Angry Nevadans Pack Yucca Mountain Hearing

By Sunny Lewis

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, September 6, 2001 (ENS) - Nevadans will not accept the nation's high-level nuclear waste being dumped at Yucca Mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Hundreds of angry people showed up at a Department of Energy public hearing in Las Vegas last night to express their objections. Simultaneous hearings were held in Carson City, Elko and Reno.

Led by Governor Kenny Guinn and the entire Nevada Congressional delegation, who testified via satellite hookup from Washington, DC, speakers continued until well after midnight.

A few expressed support for the construction of the permanent nuclear waste repository, but the overwhelming majority of the crowd was hostile to the Department of Energy (DOE) proposal.

The DOE proposes to haul 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods and other high level radioactive waste from 70 storage sites in 46 states by road and rail to Yucca Mountain, the only site being considered for its permanent storage.


Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, delivers a grim, determined challenge to the Bush administration. (Photos Sunny Lewis unless otherwise credited)
Governor Guinn characterized the outpouring of opposition by the crowd in a positive light. "This is honest, constructive and impassioned public input on an issue that is paramount to the health and safety of every Nevadan, and every American whose home, school or place of business sits along the proposed paths that the deadliest substance on Earth, if DOE has its way, will be brought to Nevada."

The governor and the overflow crowd expressed anger that the hearing was called with only a few days notice and before an environmental impact statement has been filed. The scientific evidence is not complete, Guinn said, yet the DOE has called this meeting to gather public comment on that evidence "prematurely" and over our "reasonable and faithful objections." He pledged to complain about the process in letters to President George W. Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

"This fight transcends party affiliations, transcends socio-economic class, race or gender and galvanizes all Nevadans from every corner of the state in opposition," the governor said to a standing ovation. "We in Nevada will not stand for it."


Nevada Senator Harry Reid (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, called the hearing "unfair from the beginning." He criticized Abraham for failing to attend the Nevada hearings and charged the Bush administration with rushing Yucca Mountain through by limiting the public comment period to an additional 15 days instead of the 60 day extension requested by the Nevada Congressional delegation. Public comments on the possible recommendation of Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear dump are now due by October 5.

Reid called transportation of the nuclear waste the most difficult issue. "It's in everybody's backyard," he said. "The Department of Energy won't tell us what railways they're going to use, what highways they're going to use because they know they would have to have an environmental impact statement, which I don't think they can get approved." Reid said the waste should be left where it is and dealt with in those locations.

Senator John Ensign, a Republican, expressed outrage and said the hearing process "may be technically legal, it is certainly not the morally right way to handle these hearings."

Ensign pointed out that DOE scientists differ from "outside scientists" on the safety of the Yucca Mountain proposal, and criticized the agency for holding the hearings before an official investigation into a possible conflict of interest on the part of one of its contractors is concluded.

Warning that Yucca Mountain would cost $60 billion dollars, making it the "most expensive construction project in the history of the world," Ensign said the safest and cheapest way to handle the spent nuclear fuel would be to put it in dry cask storage on the sites where it is currently located.

Dry cask storage is "good for 100 years," Ensign said which would give scientists time to explore promising new nuclear waste "recycling" technologies that would reduce the volume of the waste and the length of time it would be radioactive.

Republican Congressman Jim Gibbons called the Yucca Mountain plan "a misguided policy," and said "disaster is a very real possibility."

Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley, a Democrat, said the DOE's scientific evaluation concerning the repository's ability to safely contain the waste was "incredibly optimistic," and conformed only to the "lowest possible standards." The government should begin the decommissioning of Yucca Mountain, she said, because "Nevadans don't want this project."

Western Shoshone native leader Corbin Harney told the hearing that his people had enjoyed the lands which include Yucca Mountain for hundreds of years until the federal government began atomic weapons testing on Shoshone lands. He accused the DOE of "telling lies after lies."


Western Shoshone leader Corbin Harney
"Yucca Mountain is not a safe place to put any kind of nuclear waste," Harney said. "It's not a mountain to begin with, like they've been telling us, it's rolling hill. That's a moving mountain," said Harney. "It's got a snake there, it's going to continually move."

"There are seven volcanic buttes there," Harney warned. "Underneath it is hot water that's causing a lot of frictions in that tunnel, and today they're telling you it's not dangerous. But how come, if it's not dangerous, many, many of my people have died from cancer caused by radiation."

The crowd relentlessly heckled Gary Sandquist, a professor of mechanical engineering from the University of Utah who has spent 40 years monitoring nuclear weapons testing.

During a tense few moments, moderator Barry Lawson, threatened to close the public hearing if the angry shouts did not stop, and some order was restored.

Sandquist tried to convince the hostile audience that in what he called "this energy crisis" Americans need electricity, and that because 20 percent of the nation's power is generated by nuclear power plants, "we must store the nuclear fuel somewhere." Yucca Mountain is the best place to store it, he maintained in the face of hisses and boos.


Part of the standing room only crowd
Speaker Bill Vasconi, co-chairman of the non-profit Nevada Nuclear Waste Study Committee, has worked for 17 years at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. He said Nevada should accept as a fact that Yucca Mountain will be the nation's nuclear repository and begin extracting financial concessions from the federal government. He envisioned federal funding for nuclear energy research centers and other educational institutions.

The crowd reserved its loudest cheers for Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman who said he is "the happiest mayor in the world" and wants to stay that way without worrying that a truck on its way to Yucca Mountain is going to turn over in Las Vegas spilling radioactive waste.

Mayor Goodman described his inspection visit to Yucca Mountain in the company of two DOE officials. "After we viewed the site, I said to them, 'Can you tell me with any kind of certainty that this nuclear repository is safe?' He quoted one of the officials, Dr. Ritkin, as saying, "No one could ever say that with certainty."


Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Gooodman said he will personally arrest any driver of a nuclear waste truck in his city.
"Well if they can't tell us that we're safe, how dare they even consider bringing this crap here?" Goodman challenged. "If there is a spill, the driver doesn't have to worry because he's wearing a uniform, but the people around here within 42 square miles are having carcinogens put into the air that can give them cancer and kill them, and that's not going to take place as long as I'm the mayor of Las Vegas."

Additional hearings will be held on September 12 in Amargosa Valley, adjacent to Yucca Mountain, and on September 13 in Pahrump, Nevada.

The Preliminary Site Suitability Evaluation, released August 21, and the Yucca Mountain Science and Engineering Report, release May 7, are available on the Yucca Mountain Project website at:

Public comments are being accepted on the Yucca Mountain Project website or by mail or fax to: Carol Hanlon, S&ER Products Manager, U.S. Department of Energy, Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Office, P.O. Box 30307 M/S 025, North Las Vegas, NV 89036-0707. Fax: 1-800-967-0739.

Further technical information about Yucca Mountain is available at the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board website at: