person_pin NIMBY Police on the Prowl

by Adam Davis

Published in Issue No. 8 ~ July, 1997

Those of you who do not live in Nevada may not be aware of Yucca Mountain. In fact, those of you who do not live in Nevada may not be aware that the state even extends beyond the borders of Las Vegas. If you are one of these people, do not be ashamed, for you are not alone. There are plenty of people who live here who have not completely grasped the concept of a state beyond Las Vegas. That’s because once you leave the glitz and glamour of Sin City, there really isn’t much else out there.

Nevada is a desert, and a fairly large one at that. Granted, there are a few mountains, and burros, and bomb sites, but for the most part Nevada is just one big desert. People living in this state have the rare distinction of being able to honestly say that they’ve seen more UFOs than rain in the last 50-or-so years.

So why have I taken you on this topographical tour and why are the desolate mountains and valleys of Nevada’s deserts so important to everyone’s well being? Well, it’s fairly simple. The answer lies in Yucca Mountain. Not around the mountain, or at the base of the mountain, mind you, but actually inside Yucca Mountain.

Yucca Mountain, if state legislators can be persuaded, will become the country’s newest nuclear waste storage facility. The radioactive waste will be kept in a repository 1,500 feet below ground, literally in the belly of the mountain. Innumerable carloads of spent radioactive fuel will be shipped into Nevada to be sealed away inside this mountain for (at a minimum) 10,000 years.

Engineers have already begun digging the tunnel that will lead to the very heart of the mountain. This tunnel is large enough to drive a freight train through and a substantial portion of it has already been completed. Unfortunately, the tunnel is not completely finished. In fact, it has not been worked on for over a year, now, and may never be completed if the Nevada state legislature doesn’t take action soon. Ironically, this is the very same legislature who halted work on the project, falling prone to the whims of the NIMBY police.

NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is a coalition of concerned activists adamant about keeping the nuclear repository out of Yucca Mountain. They have lobbied the local legislature, taken their case to the people, and have effectively put many of Nevada’s citizens in a panic about the prospect of nuclear waste storage in the state. And who can blame them? After all, would you want a nuclear waste storage site in your neighborhood? Certainly, the prospect of such a facility would make you sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, taking notice is all that the NIMBY activists have bothered to do.

Initially it is hard to find fault with those individuals who would seem to be protecting the future of their children and their community. There is surely no doubt that the intentions of these people are good, even if their actions are misguided. The overall protection of the environment is an endeavor which finds its roots in the highest ideals of mankind, but we must really look at the facts, here. Do they really have a basis for concern?

A little research into the Yucca Mountain project reveals that this is not an ordinary dumpsite. Apparently, a great deal of thought has gone into the proposed placement and storage of the radioactive waste to be stored here.
One hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas (translation: 100 miles away from any populated area), Yucca Mountain stands roughly 5,000 feet tall and is composed mainly of a rock called tuff. Tuff is a mineral substance which is created by violent volcanic activity. The volcanic eruption which created Yucca Mountain created a layer of this nearly solid rock approximately 5,000 feet thick — roughly the full height of the mountain itself.

The proposed nuclear repository, if it is ever finished, will be placed 1,500 feet underground, directly in the heart of the mountain. Situated as it would be, it would be far removed from the usual forces of Mother Nature which have been blamed for the havoc that has befallen other mainly man-made storage sites.

When trying to protect any material from the elements for a long period of time (and the 10,000 years needed here would seem to qualify as a long period of time), the primary concern of most scientists and engineers is water. Water, more than any other element, has a funny way of working its way into even the remotest of corners. Perhaps more importantly, once water has worked its way into an area it continues on its journey, usually taking with it traces of the elements it has passed through. The results of this happening at a nuclear waste repository are catastrophic, to say the least. The devastating effects would result in a water table contaminated by radiation. However, water is exactly the reason why Yucca Mountain presents itself as an excellent storage facility.

Yucca Mountain receives less than six inches of rain per year. Out of the six inches that do fall on the mountain annually, most of it can be accounted for as runoff and evaporation. Very little of it penetrates past the immediate topsoil, and the fractional amount that might, scientists believe, would stand little chance of ever seeping down to the level at which the repository would be placed. Compound this with the fact that if any moisture did happen to reach the heart of the mountain, it would be evaporated by the heat generated by the stored radioactive packets.
Playing Devil’s Advocate, however, let’s assume that some amount of water did manage to seep into the repository, causing the integrity of the radioactive packets to degrade. The radioactive waste that would be released would have to seep through to the outer shell of the mountain in order for it to become harmful. It would, in essence, have to make its way through the tuff.

