Neighbors doubt safety of Yucca Mountain site

Nuclear tests blamed for cancer deaths

February 19, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. - Just mention the words radiation and Yucca Mountain, and many folks hereabouts will complain that the federal government has nuked them again.

Yucca Mountain, which President Bush has just designated as the nation's nuclear waste depository, is just 20 miles away.

It sits on the edge of the Nevada Test Site, where the government exploded 1,100 nuclear devices, including 14 atmospheric tests, during the Cold War. The blasts were said to be safe, but years later, civilians exposed to fallout and military personnel, some of whom marched into smoking bomb craters, became ill with cancer and blamed the government.

Saloonkeeper Doris M. Jackson and other Amargosa Valley residents point to the nuclear testing program as proof that the government can't be trusted when it comes to Yucca Mountain. The government lied about the danger of fallout from the tests, they say, and is lying when it says that nuclear waste can be safely entombed in the mountain for 10,000 years.

Jackson, whose State Line Saloon and Gambling Hall looks so much like the Old West that one could imagine bumping into Wyatt Earp's ghost at the bar, doubts that the technology exists to keep nuclear pollutants from seeping into ground water beneath Yucca Mountain.

"Think of 10,000 years," she said. "Ten thousand years ago, we were nomads wandering the Earth. Five hundred years ago, Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet. Three thousand years ago, Amargosa Valley was completely under water. We have no right to leave this nuclear legacy for future generations to deal with."

Under the plan approved by Bush, 77,000 tons of nuclear waste and spent fuel would be transported by train and truck from 131 commercial, military and research reactors in 39 states to be entombed beneath Yucca Mountain.

Nevada can veto Bush's approval, but that veto can be overridden by a majority vote by both houses of Congress.

Jackson said the value of land in Amargosa Valley has tripled over the past 10 years, but that once nuclear waste begins arriving, prices will plummet.

"Nobody is going to want to buy the crops that we grow out here," she said. "No one is going to want to live near Yucca Mountain."

As Jackson speaks, some of her customers are playing one-armed bandits while others drink at the bar. The saloon sits along Route 373, a quarter-mile from the California border. If you drive south about 20 miles and hang a right, you'll wind up in Death Valley National Park.

The saloon has the unpretentious air of a workingman's watering hole. Jackson said her clientele includes workers from the test site, and that allegiance to their jobs prevents them from speaking openly against Yucca Mountain.

"They say, `I work at the test site, and I'm OK,' and they never think of the people who worked there and died after being exposed to radiation," she said.

Putting a national repository at Yucca Mountain will not end the nuclear waste problem, Jackson said - it will increase it.

"When this tunnel gets full, they will simply build another one right beside it," she said. "We won't have one, we'll have two or three or maybe four. This will go on as long as we keep using nuclear power."

A few miles north, an old Huey helicopter flanked by howitzers sits in front of VFW Post 6826. Inside, Gerald Happeny, a Korean War-era veteran, sips a drink.

"It's a done deal," he said of the Yucca Mountain project. "I don't know why the government just don't buy out our whole damn valley - and they can buy me out first. They say the project will bring jobs, but the people around here don't need jobs. Most of us are retired or running from the law."

Happeny said that in 1951, when he was in the Marine Corps, he volunteered for military maneuvers at the test site. He said he was eager to see a blast and to prepare for use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. He was never chosen, and, in retrospect, he's glad, because of the cancer deaths among participants.

"I was lucky. All them guys died," he said.

Standing behind the counter of the Amargosa Valley Country Store, Kris Martin frowns when asked about Yucca Mountain. She said some people drink bottled water because they believe well water is contaminated by years of nuclear testing.

"The waste dump would probably be good for our economy, but we already have a lot of radiation around here and I don't think it would be good to add any more," she said. "I think the price of our land is going to go down. I've been here three years, and they've done two studies on the ground water in our wells. According to the independent studies, there's a lot of radiation in it, and according to the government it's within parameters. A lot of us out here won't drink the water.

"Nobody out here" wants the waste dump, Martin said. "What we say doesn't matter. It's a government thing, and what we say doesn't matter."

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