States' rights and nuclear-waste disposal

By , Alan McGowan is president of the Scientists' Institute for Public Information.

By now it is clear to everyone that, regardless of the future, or even the present, of nuclear power, the nuclear waste problem must be solved. And it is unconscionable to delay.

For one thing, the military waste -- larger in volume if not radioactive content than any other such waste until the end of this century -- will continue to exist and demands some solution; for another, there is already in existence a considerable pile of nuclear waste which implies a similar demand for solution.

Although it may be a bit early to tell, there does not seem to be any insurmountable technical problem associated with separating nuclear waste from the biosphere for long periods of time. Problems abound, but all seem likely to succumb to vigorous attack by the scientific and technological communities. It is true, however, that the more closely the scientific community looks at the issue, the more problems arise. Bedded salt repositories,for 25 years the most efficacious disposal sites, according to conventional wisdom, were discovered upon close examination to have as many potential problems as the alternatives. All will be carefully considered and tested in the next few years; a testimony, at long last, to the value of diversity. We have not seen the end of technical controversies on this issue by a long shot.

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However, the nation's nuclear-waste problem is even more importantly a political problem, exacerbated by the fact that it received relatively little intellectual attention, scientific or otherwise, for 25 years.

For that unforgivably long time it was treated as a purely engineering problem, with those involved in it showing no understanding of the particular political sensitivity of the issue. Indeed, politicians were, almost without exception, insensitive to the nuclear waste issue during this period.

In retrospect, it is hard to believe we ignored the fact that people demand more from something that is going to be around for a thousand years than from something that is going to be around for just 30. And people really do care about one another. They do not want to poison their neighbors' wells or do anything that would harm their grandchildren. The lack of a demonstrated solution to the problem of nuclear waste was viewed not as an example of technological inattention -- which was only partially the reason in any case -- but rather as a result of the human inappropriateness of any solution developed to date. It did not take much for some people to come to the conclusion that no appropriate solution was possible.

However, people are also capable of listening to reason. And that is the challenge. More than just the nuclear program rides on this one -- the future of our technological civilization will be more than casually influenced by how successfully we can unravel this technological and political snarl. Settling the nuclear waste issue does not assure the future of nuclear power. But it can have a dramatic influence on it, as well as every other technical issue or problem.

That this is true speaks not only of the peculiar political sensitivity of the issue itself, but also of the many other issues and problems in the US society upon which it touches. State's rights, federalism, the adequacy of the decisional process, and the role of the scientist or other highly regarded professional in politics are but a few of the fundamental questions the nuclear waste issue affects. All of them will require searching analysis as this country and the world of which it is a part race toward the 21st century.

The rugged pride of revolutionaries whose deep wisdom founded this country and wrote the documents on which its life has depended for two hundred years gave the responsibility to working out specific details to future generations. This trust, perhaps unique in human history, has thus far been justified. It is currently meeting its stiffest test.

Federalism is perhaps the most perplexing issue, if not the most fundamental. Although it is true that we are citizens of a state, we are more fundamentally citizens of our nation. Fifty percent of middle-class America will be living in a different state five years from now, but not in a different nation. And if nuclear power is an important issue, it is an important nationalm issue, even for those states that get no electric power from nuclear fission. If all nuclear plants were to shut down immediately, for example, the increased demand would most probably drive up the price of coal for everyone,m not to mention the cost of oil.

And yet, in order to redress grievances and atone for past sins, we are about , it seems, to give states at least de facto if not de jure, veto power over the siting of a nuclear waste repository. Such a development, although it might seem attractive at present, creates more problems than it solves. And it really doesn't solve any problems, except in the very short term. If it is possiblem for a governor or state legislature to exercise veto power over such a controversial issue as siting a dump for dangerous materials, there will be enormous pressure on them to do so.

Effect of this "solution" would be to ask the states to resolve a national problem. Although there is some evidence that this is possible -- Massachusetts , for example, has just taken the lead in developing sites for a regional low level nuclear waste repository -- it puts the onus on the wrong entity. If it is a national problem, the responsibility belongs to the federal government.

Even more importantly, this "solution" dodges the issue of the adequacy of the decisional process itself. The real issue is not whether state governments agree to the siting of a nuclear waste repository, but whether the people and their elected representatives do. Both the people near the proposed site and the people of the nation have a right through their various governmental agencies to be assured that the decision was the correct one, and that those that so desired had opportunity for some influence in the matter. None of this is accomplished by giving the states veto power. In fact, it works against such a solution.

No, this issue must be joined directly between the people of the United States and the federal government, not by a national referendum but by a decisional process that assures everyone of its adequacy and fairness. To do otherwise would place formidable barriers in the way of the resolution of future environmental/technological issues.

We are presently moving into a time of great difficulty in regard to hazardous waste facilities, for example. The success or lack thereof of the resolution of the nuclear waste issue is going to greatly influence the success of other technological developments with strong economic and political implications. Once again, it is a question of political will combined with technological excellence, not technology alone.

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