Terrorism Muddles Decision To Bury Waste At Yucca Mountain

19 April 2002

By Stentor Danielson

These days, it seems that the war on terrorism can be used to justify anything. Anyone who doesnít support the Presidentís policies is unpatriotic. Any foreign leader the Bush administration doesnít like becomes a terrorist, while others get a free pass despite similar or worse offenses. Freedom of information laws and the freedom of the press (in the form of war correspondents) are gutted in the interest of national security. If terrifying America was al-Qaidaís goal, it has succeeded in proportion to the degree we let the fear of further attacks dictate policy.

Perhaps the most interesting application of terrorism logic comes in the debate over whether to store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from power plants and military installations around the nation in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. As usual, the Bush administration is using the fear of terror to justify going forward with the plan to ship the waste selected as the only site to be considered by the Energy Department by the Presidentís father, who was Vice President at the time. But opponents of shipping the waste to Nevada have begun to raise the specter of terrorism as well. Arguments from both sides seem designed more to sway the public with the idea of terrorism than to describe an actual threat.

Terrorism can be devastating, as our nation learned this fall. And in the reflection that followed, trying to guess where al-Qaida would strike next, one of the most chilling possibilities that came up again and again was a strike against the nationís nuclear facilities. Government buildings and bridges can be rebuilt. Poisoned water supplies can be flushed out. Biological attacks can be battled with quarantines and antibiotics. But what can you do about an attack that spews radioactive material, with a half-life in the hundreds of thousands of years, across a city or county? The fact that the threat comes from unseen, unstoppable rays adds a psychological poignancy to what is already a potentially serious threat.

So itís no wonder that, in approving the plans for waste storage at Yucca Mountain in February, Bush cited the possibility of a terrorist attack as a reason to move forward on the project. This idea was echoed by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who continues to be the projectís most vocal proponent.

The pro-Yucca terrorism argument goes like this: Currently, nuclear waste is stored at 131 sites around the country. The storage facilities at these sites are mostly aboveground concrete tanks, which officials say are not meant to hold waste indefinitely. This means that there are 131 terrorist targets around the nation, mostly in the more densely populated eastern half. Consolidating waste storage at one site would give terrorists only one target, which would be far easier to defend. Further, Yucca Mountain is on Nellis Air Force Base, which already has restricted airspace, making it harder for terrorists to get a saboteur in. And since the waste would be buried under a thick layer of impervious rock, and is located far from human habitation, an accident in the storage area would pose little risk.

Hereís where the argument falls apart -- creating the Yucca Mountain site would not eliminate the need for on-site storage facilities at the reactors producing the waste. Yucca Mountain would raise the count of terrorist targets to 132. Iíll set aside the fact that nuclear power generators themselves canít be moved to Nevada, and we have ample proof at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island that a problem with the generator can be plenty devastating even without the involvement of waste.

Even so, waste will still be stored at reactors. There will be a 10-year wait before Yucca Mountain is ready to start accepting waste, and even then it canít take it all at once. Then thereís the issue of treatment. Nuclear waste coming out of a plant canít simply be loaded right on a Nevada-bound truck. It has to be stored under water for several years before it is safe to transport off the grounds of the nuclear facility. The delay between generation and transportation is long enough to give any terrorist all the chance he needs to make nefarious use of the waste.

The terrorism-based arguments of Yucca Mountain opponents donít hold up any better. The main focus of these arguments is the fact that waste will need to be transported long distances in order to be stored at Yucca Mountain. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to fight the plan -- which has strong bipartisan support in Congress -- by convincing legislators that itís dangerous to let the waste cross their states. An accident or deliberate attack on a waste-carrying truck that caused the waste to leak out could devastate the area around it. Reid said, "It isnít a question of if there will be an accident, itís a question of when and where." He and others maintain that the 120,000 shipments expected to be made over the lifetime of the Yucca Mountain facility would provide that many more targets for terrorists, as a moving vehicle canít be protected as well as a stationary storage facility.

The problem is, past experience with waste transport doesnít back up Reidís bold assertion. Though we donít yet have a national repository for waste, it is being shipped around the country all the time. Yucca Mountain is simply the latest and grandest form of the NIMBY-ism in which beneficiaries of nuclear power (which they describe as "clean," in the same way coal burning is clean if you can build a smokestack tall enough that the acid rain falls on someone far away) foist their waste on those poor enough to need the jobs a waste storage facility brings (which is not to deny their right to take those jobs in the absence of something better). So weíve seen decades of waste transport, racking up more miles than all the shipments to Yucca Mountain combined. And there has not been a single accident or attack that would threaten the security of the waste being transported. Europeís experience has been similar. The casks that will hold the waste have been extensively tested, and can withstand the impact of a jet or a train. The risk of terrorists successfully attacking a waste shipment is minuscule.

There is still much to be debated about Yucca Mountain. The current storage facilities are not a viable long-term option, so something needs to be done. And Yucca Mountain seems to be as geologically sound a site as weíre likely to find within the borders of the nation. At the same time, the selection of the site from a pool of one option, located in a politically powerless state, raises questions about its qualifications. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board set up by Congress called the science on which the decision was based "weak to moderate." The decision to approve or decline the plan to store waste at Yucca Mountain will not be made easier by clouding the issue with appeals to terrorism.

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