August 26, 2006

Is Yucca Mountain Fair?

I really liked this post over at Alas, a Blog on whether storing all of the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain constitutes an "acceptable risk" or not. Basically, there are two different ways of looking at this question. Scientists and geologists can get together, look at the details, and determine whether or not it's relatively safe to store nuclear waste at the site. For most people, it's hard to enter this debate without getting mired in a morass of technical questions.

(Personally, I've been convinced by a friend who has studied this issue in depth that there are still a lot or problems with the Yucca proposal. I'd just add the rather banal observation that planning for 10,000 years is a task that borders on the absurd. Less than 10,000 years ago a bunch of people built a bunch of pyramids with warnings about Egyptian curses should anyone trespass. Explorers since then have, of course, disregarded those warnings and entered the pyramids. Whose to say our warnings won't be shrugged off in a similar fashion a few millennia from now?)

But there's also a fairness question at issue with Yucca Mountain that gets less play. Why, after all, should Nevada of all places be the state to hold the nation's nuclear waste (especially since the country doesn't have any nuclear reactors)? In practice, the Department of Energy was ordered to consider Yucca—and Yucca only—for a storage facility back in 1987 because the congressional delegation from Nevada was fairly junior at the time. (Another proposal, if I recall, was to build pyramids out of nuclear waste in Texas, but that was squashed by Texas lawmakers.)

That procedural unfairness, among other things, is what concerns many of those opposed to the Yucca repository. So when supporters say that Yucca makes sense and cite this and that scientific study, they're talking past their opponents in many ways. But whether there's ever an acceptable way to decide the fairness question (someone, after all, has to bear the risks of nuclear waste-storage) is unclear. The D.C. Circuit Court very recently ruled that Yucca was chosen by a fair process, but regardless of whether the opinion's correct or not, it certainly hasn't changed any minds in Nevada.

Anyway, I certainly don't know how to settle this, but I thought I'd mention the curious tale of how France is dealing with these questions. French people tend to trust nuclear power much more than Americans do. A Frontline report found that this might be because, to generalize a bit, French people trust their scientists and technocrats more than we do. France is also much more reliant on nuclear energy than the United States, so even though the French public is just as wary of the dangers of nuclear power as we are, they're more accepting of it.

But the question of storing nuclear waste has still been extremely contentious in France. People living in rural areas don't like the idea of their countryside becoming a dump for radioactive waste—partly because it conflicted with traditional ideas about desecrating the earth and the like. But French politicians have recently changed their rhetoric and announced that they only planned to stock the nuclear waste temporarily—and watch over it—rather than bury it and forget about it, and the public has become, reportedly, more receptive to the idea. So making a concerted effort to address those fairness concerns can sway popular opinion to some extent.
-- Brad Plumer 6:55 PM || ||