MORRIS: Nuclear Waste and Personal Responsibility

These days, the phrases "personal responsibility" and "local control" dominate the political rhetoric. So explain to me, if you will, why Congress has overwhelmingly voted to dump the nation's nuclear waste in Nevada? Nevada, after all, has no nuclear reactors. Its population is passionately opposed to being dumped on. No overriding national security reason justifies this tyrannical exercise in governmental authority.The nuclear industry fears that if those of us who use electricity generated from nuclear plants were forced to become responsible for our own wastes, we would vote to shut these plants down. I expect they're right.No technology is guaranteed a perpetual right to be in the marketplace. Every product should be priced to take into account its full costs, including the disposal of its wastes. Rapidly phasing out nuclear plants would raise the price of electricity in some regions by a small amount, and lower rates by an equally small amount in those communities now burdened by high priced nuclear reactors. The lights would not go out. The stock market would not collapse. Most of us would never even notice the change.Proponents of sending all our radioactive wastes to Nevada argue that this is safer than storing them at several dozen reactor sites in 31 states. The argument is weak. The proposed centralized storage system will be no safer than on-site systems because it will rely on the same concrete cask storage technology. And centralized storage will require an almost continuous stream of cross-country shipments of the most lethal material ever invented by the human species -- some 60,000 casks via train and truck traveling across 43 states just to eliminate the existing stockpile of nuclear detritus. And we generate another 2,000 tons every year.Environmentalists have dubbed the proposed system "Mobile Chernobyl", with good reason. In 1995 alone, 12,712 incidents involving hazardous materials released from trucks and 1330 from rail cars, writes Nurith C. Aizenman of the Washingotn Monthly. One study by the General Accounting Office, according to In These Times, says that more than 300 "accidents" can be expected involving the shipment of this high level nuclear waste.Last spring, railroad unions tried to strike Union Pacific over safety concerns, but were stopped by a court order. More recently, UP, now the country's largest railroad company, has fallen into such a state of disarray that it has "lost" individual rail cars. Meanwhile, the federal government is getting out of the safety oversight business. From 1992 to 1995 the percentage of railroad cars inspected for hazardous materials safety by the Federal Railroad Administration fell from 34 percent to 21 percent.Many scientists support keeping the nuclear wastes temporarily where they are. The argue that the longer we store radioactive wastes, the "cooler" and safer they become for transport. The half life of some of the most lethal radionuclides is 20 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission insists that existing dry casks are good for 100 years. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, the non-partisan scientific oversight body for the nation's high level waste program found no reason to pursue interim storage now.Frustrated by federal efforts to site a permanent nuclear waste repository, in part because of rigorous environmental safeguards, Congress has designated the proposed site "temporary" and used that designation to justify weakening environmental and safety regulations. The President promises to veto the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997, but Congress may have the votes to override a veto.I'm sure that our politicians believe that their self-serving votes reflect the desires of their constituents. Maybe they're right. I hope not. I think we're bigger than that.If "personal responsibility" means only that poor people must do without federal assistance, and if "local control" means only that states have the right to weaken federal environmental regulations, then those terms will be viewed less as guiding principles than as justifications for the rich and powerful to do what they want to do anyway. If we can override the wishes of a non-polluting community and force them to take our lethal wastes simply as a matter of convenience, then these terms become empty and meaningless.In a democracy, the majority can impose its will on a minority. That power must be exercised with great caution. In the case of nuclear wastes, that has not been the case. Convenience has triumphed over caution. And in doing so, it has illiminated the gap between today's lofty political rhetoric and its much baser policy reality.


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