Trashing the solution to Nevada's nuke dump dilemma
Last Wednesday, freshman Gov. Kenny Guinn trashed the solution to
Nevada's nuclear dump dilemma.
Dr. Anthony Hechanova, a documentably brilliant scientist, gave a
quick seminar on nuclear transmutation before the Nevada State Senate
Committee on Human Resources and Facilities. Now part of the Harry Reid
Center for Environmental Engineering at UNLV, he graduated magna cum laude
and holds a master's degree from Cal Davis. He went on to earn an
additional master's and a doctorate from MIT. Not bad for a young man who
probably gets carded if he buys beer.
Dr. Hechanova noted that the basic technology has been around for a
long time. If you want to make nuclear bombs, you have to transmute
naturally occurring uranium into plutonium isotopes. By likewise bombarding
with electrons some 70,000 tons of spent fuel rods from nuclear power
plants, you can turn the stuff into roughly 230 pounds of lower level
Congress last year cut the transmutation reseach and development
budget from $15 million to $4 million and handed it to the boss of the
Yucca Mountain nuclear dump project.
"Anything that might drive them away from their tunnel vision, they
do not look with favor on it," Dr. Hechanova said. He flew to northern
Nevada from an international conference at which the feds were booming
Yucca Mountain as a scientific wonder of the world and galaxy-class success
The senate committee heard two proposals. One measure, SJR 6, was
sponsored by Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, and Sen. Ray Shaffer, D-Las
Vegas. The other was SB 206, sponsored by Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City,
and eight others.
SB 206 was criticized by the committee chairman, Sen. Ray Rawson,
R-Las Vegas, who noted that the legislature has repeatedly expressed
opposition to Nevada siting of a national nuclear repository, including a
resolution passed just last month.
"It seems a little redundant," he said. "This may be a
full-employment act for the nuclear projects office," he noted.
Bob Loux, director of that office, opposed Neal's measure, as did
Victoria Soberinsky, Deputy Chief of Staff to Gov. Guinn. The
administration position is that approval of research on transmutation might
jeopardize Nevada's united front on the nuke dump issue.
In fact, we've never been unified. A latter day nuke dump opponent,
U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., voted for a 1975 state senate resolution
explicitly asking the feds to locate the dump in Nevada. It passed. As
governor, Bryan signed a 1985 bill giving himself power to negotiate with
the federal government on dumpsite issues. Last week, Ms. Soberinsky told
the senate committee that negotiation equals capitulation.
More than anyone else, Saint Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., caused Nevada to
become the solo target for a nuke fuel rod graveyard. (See the Barbwire of
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., long a dumpsite opponent, is now
working to name a Carson City federal building for Laxalt and last week
glowingly praised his predecessor.
Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks,
asked Sen. Neal and Director Loux if they would be willing to sit down and
discuss compromise language on Neal's resolution. They were, so stay tuned.
Research and development of transmutation technology is a huge
undertaking. The pilot program would even require construction of a linear
accelerator (basically, a monster underground electron destruction derby
sometimes several miles in length). It could transform the freshwater
Nevada collegiate system into a seaworthy entity worthy of the name
"The ultimate insult to Nevada would be to cram the waste down our
throats, then take the benefits elsewhere," Sen. Rawson noted.
Ninety percent of the energy produced by transmutation can be sold
to consumers. Seven or eight such facilities may eventually be built, but
probably none in Nevada. This seems to be the only possibility of getting
SJR6 passed endorse the process but send it elsewhere. That still may not
One anti-dump activist who testifed against Sen. Neal's resolution
complimented him publicly for bringing public focus to transmutation, but
warned against "sugar coating" nuclear waste.
After the hearing, she said she wanted to see the Nevada Test Site
dug up and transmuted. Such an operation would dwarf not only Yucca
Mountain, but all of Nevada mining. It would also release untold amounts of
radiation into the air to find miniscule amounts of radioactive material.
Some opponents have been opposing so long that they are apparently no
longer open to solutions for a very vexing problem.
I asked her if she would back a resolution amended to solely
support transmutation research somewhere else. No storage of transmuted
residue. No inquiring of the feds about state compensation from the $14
billion or so now sitting in a fund from utility ratepayers.
A large state producing lots of fuel rods such as Illinois would
probably get the pilot project. It would also make a nuke dump at Yucca
Mountain totally unnecessary.
Because the proposal came from Joe Neal, she expressed suspicion.
His sponsorship "colors" the issue, she said - an unintentional and
unfortunate choice of words about a man born with dark skin.
Like everything else, it all boils down to perceptions and prejudices.
DROP YOUR HANGUPS AND YOUR TAXES Sen. Neal's SB 88, raising the
gross gaming tax on Nevada's most grossly profitable big casinos, goes up
for hearing this Tuesday. Everybody who's anybody in the
gambling-industrial complex will show up to cry poor boy and bash Indian
tribes. Call, write and show up to support the bill.
The gambling industry and the governor are pushing toward property
tax increases as the only alternative to pay for casino-spawned growth.
Speak now or pay later. Proceedings begin at 2:00 p.m. in room 2135 before
the senate taxation committee. Same time, same place on Thursday, that same
committee will hear SB 90, Sen. Neal's proposed repeal of the infamous
Steve Wynn art collection tax break. The Fakir of Fellagio hisself will
probably jet up to enlighten the great unwashed. Bring shampoo and hip
Be well. Raise hell.
© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a 30-year Nevadan, editor of U-News. As the 1984 Democratic nominee for the House of Representatives in
Nevada's statewide second congressional district, he opposed the Laxalt
machine's nuclear waste position. In 1998 he served as gubernatorial campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Since 1988 Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune, where an earlier version of this column appeared on 3/7/99.