Don’t Declare Yucca Mountain Dump Plan Dead Yet, Activist Says
Washington - These days Nevada's leaders routinely say Yucca Mountain is dead.
Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, says so. Republican Sen. John Ensign said as much last week. Others say that after the state's long battle, the proposed nuclear waste dump is barely hanging on.
But longtime nuclear activist Daniel Hirsch, who was in town to testify for a Senate panel on nuclear cleanup issues, thinks otherwise.
Hirsch was just catching up on the news that Nevada's longtime point-person in the fight against Yucca Mountain, Bob Loux, executive director of the state Nuclear Projects Agency, was fighting for his professional life after being involved in a pay-raise scandal.
Gov. Jim Gibbons and others have called for Loux to resign, and some see a chance to reopen the debate over whether hosting a nuclear waste dump might bring economic benefit to Nevada.
Even before the turn of events in Nevada, Hirsch was thinking Yucca was closer to surviving than ever. The closely contested presidential election offers two distinct futures: Republican candidate John McCain supports the dump; Democratic candidate Barack Obama promises to stop it.
Plus, the Yucca Mountain application is now pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - which has never in its 30-year history blocked a new nuclear power plant.
Hirsch sees a project very much alive.
He says what has been lost in the Yucca Mountain debate over the years, and especially now with renewed interest in nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source, is the risk we're talking about with nuclear waste: cancer.
How many Nevadans should be at risk of dying of cancer from the radioactive waste being stored inside the mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas before it makes the project untenable?
It's a difficult conversation to have because it starts drifting to the never-never land of imagining what the mountain and Nevada will look like over the next 10,000 years.
But Hirsch, who teaches nuclear policies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, easily becomes the professor.
Under normal circumstances, the Environmental Protection Agency allows the risk of no more than 1 cancer fatality in every 10,000 people.
But for Yucca, the EPA allowed many more potential cancer deaths in the future - too many for the courts, which tossed out the cancer limits in 2005 after Loux and Nevada sued. The court ordered a rewrite.
Studies done by Arjun Makhijani at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a watchdog group, found that in the first 10,000 years, one in every 1,700 people would be at risk of dying from cancer as a result of Yucca Mountain. But the longer the highly radioactive waste is stored at Yucca Mountain, the greater the cancer risk. After 10,000 years, one in every 70 people would be at risk dying of cancer from Yucca Mountain, Makhijani reported. Among those most exposed to the toxins, either by breathing air or drinking contaminated ground water, one in every 13 would face a fatal cancer risk, he reported. He calls it a game of Russian roulette.
The EPA promised a rewrite of the cancer regulations by 2006, but the new numbers have been delayed. Even a fiery exchange between an EPA official and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton during a Senate hearing late last year couldn't get the agency to budge.
In the meantime, the Energy Department maintains there will be far fewer cancer deaths than the EPA was allowing.
It's hard to say what will happen so far in the future. Maybe there will be a cure for cancer at some point.
But Hirsch thinks this generation has a responsibility not to gamble with the health of the next. He calls it "intergenerational ethics."
"The debate is not over Harry Reid. It's not over Bob Loux's salary," Hirsch said on a fall day last week in Washington.
"We want big-screen television sets and lights on all night" and leave the consequences to the generations that follow, he said. "The people who are going to get the cancers, they don't have anyone who can fly to Washington and testify before a committee."
Polls show most Nevadans oppose the waste dump. After watching the state hold it off for so long, it's easy to see why they thought it was dead by now. They might need to reconsider.