The Great Unknown

What can the spill in the Gulf teach us about Yucca Mountain?

As we enter the third month of the disastrous BP oil spill, you can’t help but watch, read and listen to the coverage from the Gulf Coast and think of the links to Yucca Mountain. We’ve heard it before—the assurances of scientists, politicians and business executives that our collective knowledge is strong enough to validate a risky venture, one with potentially destructive fallout.

Deep-water drilling? Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s been studied forever and the technology is up to the task. Haul spent nuclear fuel rods to the Nevada desert on a train and reprocess them or bury them for at least 10,000 years? A challenging task, but research and government regulation will protect us. Knowledge and process are the high priests of a collective religion of state, one that’s based on reason and discovery—a kind of non-denominational approach to faith and wisdom that draws its roots from the scientific revolution of the past 150 years.

Yet Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Hurricane Katrina and other worst-case scenarios and acts of God have shown us the folly of placing too much faith in very bright people with advanced degrees. What we’ve learned—or at least should have—is that the knowledge to build does not reflect the knowledge to control.

Yes, we can drill a mile down to the Gulf floor, but do we understand how to fix the unexpected? We can build nuclear power plants, but how do we deal with the deadly waste that doesn’t break down for millennia? How do we deal with the unknown?

In his book About a Mountain (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), University of Iowa English professor John D’Agata paints the story of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility against the backdrop of the 2002 suicide of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley, who jumped from the Stratosphere Tower. D’Agata sees the two as metaphors for the unknown.

“I’m kind of fascinated by this idea that we can surround ourselves with information. We can just pile up data after data after data and arm ourselves with facts and yet … still not be able to answer the questions that we have,” D’Agata said in an NPR interview. “And I think that suicide, not to simplify it, is the ultimate unknowable. And they seem connected in that way.”

D’Agata wrote his book after moving his mother to Southern Nevada. He began to explore the region, and the once-theoretical discussion of Yucca assumed a very personal relationship. In many ways, that’s the story of any potential threat. We regularly conduct cost-benefit analyses ranging from the small and immediate (I can make that yellow light) to the large-scale and long term (let’s build a nuclear waste repository and seal it for 10,000 years). We consider some of the consequences, but is it even possible to consider them all? BP apparently determined that it was OK to cut corners on its petroleum facilities in Texas, Alaska, Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico, as numerous journalistic reports have illustrated. The fines levied against the oil giant weren’t enough of an incentive to change their practices; they were the cost of doing business.

So we really have no guarantee that federal, state and local governments will have the knowledge or the will to protect Southern Nevadans from a Gulf-style tragedy at Yucca Mountain, one that could be countless times worse because of the deadly nature of spent nuclear fuel rods.

President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget eliminates most funding for the Yucca project, effectively killing it. It is something he said he was going to do as early as 2007 when then-candidate Obama wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer stating, “The selection of Yucca Mountain has failed, the time for debate on this site is over, and it is time to start exploring new alternatives for safe, long-term solutions based on sound science.”

Three years have passed, and Boxer faces a serious re-election battle against former HP chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina; Obama’s popularity has taken a further hit from the Gulf spill; and Reid is in the midst of the political battle against conservative Republican Sharron Angle, who has argued for the Yucca project.

“For nearly 20 years, Sharron Angle has been in favor of Yucca Mountain as a profitable center for reprocessing, not a nuclear landfill and dumping ground,” reads Angle’s newly updated website, “Yucca Mountain and the Nuclear Energy Industry have long been demonized and demagogued by Harry Reid. … Yucca Mountain has enormous potential for fulfilling the need in America for clean, cost-efficient energy, as well as economic diversity for Nevada and much-needed jobs for thousands.”

The Gulf Coast oil industry is one of that region’s chief economic engines, one that has created hundreds of thousands of jobs from Louisiana to Texas; and yet the Gulf spill has destroyed the region’s fishing and tourism industries—at least for this year—and there’s no telling what the long-term effects of the spill could mean for employment throughout the region.

Yucca has created thousands of construction and science-based jobs in this region for more than two decades. Its fortunes are on the wane, but that could change in this uncertain election year. And with that change could come a renewed Yucca project, more talk of balancing risk and benefits and further assurances that every possible scenario can be handled.

Ironically, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have summed it up best when discussing the early years of the Iraq War. “There are known knowns,” he said. “These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

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