The Atomic Priesthood
If the nuclear waste repository under construction inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain endures for a thousand years—if a seismic event does not cleave the mountain’s shell of volcanic rock, if the buried radioactive materials do not seep into the water table—it is likely to outlast our own civilization. If it endures for ten thousand years, it is likely our languages will no longer be intelligible to the humans that have replaced us. Government officials are not known for taking extraordinary measures to guarantee the well-being of people outside their constituencies, much less their millennium, but public anxiety about the project is such that the usual charge of guarding the safety of our children and grandchildren has been extended: we must now include distant descendants whose only inkling of our existence might be a mountain pregnant with decaying plutonium and uranium isotopes. The Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management must also find a way of sending a message to whatever comes after us: stay away from Yucca Mountain.
In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste stockpiling at 121 temporary storage sites in thirty-nine states across the country be buried deep beneath the ground. In the late ’80s, the government chose Yucca Mountain—a mahogany ridgeline in the Mojave Desert an hour and a half from Las Vegas—as the site for a repository. Construction and the laborious process of site characterization began in earnest, with a projected opening date of 1998. Once underground storage chambers had been readied, marble-size pellets of waste would be packed into metal canisters and transported to the site by rail and truck. Upon arriving, they would enter the five-mile-long tunnel connecting the north and south portals. Workers in radiation suits would then shepherd the waste into geologic drifts a thousand feet beneath the surface, where they would stay for up to a million years—the half-life of the most hazardous materials.
While the DOE’s main concern is ensuring the inviolability of the waste casks, what it calls the “monumental task of warning future generations” has been given serious consideration—site plans currently call for twenty-five-foot-high perimeter markers in the six UN languages and a new universal symbol for “nuclear waste repository.” But this will only be sufficient for a couple thousand years: in a 1984 study commissioned by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation, the late linguist Thomas Sebeok concludes there is no precedent for any language remaining comprehensible over three hundred generations. (The world’s oldest clay tablets date only to 3000 B.C.E.) Human thinking does not maintain its continuity with the past for very long, and the interpretation of an old language relies on some knowledge of that past, the context by which meaning is constructed.
“To be effective, the intended messages have to be recoded, and recoded again and again, at relatively brief intervals,” Sebeok notes, since it is uncertain whether writing will even be our primary form of communication in the distant future. “For this reason, a ‘relay-system’ of communication is strongly recommended, with a built-in enforcement mechanism.” With admitted skepticism, he proposes an “atomic priesthood,” which he describes as “a commission, relatively independent of future political currents, self-selective in membership, using whatever devices for enforcement are at its disposal, including those of a folkloristic character.”
In 1989, the OCRWM organized a conference of academics, scientists, designers, and ethical philosophers to ponder the safeguards necessary to secure the Carlsbad, New Mexico, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a precursor to Yucca that opened in 1999. This group was also unable to come to any satisfactory conclusions. They decided the future had been best described by science fiction writers such as Walter Miller and Arthur Clarke, and used their novels to imagine realities in which the site’s security might be breached. Science fiction had prefigured the arms race, rampant technocracies, and nuclear holocausts of the atomic age, so it seemed to be the best source for predicting what would follow. In one scenario, an underground robotic exploratory device punctures the repository and then burrows toward the earth’s core, unwittingly poisoning the water supply. In another, survivors of an apocalypse mistakenly think the markers indicate the presence of oil and lay siege to the structure, exposing the radioactive materials. In a third, Mexican scavengers roaming what has become the Free State of Chihuahua break into the site to salvage metal and other supplies, mistaking the entombed casks for treasure.
The group eventually suggested building “menacing earthworks” to repel these potential intruders, making black-and-white sketches of titanic sculptures with titles like spike field, forbidding blocks, and landscape of thorns. But in the end, one scientist wondered if it would not be better to follow the example of King Tut. His tomb remained unspoiled for so many years longer than those of Egypt’s other pharaohs because it had been sealed without ceremony and quickly forgotten, its entrance buried beneath a grander tomb.
