If the next President makes good on his promise to expand the use of nuclear power plants, the desert will pay.
The desert always pays.
Even if it’s the “safe nuclear power” that those of us in the extreme environmentalist community care about. When people talk about “safe nuclear power,” they’re talking about making one very short slice of the nuclear cycle safer: the part where the reactor is functioning. And you know what? I’m prepared to grant it might be possible to design a power-generating nuclear reactor that poses little risk to the environment in the course of normal operation. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to make them safer than the status quo, whether with pebble bed design or some other fourth-generation technology.
But the typical lifespan of a reactor is what, 20, 30 years? Let’s assume a hundred. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, a hundred years of safe power generation. That’s a thousandth of the nuclear fuel cycle at most.
The nuclear waste has gotta go somewhere, and that somewhere will almost certainly be the desert. Yes, the amount of waste produced by current designs could be sharply reduced by new nuke plant designs, in theory. Even if they cut it down by a considerable percentage, like 95, it doesn’t matter. Considerably less waste times a justifiably frantic campaign to replace fossil fuels with “carbon-neutral” energy production times the foreseeable future is a very large amount of nuclear waste.
Even if the half-built federal high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is never finished— and for his part, Obama has committed to killing the project, which I will be glad for when it actually gets killed and not a moment before — even if it is never finished, the desert will pay. Another site in the desert will be found, farther from the increasingly liberal burb of Las Vegas, where opposition to the dump is rock-solid — not because of the danger it poses to the desert, but because it’s only 90 miles away from the MGM Grand. Maybe an impoverished desert tribe will be willing to take on the high-level waste of the nation, the way the Skull Valley Goshute did their toxic waste dump, or the way the Torres Martinez band on the Salton Sea took LA’s sewage sludge on as landscaping material.
Or maybe Yucca Mountain will refuse to die. Harry Reid keeps vowing to kill it, and yet the project seems to stay alive.
The precise location may change, but it seems almost impossible that waste from these new “safe” nukes will end up somewhere other than the desert. Somewhere in the desert, anyway. Conservative Utah, or in Idaho’s Great Basin portion, or someplace in Nevada where the locals won’t kick up as much of a fuss. Probably not in Arizona: McCain supports Yucca Mountain, but squawked about shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain through Arizona. But in the desert.
The other end of the nuclear fuel cycle has affected the desert southwest as well. Uranium mining leaves radioactive mine tailings. The tailings aren’t nearly as radioactive on a pound-for-pound basis as spent fuel, or even as some low-level waste like contaminated moon suits and the like. But people don’t generally inhale moon suits. They do inhale the dust that blows off tailings piles, or for that matter off the equipment they operate in the mine.
Again, that “they” has turned out to be a Native “they” fairly often, whether “they” consist of mine workers, herders in mine country, or for that matter Dineh people affected by the spill of eleven million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco.
And it’s not just nuclear power for which the desert is asked to pay, as seen in the Sunrise Powerlink issue. I was amused to read a recent Washington Post essay in which science fiction writer Ben Bova advocated a new energy future based on orbiting solar collectors miles in diameter. (Space: the ultimate desert. No one to speak of lives there at the moment, the sun shines non-stop, and, like its equivalent on the surface, it’s littered with discarded junk.) Of course, for the project to have some utility to those of us on the surface, all the energy that gets solarcollected up there would have to get down here somehow, and this would be accomplished by way of a focused beam of microwaves a mile or so across aimed at the Earth’s surface. A miles-wide collector array on the ground would turn the microwaves back into electric power and feed it into the grid.
Three guesses where Bova suggests putting the collectors.
The skies over Laughlin, Nevada, not far from where I sit right now, once turned chocolate-colored on odd days. A power plant was responsible, fueled by coal mined from Black Mesa a couple hundred miles east in Navajo-Hopi country. The coal was shipped by way of slurry line: millions of gallons of the Navajo aquifer was mixed with ground coal into a toxic sludge that was piped across Arizona to Laughlin. The aquifer receded. Desert springs went dry and deep-rooted plants died, and of course there was the little matter of the strip mine on Black Mesa, and the social crisis spurred by relocating people away from the mine.
