AUSTIN, Texas — Another bad idea. What are they, cheaper by the dozen? The Bush administration has decided to dump all the high-level nuclear waste in America into some yet-to-be excavated tunnels at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Insomuch as you ever think about nuclear waste (a topic I prefer to avoid on the grounds that it's depressing and scary — denial seems like a good tactic), you probably thought: "Good. Nevada. They'll like it there, and at least it won't be here."
Wrong on both counts. Not only are Nevadans predictably unhappy — and also seriously irate, because Bush promised during the campaign he would make the decision based on "the best science" — but this also brings nuclear garbage right past your front door. Or at least to the closest interstate highway.
Putting the nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain is Nevada's problem. Getting it there is ours. There are 131 nuclear plants dotted around the nation, not to mention assorted military facilities, where the really, really bad stuff is stored. So we're taking a 131-plus-point problem and making it a several-hundred-thousand-point problem. They're going to put the really, really bad stuff into trucks and railroad cars, and send it all to Yucca — so if you're anywhere between a nuclear power plant and Nevada, you have a problem.
Not only does that insanely escalate the chances for a terrorist attack — it's a lot easier to knock over a truck than it is to fly into a nuclear power plant — but it makes a nuclear transportation accident almost inevitable. How many trucks over how many highways over what period of time will produce one horrible truck crash? You can hardly drive from Laredo to Dallas on I-35 without seeing one anymore.
This is not one of those deals where any fool can say, "Here's a better idea ..." No one has ever had a good idea for getting rid of nuclear waste. As far anyone knows, it can't be gotten rid of. That's the problem, as those citizens who are less into denial than the rest of us have been pointing out for some time. So far, there has only been one useful suggestion on nuclear waste — let's stop creating more of it. Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney Energy Plan is not acquainted with the First Rule of Holes — they plan to keep digging. Their idea of a solution is to take an intractable problem and make it into a much bigger intractable problem.
Bush's "best science" campaign promise was pathetic, in retrospect. Yucca Mountain is in an earthquake zone and leaks. Among those who question its desirability as a repository site are the General Accounting Office, Bechtel, SAIC, the Department of Energy contractor on the site, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and Radioactive Waste Management Associates. (For details, see the website of the Safe Energy Communication Council, at www.safeenergy.org.)
Probably flying well under your radar screen was a move by Congress late last year compounding the problem still further. In late November, under a no-debate voice vote, the House of Representatives reauthorized an obscure thing called the Price-Anderson Act. Yes, the matter of campaign contributions did raise its ugly head once more.
The law limits the nuclear power industry's liability in the case of an accident. No other industry enjoys this federal protection. Price-Andersen requires that each plant carry only $200 million in insurance, with $9.1 billion for the entire industry. Unfortunately, Sandia National Labs has estimated the cost of one big reactor accident at over $500 billion.
Worse, the indirect subsidy created by Price-Andersen used to cover only regulated and public utilities. By contrast, any new nuclear power plants will be built by merchant generators — like Enron — competing in the newly deregulated markets. This gives them an added incentive to build cheap.
The Senate energy bill does not reauthorize Price-Anderson for commercial reactors. If the bill were to pass as it stands, existing reactors would continue to be covered but new ones would not. The anti-nuclear energy coalition is hoping the Senate version will become law, so that the risk of doing business will actually fall on commercial reactors, instead of taxpayers. But there's no guarantee.