Ghosts of the Fireballs
In light traffic, it takes nearly an hour to drive from the Las Vegas Strip to the end of the suburban developments spreading across the desert like cheap commercial carpeting, welcoming eight thousand new residents each month. Trucks and SUVs crawl listlessly down I-95, past congested arteries that read like Western set pieces: Lone Mountain Road, North Tee Pee Lane, Grand Teton Drive, Paiute Way. Eventually, the westbound cars are released onto the empty stretch of concrete that begins around Indian Springs, a town whose main purpose is to serve the adjacent Nellis Air Force Base and let drivers know there is nothing between here and California. Here, Michael Voegele, Yucca Mountain’s longtime chief scientist, points out the training grounds of the Predator drones, and the conversation in our Range Rover shifts from rock samples to past air shows, bombardment exercises, and sightings of experimental aircraft. He points out the derelict holding pen used to detain trespassing protesters, and recalls Martin Sheen pulling up in a limousine to be arrested a few years back: “He signed a few autographs and then headed back to Hollywood, I guess.” Ten minutes later, sentries posted at a gate on the southern edge of the Nevada Test Site check our badges and wave us through, past the rusted cadavers of disused weapons-testing facilities toward Yucca Mountain and the Test Site’s western border.
Despite a half century of atomic explosions in the Test Site, which occupies a tract of desert the size of Rhode Island within Nevada’s “national sacrifice zone”—the unofficial military designation given to areas so saturated with toxins as to preclude the possibility of future civilian use—the land mostly appears as it did in 1891, when William Daugherty recorded his first impression of crossing the Great Basin Desert from California into Nevada in the Reno Evening Gazette:
The road changed from a springy alluvium bed to the grating, rasping sands that nature had seemingly left unfinished centuries ago. One felt at once the presence of the sterile desolation of the Mojave Desert, which grim and silent stretched away into hazy distance toward the Colorado, the land of cactus and Apaches, which lures lost wanderers to unknown fate. Right there should be written Dante’s inscription, “Who enters here leaves hope behind.”
For miles, there is nothing but parched inclines abutting basins dotted with creosote bush and sagebrush. From a distance, the shrubs appear to be amassed in a martial formation, a boundless army of shriveled leaves and thorny branches advancing to the perimeter of Yucca Mountain. There, charcoal veins and swollen bands of volcanic rock lead up to the crest, which is topped by a narrow dirt-brown plateau. Whatever life exists is invisible. From the pinnacle it is possible to glimpse Yucca Flats to the east and Jackass Flats to the south—the playgrounds of Los Alamos, featureless stretches of flinty earth where the earliest high-yield nuclear weapons were detonated.
Long celebrated as a symbol of the American frontier, this land has more recently been utilized as a laboratory for government visions of the country’s preservation and destruction. There are immense craters carved into the earth by the rapidly splitting neutrons that our best Cold War deterrents comprised; remnants of facsimile American towns constructed in the ’50s to study the probable effects of a nuclear explosion on everyday life, complete with dummy families and shelves stocked with fresh fruit from California. “This is the valley where the giant mushrooms grow,” intones the narrator of a 1960s air force film. “The atomic clouds, the towering angry ghosts of the fireballs.”
Over the last two decades, Yucca Mountain has emerged as the decisive arena in the debate over nuclear technology festering since the bombs tested in Nevada were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the DOE has tried to win public support for the project, all the fearsome specters and paranoid politics of the atomic age have been revived and recast—demands that the government think the unthinkable have been issued; maximum credible accident projections have been made; the standard varieties of nuclear apocalypse have been described in detail on television and in print: Yucca as a “death mountain,” a “nuclear nightmare” waiting to happen, a “voodoo science” project with an “incalculable risk of catastrophe.”
