Opponents of a nuclear waste depository in Nevada have seized on the issue of homeland security and on the need to transport the nation's nuclear waste to a central spot in a last ditch effort to derail the Yucca Mountain project.
It is a clever political strategy, that, if it succeeds, will shift any danger away from Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and away from those states through which nuclear waste would have to be transported to those states that now house dangerous nuclear waste at scattered sites.
It is a fascinating numbers game.
The Department of Energy has already mapped potential highway routes for shipments, and those maps show that the roads pass through 703 counties in which 123 million people live. Slightly fewer people, 106 million, live along the DOE's potential rail routes.
That's a lot of people who can be easily frightened by the suggestion that sooner or later something is just bound to go wrong with one of those shipments. But shipments of radioactive material have been going on for years, and while there have been accidents, not one involved the release of harmful radiation.
Shipment containers have been designed and built to incredible tolerances. Tankers have been rammed broadside by speeding locomotives in tests that show no radioactivity would have leaked from the container following the crash.
The other numbers
Critics of Yucca Mountain conveniently ignore the dangers posed by the present system for storing high-level radioactive waste from the nation's power plants and its weapons programs.
It is now stored at 131 temporary sites in 39 states. More than 161 million people live within 75 miles of those sites.
And while it is true that shipping nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain is not likely to eliminate all those sites because nuclear waste continues to be created every day by power plants, beginning to consolidate the waste is more than a good idea, it is a necessity.
The first test hole was dug at Yucca Mountain in 1978. Since then, billions of dollars have been spent on research, and if the project finally gets the U.S. Senate's go-ahead, the first shipments won't arrive before 2010, and more likely 2015.
The Department of Energy, President Bush and the U.S. House have all given their approval to proceed with the Yucca Mountain project. The Senate, which takes up debate today, should follow suit.
Once the decision is made, even more can be done to build and test the transportation casks and plans can be made to protect the shipments from hijacking or attack by terrorists. Also, DOE should pursue more aggressively a plan to reduce the number of scattered sites housing nuclear waste.