Meet Yucca Mountain Johnny: nice enough guy, cave explorer and not welcome in the state of Nevada. He’s the helmeted cartoon character invented by the U.S. Department of Energy to interest kids in its $58 billion vision for Nevada, which could become by 2017 the first-ever national resting place for 77,000 tons of waste left by nuclear reactors across America. The debris would be shipped cross-country, mainly by rail, and entombed in the depths of a seven-mile desert ridge an hour and a half’s drive from Las Vegas.
But any spent fuel rods will go in there over the dead bodies of powerful Silver State politicians from both parties. For years here, careers have risen on promises to stick a wrench in the Yucca plan. Even the gaffes have. A notorious remark by 1980s Sen. Chic Hecht, R-Nev., found him vowing to halt "nuclear suppositories" in Nevada, when he meant "depositories." That’s the preferred term by defenders who emphasize that Yucca wouldn’t be a "dump," as critics have called it, but a 1,000-foot-deep zone to deposit titanium-shielded casks buried under dry volcanic rock. But many Nevadans fear that radiation could leak in an accident, either here in the desert or on the way.