Yucca Mountain

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Imagine high-level nuclear waste rolling along the train trench in downtown. That could be a reality if a Northern Nevada Indian Tribe okays the federal government's plan and we might not be able to do much about it.

The struggle over Yucca Mountain has always been about more than the mountain and the proposal to store the nation's most toxic waste there. It's also been about getting that waste to the mountain.

The transport of spent fuel rods from the nation's nuclear power plants potentially impacts thousands of communities, but none more than those here in Nevada. If the repository is opened, all of the nation's high-level nuclear waste will pass through some communities in our state, but which. Initially the Department of Energy looked at 10 potential routes through Nevada.

Two appeared likely: the Caliente corridor, bringing waste into the state from its southeastern border to the town of Caliente on existing rail lines then on new track skirting the northern border of the Nevada Test Site and south to Yucca Mountain. And the Mina corridor using the Union Pacific line along the I-80 corridor through northern Nevada and an existing spur south to Mina, laying 200 miles of new track to Yucca Mountain.

But between the main line and Mina the track runs through the Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation. In fact, beginning here at Wabuska to just north of Walker Lake the tribe owns the line, and with that ownership, effective veto power over the route.

In 1991 the tribe told the DOE it would not allow nuclear waste to be transported across the reservation effectively closing the door on the Mina corridor. Lately, however, the tribe has opened that door just slightly.

In a letter to the DOE this past spring, tribal chairman Gena Williams said the tribe would be willing to open talks under certain conditions. With the Caliente corridor facing huge engineering and budgeting problems, the DOE took the northern route off the shelf. The transportation route is suddenly no longer just a southern Nevada concern.

That means the nation's nuclear waste would travel through northern Nevada towns like Elko and Winnemucca, and yes, right through downtown Reno's railroad trench.

But for any of that to happen, the tribe has to agree and there are reasons for them to at least consider that answer. No one from the tribal government was available for an on-camera interview, but Chairman Williams told us it's primarily a matter of public safety that's prompted the tribe to take another look. The existing rail line cuts right through the center of the reservation's community of Schurz. Virtually the only traffic on that line right now are shipments to and from the Army Ammunition Depot at Hawthorne. Schurz also sits astride Highway 95, the main truck route between here and southern Nevada. It's elementary school is sited near the intersection of 95 and 95A. In return for agreeing to reopen talks with the DOE, the tribe wants the rail track routed north of town and assurance no nuclear waste would be transported by truck through their town.

But that decision would mean thousands of shipments through other northern Nevada towns including Reno. The state opposes the dump itself and feels there's no safe route, but it may find its argument undercut by the tribal government's own concerns.

Bob Loux believes that's an intentional plan by the DOE. It's put this idea on the fast track, scheduling just 45 days for public comment. And until just a few days ago, the only scheduled public hearings in northern Nevada were one in Hawthorne on the 14th and one in Fallon, which isn't even on the route on the 15th. The state asked for more hearings. The DOE responded by adding one for Reno on the 27th.

That still leaves a lot of people in northern Nevada with little opportunity to weigh in on this idea before it moves into the Environmental Impact Stage. That part of the story tomorrow.