Criticism falls on DOE plan for rail line

Rural Lincoln County residents jokingly call it the "glow train" because, if built, it would haul highly radioactive waste to the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

But the Department of Energy's plans for a 319-mile rail line from Caliente to Yucca Mountain did not get glowing reviews at Wednesday's meeting of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects.

Katie Stone Sonnenborn, who represented the New York-based Dia Art Foundation, said that building and operating a nuclear waste rail line through remote Garden Valley would ruin a $30 million land sculpture project, spanning more than three decades, dubbed "City" by world-renowned artist Michael Heizer.

Heizer started his project in Lincoln County's Garden Valley in 1969, hoping the mile-long, 1,000-foot-wide work of soil, rock and concrete forever would keep its isolated ambience in a setting that conveys a sense of timelessness.

The Department of Energy's plans to build a rail line within a mile of Heizer's work "will have a devastating impact on 'City,'" Sonnenborn told the commission, led by former Sen. Richard Bryan.

The DOE's initial plans called for starting rail construction in 2009 with the line operating in 2014. Budget cuts have pushed the dates to 2011 and 2016, respectively.

Despite uncertainty that looms over the Yucca Mountain Project, Sonnenborn remains concerned that a rail line through the area will ruin the integrity of "City," which, she said, is nearing completion and is still off-limits to the public. With viewing points from the landscape of undisturbed mountains and high desert, the sculpture "is in complete harmony with its site," she said.

"For this reason, the project is internationally acclaimed even in its unfinished state," Sonnenborn said.

Heizer's neighbor, Gracian Uhalde, a sheep and cattle rancher whose heritage dates to his grandfather's arrival in Lincoln County in the 1880s, said he, too, is leery of DOE's plans for disposing nuclear waste and of the effect the rail line would have on grazing his sheep.

"We lasted through atomic testing and saw fallout come down like snow when I was 10 years old," Uhalde said, referring to the early days of nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site. "So when the government says, 'We're here to help,' it leaves a question mark in your mind."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at or (702) 383-0308.