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Chuck Baker: Military is to blame for most of our nuclear waste

Some officials in Nye County are open to the idea of supporting the depositing of nuclear waste in a repository at Yucca Mountain.

It’s an ongoing battle that has been around for years. But many who live in the general region around the mountain have mixed feelings.

It’s interesting to note that Nye County spans more than 18,000 square miles, and is the largest county in the state. A good portion of the overall population in the county are reported to live below the poverty line, and a regular program to store the waste locally could mean new jobs for many. But those who oppose the program are fearful that the material might leak and present a major health hazard. The federal government maintains that the storage plan ensures that no leaks would occur. However, a question that is seldom reported in the media is, “How is such waste being made?”

The main answer is: Thank the military.

Much of the material is developed by the Department of Defense in the production of nuclear weapons. Military officials say such weapons are needed to keep the nation’s defenses strong. But, others say the waste it produces should not be dumped in Nevada — “not in my backyard.”

In addition to what some fear are potential health problems, the perception of exposure to radiation could well curtail tourism. There will be those who don’t care to visit here because of nearby radioactive waste. Even with the chance to win a million dollars in a casino, if they feel they could end up going home seriously ill from military radiation stored a few miles away, they’ll visit elsewhere, thank you.

Many elected officials in Washington are still fighting to store nuclear waste in Nevada, although Carson City has been officially against that for years.

U.S. Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nevada, has joined the fight against using Nevada as a dumping ground. “It’s rearing its head again,” she told me in an interview. “Whenever we think it’s dead, it comes back. When I was first elected I sat down with [Nancy] Pelosi before she became [House] Speaker and said, ‘Listen. I will give you my vote, but I need an assurance that if a bill on Yucca Mountain comes to the House, you’re not going to bring it to the floor.’ She gave me that assurance.”

Lee explained storage of nuclear waste is a state issue, and if the state doesn’t want it, Washington should listen. “The bottom line is our health, our safety and our economy depend on us not having Yucca Mountain developed,” she declared.

Others, including Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, take the opposite approach. According to a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Barrasso said, “It’s time to end the political games and complete the licensing on the Department of Energy’s application to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.” And he has taken steps in Washington to make that happen. He has support of the Nye County Commission, which has urged Barrasso to move forward.

Repository aside, Lee, meanwhile, is very pro-veteran. Separately, she is very active on veterans issues and sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee. She said nuclear waste is but one area of military toxins that can cause health issues to civilians. Among other pieces of legislation she has been involved with, last May she voted to pass the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, a bipartisan bill she helped introduce. It gives those off-shore veterans exposed to the toxic Agent Orange herbicide long-awaited health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And she supports legislation designed to protect service members from becoming addicted to gambling.

Recently, a train carrying toxins derailed near Elko and added fuel to the fire of those who argue against transporting waste to Nevada. More than 20 rail cars collided with each other and piled up around the train tracks. Lee, like many others, immediately saw this as another of the many reasons why Nevada must not become a major nuclear waste dumping ground.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, research, development, testing, and production of U.S. nuclear weapons occurred at thousands of sites in nearly every state, as well as Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands, Johnston Atoll, and Christmas Island in the Pacific.

Between 1940 and 1996, the United States spent approximately $5.8 trillion dollars to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. As a result, the nuclear weapons program created one of the largest radioactive waste legacies in the world, rivaling the former Soviet Union’s. Nevada does not want to be a part of that legacy. U.S. nuclear weapons sites constitute some of the most contaminated zones in the Western Hemisphere.

Attempts to remediate those sites are now approaching their fifth decade. It is the most costly, complex, and risky environmental cleanup effort ever undertaken. Long-term liability estimates range from approximately $300 billion to $1 trillion. The work is expected to continue well into this century. After that, long-term stewardship of contaminated areas will pose a challenge spanning hundreds of centuries.

Chuck N. Baker is a Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam War and the host of “That’s America to Me” every Sunday at 7 a.m. on 97.1-FM.

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