THE BLOG
07/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Radioactive Pigs

It hit 117 degrees here in Las Vegas, but what's heating up longer term is another kind of heat -- radiation. The Department of Energy applied for its long-sought permit to open a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. DOE proceeded, as it always has on this project, with reckless disregard of the fact that isn't nearly ready to answer the questions that will arise. Just before the filing, the State of Nevada revealed that it had identified between 250 and 500 legal flaws in the permit process, any one of which could be the basis for a legal challenge.

Steve Frishman, technical policy coordinator for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, warned: "We believe there should be real designs ... The whole license application is whether the NRC can say whether there will be reasonable assurance the repository is safe. How can you have reasonable assurance when you don't know what the (radiation) doses are to the public?"

More evidence of the hard-wired sloppiness that has plagued Yucca from the start popped up a week after DOE filed for its NRC permit. Holtec International, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of nuclear waste storage systems, called Yucca a "doomed undertaking" and said the safety procedures proposed by DOE were a "fool's errand."

Normally outsiders have a hard time grasping the technical issues at Yucca, but this latest recklessness is simplicity itself. Yucca lies near earthquake faults and is expected to experience quakes of up to 6.5 on the Richter scale. DOE rejected Holtec's proposal that the nuclear waste casks undergoing the four-year "cool down" period before being storied permanently should be tied down with seismic anchors. Now in San Francisco, where I live, gargoyles on office building are seismically anchored. It seems abundantly clear that nuclear waste casks should be as well. But DOE wants to save money and, as Holtec said, in an earthquake "pigs will fly before the casks will stay put." Again, this is not the opinion of Greenpeace -- it's a company that stores nuclear waste as a business.

So how does this play out politically? Nevada is a presidential battleground state, and has a closely contested congressional seat as well.

Sixty percent of Nevadans continue to oppose Yucca. More than half say that a Presidential candidate's stance on Yucca will influence their vote in November. John McCain supports Yucca. Barack Obama opposes it. More troubling for Nevadans, McCain favors an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in constructing at least 45 new nuclear power plants, and perhaps as many as 145. These new plants if built will need storage -- and Yucca, as presently designed, will be full. But the pressure will be enormous to just ship the added waste to Nevada, on the grounds that it is already at risk.

As Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid put it during McCain's most recent visit to Las Vegas, McCain "believes Nevada is a wasteland."

Commissioner Reid also drew a sharp contrast between the two candidates: "While Sen. McCain wants to bury the most toxic substance known to man in our state, Sen. Obama wants to spend billions of dollars to invest in new technologies that will create 5 million new jobs across the country."

McCain's response to Nevada was scornful. From the seemingly safe distance of California, he rejected the notion that there could be anything wrong with the Yucca site, saying "It's not a technological breakthrough that needs to be taken; it's a NIMBY problem." However, it appears that NIMBY is a relative concept, depending on whose backyard we're talking about. Because when asked earlier what he thought about the safety of just shipping radioactive waste through Arizona to get to Yucca, McCain, as this YouTube clip shows, made it clear he didn't like the idea at all.

But about a half million Nevadans have moved into the state since DOE last seriously tried to move the Yucca Mountain project along. Our challenge is going to be educating those new residents about the federal plan to use junk science and rushed permits to make their state the designated sacrifice zone to revive the financial fortunes of America's nuclear power complex.