For physician's assistant, Yucca Mountain no problem, but health care is a big one

HAWTHORNE -- Death in New Jersey breathed life into this high-desert town five hours north of Las Vegas.

William Leaming, who manages the busy medical clinic in this city of 3,500, knows the story well. It is one he sometimes thinks about as the presidential caucuses near and candidates take stances on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

In 1926, Lake Denmark, N.J., was blown off the face of the Earth. An explosion at a Navy ammunition depot killed or maimed nearly 100 people and did almost $100 million in damage.

Congress, smarting from criticism about locating such a facility near a highly populated area, undertook a nationwide search for a site where collateral damage from another accident wouldn't be so extensive.

Hawthorne, a failing railroad town with a population hovering around 200, was chosen, becoming home to the Yucca Mountain Project of its time.

Today, the Hawthorne Army Depot covers 147,000 acres. Storage bunkers full of bombs, rockets and other explosives pimple the desert. American flags and patriotic artwork fashioned out of used weaponry are scattered throughout the town, which is the Mineral County seat.

Since 1930, a couple of minor explosions have been contained without the loss of life, just as government experts promised.

"It has worked out well," says Leaming. "The government did the necessary work to make it safe, and it is good for Hawthorne and it is good for the country. Without the depot, I don't know what Hawthorne would be. It's our biggest employer."

When Leaming heads to the presidential caucuses on Saturday, he will support Sen. Barack Obama for his stance on access to health care, not for his position against commissioning Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository.

"At some point when scientists study something so much and say danger is minimal, you have to believe them," the physicians assistant says.

"It makes more sense to have the waste stored at Yucca Mountain than just about anywhere else in the country. Yucca Mountain would be good for the country, just the way Hawthorne is."