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Where To Put Nuclear Waste?

Ralph and Deborah McCracken bought a farm in Nevada's Amargosa Valley seven years ago. It's a stone's throw from Yucca Mountain.

Little did they know they'd be living in the shadow of what is likely to become the nation's first nuclear waste dump, as CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports.

"I do feel vulnerable," says Ralph. "I feel a little bit like the first guinea pig in a row."

The McCrackens and their four mustangs live just 17 miles away from Yucca Mountain - a site where the U.S. Department of Energy soon hopes to bury 70,000 tons of highly radioactive waste, generated by the country's nuclear power plants.

"The real question is, can you design a system to protect the health and safety of the public, and we believe the answer is yes," says Michael Voegele, Deputy Director of the Yucca Mountain Project.

Scientists are gambling that Yucca Mountain -- an hour and a half drive northwest of Las Vegas -- is the perfect spot to store the nuclear waste because of its remote, desert location. Earthquakes are uncommon and the area only gets on average seven inches of precipitation a year.

Voegele tries to be reassuring. "The only way the radiation is going to get out of that is first of all, if there's a defect in the package. Or whether water eventually reaches those materials and somehow corrodes through it--picks up a waste material and carries it on through," he says.

But after extensive testing, which took 17 years and cost almost $6 billion, scientists found a few surprises in the rock deep inside the mountain where the waste would be buried.

"The two big things in my mind is that they didn't expect faults, they found faults. And they didn't expect water and they found water both there and percolating in," explains Ralph.

Voegele admits "We thought this site was going to be drier than it turned out to be."

Those findings have Ralph McCracken worried that the radiation will eventually migrate to his farm -- contaminating people, animals and his crop of pistachio nuts, which are sold across the country.

"They are expecting a leaky mountain, they are expecting leaky containers and they expect us to survive it somehow," says Ralph.

Environmentalist Anna Aurilio says more than 219 groups have called for the government to scrap the Yucca project.

"For the time [being], we think the best thing to do is to store this stuff on site where it's already being stored until we can figure out a safe, permanent place to put it," says Aurilio, a staff scientist for Public Interest Research Group.

But time is running out. Of the 103 operating nuclear power plants, 18 already don't have any more in underground pools to store spent fuel. By the end of 2004, 32 more will have to move to above-ground storage.

According to industry officials, only a project like Yucca Mountain will solve the issue once and for all.

Angelina Howard, Vic President of the Nuclear Energy Institute, says that nuclear power plants and fuel facilities were never designed for long term storage of the used fuel.

"The responsible thing it to put the used fuel in a central repository," says Howard.

Ralph McCracken isn't happy with that solution, and he's already thinking of moving far away.

"If we're successful at having a kid or two, how long do we stay here?" asked McCracken.

"Everybody wants their children to have the best," says Debbie. "You want to leave them your best legacy and I don't know that that mountain is your best legacy."

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