Last week, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid celebrated victory.
For more than two decades, Reid has fought location of a high-level nuclear-waste repository at the Yucca Mountain site in his native Nevada. Now, with fellow Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, he believes the battle is won, at least for now.
“It’s over with —- Yucca Mountain is gone,” Reid said, citing Obama’s 2010 budget, which strips funds for building the depository.
But Reid’s victory —- testament to his power as Senate majority leader —- represents a setback for the nation. It is a victory of narrow, not-in-my-backyard politics at the expense of issues that are truly global and epic in scale: climate change and the safe storage of nuclear waste.
Yucca Mountain is admittedly not the perfect solution to storage of spent nuclear fuel. Given the incredibly long half-life of high-level waste —- it will remain dangerous for an estimated 10,000 years, roughly twice the length of recorded human history so far —- absolute confidence in a storage solution is impossible. Ice ages, earthquakes, climate changes, meteorite strikes —- even leaving mankind out of it, the number of things that could go wrong at any particular site over 10 millennia is enormous.
However, if Yucca Mountain is not the perfect answer, it is by all available evidence our best answer.
We as a society have made the decision to use nuclear power. A lot of Americans aren’t happy with that decision, but it is a decision that is not likely to be reversed. So we better deal with the consequences —- including the spent-fuel waste created by nuclear power —- as responsibly as possible.
Furthermore, the problem would remain even if we were to shut down every nuclear plant in the country and never build another one. If that happened, we would still need to store some 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel as safely as possible for what passes for eternity.
The Obama administration says it is reopening that question, forming a blue-ribbon panel to explore alternative storage strategies. But there’s no scientific reason to believe that will produce a solution other than long-term storage in an isolated desert area such as Yucca Mountain.
At best, after several more years and billions of dollars, the panel will come back to suggest an isolated desert area, but one that doesn’t happen to be represented by the Senate majority leader.
That has a lot of people upset, and for good reason. Without a long-term spent-fuel storage site, it becomes harder to responsibly address climate change, Obama’s top environmental priorities.
Conservation is the cleanest possible source of additional energy, and it’s underutilized in this country. Solar power, wind power and biofuels can make important contributions as well. “Clean coal” —- coal-fired electricity-generating plants that recapture Earth-warming carbon instead of dumping it into the atmosphere —- is a theoretical possibility with untested technology and economics.
That leaves nuclear power. It is costly to build and technically complicated, but unlike coal and natural gas, it does not produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Given the mathematics of energy use and growth, nuclear power inevitably will play a major role in addressing climate change.
But without a permanent storage facility, nuclear power becomes both more dangerous and more expensive.
Years ago, I worked as a journalist and editorial writer in Nevada. I know firsthand about the state’s intense opposition to serving as a nuclear waste depository and why it feels that way.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, when nuclear bombs were exploded above-ground at the Nevada Test Site, the government assured local residents of their safety. The explosions became a tourist attraction, drawing people from around the country, and a mushroom cloud was even incorporated into the local county government seal.
But years later, strange cancers began to appear. Questions began to be asked, and for a long time —- for far too long —- federal officials tried to suppress evidence that nuclear radiation had played a role. Eventually, after a hard fight, more than 10,000 “downwinders” with cancer won compensation from Washington.
Steven Chu, a Nobel-prize winning physicist appointed by Obama to serve as secretary of energy, no doubt understands both the science and the politics of the situation. Obama himself has emphasized the primacy of science in guiding decision-making. But on this one, he’s making a regrettable exception.