclear fuel would affect both the storage canisters and the flow of water through the repository.
Faced with a site that no longer met the government's original criteria for a repository whose natural features would store the nuclear waste safely, the Yucca plan is now a marriage of natural and man-made barriers.
The latest additions are titanium "drip shields" to protect the canisters from water in the repository. Though government scientists have tested the shields and canisters with high heat and excessive water, it is impossible to predict whether the system would corrode over the 10,000-year life of the repository.
Not to worry, insists Rowe.
"The natural environment works at Yucca Mountain," he says. "As the engineered barriers lose their integrity, the natural barrier takes over."
Three government agencies - including the General Accounting Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress - say flat-out that they believe the Energy Department lacks the evidence needed to ensure the safety of the repository. The recent GAO report lists 293 technical issues at Yucca yet to be resolved with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is ultimately responsible for licensing the repository. Among them is water flow through the repository site.
Non-government scientists have been the most critical, arguing that the decision is premature, and that the government's engineering is faulty.
"In our view, the disposal of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is based on an unsound engineering strategy and poor use of present understanding of the properties of spent nuclear fuel," wrote scientists Allison Macfarlane of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rodney C. Ewing of the University of Michigan in April's Science magazine.
"The original concept of geologic disposal has been turned on its ear," they wrote, with the issue driven by nuclear power and national security policy issues, and not whether nuclear waste can be safely stored in a Nevada mountain. "The scientific basis for the selection ... continues to be only a marginal consideration."
The GAO concludes it is highly unlikely that, if approved, Yucca would open by the Energy Department's 2010 goal, predicting that it would be at least 2013. The report also notes that the government is considering storing the nuclear waste above ground at the site until the repository is ready, the very situation Yucca is intended to eliminate.
Energy Department officials, including Undersecretary of Energy Robert G. Card, blasted that study as "profoundly flawed," and said any outstanding technical issues can be addressed during the repository's licensing procedure.
Furthermore, Card wrote in a response to the GAO, "The report gives no weight to the interests of the communities where this waste is [now] located," and ignores the need for a timely decision.
A timely decision is, indeed, in the government's interest. Energy companies, many of them pushing hard for Yucca, are racking up billions of dollars in damages from the government for its failure to open a repository by 1998, as required by law.
At least 17 damage suits, including one from Connecticut, are pending, with energy companies seeking the cost of on-site storage and security from 1998 until the time when a central repository opens. Potential damages range from the Energy Department's estimate of $2 billion to the industry's estimate of $50 billion.
On a recent sunny, wind-whipped day, Linda Natale of Las Vegas looked out over the Amargosa Valley from Yucca Mountain and summed up the feeling of many Nevadans.
"I really don't know what the truth is," Natale says. "Old-time Nevadans don't really trust the government because of what happened at the test site."
She and about 150 others had boarded buses early in the morning in Las Vegas for an Energy Department tour of Yucca - a monthly field trip showing off an exploratory version of the repository. The basic facility, though not yet approved, has been planned and built over the past two decades at a cost to taxpayers so far of $7 billion.
The Energy Department, since 1987, has collected an estimated 18,000 geologic and water samples from Yucca to test its suitability as a repository. It concluded that the mountain storage facility would meet Environmental Protection Agency standards - standards written specifically for Yucca.
Today's visitors included members of a women's construction organization, a Unitarian Church group and people like Brandon and Cindy Smith.
The Smiths are young, want to start a family and have just bought a house in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas.
"We're concerned about our property values, and about what will happen if there's an accident," Cindy Smith says.
They peer intently out the bus window as it winds up the side of the mountain, past spectacular folds of rock in shades of cream, red, ash and gray, to the repository tunnel, stopping to see the massive, 3,000-horsepower boring machine used to carve the pathway.
At the tunnel entrance, visitors in red hard hats and safety glasses walk next to the train track that runs through the mountain. High voltage wires in thick cables are strung along each side, and a loud hum buzzes from the air exchange system.
A sign advises that the tunnel's south portal is 7,711 meters away.
