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FROM THE EDITOR: Nuclear waste is on its way, let’s hope the dollars follow

The mayor of Las Vegas can lay down on whatever highway she would like, but radioactive waste seems to be on the verge of coming to the former test site.

As today’s front page story states, the Department of Energy will ship potent uranium waste from a federal laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee – my old stomping grounds – for disposal at Area 5 landfill at the Nevada National Security Site.

To be clear, waste has been sent to that area before, which is just northeast of the Mercury entrance in Nye County. To make something else clear, this is not Yucca Mountain, which is miles away on the western side of the site.

Since many people presume the waste would be transported on Interstate 15 and/or U.S. Highway 95, Mayor Carolyn Goodman made political theater Tuesday stating she would “lie down” on the highway to block the shipments.

Since the DOE will not be making the shipping schedule or route public, she may be out there a while.

This is all coming about because the DOE and the state, led by Gov. Brian Sandoval, have spent the past 18 months in a back-and-forth over federal plans to dispose of 403 canisters of waste – uranium-233 mixed with uranium-235. The good stuff that can be used to make a bomb in the wrong hands.

The situation surrounding these pending shipments also highlight, what some advocates say, the need for Yucca Mountain. Radioactive waste is currently stored at various sites around the country.

And much of that infrastructure, which was not built for long-term storage, is deteriorating. And not as secure from access as the security site to the north. These shipments are planned because of an aging warehouse at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

And state resistance seems futile.

During the past few years, attorneys for the state worked to block the shipments but the state now concedes it lacks the authority to block these waste burials.

This is all happening against the backdrop of renewed national discussions about Yucca Mountain, which many proponents argue is needed to store the nation’s commercial nuclear waste.

I was among the small group of journalists who visited Yucca Mountain on April 9 with the congressional delegation. I have to say I come down on the side of finishing the scientific studies on the feasibility of storing the waste at the mountain. I probably have that view because, as I discussed in a previous column, my father worked in nuclear energy when I was growing up in Tennessee. In fact, he worked for a few years in Oak Ridge.

Standing in the mouth of the big 25-foot diameter entranceway to Yucca Mountain, I was struck by the enormity of the project.

Allowed to travel 1,600 feet into the five-mile tunnel, we walked upon old rails, and saw old conveyor belts broken down from lack of use. U.S. Rep. Cresent Hardy and five other congressmen were taken through the entire tunnel, and I’m curious what they saw.

To me, it seems that the science needs to be finished. If the mountain’s integrity proves to be solid for storing the waste, then Yucca Mountain should be used for a nuclear waste repository. It is widely known $15 billion has already been spent on the project, so starting over somewhere else doesn’t really make sense.

Make no mistake, as much as Clark County municipalities are against the materials traveling through their communities, Nye County officials are just as in favor of it traveling through theirs.

During the 2015 Southern Nevada transportation workshops held by NDOT the past few months, Nye officials pushed on why Highway 160 towards U.S. 95 has not been widened to facilitate the transportation of nuclear waste. The county has turned to the DOE in recent years to get the project funded, because NDOT claims other projects elsewhere take priority.

Of course, if the state says it’s against Yucca Mountain, why would a state agency help build the road? Maybe with the state’s impasse with DOE shipping the government’s radioactive waste to the county seemingly over, maybe dollars for road improvements and economic development aren’t far behind.

Arnold M. Knightly is the editor of the Pahrump Valley Times.

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