From the air, or from the lonely wastes of Highway 95 in the middle of the Mojave desert, it looks the remotest place on earth. Yucca Mountain is no more than a long ridge surrounded by dust, sand and little else for dozens of miles. And yet it could be the source of the next big scandal to hit the American administration.
President George Bush has approved a plan to move 77,000 tons of nuclear waste from around the country to a storage area under the mountain, pushing forward where two previous administrations, including his father's, did not dare.
Yucca Mountain is about as unsuitable a repository site as one could imagine. The area is criss-crossed by no fewer than 33 earthquake faults. The rock is volcanic, there are volcanic cones in the area, and the latest scientific guesswork is that there has been an eruption in the past 20,000 years – a mere blip in the estimated 250,000- year toxic lifespan of nuclear waste. Moreover, scientific studies by former Department of Energy officials have found evidence that groundwater, currently running 300 metres beneath the site, has risen in the past and flooded the storage area. Were that to happen once the waste arrived, it could not only contaminate the drinking water of the few hundred people who live locally (including members of a native tribe, the Western Shoshone, who believe Yucca Mountain to belong to them under a 19th- century land treaty). Radioactive toxins are likely to reach the surface, evaporate and pose a grave health threat to a large area of the American West.
No other country has opted to create a central waste repository, and nuclear energy experts around the world will be watching to see what the United States does, and what the consequences are.
Alarm at the plan in America has been raised not just by environmentalists. The government's own scientific oversight body, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, reported in January that it found the Department of Energy's case for Yucca Mountain to be "weak to moderate" and contained "gaps in data and basic understanding".
That report did not, however, stop Spencer Abraham, the Secretary for Energy, from recommending presidential approval. "I have considered whether sound science supports the determination that the Yucca Mountain site is ... suitable for the development of a repository. I am convinced that it does," Mr Abraham wrote, without citing a single scientific authority. The President took only 24 hours to rubber-stamp his recommendation.
In Nevada, the rebellion is in full swing. Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, has accused Mr Bush of betraying Nevada voters, without whose support he would not be President. Oscar Goodman, the Mayor of Las Vegas, which is 90 miles (140km) south-east of Yucca Mountain, has called Mr Abraham a "blockhead". The Nevada Governor, Kenny Guinn, a Republican, has said he will veto the President's decision, which means it will be sent to Congress for a vote. And that, expected some time in the next couple of months, is where the real battle will begin.
From the Bush administration's point of view, the issue is simple. The President likes nuclear power, just as he likes the entire energy sector. Nuclear power companies donated almost $300,000 (£211,000) to his campaign. He is keen to build reactors for the first time since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Unless the country's 131 reactors can find somewhere to send waste, they will have to cease production.
Yucca Mountain has been the only site under government consideration since 1987, when alternatives in New Hampshire and Texas were rejected because of political lobbying. (It might not have been a coincidence that George Bush Senior, then the Vice-President, was beginning his White House run and did not want to jeopardise his chances in the key New Hampshire primary.) That decision – known out west as the "Screw Nevada bill" – has been followed by many other, equally political, ones.
Ostensibly, Yucca Mountain was selected for its geology. But when the geological nightmare became clear, the Department of Energy said it would look only at how secure the waste containers would be. When the containers seemed unlikely to meet government standards, the Environmental Protection Agency watered down the standards.
The contradictions have multiplied since the Bush administration took office. Last year, the Department of Energy found that the law firm it had hired to help draft licences for Yucca Mountain was a lobbyist for the nuclear industry. No fewer than 14 lawyers from the firm, Winston & Strawn, had simultaneously billed the government and the Nuclear Energy Institute, the sector's chief lobbying body.
Lisa Gue, an analyst with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, says this is further proof that the nuclear lobby is setting the rules. "The process itself has become disingenuous," she said. "The government hasn't proceeded honestly, it has merely sought justification for a foregone conclusion."
Mr Bush's opponents know the environment is an area of potential political weakness – after all, this is the President who tore up the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, tried to relax curbs on arsenic in drinking water, and has just told taxpayers that they, not the energy industry, will have to pay for toxic clean-ups.
Many Washington lobbyists have also expressed amazement at the way Mr Bush has flown in the face of scientific opinion. "Clinton was not much better when it came to environmental protection, but at least he was smart enough to listen to the scientists," one government science adviser said.
Even if Congress approves the plan – and plenty of members are recipients of nuclear energy funds – the battle will not end there. Nevada has threatened to withhold the water needed to build the repository. Legislators in other states are considering no- transit laws, meaning waste consignments – each of them a potential "mobile Chernobyl", and a tempting terrorist target -- could not cross their territory to Yucca Mountain.
The White House, for the moment, is unapologetic. Not going ahead, Mr Abraham wrote in his letter of recommendation, would be "an irresponsible dereliction of duty". As the controversy heats up, those words may come back to haunt him.Reuse content