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The Post's Yucca Mountain Scare

The Washington Post buys the enviro hysteria over transporting nuclear waste.

12:00 AM, Jul 9, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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MARK BROWN deserves a raise.

Earlier this spring (in Nevada Goes Nuclear), I asked the Las Vegas PR whiz how he planned to turn the world against storing nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. He answered with one word: transportation.

Then he elaborated. "We're not trying to scare people, but these shipments are vulnerable to terrorists and, potentially, spills. This waste isn't liquid and it's not going to get into the water, but a spill would have serious health effects," he argues. "These are 3,000 to 4,000 terrorist targets, and I don't mean that as a scare tactic."

Brown said the campaign would combine paid advertisements, a grass-roots campaign, and like most efforts at moving public opinion, as much "free and earned media" as possible. That last category--consultant-speak for sympathetic news coverage of the issue from respected sources--is critical.

Brown and other Yucca Mountain foes could not have imagined an article more helpful to their case than Eric Pianin and Helen Dewar's in yesterday's Washington Post. And the timing is superb, since the Senate prepares to vote this week on the project's fate. The headline offers a clue: "In Nuclear Waste Site Debate, Visions of Transport Disaster: Yucca Mountain's Foes Cite Fears of Terrorism and Spills."

The article opens with not one, but three U.S. senators musing aloud about the likelihood of catastrophic spills. It goes on from there.

Pianin and Dewar write, "For years, the major concern was the safety of the Nevada facility's design and the possibility of groundwater contamination. Now lawmakers and environmentalists are focusing on the problems associated with shipping as much as 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste from 131 above-ground nuclear power plants and facilities in 39 states to Nevada over a quarter-century."

What the authors don't discuss is why opponents of Yucca Mountain changed their approach. That's no small oversight--the enviros and other scaremongers have essentially lost the scientific arguments. And, of course, arguments about contaminated water and design safety necessarily appeal most directly to those living in the areas that could be affected. Focusing on transportation risks accomplishes two things: It moves beyond site-specific science and, more important, allows opponents to scare people from coast-to-coast.

The Post reporters lend credence to the approach favored by Yucca Mountain opponents in another way, by arguing that the opponents simply want "to store the waste where it is, in leak-proof steel and concrete cylinders, under increased security."

Who could possibly oppose "leak-proof" storage? What the Post reporters fail to mention is that the storage casks they describe as "leak-proof" are significantly weaker and less safe than the casks used to transport the waste. The transport casks have never been breached en route. And with one exception, they've survived a battery of tests worthy of an episode of "That's Incredible."

To wit: an eighteen-wheeler carrying a transport cask smashes into a 700-ton brick wall at a speed of 81 mph; testers drop a cask from 2,000 feet onto hard ground; and, a 120-ton locomotive train traveling at 80 mph rams a cask. In each of those cases, the scientists at Sandia determined that the casks would not have leaked any radioactive material.

In one case, however, a powerful explosive placed directly atop the cask managed to blow a small hole (less than an inch in diameter) in its exterior. Scientists estimated that about 0.03 percent of the radioactive substance might have leaked, resulting in an exposure level to those in the immediate vicinity just over what you get from several trips on an airplane.

Technological advances in the twenty years since those tests have made the transport casks virtually indestructible. The storage casks, by contrast, failed a test conducted in 1998 at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in which a TOW missile penetrated a cask. The obvious solution--store all waste in the tougher, transport casks--would be expensive but doable.

There is no doubt many Nevadans don't want nuclear waste stored in their state (though according to several activists who live in the Yucca Mountain area, those whose proximity to the site would likely make them most affected by the storage are either indifferent or actually favor--mostly on economic grounds--bringing the waste to their "backyard").

But the environmental lobby has a different motive. If it can successfully shut down the Yucca Mountain storage facility--which a "no" vote would do--that would likely mean the end to nuclear energy in America.