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The 'There' of Yucca Mountain

How can people back East justify putting a nuclear waste dump in the Nevada desert?

April 28, 2002|GEOFF SCHUMACHER | Geoff Schumacher is editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Mercury.

When I was in sixth grade, we moved from Las Vegas to a remote outpost about 80 miles to the north that didn't really have a name when we arrived but later was dubbed Crystal, Nev., though it's best known as the site of the Cherry Patch Ranch brothel.

Many people are familiar with small-town life in southern Nevada, whether it's Mesquite or Pahrump or Boulder City. Those places are nothing like Crystal. Crystal was--and still is--about as far removed from civilization as you can get while still having electrical power and gravel roads.

This was before cell phones, so we didn't have a phone (I think there was one at the brothel--for emergencies only). Our mailbox was 15 miles away in Lathrop Wells, so we didn't check it every day. We planted a rickety mobile home on a couple of acres of scrub desert and ran the swamp cooler constantly to ward off the Mojave heat.

We shared this patch of desert with about 30 or 40 other odd folks who were attracted to the sparse population and low, low land prices.

We slowly adapted to this lifestyle. My brother and I explored the east end of the Amargosa Valley on our bikes, ran away from rattlesnakes, shot baskets on an uneven dirt court, raised chickens that a neighbor lady ended up turning into dinner. We went to school 25 miles away in Pahrump, which required a car ride of several miles just to reach the bus stop on the highway.

But what I remember most about our life in Crystal was how quiet it could be. When you went to sleep at night, it was dead silent, except for the occasional coyote yipping in the distance. It wasn't the quiet you experience after midnight in suburban Las Vegas, where there's always that discernible electrical hum of urban existence and the inevitable whine of a distant motorcycle. It was pure silence.

I've been unable to experience that quiet ever since. I listen for it often, but it's elusive. Pahrump and Reno and Las Vegas, where I have lived for the past 20 years, have seemed incredibly loud to me.

I often think about Crystal in the context of the fight over Yucca Mountain, where the Department of Energy wants to bury 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste. For one thing, Crystal isn't far from Yucca Mountain, and the aquifer from which it draws water surely would be among the first contaminated with deadly radiation if Yucca Mountain were to spring a leak.

But the main reason Crystal comes to mind is that dump supporters often refer to Yucca Mountain as being a wasteland only suitable for a nuclear waste dump. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, in recent House testimony, described Yucca Mountain as being in "the middle of nowhere."

I take those comments personally. First of all, there is an assumption that "the middle of nowhere" is deserving of less consideration than more populated locales. In fact, a strong case can be made that "the middle of nowhere" should receive more consideration, offering a profound experience that can be attained in a rapidly dwindling number of places in the world.

Second, it assumes that the relatively small number of people who do live in the area are deserving of less consideration than the large numbers of people congregating elsewhere. How can such a moral equation be justified?

It's the same assumption, by the way, that led to thousands of people in eastern Nevada and southern Utah being exposed to cancer-causing radiation blown downwind from above-ground nuclear tests in the 1950s.

Finally, there is the assumption that the Nevada desert is an appropriate place for a waste dump. This is an outdated value judgment by people back East, a judgment suggesting that if only Nevada were covered with trees and grass and lakes and rivers it would be excluded from consideration for the dump.

In fact, the desert contains its own wonders and ecological merits that are no more or less valuable to the world than the lusher attributes of the East.

There are dozens of ways to see Yucca Mountain as a mistake, a government boondoggle of massive proportions. But in my own head, I think about it in the context of those silent nights in Crystal, where you could always hear yourself think.

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