Photo By Dennis Myers

Heart of America Northwest (HOAW) is a citizens’ group that polices the federal government’s cleanup of its nuclear waste dump and reactor sites at Hanford, Wash. Hanford, with Yucca Mountain and Deaf Smith, Texas, was once one of three candidate sites for a proposed federal nuclear dump for high level wastes. HOAW Director Gerry Pollet was in Reno and Carson City recently and met with Nevada officials. [Italic emphasis is in Pollet’s inflection.]

What does your group do?

We’re the northwest’s leading group working for the cleanup of the contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which is the most contaminated place in the western hemisphere, run by the [U.S.] Energy Department just like the Nevada Test Site.

What’s the business you’re doing while you’re in Nevada?

Our two states are targeted for a massive expansion of dumping of nuclear waste from proposals to expand nuclear power and nuclear weapons production [the] next 40 years. And it’s not just about Yucca Mountain and commercial high level waste deep underground. It’s about whether or not the industry and the Energy Department will get away with burying radioactive and chemical waste in surface landfills where they will leak to groundwater not in thousands of years, but in tens or hundreds of years. And the truck routes to move this waste are every bit as dangerous as moving the high level waste which has been such a source of controversy here in Nevada. The proposal to double nuclear energy production in the United States with recycling the waste—which is just a pretty term for making liquid high level nuclear waste and extracting the plutonium—that proposal, the Energy Department admits, will create 5 to 10 times more radioactive waste be buried in landfills. And the Energy Department’s calculation, out for public comment right now, is that trucking the waste to the disposal sites will cause 816 fatal cancers in people along the truck routes. The Energy Department doesn’t consider children to be part of the public, and so they don’t include children in that calculation. And they don’t include the realistic truck routes and they don’t include what happens if the terrorists decide to attack a shipment of United States government nuclear waste, which is an attractive target.

Are these landfills proposed or already in operation?

Nevada Test Site has a landfill that’s unlined and is being operated right now to take waste from around the country. It is supposed to close under Nevada Test Site [state] hazardous waste site permit in the year 2010. And I was thrilled to hear state regulators today say they’re going to stick with that. But the Energy Department, their proposal ignores the fact that the permit expires and closes this unlined dump in 2010 and they’re proposing to keep using the existing landfill for decades to dump waste. And at Hanford they propose using unlined landfills for radioactive waste and a lined landfill for mixed radioactive/hazardous waste that’s sitting there that they built but haven’t been able to start using.

I can see what Nevada gets out of an alliance with you. What do you get out of an alliance with people like people like Bob Fulkerson [of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada]?

Both our states are contaminated by the Energy Department’s weapons program and their proposals to increase that contamination with nuclear energy and our states need to unite and work together to assert that we have the authority to stop all waste from being dumped into the land and above our groundwater when the existing wastes haven’t been cleaned up and the contamination is spreading. And the Energy Department is fighting against us having that authority. Congress thought they gave our states that authority. The Energy Department has been fighting us in court over it, and we need to convince the Obama administraton to put a halt to plans to expand nuclear energy, nuclear weapons by dumping more waste instead of cleaning up what we already have.

Sen. Reid said that between building more coal fired plants or building nuclear plants, he can live with building nuclear. How do you react?

I think that’s a false choice, that the energy future of this country can be secured by investment in renewable energy and conservation. For every dollar invested in conservation, we get three times the reduction in carbon and global warming gases than we do from anything else. And our future lies in investing in conservation and renewable energy for our electric power production. It’s not a choice between coal, which is not clean, and nuclear, which is not clean. You can’t call it clean when it produces nuclear waste, any more than you can call coal clean when it produces carbon. The other thing is, this country is bankrupting itself already, hand over fist, every day, and the proposals to double nuclear power production in the United States are just absolutely unaffordable. Nuclear plants cost $6 billion. That’s Standard & Poor’s estimate for building a new nuclear plant in the United States today. We can’t afford to do that. The proposal that McCain endorsed during the campaign was to double the number of nuclear power plants in the United States … The country can’t support that investment. Six billion, the cost of one nuclear plant, is several years’ total investment by the federal government in renewable energy. We’re not investing that. We haven’t invested that in the last five years. That’s the cost of one nuclear plant.

What do you expect to happen to the Bush administration’s aggressive plans for expanding plants under Obama?

I think that is going to take citizen pressure to say, “We need a true new energy policy from the ground up.” The industry is going to lobby like heck and say, “Wouldn’t it be good for economic stimulus to give us the money”—us being famed companies like Bechtel who we gave money, billions to, in Iraq and who are getting billions in nuclear weapons complex as well.

And to operate the Yucca Mountain project.

Right. And so they call that economic stimulus. Whereas the choice is whether or not you’ll have a democratic style of economic stimulus, which I’m hopeful for under Obama, where [unclear on tape] says, “If we invest in conservation, we weatherize your home for free, we reduce everyone’s demand for electricity, and you save money, and we reduce our carbon emissions.” And I’m very hopeful that the new administration will be taking an entirely different tack, but I also know that it only happens if people are involved and demand that it happens, if people feel that the Energy Department, not the contractor’s.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...