The Bush administration this month concluded a
20-year-long debate on where to store nuclear
waste by choosing Yucca Mountain in Nevada. As it
turns out, Yucca Mountain was the only site
considered for the last 20 years, and the debate
took 20 years because of opposition from Nevadans
When told of the decision, Gov. Kenny Guinn
(R-Nev.) said, " That stinks, " and Sen. John
Ensign (R-Nev.) predicted that the decision would
cost the Republicans two House seats in November.
Guinn described the nuclear dump in his
State-of-the-State speech last year as " the
single greatest threat to the health and safety of
the people of this state, " and dedicated $5
million in state tax revenues to fight his own
party’s President and Congress.
President Bush campaigned in 2000, and won
Nevada’s electoral votes, on a plank opposing
Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository "
unless it has been deemed scientifically safe. "
Guess what? Reports produced by the Bush
administration deemed Yucca Mountain
But there’s a catch — scientific safety is
insufficient. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for
several thousand years. The institutions charged
with safeguarding the public from its dangers
should last at least that long, in order to
accomplish the safeguarding role. The government
of Nevada, for comparison, is only 138 years old,
and even the federal government is only 225 years
old. Judging by human history, governments don’t
last for the requisite several thousand years, and
hence we should not entrust them with storing
nuclear waste. In fact, no human institutions last
long enough. Even the concept of " scientific
safety " has only survived so far for a couple of
centuries, and will surely change substantially by
the year 7002 when the nuclear waste in Yucca
Mountain stops being deadly. There’s only one
exception to the multi-millennial durability of
human institutions: religion.
Judaism’s Ten Commandments have survived intact
for most of 5,762 years. Hinduism’s Vedic
literature describes the present as the 5,104th
year of the Kaliyuga. Christianity’s New
Testament, a relative newcomer, approaches the
right time scale at 2,002 years. We need to create
a religious institution for the safe permanent
storage of nuclear waste, which I propose calling
" The Cult of Tierra Sana. "
The name " Tierra Sana " is Spanish for "
healthy earth, " which represents the goal of the
cult: to convert nuclear waste into healthy earth.
The nearest city to Yucca Mountain, Las Vegas, 90
miles to the southeast, provides the same
goal-oriented nomenclature: it is Spanish for "
fertile plains, " which one might consider the
multi-millennial goal of building a city in the
middle of an arid desert. Yucca Mountain will
become Tierra Sana at about the same time that Las
Vegas becomes a fertile plain.
Tierra Sana needs a conceptual foundation that
will last through five millennia. The longevity of
the Ten Commandments rests on their brevity. Since
the Cult of Tierra Sana need define only a
nuclear-safe lifestyle, not a moral lifestyle, it
shouldn’t take a whole Ten. Hence I propose
creating the Five Commandments of Tierra Sana, to
encapsulate nuclear waste safety for the ages:
1. Thou shalt not mine. Clearly,
digging near an underground nuclear waste dump is
a bad idea, and should be unambiguously
prohibited. So should be underground recreational
activities like spelunking. Cultists of Tierra
Sana must restrict themselves to surface
2. Thou shalt not drink well water.
Nevadan Republicans and environmentalists
alike worry primarily about the leaching of
radioactivity into underground water supplies. The
cultists must assiduously demand bottled water,
preferably imported from far away.
3. Hallow the earth and keep it Holy.
Earth-moving equipment should be
religiously proscribed, as should the transporting
of dirt at all. Landscaping must become a lost art
to the Tierra Sanaists. Farming and gardening
entail risks — local people should import food as
well as water.
4. Banish the barren. Loss of
reproductive capacity is a symptom of long-term
radiation exposure, and hence sending away anyone
who has lost that capability will likely save
5. Banish the hairless. Loss of
hair (other than baldness) is a symptom of
short-term radiation sickness, and sufferers of
hair loss should be immediately banished as
The particulars of why we instituted each of
these Commandments will be lost to the sands of
time, like the meaning of the Pyramids and the
details behind the original Ten Commandments have
been lost. We must assume that only the Five
Commandments themselves will survive the necessary
millennia, and hence imbue them with religiously
based behaviors that ensure nuclear safekeeping.
Cult members should begin living by such a
religious code as soon as the nuclear material is
deposited, and then upon the collapse of the local
government or civilization, the nuclear waste will
remain safe. We should inscribe the Five
Commandments of Tierra Sana on lead-lined tablets,
as a clue to future generations that lead linings
can act as a barrier against radiation.
This all sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But
nothing short of founding a religion will ensure
nuclear safety for 5,000 years. The United States
will not exist in the year 7002 — not to sound
unpatriotic, but no country has ever existed that
long. Hence the United States government cannot
possibly ensure the safety of nuclear waste for
that period. We must create something that will
endure beyond the United States government, or we
doom future generations to nuclear sickness when
the damnable stuff leaks out.
We need to think about the serious long-term
consequences of nuclear waste storage lest we
conclude from the " scientific safety " of Yucca
Mountain that we can produce more nuclear waste
with impunity. We cannot. We currently have 40,000
tons of the stuff, and Yucca Mountain’s design
will accommodate about double that. We produced
the 40,000 tons in about 40 years, and if Bush and
Cheney have their way in promoting more nuclear
power plants, Yucca Mountain will reach its
capacity in two decades. That’s the foreseeable
future — not 7002, but 2022. It took two decades
of debate to convince a President and Congress to
build Yucca Mountain, which means we have to start
right now the search for a second Yucca Mountain.
The political opposition will be just as fierce
the second time around.
The Cult of Tierra Sana is not a very good
solution. Yucca Mountain is not a very good
solution, either. Actually, there are no good
solutions to disposing nuclear waste. That fact
should color our viewpoint on whether we should
produce nuclear waste to begin with.
— Jesse Gordon has reluctantly resided with
several members of religious cults. While the
concept of religious protection of nuclear waste
did not originate with Mr. Gordon, he would be
willing to act as cult leader should the calling