At the end of last summer I drove from Tucson to Las Vegas, a trip that ended with a forty-nine-dollar-per-night room and two complimentary glasses of whiskey at the Orleans Hotel. The next morning, after undergoing an extensive briefing on safety and security at the Yucca Mountain project’s main office in Las Vegas, an anonymous pink faux adobe structure in the suburb of Summerlin called the Hillshire Facility, I drove to Yucca Mountain with Voegele and two DOE escorts. A sturdy, reserved man in his late sixties with a head of tousled gray hair, Voegele was raised in Minnesota but has spent his professional life in Nevada bringing the repository into being. He is officially retired now, but continues to work on a contract basis and to preside over the project’s geologists and engineers, happily retaining the role of repository patriarch. As we ascend a dirt switchback road toward the peak, he tells me not to expect much: the DOE gives tours of the site precisely because the experience is unremarkable. After visiting, it is difficult to imagine the mountain as the epicenter of a nuclear holocaust or, for that matter, the epicenter of anything.
I expected the mountain to house a futuristic high-security compound carved out of rock, supercomputers humming, scientists rapt by inscrutable readouts; an intimation of death on a grand scale emanating outward from the deepest recesses of the cavern. In fact, the site resembles nothing more than an abandoned underground parking garage with enormous ventilation tubes, a few fortified rooms adjoining a yawning tunnel with a circular entrance twenty-five feet in diameter—large enough to fit the 860-ton boring machine parked outside, retired after grinding its way through the mountain for three years. (The supercomputer, called the Total System Performance Assessment, is at the Hillshire Facility.) A couple hundred feet from the mountain’s entrance sits a slapdash structure where visitors learn about the project’s history and science from poster boards dotted with primitive charts and graphs. Once inside the mountain, there is little to do but fiddle with your hard hat and listen to a geologist enthusiastically relay every minute lesson learned from studying the surrounding rocks. Between nods of poorly feigned interest, I couldn’t help but wonder how quickly technological advances will make the site obsolete. With the DOE’s energies focused on publishing an environmental impact statement and applying for a license from the Environmental Protection Agency to begin the final phase of construction, only a skeleton crew remained, giving the place the feel of an outsize, abandoned science fair project.
“There’s something very scary to people about the technology we’re working with,” Voegele says as we remove our goggles and hard hats after exiting the tunnel. “But it’s not like we’re talking about snakes here. You have to ask, why are we born afraid of radiation?” Fifty years ago, he continues, “things were completely different. We did drills in school. You didn’t have to explain. The country appreciated our efforts and believed we were making them safe.” Today, he reflects, the stakes are much less immediate. The nightmare of planes flying into buildings has mostly displaced nuclear annihilation in the collective psyche, but the more germane issue is energy. There is a growing acknowledgment in this country that, even if current levels of consumption are stabilized, it will be impossible to meet our energy demands in the coming century without relying largely on nuclear plants or coal, a significantly worse option. (Nuclear plants operate with minimal costs to the environment and human health, while the particle pollution produced by coal plants causes the premature deaths of an estimated twenty-four thousand people each year, not to mention the impact of sulfur and nitrogen emissions on global warming.)
While some nuclear waste has been transported to interim storage facilities, most of it is stored at the plants that produce it, either in dry casks in reinforced concrete bunkers or in cooling pools. Security at these sites has been overhauled since 9/11, but they remain worrisome targets, and the danger of an accident increases precipitously as they become saturated. The situation will only get worse as new plants are built, and the first application for the construction of one since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 was filed in September, with dozens more expected in the next couple years. The United States has 104 nuclear power plants, more than any other country. Altogether, the plants have produced nearly sixty thousand metric tons of spent fuel, a number that increases at a rate of more than two thousand metric tons per year. Plant operators have now been waiting for the government to fulfill its promise of a permanent storage solution for more than two decades, and have received hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for its failure to do so.
If Yucca Mountain dies, so does the potential for a nuclear renaissance in this country. But if it is approved, “it will open up the gates to let us develop new power technologies,” Voegele claims. “Now that’s going to be very unpalatable to a lot of people who would like to see nuclear power go away. But you’re not going to maintain the lifestyle this country has without doing that.”
