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February 26, 2002

The cult of Tierra Sana

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 and environmentalists.

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 scientifically safe!

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 activities.

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 their life.

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 well.

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 come.

Watch MetroWest Daily News managing editor Joe Dwinell's live report on WB-56 every Thursday and Friday at 7:45 a.m.

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