Nuclear Waste in Our Backyard

Whenever the subject of nuclear waste comes up in American politics, Nevada is quick to proclaim, “not in my backyard.” Recently, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn used a federal law to veto President Bush’s order to build a permanent waste storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Last week, the House Energy Committee agreed to override that veto. When the full House votes next week, it too should override the veto.

Many Nevadans reject responsibility for the nation’s nuclear waste because they utilize a high percentage of renewable energy sources, mainly hydroelectric power from the Hoover Dam. However, the entire nation benefits from the use of nuclear power. Yucca Mountain is a logical choice for waste storage as it is in one of the nation’s most sparsely populated and geologically stable regions. Nevadans’ primary concern is safety. But the waste is sealed in steel and concrete armor designed to withstand serious trauma for more than 1,000 years—when conceivably a future generation would replace the armor or breakdown the waste. Radiation does not escape from these tombs.

Optimally, much more of the energy consumed in the U.S. would come from renewable resources. However, much of the necessary technology, such as efficient fuel cells, is still under development. The costs of a rapid conversion to solar or hydrogen production would likely cause an energy price shock that would seriously dampen the economy. But the present American system of electricity production is archaic. While 10 percent comes from renewable resources—mostly hydroelectric—and 20 percent is nuclear, 70 percent is from burning fossil fuels

America’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels is alarming. Pollution from these fuels is a known cause of acid rain, a contributor to serious health problems and perhaps a cause of global warming. Moreover, America’s foreign oil demands severely restrict the range of U.S. foreign policy options in the Middle East. Nuclear technology is the right energy production method for the shift away from fossil fuels while renewable energy technology remains unfeasible. Of course, expanded nuclear production should not be a license to waste energy; conservation efforts should be used to maintain energy demand at present levels.

Nuclear power plants do not pollute our environment. While they produce radioactive wastes, these wastes are contained and manageable. The nuclear power industry takes full responsibility for all its wastes and includes waste management costs in the price of its product. In contrast, fossil fuel plants—while cleaner than in the past—simply dump their waste products into the atmosphere.

Some people are scared of nuclear power, the resulting nuclear waste, and the possibility of both meltdowns and terrorist attacks on a plant. These concerns are legitimate but less terrifying and less likely than inevitable environmental pollution and health problems from fossil fuels.

Meltdowns are far less likely due to reforms after the Three Mile Island incident—a partial meltdown in 1979. When properly managed, nuclear waste can be contained and stored safely for millennia. Some countries, such as France, have already made nuclear power the cornerstone of their electricity production.

There is, and always has been, a potential for terrorist attacks against the nuclear industry. While hefty reactor shielding mitigates the danger of an attack, a breech could release deadly levels of radioactivity to plant employees and those nearby. But the problem is the existence of terrorism, not of nuclear power. Equal or greater dangers are posed by attacks on large dams, poisoning open-air watersheds or attacking our society’s vulnerable dependence on computer, electricity, and phone networks. To be free from terrorism, we would have to sacrifice modernity itself.

If anything, building a waste containment facility deep in Yucca Mountain would remove tons of nuclear waste from several temporary surface storage facilities around the country. These facilities are an easier target than the small amounts of waste hidden on trains or trucks crossing to Nevada. Also, the radioactivity of nuclear waste is so reduced before transport that radiation released from the much-feared truck or rail accident would not endanger anyone who simply walked away from the accident.

The U.S. must reassess its methods of energy production for the 21st century. People in any region of the country should be willing to accept nuclear waste in their own backyard so that America can be secure in its energy needs and protect the environment

Michael J.W. Hines ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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