The ingrained fear of all things nuclear, which poses the principal obstacle to Yucca Mountain, has its roots in the imaginations of writers who died long before the birth of the Manhattan Project. French author Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 novel The Last Man was the first to alloy Christian visions of the apocalypse with anxieties about new technological developments and scientific discoveries into a story of the demise of the human race. Jules Verne and others later wrote of absent-minded scientists whose inventions led inexorably to destruction and doom. Frederick Soddy read from this script when he announced his discovery of atomic energy in 1903, describing the planet as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives,” which, upon detonation, would “cause the earth to revert to chaos.” From that point on, the Last Man would be a survivor of atomic warfare. In H. G. Wells’s novel The World Set Free, published on the eve of the Great War, “atomic bombs” devastate the earth, but a new society intent on global governance and pacifism emerges from the ruins. Manhattan Project scientist Leó Szilárd was inspired by a 1932 reading of the book—he patented nuclear chain reaction the next year, paving the way for the age of Mutual Assured Destruction envisaged by Wells.
As the Cold War disappears into history books, so grows the proportion of Americans that has never ducked beneath a desk in school, never memorized the path to the nearest shelter, never wondered if this is The Day. But the fear remains. Most Nevadans have moved to the state over the last twenty years and have no actual experience with weapons testing or nuclear power. But television and newspapers have reminded them of the poisoning of Western Shoshone lands, the babies born with strontium-saturated teeth, the radiated cattle carcasses dumped in dry pits to disintegrate, the 36,500 nuclear weapons program workers who have radiation illness and were denied compensation by the government for years. Meltdowns, mutations, female sterility, tufts of children’s hair falling out overnight—the entire nuclear enterprise is incriminated.
Another inheritance of the Cold War: we no longer merely fear the apocalyptic event, however unlikely, but can picture it clearly, its cinematic renderings indelibly imprinted on our minds. A miscalculation, a burst of flames; a disquieting silence, a line of text: “Ten Years Later.” Then, a tracking shot of the Last Man trudging through the new frontier, the liminal zone where civilizations come to die and be reborn.
That these visions have their origin in a time long before the discovery of radioactivity is disturbing, Spencer Weart writes in Nuclear Fear, a landmark 1988 study of atomic-era imagery, because it “shows that such thinking has less to do with current physical reality than with old autonomous features of our society, our culture, and our psychology.” Recent neuroscientific research has confirmed this supposition, showing that the brain processes the perceived experiences passed on in films much as it does real experiences. The world of images outflanks the world of fact.
Those images have, of course, been reinforced by the dubious accomplishments of government scientists. It is a regrettable truth that the greatest gathering of human intelligence in our nation’s history created the greatest means of obliterating human life ever imagined. It must also be acknowledged that its product has altered the country’s inner life in a way that has little precedent, and that is still not understood.
Mistakes Were Made.
Since 1978, when the DOE drilled the first hole in Yucca Mountain for the purposes of testing the proposed site, eleven billion dollars have been spent researching the area’s geological characteristics and defending the project’s feasibility. At that time Las Vegas was a midsize city rising from the desert as military investment swelled, corporate mega-resorts colonized the Strip, and golf courses painted the surrounding desert green. There has never been a nuclear power plant in Nevada, but the tremors that followed the Three Mile Island accident were felt strongly there because of the state’s history of nuclear weapons testing. As nuclear power displaced nuclear weapons as the public’s most feared potential harbinger of doom, and its growth was arrested, Yucca Mountain’s progress accelerated.
While the majority of nuclear and geological scientists familiar with the project agree that Yucca Mountain is a viable if imperfect home for the waste, its opponents, brandishing images of oblivious technocrats setting off a nuclear catastrophe and capitalizing on the DOE’s own technical problems, have successfully turned the majority of Nevadans against the project—as long as it’s in their backyard, at least.
By all accounts, the Yucca Mountain site was unfairly chosen by fiat in 1987, when Congress decided it would rather not spend the money necessary to fully study two options in other states. This decision was particularly inauspicious, both because it set a precedent for ignoring the will of Nevadans and because it established a blasé attitude toward funding what the DOE was pitching as our society’s most lasting mark, our greatest permanent impression on the earth.