The Laughlin plant lies dormant now, closed by environmental and native rights lawsuits, waiting for an initiative like “clean coal” to give its single giant pink stack an excuse to smoke again.
The desert would pay for clean coal. Acid from clean coal would emerge from the stack at Laughlin, eat away at the millennia-old petroglyphs uphill at Avikwame.
The grand planners can make the desert pay because on the whole, the desert lacks a voice. The vox clamantis in desierto, the voice crying in the wilderness (and please note that John the Baptist’s “wilderness” referred to in John 1:23 was indeed a desert) is an archetypal synonym for “Cassandra”: a voice heard but unheeded. Despite the existence of a burgeoning group of desert fanciers who’ve gotten to know these delicate lands, people, in the main, simply could not care less about the desert. It’s unpopulated, mostly, and that’s what matters. The desert is not someplace people imagine being for more than the five or seven hours it takes to get to the Luxor. Otherwise, it’s sterile, empty, vacant land, a place where you can do things like put your city’s garbage in a valley next to a National Park (c.f. the proposed Eagle Mountain dump tucked into a pocket in Joshua Tree National Park) or dump your low-level nuclear waste, some of which is highly radioactive despite the innocuous-sounding descriptor, in unlined trenches and then forget where those trenches are (as US Ecology did in Beatty, NV and tried to do in Ward Valley, California).
Even David Brower, the icon of 20th Century environmental activism, traded off a few hundred square miles of desert wilderness as part of a grand plan, agreeing not to oppose a dam in the “place no one knew” in exchange for saving a better-known canyon in Colorado. Dave at least regretted it later, and spent his life trying to find a way to undo the damage. But the Glen Canyon Dam still maintains its tenuous grip on the canyon walls, and the Grand Canyon ecosystem still declines while the Bureau of Reclamation sells electricity to Phoenix. Tourists speed nervously across miles of brilliant Triassic sandstone to plunk their houseboats into the sewage lagoon behind the dam named, in a fit of insulting hubris, for a man who strove to make the desert known to his fellow citizens.
No one knew Glen Canyon and so it was a fitting place to plug up with a cash register dam, to fill it with slackwater so that the BoR could raise money for other projects elsewhere.
Have a useless, dangerous, massive or ugly project you want to put somewhere? The desert is the ultimate vacant lot. Unused land. Empty space. A cipher, and not in the sense of “a thing whose mysteries deserve to be fathomed” but in the sense of “zero.” Even nuking it would be fair use. If you were to look for an image that encapsulates this society’s relationship with the desert, it would be hard to find a more iconic and resonant one than this:
That’s “Shot Fizeau,” an eleven kiloton nuclear “device” set off at the Nevada Test Site on September 14, 1957.
Maybe I’m biased, given my particular botanical-arboreal affections, but when I look at that image the word “uninhabited” does not exactly spring readily into my waking mind. “Deserted,” maybe. I know I’d desert it in a hurry if I saw that cloud, not that the k-rats had that option. Desolate? Useless? Empty? None of those. Aside from the alpha particles and the need for SPF 3E+12 sun block, it looks like home to me.
But that is how the desert is seen by the majority: mostly devoid of people and therefore of little value, and therefore the rightful place for storage of the toxic leavings of industrial society, be those leavings waste from nuclear reactors, or fallout from generations-old atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, or weapons tests and training of the non-nuclear variety, or a metropolis’ trash, or violent ORV-riding lumpenproletarians. It’s a blank slate that seems to compel scrawling.
A few months ago, when the break with my marriage was even more fresh and my future even less certain than it is now, when I was homeless and living out of a suitcase in my Jeep, I walked out into the middle of the Ivanpah Valley at dusk until the red neon of Primm was a blur two miles distant. Powerlines hummed overhead, and the Interstate was a distant roar, but otherwise it was quiet: the wind had calmed and the crickets fallen asleep. I sat down for a while among the creosote, not sure what to do next or whether there even was anything to do next.
