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 material.

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 story.

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 4-13-97)

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 university.

"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 be enough.

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 boots.

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.

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