Though the Mojave Desert seems nearly petrified—it is possible to go hours without seeing so much as the stems of desert scrub quivering in the wind—its ecology is mercurial, its geology young. Rain now arrives in fits with each year’s monsoon season, but during the last ice age the area was verdant; it is likely to revert to that state over the next hundred thousand years, when the dawn of the next ice age is expected. The area is tectonically active, and low-level earthquakes are not uncommon. Voegele, who has developed an encyclopedic command of the area in his thirty years studying the site, says that no serious scientist will predict how southern Nevada will have changed in a million years, the time frame his team must consider. (Protracted legal wrangling over the EPA’s effort to reduce that time frame to ten thousand years is a major reason the project has stalled recently.)
Despite the difficulty of predicting geologic processes across deep time, Voegele assures me that, even if a serious seismic event were to cause fissures in the mountain, the possibility of rainwater penetrating the repository and irradiating the water supply—the main concern of the site’s detractors—is so minuscule as to be discountable. To do so, it would have to make its way past the mountain’s hundred feet of welded tuff (layers of volcanic ash compressed over time), seep through and saturate a few hundred more feet of absorbent nonwelded tuff, penetrate another, thicker layer of welded tuff, fall into an emplacement block, corrode the metal canister holding the waste, then tunnel through another thousand feet of rock and into the water table. By this point, the minerals in the rock would have neutralized the preponderance of the radioactive particles in the water. Regardless, “we can’t say it won’t happen, so we’re doing all the one-in-one-hundred-million disruption-chance calculations, over and over again.”
Calculations of risks and benefits are at the core of the functioning of any technological society, which is a constellation of systems and operators working to fulfill the needs and desires of its population. There is almost always a tolerable equation, and it is generally the responsibility of technocrats like Voegele to find it. The logic of the Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction, relied on the calculations of men like Herman Kahn, the RAND Corporation strategist whose influential 1960 treatise On Thermonuclear War argues that an all-out nuclear war could be won by the U.S. Kahn charts the correlation between economic recuperation and the number of casualties, estimating it would take one hundred years to recover if 160 million people were killed: “Objective studies indicate that even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in the postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendants.” The survivors would not “envy the dead.”
Kahn’s postulations remained theoretical. The calculations justifying the use of nuclear power, meanwhile, were dramatically laid bare during the Three Mile Island meltdown and again seven years later during the disaster at Chernobyl, convincing most Americans that the technology’s risks outweighed its benefits. The state of Nevada has seized on the memory of these events and suspicions of the DOE’s ineptitude, portraying Yucca Mountain as a ghoulish amalgamation of the Meltdown and the Bomb. The risks of such a beast making Yucca Mountain its lair, they say, can be seen in the radioactive craters scarring the Test Site, in the “Zone of Alienation” that used to be Chernobyl.
But though there have been thousands of minor accidents over the last fifty years at American nuclear power plants, which provide the country with 20 percent of its energy, the overall cost to human life has been infinitesimal. It is not merely the image of the apocalyptic event that drives our fear, argues psychiatrist Robert DuPont, author of Nuclear Phobia. It is also a sense of helplessness similar to what aviophobics experience—the feeling that indifferent strangers are piloting a ship on which we are mere passengers. People accept irrational risks if they believe they are in control of the situation, but become anxious when that control is ceded to a stranger. The antinuclear movement, he observes, is rooted in “a paranoid view of what they’re doing to me.” But once the thing people fear has come to pass, he adds, they tend to stop thinking about it.
While the fear of any accident involving nuclear technology triggering an apocalypse is overblown, the concern that such accidents are inevitable is not. Organizational theorist Charles Perrow called the Three Mile Island meltdown a “normal accident,” an event caused “by the characteristics of the systems” at work in the plant—a painstaking calculus undermined by the inevitability of human and system errors. Normal accidents, he argues, are most common in complex interactive systems with tightly coupled parts overseen by fallible operators. “The complexity of systems outruns all controls,” making the prediction and prevention of accidents impossible. At Three Mile Island, hundreds of meters and gauges gave useless information to panicking operators, obscuring the root problem: an open relief valve hidden behind the control panel.
