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Nevada ups battle against nuclear-dump site

When it came to defending alleged mobsters, lawyer Oscar Goodman used to pursue every trick in his briefcase to keep clients from a jail cell.

Now, as mayor of Las Vegas, he is vowing to do everything he can to put certain people behind bars - specifically, anyone who tries to haul nuclear waste through his city. Mr. Goodman says he will "personally arrest" anyone who ships plutonium through the streets of Las Vegas.

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His threat is part of the latest gambit by Nevada officials to keep the state from being used as a nuclear-waste dump for the rest of the nation.

With the decision last week by President Bush to endorse Yucca Mountain, a remote area 95 miles northwest of here, as the nation's official high-level nuclear-waste dump, Nevada is turning up the volume of protest. The state is especially trumpeting what it thinks is one of its most persuasive arguments: that transporting radioactive material across the country is loaded with significant safety risks.

Not only would Nevada residents be vulnerable to a spill, state officials say, but also an untold number of other Americans, since more than 100 cities with populations of at least 100,000 are located along the proposed transportation routes in 43 states.

Of course, the actual degree of danger - like so many other aspects of Yucca - is a matter of dispute. The site was first selected by Congress in 1987 because of the mountain's hard volcanic nature and its dry, remote location. Concerns have been raised about seismic activity and possible contamination of nearby ground-water supplies, but the Department of Energy (DOE) has concluded - after at least $4 billion in studies - that Yucca would be sufficiently safe.

Now, Nevada officials, along with environmentalists and even casino executives, hope to gain momentum in a post-Sept. 11 world of safety jitters. They liken the waste's transport on public roads and rails to a ticking time bomb.

One thing, however, is certain: It's still a long, hard road to opening a national nuclear-waste dump. True, Mr. Bush's action was a major step forward in the process, and a major blow to Nevada. But many steps remain, including congressional approval and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's issuance of a license to build the repository. The federal government's own timetable puts the opening a decade away, and stiff opposition from Nevada officials - including Goodman, Gov. Kenny Guinn (R), and the state's entire congressional delegation - could prolong the process further.

"They were supposed to start shipments in 1998," says Robert Loux, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency. "We've been successful in keeping it out."

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During the US Conference of Mayors last month in Washington, Goodman filed a complaint on behalf of Las Vegas and Clark County with the Circuit Court of Appeals there, asking it to intervene on grounds that federal law has been ignored in the approval of Yucca Mountain. The state of Nevada has also filed several lawsuits.

Also at the mayors' conference, Goodman solicited support from leaders. "Americans need to be aware of the vulnerability of their communities as a moving target traverses their neighborhoods," Goodman says.

Yet Nevada officials face an uphill battle in making such concerns predominant - and for having Congress see things their way. Leaders in other states, it turns out, are much more worried about what could happen if the waste stays put. "Some mayors have this in their backyards, and they want to get rid of it," says Erik Pappa, an aide to Goodman.

The DOE proposal calls for the shipment of 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste from more than 100 power plants and defense sites to Yucca. The waste - a solid, ceramic-like material - is to be enclosed in metal tubes and shipped in what are called dry casks, which are made of concrete and steel and weigh several hundred thousand pounds each.

According to the DOE, the shipping containers will travel under strict physical security requirements. Pro-Yucca officials say tests conducted at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico prove the casks can survive high-impact crashes, free falls, fires, punctures, and water submersions.

The DOE, as well as the nuclear industry, points out that since 1962, no radioactive releases have occurred as a result of transportation accidents. But the amount of waste shipped to a repository like Yucca in just the first year of operations would exceed the total amount of low-level radioactive waste shipped in the United States in the past 30 years, according to a Nevada study.

Another report, by the Nevada Department of Transportation, found that safety assessments from the 1970s and '80s by the DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission have not taken into consideration a post-Sept. 11 world. "[T]he potential risks associated with terrorism or sabotage" has been underestimated, the study says.

But others cite careful safety preparations. "I've seen the test films," says Richard Hughes, a radiation physicist who has consulted for the federal government as well as the private sector. "They've literally crashed trucks into walls for the sole purpose of causing damage. It's inconceivable to me how any radioactive material could be dispersed."

That's little comfort for Nevadans. A poll conducted last month for the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that 83 percent oppose the Yucca project - although 68 percent think it's inevitable.

Indeed, some experts question the usefulness of anti-Yucca efforts such as Goodman's lawsuit. Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, notes that it will be up to the mayor to prove something is wrong with the DOE's safety tests.

"The court will say, 'Prove to us that there is a safer [transportation] route,' " says Mr. Epstein. "The burden is on the attacker, in this case, the mayor. No matter what you do with nuclear waste, it's a risk."