Tuff is not a porous rock and the scientists associated with the Yucca Mountain project have expressed serious doubts as to whether or not any water would be able to escape from the repository. Even if it could, it would be confronted by zeolites.

Zeolites are present in large numbers inside tuff. This is significant factor because zeolites are natural minerals which attract radioactive isotopes. In essence, this tuff (which comprises the bulk of the mountain) acts as something of a radioactive sponge, soaking up whatever nuclear waste may manage to escape its containers.
There can be little doubt that radioactive waste has been stored in some pretty poor places before, and the price exacted on a number of communities for its improper disposal has been high. However, this is clearly not one of those cases. The State of Nevada has invested a lot of time, money, and human resources into the study of Yucca Mountain. And their findings couldn’t be more promising.

Unfortunately, the bulk of all this hard work seems to have been in vain. Just last year, the Nevada State Legislature (bowing low to pressure from the NIMBY police, assuredly) passed a law which temporarily put the development of the Yucca Mountain repository on hold. The law is once again being debated in the legislature this year with no clear indication on which way the tide will turn.

And all the while the NIMBY police smile.

Sadly, these people who are actively lobbying against the development of the Yucca Mountain repository have proven themselves to be guilty of a heinous crime: Ignorance. Ignorance, granted, coupled with good intentions. Unfortunately, this can be a deadly combination.

NIMBY advocates would have you believe that Yucca Mountain is bad, that nuclear waste storage is counter-productive to Nevada’s future, and that they are courageously acting in our best interest. However, it is hard to look at this situation and not wonder aloud, “Where else would they have us put it? We have to do something with it.” It is this very question which exposes the faults inherent in the NIMBY movement in the state of Nevada.

The simple fact of the matter is this: we, as a country, have created a huge repository of highly-radioactive nuclear waste. And we, up until this point, have proven ourselves to be extremely irresponsible with its disposal. We have, in essence, created a monster. But, instead of putting our efforts into constructing an inescapable cage, we have taken to running through the streets with torches, chanting, “No you don’t. Not in my back yard.”

The people opposed to the Yucca Mountain project can’t seem to offer a better site for the storage of this waste. They are unwilling to come to a compromise. The group, as a whole, it would seem, will not be happy until the radioactive waste is routed to another state — whether that state be Arizona, California, New York, or New Jersey — just so long as it’s not hidden away in their own backyard.

Never mind the fact that Yucca Mountain makes sense. Never mind the fact that Yucca Mountain is, for all intents and purposes, ideally situated in the middle of god-forsaken nowhere. Never mind that innumerable scientists have proven that Yucca Mountain is as an ideal storage place on many different levels. All that matters to the NIMBY police is that Yucca Mountain is too close to home.

There is an old lesson of negotiation which implies that if you really want to effect change and sway the minds of others you should be able to suggest an alternate solution. You should then be able to clearly show those in doubt why this alternate solution is superior to the one being considered. The lobbyists currently operating in Nevada, however, can do no such thing. They have no idea where the waste should be stored and they’re unwilling (or unable) to offer a solution. They only know that they will not accept the storage of nuclear waste in Nevada.

To the casual passerby this whole argument may seem to be purely a “Nevada issue”, but it is not. Granted, the pressure is currently focused on the Nevada State Legislature to find an acceptable reason for scrapping the Yucca Mountain Project. If scrapped, however, the problem will not go away. It will simply shift its focus, falling on another state’s shoulders. After all, Nevada law is never going to eliminate the problem of nuclear waste storage. It can only ever shift the problem to some other state.

From what I’ve seen, the majority of the people who are pressuring the legislature don’t really have a clue about the pros and cons of nuclear power. If they did, they might favor it. Even if they were against it, they would at least realize that their efforts to stop it would be more effective if focused against the federal government, as they are the regulating body concerning its national use.

Sadly, the majority of the residents here are no different from residents elsewhere. They’re not really concerned about whose land gets contaminated or what sector of people end up in danger, just as long as those lands and those people are located in some state other than their own.

And with the NIMBY police in full swing here, who knows? Perhaps they’ll get their way and your hometown will be next.

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Adam Davis is a 23-year-old Air Force radar technician who has had the opportunity to live in England and Germany, as well as various places in the U.S. In his spare time, he runs an Internet boxing league, designs Web pages, and writes poetry, short stories, and essays, both recreationally and professionally.