Calculating the Incalculable
Three Mile Island turned Americans against the stewards of nuclear power, but it was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the kind of accident that occurs when theoretical scientific work is divorced entirely from ethics—that originally effaced their once-stellar reputation. A few weeks after Nagasaki, Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb” and a national celebrity, quit Los Alamos National Laboratory, telling an unsympathetic President Truman, “I feel
I have blood on my hands.” He then publicly accounted for his profession: “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
Though communist turned neoconservative progenitor James Burnham popularized the term technocracy in his 1945 book The Managerial Revolution, it was not until the Manhattan Project’s chief scientists belatedly recognized their moral failings and broke rank with their bosses in D.C. that the expression (derived from the Greek words for “skill” and “power”) became synonymous with the perils of splitting the atom. Burnham argued that democracy and socialism were giving way to societies run by specialists and bureaucrats, a trend that would lead to the emergence of a few superstates perpetually at war with each other. While he thought that industrialization had made technocracy the most honest and effective expression of power—itself a natural instinct that could not be excised from politics—George Orwell, a fellow Trotskyite who skewered Burnham’s theory in 1984, found the vision “hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.”
Edward Long recognized the Manhattan Project as prefiguring this grim vision in his 1950 tract The Christian Response to the Atomic Crisis, warning against “a society in which individuals would increasingly function as cogs in vast projects they could neither understand nor control.” Though speaking of the bomb, the Soviet gulags and Nazi concentration camps were not far from his purview: in the age of atomic energy, he lamented, the power of the citizen will be eclipsed by that of the state, and those technocrats charged with making decisions for us all will be put in such a position not because they are the most good, but because they are the most highly trained in a certain sphere and the most willing to accomplish the tasks assigned to them without asking questions—a situation sure to fulfill the promise of The Last Man.
To many who oppose Yucca Mountain, the repository represents the possibility for a perfect convergence of the failures of humans and systems, governance and technology. Steve Frishman, a geologist at the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office and a longtime critic of Yucca Mountain, compares Voegele’s assurances to those issued by the technocrats who for years suffused the Test Site with radiation, telling workers not to worry about their health. “This is the way the discussion in this country has gone for the last fifty years,” Frishman said during our phone conversation. In Nevada, the aftermath of a half century of secret weapons testing has discredited the federal government, which occupies 85 percent of the state’s land. “Because they’re so compartmentalized,” he inveighed, “the scientists are not prone to looking critically at this project. For years, they have avoided doing science that would give the DOE answers they don’t want to have.”
Frishman fears that a repository reliant on engineered components and human monitoring is bound to fail at some point. The NWPO’s position is that the only acceptable repository is one that functions as a purely geologic system—nothing more than a hole in the ground capable of safeguarding the waste for ten thousand years without any intervention. Scientists at Yucca Mountain are certain no such site exists, and Frishman and his colleagues have not told them where to look. To suggest that such a site might be found, Voegele says, is to miss the point of scientific research, which is not to prove that an accident is impossible but that the repository is worth the minimal risk it presents. Already, he and his colleagues are charged with making almost unending calculations of the one-in-one-hundred-million disruption-chance variety, proving that a hypothetical citizen living in Las Vegas in ten millennia will experience no more radiation in a year than the average person does when receiving a chest X-ray or spending a day sunbathing at the beach.
There are not many voters in Nevada, or anywhere else, who can be expected to judiciously assess the real dangers of nuclear power in relation to the country’s energy needs, and fewer still who might learn to understand radioactive decay and the stability of volcanic tuff over geologic time, pore over a thousand-page supplement to a longer environmental impact statement to discern for themselves whether or not Yucca Mountain is a good idea, then attend public hearings to voice their opinions. Whenever the DOE has attempted to win over the public, the results have been dismal. The most pitiful effort was a 1991 advertising campaign called the Nevada Initiative, which featured staged interviews with local sportscaster Ron Vitto and various experts, who testified to the safety of transporting waste by rail and played clips of casks surviving a fire, a truck accident, and a head-on collision with another train. The campaign was quickly discovered to be a covert collaboration with the nuclear power industry.
