To the rest of the nation:
Here in Las Vegas, we live in somewhat of a bubble. We’re surrounded by bright lights, fantastic performers and endless gastronomic distractions. We welcome you and millions of other visitors each year.
But sometimes our visitors forget that we are a real city, with real neighborhoods, real families and real concerns. We are not a disposable artifact. Too often, and especially on one specific issue, we get the feeling that we’re the corner of the rug under which you would sweep some of your particularly noxious national dirt.
That’s why it isn’t surprising that the Department of Energy blithely insists that beginning early next year high-level nuclear waste will start rolling through Nevada for burial at the Nevada National Security Site.
This is not Yucca Mountain, the decades-old plan to dump the byproducts of nuclear power plant in Nevada, but it’s a clever back-door plan to get rid of some very nasty material nonetheless. And the plan is going forward despite serious concerns from Gov. Brian Sandoval and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who of course happens to call Southern Nevada home.
The material in question, as Review-Journal journalists Steve Tetreault and Keith Rogers reported last week, is “potent, highly radioactive nuclear material.” More than 400 canisters of highly radioactive material would travel through Southern Nevada (although probably not Las Vegas) and be buried in 40-foot-deep trenches at the test site.
The Energy Department planned to start shipments last spring but put the campaign on hold when it became publicized and caused Nevada officials to declare a new uneasiness over them. Among other things, the waste is an unusual form that raised questions whether it fits the criteria to be buried at the security site alongside other contaminated debris from government cleanups.
Most of the waste is various isotopes of uranium, the same material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon or, if it is explosively dispersed, becoming a so-called dirty bomb. It will remain dangerous for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years.
One of the big questions is why we are getting this material at all. The Yucca Mountain dump may have been derailed, but the fighting over that issue refers to “high level” radioactive waste. Through a trick of labeling, the highly radioactive material the Energy Department says we’re getting next year isn’t the “high level” waste that should go to a designated national repository (dump).
Oh, and the federal officials say we shouldn’t worry about terrorists trying to get their hands on it — it’s so toxic that it would kill anyone trying to handle it.
The department insists that the transport and burial of this material is safe, and that’s why the federal government is doing this over the bipartisan objections of Nevada’s elected leaders. But according to Anjeanette Damon in last week’s Las Vegas Sun, the decision to ship the waste to Nevada was made well before the safety studies were done.
There’s an element of fatigue affecting Nevadans on this issue. We’ve been fighting the idea that our deserts, wildlife and groundwater are disposal assets for decades, and we’re likely to have to fight for decades more. But as long as serious questions remain about the safety of this material — and they do — and as long as the Energy Department appears indifferent to our concerns, there will be a principled core of citizen-activists and elected leaders who will fight this.
See you in court!
Las Vegas CityLife staff