The tunnel is, in places, reinforced with poured concrete and metal bands. Along the pathway are dozens of markers noting where scientists have extracted rock to test the behavior of water in the mountain. And throughout are dug a number of "alcoves," short side tunnels in which water, heat and vapor experiments are conducted.
During lunch at long tables in the site's visitors center, Jay Felty of Las Vegas and others chat with government workers. Like many of the day's visitors, Felty seems reassured.
"When we first heard about [the repository], we wanted to bolt - to get as far away as we could," he says. "Now, maybe it's something we could live with."
The Smiths agree, and on the bus ride back to Las Vegas, they say they feel they've been misled by the news media.
"I thought I should come to the source and hear about it from them. I wanted to see the facility, and see the preparations to make this work," Brandon Smith says. "Seeing the facility, I am comfortable."
Bob List once represented the people of Nevada as their governor.
He's convinced he is still looking out for their interests by promoting the Yucca Mountain plan.
List, a Republican who was governor from 1979 to 1983, sees the repository as a unique opportunity for state residents. It would bring jobs, science and technological initiatives and - if they play their cards right and negotiate, he says - money for schools, health care and other services the tax-poor state could use.
Even with Las Vegas now the nation's fastest-growing city, Nevada's tax base is small. Only 13 percent of the state is in private hands; the rest belongs to the federal government.
"We're tiny little islands in an ocean of federal land and this is the world's largest public works project, worth probably $60 billion. That's more than the assessed valuation of the whole city of Reno," List said during a recent business trip to New York City. "We have an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons.
"We already have about 1,400 people employed on this project in the state, with a payroll of about $100 million a year," he said. "We need to keep that money in Nevada."
List is the highest-ranking former Nevada official hired by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C.- based lobbying group representing 260 companies in 15 countries, to sell the repository to skeptical Silver State residents. List is unmoved by a statewide poll in January by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. for the Las Vegas Review Journal showing that more than 80 percent of residents oppose the project.
"Most of us would prefer that the project not come to Nevada, but I'm a realist. Yucca is going to become the repository," said List, a friend of Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican who opposes the plan and who on April 8 personally delivered the state's veto, known as a "notice of disapproval," to Washington. It takes a House and Senate vote to override such a veto, which under law must be accomplished by July 25 or the repository plan dies. The House voted 306-117 on May 8 to override Guinn's veto.
"My role is to help lay some groundwork and soften the beaches a little for an event that's upon us whether we like it or not," List said.
Even Oscar Goodman, the brash mob lawyer turned mayor of Las Vegas and outspoken critic of the Yucca plan, acknowledges the difficulty of battling a proposal that is being aggressively sold to 49 other states as a solution to their nuclear waste problem.
Though Nevada has one of the smallest Congressional delegations in Washington, its four electoral college votes could have given the election to Al Gore even without Florida. But George W. Bush won the state, due in no small part to his assurance that the repository would never happen unless its safety could be proved by "sound science."
Bill Clinton won the state the previous two elections with a similar promise.
So residents were stunned when Bush endorsed the Yucca plan earlier this year.
"This is based on bad science, and we have a preponderance of evidence to prove that," Guinn said.
Nevada's U.S. senators, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign, and two representatives, Democrat Shelley Berkley and Republican James Gibbons, are united in their opposition to Yucca, but their political clout can't rival that of other states like Texas, with a delegation of 32, which blocked a repository site there.
"Things are not going our way in Washington," Goodman said recently, during an early-morning meet-the-mayor coffee at a Starbucks on the scruffy edge of his city's old downtown. "To think otherwise would be foolish."
But no one ever accused the garrulous Goodman of not being up for a long-shot fight. He has represented mobsters Meyer Lansky and Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, has been cited as one of the country's best trial lawyers and has called U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham "that piece of garbage" for endorsing Yucca.
"If they think they can bring that crap to Las Vegas - I'll arrest them all," Goodman promises in an anti-Yucca reggae song getting airplay on KMOP, a local rock radio station.
The mayor has used his larger-than-life persona and penchant for verbal bomb-throwing to help coax money out of the state and county for the fight. He hasn't been as successful with the powerful gaming industry. With investment interests scattered across the country, many casino owners have been reluctant to publicly oppose the repository plan, supported by officials in other states where they do business.
