Public says no to nuke dump

NORTH LAS VEGAS - Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn began a crucial hearing on a proposal to bury the nation's nuclear waste about 90 miles from the Las Vegas Strip with harsh criticism and a vow to take his complaints to President Bush.

Guinn called the Department of Energy hearings Wednesday premature and irresponsible because they were based on ''scientific evidence that is not complete and has not been made public to me nor to the people in this room.''

Guinn shrugged off a letter from Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham extending for 15 days the public comment period on the proposal to bury 77,000 tons of radioactive waste deep beneath a volcanic ridge at Yucca Mountain.

''I assure you my outrage ... will be detailed in letters directly to Secretary Abraham and the president,'' the Republican governor said.

He earned repeated applause from a partisan, standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 packed into the hearing room at the DOE offices in North Las Vegas. More than 170 others were seated in an adjacent cafeteria and more than 70 others followed the proceedings by teleconference in Reno, Elko and Carson City.

By contrast to the boisterous meeting in Las Vegas, the hearing rooms in Reno and Carson City were quiet.

About 40 turned out in Carson City including First Lady Dema Guinn, State Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, and former Sen. Ernie Adler.

Parnell said she was concerned about the impact the dump would have on the state's future.

"I consider myself as one who is always respectful of the other side," she said. "I hope that those at the DOE will show Nevadans the respect they deserve."

In Reno, only a dozen people showed by 6:30 p.m. including Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, who sent Solicitor General Tony Clark to Las Vegas to present her office's formal comments and objections to the public hearing.

Only five of those attending in Reno asked to comment.

Del Papa as well as several of those who attended in Reno complained that the number of protesters was limited by both the short notice and the location - the Desert Research Institute conference room north of Reno near the Washoe Sheriff's Detention Facility.

"It's a tragedy no one showed up because it's important to the whole state of Nevada," said UNR professor Barbara Thornton. "But the short notice and they didn't pick a place that is reachable by people in Reno."

Travis Souza, who described himself as a Democratic activist, said people just weren't expecting a major hearing on short notice.

"After so many years back and forth, I think people weren't prepared for such a step up, an acceleration of the process," he said.

"With the Labor Day weekend, I couldn't even tell my students about it until today," said community college teacher Joy Hammett.

Speakers in favor of the Yucca Mountain site were interrupted with jeers and catcalls. At one point, the moderator threatened to cut off testimony if the boisterous crowd did not allow a pro-nuclear Utah resident to continue his remarks.

Gary Sandquist, professor of nuclear and mechanical engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said he was invited to speak by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbying group for the energy industry.

''Are you willing to give up 20 percent of your electricity?'' Sandquist asked the crowd. He said one-fifth of the nation's power is nuclear. ''Let's be practical. We've got the waste, we've got to put it somewhere.''

But the sentiment in the room was overwhelmingly opposed to the dump site as members of Nevada's congressional delegation by teleconference and Clark County commissioners and others took turns testifying.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman told the cheering crowd he would personally arrest any truck driver hauling radioactive waste through his city to the dump site.

Guinn recalled Energy Department promises a half century ago that nuclear testing was safe.

''Since that time,'' the governor said, ''the DOE admitted that testing the hydrogen bomb at Yucca Flats caused innocent Americans to die - and that cancer benefits should be paid.''

He said Nevada could no longer trust the federal government, saying, ''We have learned from the past and we are not about to repeat the past.''

Guinn was the first of an expected 123 speakers who registered to offer their comments in southern Nevada. At least 18 others signed up to testify by teleconference. Each was allotted five minutes.

Before the hearings, protesters rallied outside.

''We need to stand together as one and say we don't want it,'' said former Nevada Democratic Sen. and Gov. Richard Bryan.

The crowd listened peacefully, some holding signs and balloons as a rock 'n' roll band played in a cordoned off parking lot. One hand-lettered sign said, ''Tell the Department of Energy, No Yucca Mountain dump.''

''We can all say no at once,'' said Corbin Harney, a Western Shoshone Indian and director of the Shundahai Network, a Pahrump-based environmental organization.

In the audience, 30-year-old Regina Portillo of North Las Vegas, said she was attending the rally because of her son, Jordan.

''He's 3 years old,'' she said. ''I don't want them to take chances with my son's future.''

The Energy Department has since 1982 spent almost $7 billion studying and drilling at Yucca Mountain, as well as testing methods to store spent fuel pellets in specially designed casks some 1,000 feet underground.

The mountain was formed from volcanic ash deposits about 13 million years ago. There are volcanic cones in the area and some opponents of the repository worry the area could become seismically active again.

Department engineers say groundwater is 1,000 feet below the mined ''drifts'' drilled beneath the 1,200-foot-high, 6-mile-long humpback ridge.

Scientists say the storage site would remain radioactive for more than 10,000 years. However, Energy Department studies concluded that no more than 4 millirem of radiation would leak per year into area groundwater and overall radiation from all sources from the site would not exceed 15 millirem. A standard chest X-ray emits 10 millirem or less.

The hearing is the first of three the Energy Department is holding. Others are scheduled Sept. 12 in Amargosa Valley, the community nearest the mountain and Sept. 13 in Pahrump, a community in Nye County west of the site.

The four-member Nevada congressional delegation and almost all state lawmakers are united against the idea.

U.S. Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., and Reps. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., tried to get the meeting postponed and sent a letter last week asking Abraham to attend. Abraham declined but an undersecretary, Robert G. Card did attend, though he offered no comment on the proceedings.

Abraham will consider the testimony before recommending to President Bush by the end of this year whether the site is suitable to begin accepting nuclear waste in 2010. The project has been projected to cost $58 billion over 100 years.

If Abraham recommends the dump be built and Bush gives the project the go-ahead but Nevada opposes it, as expected, the decision will be sent to Congress for debate and a vote.


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