What's the best way to get nuclear waste to a "dump" at Yucca Mountain?
The same way the government wants to haul highly radioactive spent fuel for entombment in a "repository" at the mountain: By train and truck, over railways and freeways across the United States with the least risks of accidents and terrorist attacks.
Or, maybe not at all in the not-so-distant future.
That's how the discussion went Tuesday at a workshop of the U.S. Transport Council where Nye County Commission Chairman Gary Hollis made the distinction clear.
"A dump is a hole in the ground. A repository is somewhere where you put something valuable that's safe," he said. "We're putting something in there that's valuable, that's safe."
With that, others from counties in Southern and Central Nevada along with nuclear transportation industry representatives and the state's transportation consultant presented views on the issue.
The discussion was fitting for the role of the independent, nonprofit U.S. Transport Council in the nuclear waste debate.
"Our goal is to enhance communication, hold frank discussion of the issues with transparency," said David Blee, a former assistant secretary of energy who is executive director of the U.S. Transport Council.
Prospects of the north-south Mina rail corridor faded last month when the Walker River Paiute Indians announced they no longer were interested in having nuclear waste shipped across their reservation.
After that, the proposed east-west Caliente corridor regained the spotlight for building a railway to Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
An outspoken proponent of that plan, Caliente Mayor Kevin Phillips, would rather call it the Central Nevada Energy Corridor because of its potential not only for bringing the nation's high-level nuclear waste to Nevada but also for furthering the state's potential for wind, coal and solar power.
"I would hope Nevada would get its head out of its hands," he said.
Bob Halstead, transportation consultant for the Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency, presented a slide show that, among other things, emphasized that a railroad from Caliente to Yucca Mountain should not be built because it fails to meet the state's expectations and doesn't have great economic potential.
"I guess the killer issue on the Caliente route is the impact on Las Vegas," Halstead said. Selecting the route would put at least 5 percent of all nuclear waste rail casks through the populated Las Vegas Valley and as much as 87 percent.
The so-called "mostly rail scenario" also would bring radioactive shipments through the Las Vegas metropolitan area on trucks, he said.
Halstead commended the departments of Energy and Homeland Security for considering security issues "so bushwhackers can't know for sure what path they're going to come down today." However, the risk of human error and more sophisticated terrorists tactics involving "explosive formed penetrators" could breach transportation casks and spread potentially deadly radioactive materials, he said.
"The bad guys are upping their game," he said privately as the workshop participants broke for lunch.
Even without a terrorist trying to turn a nuclear waste cask into a so-called "dirty bomb," supporters of nuclear waste transportation can't dilute the human error factor with low-risk probabilities. He noted the Exxon Valdez accident that polluted Alaskan waters with crude oil occurred after 8,000 safe shipments.
"Are they willing to kill us to force us to solve their waste problem?" Halstead asked. "The more you know the facts, the more you understand uncertainties. Where's the redundancy to protect us from waste-package failures?"
Contrary to the nuclear industry's preference, he said the Department of Energy in order to meet the state's expectations should ship the oldest spent fuel first, if it is shipped at all, because there is less risk with the decaying waste.
Maine's nuclear safety advisor, Charles Pray, said he thought Halstead's point about Nevada's expectations is valid. "But you also have to work with the expectations of every state with a nuclear power plant," he said. "I think this country has to move toward a national repository."