All Shook Up : Safety: A 5.6 earthquake near a proposed nuclear waste facility in Nevada has convinced many that the project belongs someplace else. But the federal government contends that the risk is low.


This would seem the perfect place for an earthquake. There are no skyscrapers to topple, no bridges to crumble, no dams to crack. In fact, there is no sign of life at all, save for the ghostly contrails of Air Force jets passing high above the desert floor.

Still, when a 5.6 temblor rustled the sagebrush here late last month, it caused a major stir across Nevada. The federal government wants to build the nation's first dump for high-level radioactive waste nearby. And the earthquake--powerful enough to sway casinos 100 miles away in Las Vegas--convinced many Nevadans that the dump belongs someplace else.

"This earthquake was a wake-up call," said Robert Loux, director of Nevada's Office of Nuclear Waste Management. "It proves this is an active geologic environment and not the sort of place you want to bury highly dangerous waste."

Some scientists frown on such hasty conclusions or dismiss the seismic peril outright. But one thing is clear: The quake has stoked debate over the dump in Nevada, feeding public fears and prompting politicians to work more vocally to block it.

This is troubling news for the nuclear industry. Threatened by an inability to dispose of its lethal byproduct, the sputtering industry has poured $6.7 billion into a fund used to study the Nevada site and recently launched a pro-dump public relations blitz. In the post-quake climate, taming qualms about the project will be tougher than ever.

"No matter what the experts say, there is now zero chance of convincing the public that this dump will be safe," said Jon Ralston, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Common sense tells Joe Sixpack that if there's an earthquake out there, the nuclear waste will rattle around--maybe leak out. There's no way the nuclear industry can overcome that."

At issue is the federal government's proposal to entomb 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods and other radioactive waste in the belly of Yucca Mountain, a barren mound formed of volcanic ash on the edge of the Nevada Test Site. In 1987, Congress singled out Yucca Mountain as the best potential home for the waste and ordered the Department of Energy to study the site and render a verdict on its suitability.

If Yucca Mountain passes muster after the studies conclude in 2001, waste would be sealed in steel canisters and stored in a maze of subterranean tunnels designed to isolate radioactivity for 10,000 years. If Yucca Mountain fails the suitability test, Congress would be forced to hunt for a new site--delaying and perhaps dooming new nuclear power plants.

From the beginning, Nevada's dump opponents have argued that the 32 faults in the region--including one that slices through Yucca Mountain--make it a risky place to store hazardous waste. Fault movement could puncture the canisters, they say, or fill the repository with ground water that might mix with waste and form a radioactive steam that could escape into the atmosphere.

The shaking could also collapse a building on the surface that will serve as a temporary way station for the radioactive material, some experts have warned.

Energy Department scientists have rated the seismic risk as low. They say the $15-billion waste repository, as it is called in government parlance, can be engineered to withstand quakes up to the magnitude 6.5 or 7.0 that they predict could occur on the area's faults.

On June 29, the magnitude 5.6 shaker shattered the pre-dawn calm near Little Skull Mountain, 14 miles from the proposed dump. Tremors pushed boulders down the mountain, startled late-night poker players in Las Vegas and--to the secret delight of some dump foes--caused almost $1 million in damage to an Energy Department building not far from Yucca Mountain.

In behavior typical of the ongoing dump war, the opposing factions have tried their best to exploit the event. Opponents declare that the temblor proves that the site is unsafe and last week trumpeted new poll results that suggest many Nevadans agree. About 71% of those surveyed said that because of the earthquake, they believe that the proposed dump poses a serious health and safety threat to the Las Vegas area.

"The public was already leery, and now they've had an experience that confirms their fears," said Chris Brown of Citizen Alert, an environmental group fighting the dump. Brown said his Las Vegas office got dozens of calls after the quake from residents "who are worried and don't believe the (Energy Department) is looking out for their best interests."

Across town at the Energy Department, the spin is that the earthquake created a marvelous learning opportunity, opening a new window through which their experts can peer at the region's geologic intricacies.

Carl Gertz, director of the Yucca Mountain Project, called it a fortunate event. The quake, he said, was "well within the range of magnitude" government scientists expected could occur in the area and thus was no cause for alarm.

"Opponents of things nuclear always use emotionalism, and they are now trying to take full political advantage of the earthquake," Gertz said. "We view the seismic issue to be not one of suitability, but one of engineering design."

At least one independent seismologist, retired Caltech professor Clarence Allen, agrees. Allen, who sits on a board of experts who oversee the Energy Department's work at Yucca Mountain, said seismic worries are unlikely to disqualify the site.

"Although this event reminds us this is earthquake country, our board has taken the position that seismic shaking is something you can engineer for," Allen said in an interview. "If we couldn't, then we'd have to abandon California."

As for Nevadans' anxiety about the quake threat, he added: "The fact is, any site you pick for this repository will have problems. The question we haven't answered is whether the problems at Yucca Mountain outweigh the advantages."

As they await that answer, the utilities that operate America's 111 nuclear power reactors are doing everything they can to persuade Nevadans that the repository may not be a bad deal. According to a memo leaked to the press, the industry has mounted a $9-million "Nevada Initiative," hiring political consultants to shift public opinion in an effort to "checkmate anti-nuclear forces in Nevada."

So far, the campaign has employed a barrage of advertisements suggesting that a radioactive waste dump would not be such a dangerous neighbor and a satirical newspaper faxed across Nevada that tweaks politicians and other "anti-nuke crybabies," assailing their polls and rhetoric.

This summer, some observers believed that the tactics might be softening opposition--or at least persuading some Nevadans that the dump was inevitable and that the state's representatives ought to demand economic perks from the federal government.

But now the earthquake--the third largest in Nevada this century--has sown fresh doubts. A change girl patrolling the Flamingo Hilton on the Las Vegas Strip one recent night put it this way:

"I wasn't too concerned about the nuclear project before, because it's way out there in the desert. But after that good shake we got, I was wondering: Is this really a sensible thing to do?"

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