Needed: a sensible policy on nuclear waste

THE Department of Energy made public Jan. 16 a list of 12 sites in the Eastern United States that would be considered, along with three previously selected Western sites, as candidates for federal seizure of 20,000 acres on which to build a nuclear-waste repository. The dump for which these 15 sites were candidates was to be a supplementary facility, built after an initial waste dump in the West. The public outcry was immense, however, and on May 28, the federal government announced that it had ``indefinitely postponed'' the selection of a site for the second dump. There was no need for a second repository, government officials explained.

For those Eastern sites that had fought off the federal government and the nuclear industry over this issue, the response was jubilation. In the West, the response was a fresh round of lawsuits charging the government with making scientific decisions on political grounds.

The idea that nuclear power is here to stay, as government officials have insisted, would appear to contradict the current assurances that a second repository is unneeded.

All uses of nuclear power produce waste, and a repository can be only so big.

Citizens have rejected not only the policy of burying nuclear waste, but also vague assurances of protection, compensation for land taken, and the ``carrot'' of a handful of temporary jobs. Though Energy Department officials insisted that an emotional response would not sway their decisionmaking, it became obvious to people involved that emotion combined with data was indeed the key to forcing the department to back down.

It is this lesson that the Western sites will doubtless take away with them. The reason that emotion was so effective, and that labeling the termination of an Eastern site is anything but political is ridiculous, is that the emotion was genuinely spontaneous and because it cut across all political ideologies, all income levels, and all life styles.

In short, citizens were appalled that their government could create a policy that would treat a matter of almost inconceivable danger in a fashion both casual and callous as they prepared to play watchdog over substances that would be dangerous for tens of thousands of years. It is all the more troubling, given that once the waste has been sealed beneath the surface it can never be retrieved.

That the waste ``must be buried somewhere'' is a generally accepted notion. But the truth of the matter is that research and development of alternative methods of nuclear waste disposal -- such as converting waste that will be radioactive for tens of thousands of years to another, shorter-lived form of radioactivity -- has been abandoned as too expensive if nuclear power plants are to operate on a commercially viable basis.

If this sounds chillingly familiar, it should remind people that it was the push for the commercial use of an experimental technology that gave us the recent shuttle disaster we witnessed on television so recently.

Businesses have long preferred simply to dump dangerous and unwanted substances. But legal as well as illegal dumpings have come back to haunt us. Garbage dumped in our oceans has found its way to our shorelines; chemical toxins dumped in landfills have surfaced in our water supplies. When we couldn't dump our dangerous garbage beneath the surface, we've thrown it into the air, creating acid rain. All these experiences teach the same lesson: The idea that one finite world could simultaneously function as a toxic waste dump and a living environment is fundamentally flawed.

It should be especially evident to the Environmental Protection Agency that it is ludicrous to pursue a policy of nuclear burial when a safe method of burying chemical toxins has yet to be developed. But it's not the EPA that is overseeing the permanent disposal of material presenting the greatest environmental threat ever invented. Instead, it's the Energy Department, whose responsibilities also include promoting nuclear power.

Nuclear waste is not a local issue or a state issue. It goes beyond national borders to embrace every country that produces it and every single citizen of this world who realizes that clean air and clear water should be a birthright.

No proven method for the safe disposal of nuclear waste exists, and none is currently being explored. And there is, at present, no member of Congress prepared to lead a movement to rescind the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that gave the Energy Department such absolute power over our collective future.

The bottom line here must be the environment itself. The disaster of Chernobyl demonstrates vividly that in the case of nuclear power, one country's mistake quickly becomes the entire world's problem.

If we are to survive, not as a nation but as a race, we will have to come to the realization that cost-benefit factors and profit motives cannot be equated with the natural biological processes required to preserve the environment, of which man is only one small and highly dependent part.

This is the only planet in our universe we are certain can support human life. If we destroy the environment that supports us, where will we go?

Toni Seger is a free-lance writer living in Maine, one of the areas affected by the Department of Energy's list of potential waste-dump sites.

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