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Nuclear Waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain

Tom Bearden reports on the continuing dispute over storing nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

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  • TOM BEARDEN:

    This could end up being the $58 billion mountain, the largest public works project in history. It's called Yucca Mountain, a nondescript, 1,200-foot-tall ridge of volcanic rock in the desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. For 20 years, government scientists have been drilling into the heart of it, collecting core samples, mapping fault lines and tracking underground waterways.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Here's a fracture right here, but it's not continuous within the rock.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    So far, the Department of Energy has spent $4.5 billion trying to find out if this is a place where 77,000 tons of deadly nuclear reactor waste can be permanently entombed. Michael Vogel is a chief scientist for the Yucca Mountain Project.

    MICHAEL VOGEL, Department of Energy: We're doing tests on how the heat from nuclear waste could effect the behavior of the rock. We're doing tests about how the chemistry of the rock and water in the tunnel would affect the behavior of some of the components that would be in that repository.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    That's because the waste is both physically and radiologically "hot," and will remain dangerous for at least 10,000 years. At the moment, 40,000 tons of this so-called spent fuel has accumulated in cooling pools at 131 nuclear reactor sites, mostly in the East and on the West Coast. This February, President Bush decided enough studies on Yucca had been done to proceed toward licensing. The President said the site was needed to protect public health and to geographically isolate radioactive material from the threat of terrorist attack. But the decision has met with fierce opposition from Nevada officials, business leaders and environmentalists who all hope to derail the project.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Good evening, and welcome to direct access.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, fought hard to convince the President to kill the project.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    The question that's on everyone's mind: Yucca Mountain. A lot of people said, you went to the President, it kind of looked hopeful there for a while, but then there was this turnaround. Is there any kind of sense of betrayal at all, that this Republican President did not come through?

  • GOV. KENNY GUINN, Nevada:

    Well, I'm certainly unhappy, but it doesn't mean that you stop your fight. We've always…

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    The governor and the mayor of Las Vegas immediately filed lawsuits to stop the project. They both think the Yucca Mountain decision was political, not based on science.

  • GOV. KENNY GUINN:

    It's an issue of Nevada against so many other states where they're producing this high-level nuclear waste and had been for years, and storing it in their own backyard, really want it relocated, and they want it at Yucca Mountain.

  • LARRY JOHNSON:

    Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman:

  • MAYOR OSCAR GOODMAN, Las Vegas, Nevada:

    Well, right now it's definitely a political battle. The President did not keep his word to the people of Nevada. He told us that he would not consider this to be a safe site unless science substantiated that decision. Science certainly has not answered nearly all the questions that are out there, and we're very disappointed in that.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    The next battle will be fought in Congress. Through a quirk in the law, the governor has the power to veto the President's decision. After he does, Congress has 90 days to override the veto. The gaming industry is afraid tourists will shun the state if Yucca Mountain opens, so they've joined the Resort Association and state government to finance a campaign designed to mobilize political pressure in surrounding states to influence the congressional debate. They hope to convince the rest of the country that moving high- level nuclear waste cannot be done safely. The government could use trucks, something like these, which are now being used to transport less radioactive waste to a repository in New Mexico, or they could use railroads. But opponents contend that the shipping method doesn't matter, that an accident is inevitable. A Las Vegas advertising firm has been hired to produce television and radio ads.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Our objective is to communicate that these people have no idea that there's going to be this nuclear transported. It could be in the truck next to them during rush-hour traffic.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Opponents also say that moving the waste makes it much more vulnerable to a terrorist attack by creating thousands of moving targets. The campaign will create television ads that they hope will get people from other states to call their congressmen and tell them to vote against yucca. Mark Brown's firm will produce the ads for strategic states.

    MARK BROWN, Brown and Partners: We have identified key states where we believe there are United States Senators that will either support our efforts as evidenced by previous votes, or are undecided. Mayor Goodman says the campaign is their best chance to influence Congress.

  • MAYOR OSCAR GOODMAN:

    A mere accident could cause a disaster to a particular area, and 106 cities across the United States will have this shipped through it, 96,000 shipments. I'm a betting man, okay? And when you have 96,000 things happening, the odds are at least one is going to go wrong. And it's a crapshoot, because wherever it goes wrong, it's going to become a ghost town.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    But the Department of Energy says history shows the agency can ship the material safely. Joe Ziegler is a technical advisor to the Yucca Mountain Project.

    JOE ZIEGLER, Department of Energy: There are studies of spent nuclear fuel transportation have been done by the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and others for many, many years. There's been several thousand shipments of spent nuclear fuel in this country with no release of radioactive materials. The shipping record in this country and worldwide is impeccable.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Even if Congress overrides the governor's veto, DOE still has to get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Department believes it has a good case to make.

  • MICHAEL VOGEL:

    Over to the west of us is where the repository will be developed if we build one here.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Dr. Vogel says Yucca Mountain offers an excellent opportunity to get this extremely dangerous material out of the environment.

  • MICHAEL VOGEL:

    That was the beauty of this site, is because it is so dry and because it is… it's provides a pretty interesting combination of barriers, it would really keep that waste as closely confined as we can.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    But scientists who work for the state say the site is geologically active, with a history of both volcanoes and earthquakes. And the governor says the Department of Energy has deliberately misled Nevadans in the past.

  • GOV. KENNY GUINN:

    When all the testing was done at the Nevada test site in the '50s for the atomic bomb, the underground testing, we were told by the federal government, "look, this is safe. It's okay." We said, "fine." People sat outside and watched it, and it reeked havoc with their health over the years. We're patriotic. We're willing to listen. But since our experience in the '50s, we truly demand sound science, and right now, I think that's questionable.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    Meanwhile, the waste continues to pile up– an estimated 2,000 new tons of it every year. DOE's Ziegler says it's time to address the problem.

  • JOE ZIEGLER:

    What's probably more important is that society today takes care of a problem that we created, and that problem needs to be taken care of in a way that can be permanent. Otherwise, we just leave the problem for future generations.

  • TOM BEARDEN:

    The Department of Energy currently expects to start accepting waste at Yucca Mountain eight years from now. But Department officials freely concede that even that date is likely to slip, regardless of whether Congress gives this extraordinary controversial project its final blessing.

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