Yucca Mountain’s critics have had an easier time of it. “People don’t necessarily understand the models,” Frishman readily admits. Thanks to the failure of the DOE to produce much beyond those models, voters are likely to trust their guts. “Our job,” Frishman says, “is to get to the point where people know enough to know that it’s risky.”
His colleague Judy Treichel adds, “If the people who live in this area are concerned about this, I think they should automatically have standing. It’s up to the promoters of this to convince them it’s a good idea.”
The OCRWM recently registered its disagreement, indicating that the time for seeking the approval of Nevada and its citizens is coming to an end. By the end of the year, Voegele and his team hope to have completed the application for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission license that would finally allow the project to move forward. “If you set your program up so that local acceptance is an absolute necessity to site your repository,” director Edward Sproat said recently, “you should be prepared to fail.” For citizens preoccupied with property values, safety, and security—the bread-and-butter issues of a politics of self-interest—no risk is reasonable; for the politicians who depend on their votes, the easiest thing is to say we will explore other options. Public support is desirable but not essential, others working on the project told me, and the usefulness of transparency has its limits. After the mountain is packed with radioactive waste and monitored for a hundred years, the shaft will be sealed, and the engineers and geologists will go home. The calculations must be made and the system put in place.
The End of Nevada
Before most drivers on I-95 head west toward Death Valley and the Pacific Ocean, and DOE employees turn north toward the Test Site, they pass the town of Amargosa Valley, with a population of 1,435 spread out over more than five hundred square miles. The settlement’s main junction sits only a few miles from Mercury Gate, which will eventually be the official entry point for Yucca Mountain. It is occupied by a gas station, a bar called Nevada Joe’s, cryptic billboards with peeled paint obscuring all but the words area 51 and fresh jerky, and a cluster of sun-bleached trailers seemingly expelled from the sky onto a virgin patch of white soil a hundred yards from the road. For most of the last ten thousand years, the ancestors of the Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone littered this windswept expanse of dirt and dust with pottery and arrow shards, remnants of their constant migrations between north and south, hunting grounds and home. The remains of their encampments now border Big Dune recreational park, where four-by-four and two-wheeler enthusiasts speed through the sand by day and retire to their own clusters of recreational vehicles by night. In between, they visit the nearby Longstreet Inn and Casino, or, if they have come without wives and children, they drive down a lightless stretch of highway to Cherry Patch Ranch II, one of the state’s few legal brothels.
Voegele has traversed much of this land in his vintage Toyota Land Cruiser, which he esteems above all other off-road vehicles; once in a while, he and his two sons take a day to drive across the Great Basin’s buttes and dunes in their all-terrain vehicles. They always travel with a winch rigged to his F-150, and they often have to use it. “The whole idea with four-wheeling,” he explains, “is to get as stuck as possible.”
A few moments after stepping out of the DOE Range Rover and onto Yucca Mountain’s summit, Voegele flashes a cagey grin and asks if I want to know something. On the day of his retirement, he tells me mischievously, a number of his colleagues threw a party for him at the base of the mountain. Along with his oldest son, who is now a mechanical engineer on the project, he climbed up to this spot and sent a pair of stunt kites into the sky. As he tells me this, the last gray breath of the monsoon rains rolls over our heads toward Colorado, propelled by fifty-mile-per-hour gusts. I can imagine distinctly Voegele and his son on the eve of another poorly populated celebration ten years from now, the first convoy of bulletproof train cars inching past the last of the planned communities ringing Las Vegas and on toward Mercury Gate. They’d stand on either end of this bare stretch of earth between the Test Site and the last forty miles of Nevada, guiding their kites through spins and somersaults until the sun had completed its nightly retreat behind the Funeral Mountains, over Death Valley, and down into the blackened desert.