Is it too late to make a deal?

It’s time for the state of Nevada to undertake a neutral, unbiased assessment of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The state’s consistent stance against the project has not permitted a balanced appraisal of the advantages and disadvantages the repository would create for the state.

I am not advocating that Nevada suddenly accept Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the nation’s nuclear waste repository. However, I do argue that a thorough examination of the dangers, concerns and finances of the issue would best serve the citizens of the state.

Time is of the essence. The Department of Energy has submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with a goal of licensing the facility before the Bush administration leaves office. If that occurs, the state will have lost any leverage it might have enjoyed.

Nevada has based its arguments against the Yucca Mountain Project on long-term storage safety concerns and dangers inherent in transporting these materials across Nevada. Both issues deserve a closer look.

Nuclear waste transport is not even in the top 10 concerns Homeland Security experts have regarding road and rail transport. Instead, the most dangerous materials were chlorine gas, urea nitrates, nitric acid and fuel oil, all which are commercially available. They are transported by rail and truck with few controls, weak containers and little security. On the other hand, nuclear waste is transported in robust containers specifically designed to withstand severe accidents. Transportation plans are coordinated with local officials, multiple forms of communication will be available, and transport vehicles can be immobilized on a moment’s notice. Do we have our priorities right?

With respect to long-term storage, the repository is designed to store the nuclear waste deep inside a ridge in steel caskets. The Department of Energy has conducted independent tests that demonstrate that the waste could be safely stored for more than 10,000 years.

The state wants to impose a standard of safe storage for at least 300,000 years, which is absurd. Current scientific thinking posits that a technological breakthrough will likely occur in the next 75 years that will enable us to safely eradicate the waste. More importantly, if the United States would emulate Europe and reprocess the spent nuclear waste, the residue could be reduced by 95 percent and represent a danger for, at most, 30 years.

The alternative to the Yucca Mountain Project is continuing storage of the nuclear waste at the sites where the fuel rods were used. At present, thousands of tons of nuclear waste — ideal for use by terrorists for a dirty bomb — are stored at 73 reactor sites in 35 states near populated areas.

Let’s also remember that for more than 50 years, real nuclear bombs — not nuclear material in rods stored in steel caskets — were detonated in the air and underground at the Nevada Test Site. That area is still heavily contaminated with nuclear residue that permeates the soil and presents a more viable concern than the storage of waste deep inside a mountain.

The decision on Yucca Mountain should not be based on monetary potential, but the fiscal benefits of accepting the waste must be considered. The Nuclear Waste Fund, which now has $27 billion, was established to finance the nuclear waste repository and the preparation and transport of the waste. Nevada would be eligible for a significant portion of that $27 billion for improvements to the state’s transportation routes, the establishment of public safety facilities, communications sites, etc.

Even without the fund, the Yucca Mountain Project has had a significant economic stimulus. A 2003 UNLV study determined that “if Yucca was discontinued, economic losses, relative to the current economy, would be substantial.” It concluded that the Yucca Mountain Project contributed more than $200 million annually to the state’s economy, and that if the repository were approved, it would be “a significant source of economic activity independent of the vagaries of the financial markets and economic cycles.”

This is a unique opportunity for the Silver State. It could propose a grand compromise: Assuming Nevada’s legitimate safety and security concerns were met, the state would accept Yucca Mountain as the nation’s temporary nuclear waste repository. The federal government would support reprocessing in order to significantly reduce the volume of waste coming to Yucca Mountain. Because of the multiple requirements to assure a safe site, Nevada would draw extensively on the $27 billion Nuclear Waste Fund to offset its transportation, communication, public safety and other needs.

I believe that it is time for Nevada to conduct a neutral, unbiased appraisal of this unique opportunity to store nuclear waste on a short-term basis, and still reap the financial benefits. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.

Tyrus W. Cobb, a Reno resident, was special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for national security affairs.

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