About a Mountain
is a 2010 non-fiction book by the American essayist John d’Agata. Focusing on the US government’s proposal to build a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain just outside Las Vegas, the book weaves environmental reportage with a meditation on the meaning of Vegas. Between the mountain and the city, d’Agata constructs a pessimistic vision of the American Dream. About a Mountain
was hailed by critics as a “sublime reading experience, aesthetically rewarding and marked by moral courage and humility” (Publishers’ Weekly
The book opens as d’Agata arrives in Las Vegas to help his mother settle into her new home. However, he is quickly sidetracked by the city itself, which he cannot help but investigate. He soon discovers that the federal government has proposed to build a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, not far beyond the city limits.
D’Agata wants to know more about the proposal. He learns that the facility will store highly radioactive waste, and it will have to remain secure for 10,000 years. D’Agata wonders why the lifespan of the facility has to be so long and learns that, in fact, it really needs to be much, much longer, when he comes across a report from the Committee on the Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards: “Taking into consideration that some potentially harmful exposures may still be possible several hundred thousand years following the mountain’s closure, we, therefore, recommend that a time frame be established…which could be on the order of a million years or more.”
The choice of a 10,000-year span is arbitrary—indeed, it has more to do with the impossibility of predicting the future than it has to do with the half-life of the radioactive waste that will be stored at Yucca Mountain. No one can say whether there will even be human beings in 10,000 years’ time; 10,000 years ago, there was no written language, no civilization.
While he learns about the Yucca Mountain proposal, d’Agata continues to investigate Las Vegas. He learns that while the city projects the dream of pleasure and luxury, statistics suggest that it is one of the least happy places in America. It has more suicides per capita than any other city, more smokers, teenage drug addicts, drunk-driving arrests, bankruptcies, divorces, and high-school dropouts. And yet its public image remains untarnished. D’Agata quotes from a Time
article which crowns Las Vegas “the New All-American City.”
Intrigued by the suicide rate, in particular, d’Agata takes a volunteer position at a suicide hotline. In training, he is told never to ask a caller “Why?” D’Agata speaks to dozens of suicidal people. One day, he learns that Levi Presley, a teenage boy has killed himself by jumping from the top of the Stratosphere, Las Vegas’s tallest hotel and casino complex. D’Agata suspects that he spoke to Presley shortly before his death, and he becomes obsessed with the “Why?” of Presley’s suicide. He speaks to the boy’s friends and family, trying to understand his decision.
Meanwhile, D’Agata learns that the Yucca Mountain site is terrifyingly unsuitable to store nuclear waste. The site sits on a geological fault line; its rock is porous, and there is no access route to it which doesn’t pass through a major city. As D’Agata points out, on a 10,000-year timescale (or longer), these accidents waiting to happen will
happen. To go ahead with such a scheme amounts to an act of national suicide.
He asks a nuclear waste consultant, Bob Halstead, what happens to Las Vegas in the event of an accident at the proposed storage site. “We’d forfeit Las Vegas to the desert,” Halstead explains. “The city would no longer exist.” To d’Agata, who has been exploring the city in-depth, this is an amazing declaration. He sets out a lengthy list of the realities it contains: “every traffic lamp and bulb and post…every sidewalk square and concrete curb…every newspaper stand…every call girl ad.” And yet, on a 10,000-year timescale (or longer), the chances are that all these things will be lost anyway, nuclear accident or no.
The book culminates in d’Agata’s account of a crucial problem with the Yucca Mountain proposal. Not only must the site itself remain secure for at least 10,000 years, the warning system must also remain in place for that length of time. This is a tricky problem because language changes. Even symbolic representations won’t necessarily remain decipherable.
An expert committee has been assembled to tackle this problem, and d’Agata describes their proposed solutions, which involve creating viscerally disturbing puzzles for our unimaginable descendants to solve. One proposal is to create around the mountain an “unwelcoming and uninhabitable” wasteland of black basalt. Another is “an echoing aural effect from a series of stone sculptures that would be carved to emit a single pitch in the wind.” For d’Agata, these efforts push at the limits of meaning and our capacity to make meanings: “We must find ourselves, the panel says, having an experience: an essaying into the purpose of what’s apparently purposeless, an essaying that tries desperately to cull significance from the place, but an essaying, says the panel, that must ultimately fail.”
It is on this note that the book comes uneasily to rest. Like Levi Presley’s suicide, Yucca Mountain presents an unsolvable problem, or as d’Agata puts it: “I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to—a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world—and still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.”