In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post (March 26, 2002), Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham argues for moving radioactive wastes from throughout the country to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, something the people of Nevada are fighting tooth and nail. So confident is the Energy Secretary that he promises: “Someone living 11 miles away from the site 10,000 years from now would be less exposed to radiation than he would be on a normal plane flight from Las Vegas to New York.” Of course, neither Secretary Abraham nor any of proponents of this storage site will be around 10,000 years from now to see if their prediction is correct. They just ask for our trust on behalf of the next 400 generations of humans on this planet.
Secretary Abraham also appeals to our sense of patriotism when he argues that the “project is critical for national security.” Why? Because we’re going to have to get rid of the spent fuel from nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines if we’re going to keep using them. And that’s not all. Burying the wastes in Nevada is also critical to our “energy security” because nuclear power “emits no airborne pollution or greenhouse gasses and now gives us one of the cheapest forms of power generation we have.” First of all, hasn’t this administration been telling us that greenhouse gasses are not something to be worried about and we should just forget the Kyoto Accords that the rest of the world supports? Second, this cheap form of power is actually highly subsidized by the taxpayers in the form of the research and development, liability limits set by Congress, and perpetual taxpayer care of the wastes.
Mr. Abraham leaves out of his discussion the 50 million Americans who will be subject to the effects of nuclear accidents when these large amounts of nuclear wastes start hitting our highways and railways. One study predicted that property damage alone could be over $9 billion per square mile when radiation is released after a truck or train accident carrying these high-level nuclear wastes. A far better solution to the nuclear waste problem is to convert it into dry cask storage and keep it on site at nuclear power plants until a solution can be found that won’t place large numbers of Americans at risk of exposure to high-level nuclear wastes.
Mr. Abraham says the science is sound, but this includes reports of seismic activities in the region. There are also more than 250 scientific studies that remain to be completed. The critics of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository do not oppose single site storage as Abraham suggests. Rather, they oppose a premature and irreversible decision that will affect future generations for thousands of years.
Secretary Abraham was right about one thing. Nuclear wastes are a problem that won’t just go away and “it’s our responsibility to solve it.” We might have thought more about that responsibility before we began our mad effort to build nuclear bombs and power plants. Now, we had better think about future generations before we follow the advice of Mr. Abraham and commit ourselves to a “solution” that may be not only wrong but irreversible.
If nuclear waste storage is as safe as Mr. Abraham believes it is, it is strange that no one, including him, has suggested burying it under the Congress, the White House, or the Energy Department.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.