Sitting in an overstuffed armchair bathed in sunlight, Judy Treichel is the portrait of a patient grandmother, completely unfazed by the coffehouse’s hissing espresso machine and the repeated “whack!” as the front door opens and closes behind her. Given her calm disposition, passersby would surely be surprised to discover that this sweet elderly woman has long been Nevada’s fiercest anti-nuclear-waste activist.
Since 1988, Treichel—who is the executive director of the Nuclear Waste Task Force, the main body opposing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository—has remained a steady force in the face of frequent ups and downs. (See a timeline below). For instance, even though President Obama pulled the plug on the project late last year, as Treichel sipped her coffee on a crisp winter day, she was awaiting a federal district court decision on whether the Department of Energy could force the administration to go ahead with Yucca Mountain anyway. Game not over. Maybe. Again.
And yet Treichel laughs gently at questions that would irritate most anti-nuclear activists, which is remarkable given she’s been hearing—and answering—such questions for a quarter century.
You’ve been at this for 25 years. What’s kept you going?
I’ve been really careful not to burn out. When you work in a public-interest field, you meet people who no longer have any friends or family members that will be around them, because everyone’s sick of being inundated with the issue. There’s almost always something you can find that’s amusing about this whole thing. … Also, if you get into something because you believe it’s the moral thing to do, it appears that getting out is immoral.
What was the high point for you?
When [the Obama] administration decided to seek to withdraw the license application and just stop Yucca Mountain. For years, we had said to each other, “How do we know when this thing is over? How do we know if we won?” It would be hurry up and wait. Or it would get bogged down in funding. Sometimes we thought people would just forget or it would go away. Then, finally, the Obama administration said it was going to end the project. They were shocked—and so was I—to have [the Department of Energy] take it to court and say [the administration] can’t do that. Have you ever heard of someone with a project saying, “I don’t want to do it anymore,” and then being forced to anyway? It’s bizarre.
How about the low point?
In the early ’90s, when they actually started digging the tunnel inside the mountain.
Why not store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain?
People were against it from the very beginning, just because nobody wanted to sit next to a garbage dump of radioactive material. That was the immediate reaction. Then, as [awareness built], people realized we weren’t total strangers to radiation, because of what had gone on at the Nevada Test Site. People who have been here a long time generally knew someone who had lost farm animals, or had a lot of miscarriages, or had children with something wrong with them. With the Test Site, we’d given when we needed to give, patriotically. So why would we need to take another one for the country, or for the nuclear program?
As time went on, scientists demonstrated that it wasn’t a good site, that it couldn’t contain the waste. It was located over the water table, so water draining through there would contaminate a valuable aquifer. All the studies and outcomes kept getting worse.
If not Yucca, then where is our government supposed to put the waste?
No. 1, I don’t know. Scientists don’t know, because they haven’t checked anywhere else. And the big mistake they made was in choosing just one site, and putting all their eggs in one economic basket. You couldn’t do any comparisons, and you automatically had Nevadans fighting, because they realized they’d been selected against their will.
Second, it’s insane that we’re asking this question now when we already have [accumulated nuclear waste]. When John Glenn was in the Senate, he said, “This is like if they’d sent me up in space and once I got there, they started thinking about how they’d get me back.” They should always have known what they were going to do with the stuff they produced.
That train having left the station, who should decide what to do with the waste?
President Obama put in place a blue-ribbon commission, and they came up with recommendations. The first was that you have a consensual or volunteer site, that you don’t impose it on anyone. The question now is, do you first determine what kind of geological setting would be most suitable, and then ask for [volunteers]? Or do you see who’s interested in hosting a facility like this, and then see if their spot works?
Is your goal to see nuclear energy just go away, or is that a different fight?
I think nuclear-generated electricity is nuts. If you want to create steam, there’s a lot of ways to boil water; you don’t have to do it like this. Many people have said using nuclear energy to create electricity is like setting your dinner table with a chain saw instead of a butter knife. It’s such tremendous overkill.