At some point I realized the creosote felt familiar and comfortable. An odd sensation: I haven’t spent all that much time in the creosote flats of the Mojave, aside from driving through them to get to the uplands. But it suddenly felt just as much like home as the Joshua trees and blackbrush. That feeling hasn’t gone away, these last months living in Nipton, creosote country at 3,000 feet. Creosote has been home since that night in May. Before, I didn’t worry much about commercial development displacing swaths of cresosote: the stuff is as common as dirt. It’s still common, but I wince now when I see a bulldozer uproot it.
I wonder sometimes whether that unfamiliarity with the desert, that alienation that fuels the lie of the blank slate desert, could be cured with a little sitting. If you could bring them out here, the engineers and the bureaucrats who determine the fate of entire swathes of desert, the offroaders who insulate themselves from the desert they trample with noise and speed and dust and armor, the planners of airports and the reckless drivers desperate to get to the casino bar, if you could bring them out here and park them in the outback with a cushion and a bottle of water and just ask them to sit, would they feel a change growing in them? Would familiarity breed contentment with the desert as it is, and reduce the need to scrawl venom across its face?
And then I shake myself awake. I remember the seemingly endless human capacity for maintenance and repair of that shell of apathy that protects most of us from actual engagement with the world. I remember that each surveyor, each backhoe operator, each off-road vandal and petroglyph defacer will claim to love the desert. I remember the old Gary Larson cartoon with the two loggers eating lunch in a sea of stumps, one saying that he could never work in an office because he loves spending the day in the woods.
Men will follow bighorn rams quietly, sometimes for days, observing them and learning the subtleties of their behavior, claim to reach new heights of respect for their majesty and grace, and then they will shoot them.
The temptation is to give in to despair, to see the mound of shattered beer bottles thrown in the face of the thousand-year-old desert pavement intaglio of Mastamho along the Colorado River near Blythe and decide that there are in fact two species of human, Homo sapiens and Homo phobiens, the latter characterized by its pathological, chronic fear and resentment of anything it does not understand. (The distinguishing feature of a species is reproductive isolation, and be honest: would you fuck ‘em?)
But to give in to that despair is to accept that spurious species division and then choose the wrong side. For every hundred people who find the flimsiest pretext to defend their ossified and cracking world view, there will be one or two who emerge from the shell a little dazed and gaping at the new bright light. I’ve done it myself once or twice, though not as often as I ought.
An hour after The Raven and I met that Mojave green rattlesnake, a woman in nearby Searchlight heard the story and asked if we’d killed it. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that that was an option. The snake was a neighbor and was merely suggesting we stay off its lawn. It had been a privilege to meet that snake. Ed Abbey famously described his “humanism” as consisting of the fact that he’d “sooner kill a man than a snake,” and while I don’t completely agree with the first half I related the quote to the woman anyway. She laughed and promised to use the line.
You do find enough people like her, willing to be flexible in their thinking, enough people willing to notice the Joshua trees in front of the mushroom cloud, to keep hope’s pilot lit. They make up, a little, for those who reflexively dismiss protecting the desert as an extremist pursuit.
They make the despair a little less tempting. But only a little.
If the next President makes good on his promise to expand the use of nuclear power plants, the desert will pay. The desert always pays. The President may nod and look concerned and express regret over this sad but necessary sacrifice of the Amargosa River basin near Yucca Mountain, or he may regretfully spearhead some other dump elsewhere in the desert to open in 25 years, or he may express no regret at all and talk about technological enterprise triumphing over adversity. And then he will leave office and a new President will come into power, and years and generations will pass, and the United States will first cease to exist, then pass out of memory altogether. The world’s climate will shift. Rain will reach the desert again, the way it did when people first lived here, and the Amargosa River will run fresh and sweet year-round.
And the people who live there, or whatever comes after people are gone, will know that the sweetness of the water belies a crippling illness swiftly visited on those who drink it, and they may attribute that illness to some malevolent entity, some sort of evil force that considers their welfare unimportant.
And they won’t be wrong.