Tuesday, July 13, 2010

So that's what gives the Vegas Strip its unusual glow...

Just finished reading John D'Agata's book, "About a Mountain." It's a nonfiction account of the on-again, off-again status of Yucca Mountain, where the U.S. wants to store its nuclear waste.

But, in the tradition of creative nonfiction, D'Agata combined this journalistic journey with his own Las Vegas story -- and that of a young man who committed suicide by jumping from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel.

Seems like an odd juxtaposition of subjects. But the author ties it together neatly with facts and speculation.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid comes off looking like a bad guy. It's odd that Reid recently faulted Pres. Obama for not being tough enough against Republicans, especially when it came to the battle over health care reform.

Burying tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste under Nevada rock won't impart many health-giving properties to Nevadans. It will bring jobs, no doubt about that. Those jobs will have health insurance, which is a good thing. There will be accidents in shipping and handling, which won't cost you any extra but could cost you your life.

Sen. Reid did a pretty nifty job of rolling over for the nuclear power conglomerates and home-state cheerleaders for Yucca Mountain.

But Harry has enough problems, what with Nevada Tea Party types hounding him at every turn.

The book's most compelling sections are these:

1. What happens when a truck carrying radioactive waste wrecks on the overcrowded Vegas freeways and catches fire?
2. How do you make signage for a nuclear repository, a sign that will be understood by humans 10,000 years in the future.

The answer to number one is: Shitstorm.

The answer to number two is a thoughtful treatise on human communication. A panel of artists and linguists and teachers and scientists were asked to come up with effective signage. The challenge was a huge one. Where was humankind 10,000 years ago? Battling sabre-tooth tigers in caves and trying to stay warm during the Ice Age. They weren't doing much recreational reading -- nor consulting any signs.

In 10,000 years, we may be back in caves. That cave may be in what used to be Nevada. There will be a sign that warns of terrible danger if you go any further into the cave but humans may not understand the sign. They may say to themselves, "Hey, this cool sign says there's a nifty surprise at the bottom of this cave." "Great -- I love surprises."

John D'Agata's book comes at a good time. The U.S. is now contemplating building more nuke plants. Uranium is being mined again in Wyoming and Colorado. Turck and rail shipments from the East Coast will have to come through either Wyoming or Colorado.

Read the book for its angst-producing sections. Read it for its fine writing.

"About a Mountain" is published by W.W. Norton, 236 pages, $23.95.

To read the L.A. Times review of the book, go to http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/14/entertainment/la-ca-john-dagata14-2010feb14

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