In her mobile home in the Timbisha Village in Death Valley, Pauline Esteves remembers the mushroom clouds and white light ripping across the eastern sky.

A lifelong resident of the cracked desert, she had a front-row view of many of the 928 above- and below-ground nuclear blasts that cratered the earth at the Nevada Test Site. The explosions were her first connections to federal nuclear projects — but not her last. Today, she worries the federal government will place a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.

The site was selected in 1987 to store 70,000 tons of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste 1,000 feet under the mountain’s surface for at least 10,000 years. The design includes 40 miles of tunnels that would house waste in corrosion-resistant containers. It has since been defunded, but some politicians have not abandoned the idea of reviving it.

A view of Yucca Mountain, center, as seen from Amagosa Valley town offices Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015.

Standing at the chain link fence that blocks the access road to the repository site, Yucca looms over an elusive geological landscape, where appearance doesn’t always match reality.

Though it’s called a mountain, it’s more of a ridge. Formed by volcanic activity that began 15 million years ago, the peak marks the meeting place of two faults. The Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects puts the yearly chance of an earthquake there around 1 in 70 million.

Though it’s in the middle of a desert, signs of water are everywhere. Above ground, parched washes and streams snake southward from ridges to coalesce in the basin in which Amargosa Valley sits.

Thanks to underground water, a small amount of radioactive material would travel southwest through washes, canyons, aquifers, fault zones, tufts and an intermittently flowing river. From the repository, the water would push into Amargosa Valley and, if the upward pressure from pumping in Pahrump were ever to cease, from there into Death Valley.

According to the recent Nuclear Regulatory Committee report, the peak radiological dose would be 1.3 millirems per year, which is far lower than the background radiation dose — the natural amount that is always present — of 300 millirems per year. In other words — not much. The report says the potential impacts would be “small.” But that is, of course, presuming an earthquake doesn’t rip open the repository, sending a much larger dose of radioactive material downstream.

According to a recent report, water would carry radioactive material from Yucca Mountain to Amargosa Valley.

By Kyle Roerink (contact), Las Vegas Sun,Monday, Sept. 7, 2015 | 2 a.m.
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