Murray, Cantwell, and Nuke Waste
July 17, 2002

Maria Tomchick

Last week, the Senate approved the plan to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, against the wishes of the home-state, Nevada.

Aside from the fact that Yucca Mountain is geologically unstable (it recently suffered a 4.8 earthquake), the plan is idiotic simply because it's not a solution for our nuclear waste problem. Only a fraction of the country's waste will go to Yucca Mountain; when it's full, there will still be waste piles left at hundreds--if not thousands--of sites all across the US.

Interestingly, our two US senators from Washington State--Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell--were split on the Yucca Mountain issue, which clearly showed the main differences between the two legislators. Maria Cantwell, a former executive for a high-tech company, was against the Yucca Mountain storage site for all the right reasons. She obviously understood the factual, technical problems of waste storage and the potential dangers.

That's because Cantwell sits on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she's had a good, firsthand look at the Bush administration's efforts to avoid cleaning up Hanford and other waste sites around the country.

Instead of deferring to her junior colleague's knowledge on this topic, Patty Murray voted reflexively for the Yucca Mountain site and cited her fear that Hanford might become the alternative national nuclear storage site. Murray's fear is probably based on her own execrable record in regards to nuclear waste issues, particularly her many years of ignoring the Clinton administration's efforts to avoid cleaning up Hanford.

Of course, we can't rule out Murray's new role as major fundraiser for the national Democratic Party. Utility companies, energy companies, and waste disposal firms have a lot of money waiting for the politicians that help them open a national nuclear waste storage site. Yucca Mountain will take the pressure off them to stop generating nuclear waste.

While Yucca Mountain has cleared all the political hurdles, it still has to fend off lawsuits and wend its way through the licensing process. With Congress' support, however, all that just became a lot easier. It's biggest hurdle, however, may be public outcry and a revitalized anti-nuke movement.

Tons of hazardous, radioactive material will have to be shipped on trucks and trains to Nevada from all over the US, including through major cities. To find out how much waste will be shipped through Washington state and where, I went to The Environmental Working Group's website at

The EWG, a non-profit research group based in Washington DC, has a new database of proposed shipping routes for nuclear waste. I typed in my Seattle address and up popped a route map showing shipments from the Trojan Nuclear power plant in Satsop southbound through Portland, OR. I also found the following information:

Number of people in Washington that live within 1 mile of a nuclear transportation route: 199,347

Schools within 1 mile of the proposed route in Washington: 87

Hospitals within 1 mile: 5

Fatal tractor-trailer wrecks in Washington 1994-2001: 1,741

Nuclear waste shipments in Washington over the life of the project: 16,315 if by truck or 3,216 if by train.

And, most importantly:

Nuclear waste in Washington now: 391 metric tons. Nuclear waste in Washington if Yucca Mt. Project proceeds to completion: 586 metric tons.

In other words, a real solution to our nuclear waste problem would mean eliminating as many sources of nuclear waste as possible. Yucca Mountain, unfortunately, would do the opposite. Opening a new national waste repository would take the pressure off the nuke industry to stop generating waste.

Unless, of course, the public decides to blockade the trucks and trains, or sue to keep them off our streets.