YUCCA MOUNTAIN, Nev. -- Things have a grand scale out here. The Nevada Test Site adjacent to this mountain is bigger than Rhode Island but smaller than Nellis Air Force Base, which also is adjacent. But the biggest thing is the dispute, now roiling a second decade, about carving a nuclear waste repository in this mountain's innards, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The Bush administration says that sound science proves this: Because of the aridity of this eastern end of the Death Valley hydrologic basin and because of what scientists have learned about the mountain's reaction to the sort of heat that will be generated by the slowly decaying waste and because metallurgical advances will make waste containers extraordinarily durable, no significant corrosion can threaten the structural integrity of containers that will hold the waste for at least 10,000 years -- and probably 80,000.
Not so, says Steve Frishman, a geologist employed by Nevada. He insists that enough water will reach the metal containers to cause, within just 200 years, seepage of radioactive waste that will threaten the groundwater and irrigation systems. He says that by emphasizing metallurgy, his adversaries prove that they have to disregard the principal criterion for a satisfactory repository -- that "geology is the workhorse." He says geologic disposal of nuclear waste is feasible in rock less porous to water than this mountain is -- in granite deposits of a sort found from Minnesota to North Carolina. For Nevadans who are not scientists, all they want to hear is: Not here.
NIMBY -- not in my back yard -- is a normal response, but Nevada is mostly back yard: 92 percent of the state is owned by the federal government. And Nevada has a history of being put to unusual uses.
In 1864 it was rushed into statehood before it had the required number of residents because President Lincoln thought he might need its three electoral votes. When the Comstock Lode's silver was exhausted, so, too, was Nevada: Between 1880 and 1900, while other mountain states' populations tripled, Nevada's declined, from 62,266 to 42,335. Some Easterners, thinking that one senator for each 22,500 people was ridiculous, suggested stripping Nevada of statehood.
But Nevada, practicing "entrepreneurial federalism," built a gaudy future from the marriage of divorce and gambling. Some states had competed for the "migratory divorce" business -- people shopping for the most permissive laws. In 1931 Nevada crushed competitors by enacting a six-week residency requirement for divorce and by legalizing gambling.
This not notably decorous state rests on what it decorously calls "gaming," an industry that prospers from people not understanding risks with thrown dice or shuffled cards. Risk assessment tests rationality, and Oscar Goodman, the flamboyant former mob lawyer and current mayor of Las Vegas, is flunking the test when he promises to block any truck passing through his city carrying nuclear waste. Well.
Union Pacific freight trains rumble less than a half a mile behind many of the 75,000 hotel rooms on the Strip. Some tank cars contain chlorine gas and other hazardous materials. An industrial society uses, and hence transports, vast quantities of them, weighing their benefits against their risks and trying to reduce the latter.
Mayor Goodman, relax: Very little nuclear waste will come to Yucca Mountain by truck. Most will come by rail, on a line not yet built, that will loop far around the metropolitan area's 1.6 million residents. In the past 40 years more than 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported more than 1.6 million miles. Four highway and four railway vehicles were involved in accidents, but no container of nuclear materials failed.
Las Vegas is farther from this mountain than 161 million Americans are from 125 nuclear waste storage facilities in 39 states. These sites are much less secure than Yucca Mountain would be, with the material 1,000 feet below ground and the mountain located next to the Nuclear Emergency Support Team at Nellis.
The nation should generate much more than the one-fifth of its electricity nuclear power currently produces. Forty percent of the Navy is nuclear-powered. More nuclear waste is produced daily.
Nevada has two tactics. It is insisting on a degree of certainty -- absolute certainty, over 100 millennia -- that is unreasonable, even considering the stakes. And it is making testable assertions about geological and metallurgical matters about which scientists are reaching conclusions that are beyond reasonable doubts.
Three truths: America must store nuclear waste more safely, can never prove perfect safety forever and hence cannot store waste anywhere it will be welcomed. An axiom: Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket.