All hell breaks loose

Yucca Mountain Dirty Bomb, a novel by Wendell A. Duffield, posits a literary worst-case scenario about a potential nuclear waste dumpsite in Nevada. The year is 2027, and stewards of the not-too-distant future environment have gone ahead and done it. The bowels of Yucca Mountain are stuffed tight with canisters storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

Water seepage into the underground caverns give a sloppy wet kiss to the gases and magma within the volcano below. The result is an angry explosion of Vulcan energy that carries radioactive dust that eventually rests across the surface of Lake Mead and the city of Las Vegas.

The novel blends elements of the current political maelstrom surrounding the Yucca situation with the horror of a slim chance of disaster realized. Ominous shades of John Hersey’s Hiroshima are played out through first-person accounts of the moment of catastrophe.

In a chapter aptly titled, “Testes Tingle,” Duffield tells the brief, unsavory story of drainage ditch dweller Billie Parker. Recuperating from a wicked night of swilling $50 worth of cheap liquor, the homeless Billie sleeps through a panicked exodus of the entire population of Las Vegas. When he rises to greet the day, he finds the city abandoned and expresses his befuddled joy by stripping and wading, bare-assed, in inches of radioactive volcanic ash covering the streets. The reader immediately gets the humorously somber picture of Billie’s future—there is no danger of causing any accidental pregnancies. Though the road ahead is grim for Billie, his present is one full of the glee and small joys of the perpetually drunk and blissfully unaware.

Barney Shanks and Hank Thomas are the consulting geologists at the helm of the Yucca project. Barney specializes in volcanic study; Hank is his anal-retentive, odd-couple partner whose field of expertise is seismology. Together, the two narrowly escape fiery deaths, learn what love truly means, and sit in on a feisty joint congressional hearing about who is to blame for the so-called dirty bomb detonated by nature at Yucca Mountain.

Duffield’s novel examines, in meticulous detail, the process of raising reasonable doubt about a potential natural disaster that stands in the way of progress, and the folly of holding hands with such reasoning. The implications are unavoidably political. Devil’s advocacy forms the foundation of the story, as thoroughly likeable but obvious bad guy Vincent Gordon, leader of the panel that will eventually green light the Yucca Project, eloquently states his case for the private glory of personal profit.

Yucca Mountain author Duffield, a university professor of geology at the Northern Arizona University and self-proclaimed “pink-cheeked sexagenarian,” writes with the emboldened voice of a man made taller and more plucky than usual by his position atop a soapbox. Although he holds three degrees, including a Ph.D., he bars no holds when taking shots at the academic community for misusing knowledge for political and personal gain.

The novel has some wrinkles but is thoughtful and entertaining in spite of its faults. A shallow satisfaction comes to mind during the reading of it, like the sort that erupts when one is watching a made-for-television movie based on a true story. It will imbue most thinking readers with a sense of awe and alarm at what the year 2027 prospectively could bring should Yucca ever wind up wearing the sullied red dress of nuclear offal.