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Yucca Mountain

[Going to the dump]

The Travel Issue: It is this much space that gets us into trouble

Contemplating the big empty in Lathrop Wells with the mysterious Jimmy K

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Yucca Mountain

To search for Yucca Mountain one first needs a map.

Wait. That’s second. The real first step is to call up the Department of Energy for some information on how to get there. Where is it, exactly? And what does it look like?

A spokesman told me to drive to Lathrop Wells, past the point where 95 has become two lanes and squeezed through the narrow ending of the Spring Mountain Range. Go 5-10 miles past the town and look for the dirt road. (Dirt roads are tough to spot at 70 mph.)

Which makes maps so important. Before I left town I tried to purchase a map of the state, but the two gas stations I stopped at actually didn’t sell them, and so I headed out of town feeling slightly blind, with only a rough idea of where to stop: About 80 miles up the US 95. Let me get to Lathrop Wells, I thought, and figure it out from there.

Of course, it seems right that the nation would want to dump its nuclear waste up here, in this empty, parched land. Land that’s not even really ours, anyway—the federal government owns most of Nevada. As with sin and gambling, nuclear waste is just one more “vice” that requires a safety valve, an out-of-sight location that the rest of the country can be complicit in. For the most part Nevadans have been fine with this. Even the state’s long history of nuclear testing often feels like only a sales pitch for Atomic Age Vegas, the mushroom cloud just another form of showmanship.

Aliens are near. Now, only if we could find Yucca Mountain.

Aliens are near. Now, only if we could find Yucca Mountain.

But now, under the Obama administration, it looks like Yucca is done. Federal funding for the repository has dropped precipitously. More than 20 years of research and a cost of more than $13 billion have made Yucca, in the words of a Senate report, the most studied real estate on the planet. But at the moment, the country appears ready to walk away from its investment. Yucca looms in our imagination and yet has remained essentially invisible.

The drive up to Yucca last week was cloudy and comfortable, part of a glorious unseasonably cool early summer that has given recent weeks in the Valley the feel of a luxurious dream. Traffic was light on 95. Past Indian Springs and Creech Air Force Base. Somewhere near the border with Nye County was a hitchhiker hoisting a large blue duffel back on his shoulders, wearing yellow-and-black tube socks.

Moments later I had my first sighting (or so I thought) of Yucca Mountain. The mountain, it turns out, is not a mountain at all, not some impenetrable-looking NORAD-like fortress. It is a long and broad mesa, and the range I saw from the road near Mercury seemed to fit that description.

Finally I pulled into Amargosa Valley around 2:30. There are only about 1,200 living in the valley that sits one range east of Death Valley. The first stop is Lathrop Wells, which basically consists of two rest stops/gas stations/bars. I pulled off at Nevada Joe’s, an old-fashioned saloon painted pink. Towering over its gas pumps was a billboard warning that this was the last service area before Area 51.

The people inside Nevada Joe's are more colorful than the facade.

The people inside Nevada Joe's are more colorful than the facade.

Nevada Joe’s gets 400 tourists a day passing through, mostly on their way from Vegas. The shop not only had road maps of the state, but they were also giving them away for free. The large convenience store situated at the entrance was mostly empty, and even here, at the cusp of Yucca Mountain, the mountain seemed far away. I asked Kay McNally, one of the cashiers, what she thought of the doomed project. “I didn’t realize they had scrapped it,” she said.

Her daughter, Michelle, also worked behind the counter. “It seems foolish they put all that money into it, but who really wants all that crap around?” she said. “I’d rather not see a lot of nasty shit that they’d be bringing to the area.”

This being Nevada, there was a brothel on-site, occupying a row of beige mobile homes out back. But its owner didn’t want to talk to me about Yucca, so Michelle took me back to the bar, a dark and spacious room behind the convenience store, where the walls were filled with various alien memorabilia.

In back, a 75-year-old gent named Jimmy K. was holding court. A former—how shall we describe him?—U.S. military special operative, Jimmy didn’t want to give his last name, in case international bad guys out there still wanted a piece of him. Jimmy was working through a meatloaf sandwich, one button clasped on his beige shirt, a poky belly peering from beneath. He wore a thick white beard and black glasses with flip-up shades. Reticent about himself, perhaps, but not with a quote: Yucca, he noted, was a “big-ass hole in the mountain they have to do something with.”

