Yucca Mountain from the Air

It is not every Bay Area to Las Vegas flight that takes you directly west of Yucca Mountain, but on this flight in January of 2006, that is what happened.  I found the views interesting.

The first view of Yucca Mountain in its setting (the ridge to the lower right, with a canyon to its left and another ridge, Jet Ridge, on the other side of that small canyon).  Crater Flat's million-year-old volcanoes are to the far left (cinder cones with basalt outflow aprons around them).  The now collapsed volcanic centers (calderas) that spewed out the ash that formed this landscape over 10-million years ago are up and left (direction is north from Yucca Mountain) in this photo:

Next we look to the right of Yucca Mountain to see Fortymile Wash, draining into (but disappearing as it enters) the Amargosa Valley.  The colorful rock is the Calico Hills (more volcanic tuff, not hard and fractured but was cooler when it was deposited so is more like a sandstone) formation which underlies Yucca Mountain's hard, fractured tuff layers but crops out here.  If the volcanic "ash" was really hot (like from a pyroclastic flow) it melted and welded into hard rock which fractured as it cooled.  If the "ash" fell through the air and cooled, it would aggregate to an extent depending on its temperature, and the pressure from what fell on top of it.

This is my best shot of Yucca Mountain (it is a ridge, not a mountain, really).  The "01" in the date stamp is on the ridge called Yucca Mountain, so just follow it north.  When you get about as far north on that ridge as you can, it loses its ridge-like nature,  but continues to be called Yucca Mountain which includes the upper left portion of the terrain from which the ridge extends.  Where it peters out as a ridge, if you look right about halfway into the valley to the right, you see what looks like some white buildings in a small flat area.  That is the North Portal, where the tunnel boring machine was launched that made a 5-mile-long horseshoe tunnel through the mountain to allow it to be studied.  The rock, its hydrology, and its chemistry and behaviors under the stress of added heat were studied to allow a judgment to be made about its being able to host a repository for high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.  It was designated as the US repository site by the Congress and the President in 2002.  It has to be able to receive a license before it can operate, however, and getting that license is not a trivial nor a quick process.


The nearest neighbors to Yucca Mountain are about 20 miles away and are in the roadside businesses that are what travelers see as the move up or down US 95 in Amargosa Valley, one gateway to Death Valley.  I personally quite like the restaurant in the gas station on the south-side of the road(and for great Mexican food try Rosa's, now located inside the Longstreet Inn and Casino on the road south to Death Valley Junction).  The gas station on the north side has a brothel next to it (legal only in rural Nevada counties).  Nothing is strange once you get used to it.

At the top of the photo are layered tuff mountains to the left, the outer rim of the ash -flows and -falls that built Yucca Mountain and its neighbors.  To the right, smaller limestone mountains.  Let's take a second look at those tuff mountains in the next photo:

Across the valley to the east of Yucca Mountain lie two related mountains, Big Skull and Little Skull by name.  Little Skull Mountain was at one time being drilled for the MX Missile program's stationary rockets.  MX missiles were either in hardened sites (like in this mountain) or on moving rail cars, and were going to retaliate against a Soviet Union (now no longer in existence) first-strike attack. The system was to have provided "mutually-assured destruction" (MAD, how appropriate): even if they surprise us and kill us first, they will still die.  The ones in Little Skull Mountain would have bored their way to the surface and launched as soon as it became apparent that Soviet missiles were on their way.  Western states rebelled against being made targets for first-attack in this manner: to launch a first strike AND survive, these sites would have to be hit with massive nuclear strikes and be destroyed first.  The Western states won the day.  No missiles were installed on rail cars or in these mountains, but they were deployed in refurbished Minuteman missile silos, not the hardened silos originally foreseen.  They have now all been decommissioned, the last 50 were taken out of service in late 2005.

To the left of the Skull mountains some buildings are visible.  These are not related to Yucca Mountain.  This is where the old nuclear-rocket motor program was carried out, using a reactor to preheat fuel before combustion increased thrust and extended range of rockets dramatically.  The concept was proven, but since this was for the military in space and space was demilitarized by treaty except for spy satellites, the concept was never used in space.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wants to restart this effort in support of its solar system exploration program, and may someday actually employ it for more routine two-way trips to Mars or other destinations.  

Use Google or another capable search engine to find out more on any of these topics if they interest you, several years ago I learned all I know about both the MX missile program's history and the DOE nuclear rocket program, and NASA's interest in it, on the Internet.  Here is one example for each topic:

MX missiles were actually deployed, but in existing Minuteman silos, according to this site which tells some of the history: http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/Mx.html

The last of the MX missiles, or "Peacekeepers" as they were also known, were deactivated in late 2005: http://www.afa.org/magazine/oct2003/1003missile.asp

The Department of Energy's (DOE's) story of its nuclear rocket program and renewed interest in it can be found here: http://www.nv.doe.gov/library/publications/newsviews/nrds.htm

The DOE's web site for Yucca Mountain is here: http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/

And if you must, here is one link to brothels in Nye County, showing how it is important to keep it from being revisited with a referendum even in the county (since this is an archived newspaper link, I can't promise it will survive very long):  http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2004/Jul-07-Wed-2004/news/24260350.html

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