Requiem for Nevada

President Bush signed a bill Tuesday that makes Nevada the central repository for the nation’s nuclear waste

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.”

—Edward Abbey

My father, Edward Abbey (author and wilderness advocate), is buried in the remote desert. Undoubtedly, he would not have been pleased to know that he would share his final resting place—a place whose integrity and sanctity he vehemently defended—with the greatest concentration of radiation ever amassed.

President Bush signed a bill Tuesday formalizing the move to make Yucca Mountain the central repository for the nation’s high-level radioactive waste. Bush laid out his endorsement of Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear waste repository in a February letter to the U.S. Congress: “Nuclear energy is the second largest source of U.S. electricity generation and must remain a major component of our national energy policy for years to come.” That would be at least 10,000 years to come—because that’s how long nuclear waste, the deadly byproduct of this panacea for our energy needs, will continue to plague humanity.

The U.S. Senate, in an outrageous display of indifference to the degree of coercion being perpetrated on a fellow state of the Union, approved the President’s recommendation and destined Nevada to continue its unwanted nuclear legacy from proving ground to dumping ground.

“I would rather have nuclear waste come through Utah than come to Utah,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) after a closed meeting with the President a day prior to the recent vote.

“I can understand the senators from Nevada being opposed to this, but I can’t understand why anyone else would be,” argued Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) during the debate. The White House and the U.S. Congress, heavily influenced by the nuclear industry and by their own intuitive survival instincts to rid themselves of the waste, voted to ignore the legitimate fears and concerns of millions of Americans and in essence declared that the pursuit of nuclear energy takes precedence over the potential threat to human life. It seems that, similar to war, the pursuit of energy demands that in order to preserve our quality of life we must be willing to sacrifice human life and compromise the preservation of our natural world in the process.

Hanford, Savannah, Rocky Flats, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Yucca Mountain: What do events at these places portend? Can the U.S. government expect us to accept that by simply burying our most profound and complex technological shortcomings, we are not merely transferring a legacy of gross irresponsibility and inept management on to future generations?

The Alliance for Sound Nuclear Policy, as part of its pro-Yucca campaign, ran a full-page ad in the Seattle Times on Sunday, June 2, showing a full-color photograph of Mt. Rainier reflected in an idyllic alpine lake with the caption, “Store nuclear waste here in Washington—or in the remote Nevada desert? It’s the U.S. Senate’s call.” The Alliance is a coalition that includes the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s top lobby outfit and a leading Yucca advocate in Washington. Their divisive propaganda ironically illustrates the transparent truth that nuclear waste is not safe anywhere and that level-headed communities should want it as far away from their families as possible. Nevada, with its population of over two million and its great swaths of natural wonders and pristine beauty, is cynically assumed to be a “wasteland” instead of a sovereign state of the Union that fears the same dangers to its citizenry as Washington. That is frankly immoral. In fact, given the state’s history as the site of aboveground nuclear tests in the 1950s, Nevadans are more than aware of the incalculable risks of an imperfectly understood science unleashed on a populace; just ask the Downwinders, victims of disease from the Nevada Test Site’s radioactive fallout.

The real debate before Congress was the future of nuclear energy. The nuclear industry had to convince the American public that there is a viable solution for radioactive waste in order to maintain its position that nuclear energy, and not renewable energy, is the “sound” economic path for our nation to follow. The decision made by Congress has serious consequences for the fate of our country. The health and safety of Americans now hinge upon a technology that is unproven and scientifically specious even in the minds of those who initially welcomed it. The patently false pretenses that Yucca Mountain will, as President Bush also stated in his appeal, “enhance the safety and security of the nation as a whole,” and that the repository will enable existing military installations and reactor sites to rid themselves of waste as they continue to produce it (presumably in greater volume then ever before, inspired by the Cloud Cuckoo Land of an inviolable radioactive graveyard) is the wishful thinking of a society that cannot face the consequences of its reliance on a highly dangerous and toxic energy source. The dream of atomic energy that has both enabled us to become the world’s only superpower and will assuage our insatiable needs for unbounded material consumption has a dark side that can no longer be hidden or ignored. Industrial capitalism and its dependence on natural resources has relegated wilderness to diminishing, isolated pockets that are, in essence, zoos for the remaining natural world.

The “remote Nevada desert” where Yucca Mountain lies is 90 miles from Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in America, with a population of 1.5 million and 35 million visitors each year. Now that Yucca Mountain is mandated, there will be an estimated seven to 10 shipments a day coming through Las Vegas for at least 34 years in order to transport the 95,000 shipments it will take to relocate the 77,000 tons of high-level waste. That’s what the rest of the country is willing to risk passing through their hometowns in order to be rid of it themselves. But how can you be rid of something that will continue to pour out of existing and new-generation nuclear power plants, in ever-increasing quantities, now that the “final solution” for the waste has been provided?

The not-so-vast "deserts" of our world are no longer remote enough to be truly outside our economically and environmentally globalized society. These areas deserve to be protected from us and for us.