His drinking buddy, Roger Fox, was skeptical the project was truly dead. Just wait until the Dems get booted out of power, he thought. Granted, that may not happen anytime soon. Still, Fox said there’d been plenty of radioactive waste buried on the Test Site over the years, and Yucca represented an altogether safer alternative. “A lot of people complain,” he said, but “it seems to me it’s safer than what they have now.”

In Nevada, a good brothel is never far away.

In Nevada, a good brothel is never far away.

The scarred history of the Test Site was something many of them mentioned. “There’s enough radioactive dust blowing around this fucking mountain to fry eggs on a hot day,” said Jimmy. (Nuclear-weapons testing—there were more than 1,000 tests in Nevada in the decades after World War II—ended at the Nevada Test Site in 1992.)

But it was Ken Dore, holding down the other end of the bar, who best expressed the locals’ ambivalence about Yucca: “It’s like watching your mother-in-law drive your brand-new Cadillac off a cliff. Yeah, we’d want jobs, but we didn’t really want it.”

Michelle put me on the phone with Jan Cameron, chair of the Amargosa Valley Town Advisory Board. She said most residents of the valley weren’t terribly happy about news the repository was shutting down—they were “expecting jobs, modest growth.”

“On the whole, we feel it’s pretty stupid,” she continued. “To get this far in the process with no other options and to decide they’re going to kill the program. It’s a waste of all the effort that’s gone into it.” Cameron, like Fox, didn’t necessarily think Yucca would remain dead forever. She anticipated a political compromise, once politicians realize there’s no other place prepared to store radioactive waste. “That will be particularly true if Harry Reid is not elected.”

a short drive from the bar was a road that led to one gate of the Nevada Test Site—these gates were sprinkled throughout the 1,300-square-mile site. A mile or so off 95, the road was brought short by a locked fence, about 1,000 feet short of the official guard gate. A sign read, “Firearms and pets are prohibited within the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site.”

This sign guards a gate at the Nevada Test Site.

This sign guards a gate at the Nevada Test Site.

No one was around, and the traffic from 95, though visible, was almost silent. I shouted as loud as I could, listening for the faint echo before my voice was swallowed into the terrain. On a hot day I imagined the open terrain would have been merciless. But on that day strong clouds patrolled the skies, letting in diffused, fractured, altogether wonderful pieces of sunlight.

Still, here’s the thing: I hadn’t actually found the damn mountain. At the bar they told me to go outside, walk to the end of the long porch and turn 45 degrees. I did … but the range in that direction was indistinct. At the Test Site gate, I grabbed my camera and began shooting pictures of all the mountains. To my right was the edge of the same range I had seen in Mercury, and I was certain this was Yucca, because a little road snaked up its side.

But according to my map, Yucca is several miles down the road from the junction of 373 and 95, a crossing I’d just barely passed. So, yes, you need a map, but no one’s actually placed any signs out there at the Test Site saying, “Welcome to Yucca Mountain, America’s Future Repository for Nuclear Waste. Please follow the signs.”

About eight miles later, I pulled off the road and took my pictures of a broad mesa; finally, this seemed to be Yucca. (Yet when I sent the DOE spokesman one of these photos and asked him to confirm that it was a shot of Yucca, he wrote back and told me, “Hard to tell from your picture.”)

I recalled something Fox had told me in the bar; the operations of Yucca are on the other side of the mountain, and the whole point is that you’re not really supposed to see it from the road.

I suppose there is comfort in this. The beauty and foolishness of America has to be in part a reaction to living with this much space. Out here is just an hour’s drive from a city of 2 million, on the main road connecting Nevada’s two largest population centers, and I might as well be all alone, with only the sturdy telephone poles and wire serenely gliding off in the distance to my left and right.

It is this much space that gets us into trouble. Space enough to dream ever-bigger dreams of conquests of one sort or another. Space enough to hide away the trash and mess we make. Driving up here I wondered if radioactive waste really could leak all the way through all that ground and rock and earth to poison future generations of Las Vegans. It seemed, when faced with the scale of the land, unlikely. And yet even out here, we seem to be running out of room to hide from ourselves.

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