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Political mix of wind and atomic waste -- Huge plant near Yucca Mountain

A 260 MW wind project has been proposed on a former US government atomic test site, a mere five miles from the highly controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility, currently being planned. The question of whether there could be health problems for those working at the wind plant must be a highly sensitive one. The timing of the wind farm's announcement and its location appear to be as much to do with politics as the wind resource and the demand in nearby Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in the US, and in power hungry California.

Plans for America's second largest wind farm yet, on a former US government atomic test site, will proceed regardless of the change in the administration. But the question of whether there could be health problems for those working at the wind plant must be a highly sensitive one. The site of the proposed 260 MW wind project on the Nevada Test Site (NTS) is a mere five miles from the highly controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility, currently being planned.

The timing of the wind farm's announcement and its location appear to be as much to do with politics as the wind resource and the demand in nearby Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in the US and in power hungry California. "The time is right to embrace new forms of clean energy and Nevada is the right location to build a pollution free wind farm that will serve as a source for that much needed power," said Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, when announcing the go-ahead for the wind farm on January 1, together with outgoing US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

At Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy (DOE) plans to build the world's first permanent site for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. As much as 70,000 tonnes of waste from the nation's 103 nuclear reactors is to be buried for eternity deep inside Yucca Mountain, if the proposal proceeds.

Siemens and Micon

The go-ahead for the wind plant was sealed in an agreement signed between MNS Wind Co -- a partnership between M&N Wind Power of San Diego and Siemens Energy & Automation of Atlanta -- and the NTS Development Corporation (NTSDC), a non-profit organisation in Las Vegas established to develop the test site.

Eighty-five MW of the three phase project -- 120 turbines to be supplied by Danish manufacturer NEG Micon -- are to be on-line by the end of this year in a location 65 miles north-west of Las Vegas in Nye County. NEG Micon is a major shareholder in M&N. The remaining 175 MW of the project will be developed over the following 18 months. It will create 150-200 construction jobs and about 30 permanent positions. MNS, which will build and manage the facility, and NTSDC are currently preparing an environmental assessment.

The change in administration, from President Bill Clinton to President George Bush, cannot alter the course of the project, says NTSDC's Janice Weademann. Agreements and easements have been signed -- and the decision of whether to go ahead with the project on the site is with NTSDC, not the DOE, she adds. DOE has been in a partnership with NTSDC to produce renewable energy at the site since nuclear weapon testing was stopped in 1992.

Health issue

On the issue of health, Weademann says the wind farm will be built on the far side of the 1350 square mile site from where nuclear weapons testing was conducted. Occupational or public health, because of radioactivity left from the weapons testing, has clearly been discussed. Siemens spokesman Mike Ruggeri says his company has been assured radioactivity will not be an issue at the wind farm. Siemens will be the turnkey contractor while M&N Wind Power will operate and maintain the plant.

But it is the explosive issue of Yucca Mountain that is more likely to cast a shadow over the wind project, already being discussed as one of the most sensitive domestic decisions facing the Bush administration. The administration is already preparing for an environmental fight over another energy issue -- likely plans to increase domestic oil drilling. The scale of the nuclear waste project is significant, with 183 people now working on the experimental phase. If it proceeds, the construction force will swell to 8000 before levelling off at about 2000 -- until the mountain is permanently closed off in about 2100.

When announcing the wind farm, Reid was not slow to exploit its political mileage as a venture which can contribute to easing California's chronic power shortage and be regarded as an environmental good, in contrast to nuclear waste. "We should all learn from California's experience with electricity deregulation and begin work now to make these changes before deregulation takes place. As demand for power continues to increase in California, Nevada and elsewhere, additional sources of electricity must be developed. This wind farm will aid in increasing those available power supplies without endangering the health of the surrounding environment," he added.

The wind farm will provide the DOE's Nevada Operations Office with free energy equivalent to 10% of NTS's electrical consumption last year. The free electricity will be pro-rated over the three phases.

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