Originally Published by St. Paul Pioneer Press

Shipping radioactive waste across 43 states to Yucca Mountain is not just bad for Nevada; it’s bad for America. The Yucca Mountain site, located just outside of Las Vegas, is a flawed solution to America’s nuclear waste problem. It is flawed because it won’t get nuclear waste out of America’s back yards, but will increase the risks of radiation exposure to millions of Americans. It ignores new technologies that store waste to be treated without the risk transporting to a single site. And the administration has failed to incorporate the dramatic change in the world since the decision was made to store high-level waste in a single site.

Three key things have changed since the government began planning to ship nuclear waste to Nevada. First, Las Vegas, the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country, is today much closer to the Yucca Mountain site than it was 20 years ago. Second, technology to store and secure nuclear waste has improved significantly — which means we don’t have to face the serious risks of moving and protecting 77,000 tons of radioactive waste in 53,000 truck shipments or 10,000 rail shipments through 734 counties housing half of America’s population. Third, since Sept. 11 we face a new reality of terror, and we cannot afford to create tens of thousands of new targets for terrorists.

Instead of reconsidering the original decision, the government is pressing ahead like an aircraft carrier that cannot change its course. After their own scientists determined that Yucca Mountain is geologically unfit, the government insisted on using man-made “engineering” solutions to isolate this high-level nuclear waste. Instead of using similar engineering solutions to contain waste where it already is without creating new problems by transporting it on our roads, railways and waterways, the government presses ahead with an outdated 20-year-old plan.

Most striking is the Department of Energy’s decision not to publicize a viable, less risky, alternative developed by a subsidiary of the nation’s largest nuclear utility company, Exelon Corp. In an agreement signed nearly two years ago, DOE agreed to take title to the spent fuel waste and own and operate a dry storage facility on-site. It appears this safer and cheaper alternative to Yucca Mountain is now being ignored.

Transporting nuclear waste across our country is an undertaking that every American concerned about our nation’s security should take very seriously. Sharing our highways with tens of thousands of radioactive shipments is a disaster waiting to happen. An accident involving a truck with radioactive waste is a statistical certainty. Just as certain is the increased exposure to terrorism.

DOE and outside experts both agree accidents will happen; though no one can predict their likely impact. More troubling is the potential for radiation exposure. The government-approved casks, which have never undergone rigorous full-scale testing, leak radiation and could become portable X-ray machines that cannot be turned off. This concern is not trivial either from a health or a liability standpoint.

Most serious of all is that these shipments will become irresistible targets for terrorists. After Sept. 11 and the increasing incidents of suicide bombings, our elected leaders should not approve this plan unless they can guarantee the safety of these shipments. They cannot simply trust the DOE or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who are still analyzing risks based on terrorist incidents from the 1970s and 1980s. Without proper security measures, these shipments could easily be used as a “dirty bomb.” It is imperative that an up-to-date plan is in place to prevent them from becoming low-grade nuclear weapons and that the cost of this plan be measured against the potential benefits of a single site.

The American people and their representatives in Congress must keep this in mind: There is no pressing reason to move ahead with the Yucca Mountain site without completing a comprehensive evaluation. Even the administration agrees that the current storage system can safely remain for many years. Congress must now decide. Will it opt for the administration’s unsound policy that jeopardizes our health and safety or will it choose to act responsibly? At a time when we need to be doing everything in our power to secure our nation’s safety, a policy that puts us on the road to another national tragedy is a step in the wrong direction.
*Kerrey, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska, is president of New School University in New York.

Distributed by Knight Ridder News Service.