But, with modest gaming donations, Nevada is on track to spend an estimated $8 million to battle pro-Yucca forces. The money has bought the services of two top D.C. lobbyists and former White House chiefs of staff - Democrat John Podesta of the Clinton administration and Republican Kenneth Duberstein of the Reagan administration. It has also paid for television advertisements in key environmental states such as Vermont.
But the amount is dwarfed by the more than $25 million the nuclear energy industry is expected to pour into its effort to convince Congress to go ahead with the repository plan.
The industry's push has included expenses-paid "fact-finding" golf and gambling junkets to Las Vegas for congressional aides and House members. It has also hired as lobbyists Geraldine Ferraro, a former congresswoman and Democratic vice presidential candidate, and John Sununu, a former George H.W. Bush White House chief of staff, who angered Nevada residents opposed to Yucca earlier this year when he questioned their "patriotism."
Still, despite being outspent and out-lobbied, Las Vegas Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Fretwell insists that "it's premature to talk about it being over."
To the Western Shoshone Indians, Yucca Mountain is a living thing, inhabited by a moving and breathing snake - "a serpent swimming westward."
The characterization suggests the area's history of earthquakes and volcanoes and reflects the tribe's belief that the earth is not just something alive, but something sacred.
"This area, this mountain is not negotiable," says Raymond Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, which represents many of the various Shoshone tribes.
On the western side of Yucca, across from the ridge where workers have dug the repository tunnel, the Western Shoshone have a sweat lodge and a fire area where they hold their ancient ceremonies. It is where their ancestors once harvested pine nuts and hunted rabbits. It is in a land they call Newe Sogobia, where they grew their vegetables and raised their children.
But the Shoshone and their long-standing claim to the mountain - as well as tens of thousands of acres of their traditional ancestral lands in Nevada that are now homes to Air Force bases and nuclear test ranges - are barely a footnote in the Yucca debate.
"We're in a situation where we're being victimized again and again and again," says Ian Zabarte, the Shoshone council's secretary of state and expert on nuclear issues.
The Shoshone, along with the neighboring Southern Paiute Indian community, have been exposed to government-generated radiation for more than 40 years. A 1996 health study of the Nevada Test Site found that Indian reservation residents suffered increased incidence of disease and cancer.
Zabarte's aunts told him they saw the bright flashes of nuclear tests and watched their vegetable gardens wilt as though doused by pails of hot water. They ate the beans anyway because they didn't know any better, they told him.
And now, Zabarte says, the government is planning to force them to again live with a health threat that nobody else wants.
The Shoshone's claim - that an 1863 U.S. treaty recognizing their territory is still in effect - has bounced through the courts in more than a dozen suits. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled most recently that the Western Shoshone have no claim to their land because the government in 1979 said it would pay them for it - 15 cents an acre, the going rate more than a century earlier.
Western Shoshone tribal council leaders continue to refuse the payment, as well as later settlement offers as high as $120 million.
"We know where our ancestors were born. We know the plants and the animals in the area," says Zabarte, whose living room in Cactus Springs is lined with thick government energy and environment reports. "When we go to the mountains and pick pine nuts, we pick from trees planted by our ancestors. When we go to cut willow branches from Furnace Creek, we know our ancestors put those in.
"This is my homeland. We don't have any place else to go."
The fate of Yucca could be decided at any time, either by Senate action or inaction. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has threatened to keep the repository plan off the floor, which would kill it.
If a vote is taken and the plan survives, a license application will be submitted to the NRC, which has up to four years to review the project and hold hearings.
And while it waits for the politics to play out on Capitol Hill, Nevada is pushing ahead with a half-dozen lawsuits challenging all parts of the Yucca project - from the EPA standards to the government's use of the state's water supply to operate the repository.
"Nevada has already borne more than its fair share of this nation's radioactive waste burdens," Gov. Guinn told Congress this spring. "I assure you, the only thing inevitable about Yucca Mountain is that it will plot the course of so many other doomed [Energy Department] mega-projects."