ONE of the oldest lobbying tactics of special interests is to create the appearance of a crisis and then run to the federal government to seek a bailout. The nation's nuclear utilities are using that tactic to the hilt in their effort to dump their radioactive wastes on an unwilling community. As a result, millions of Americans could wake up to find high-level nuclear waste rolling down their local highways.
The atomic industry's message to Congress is simple: Come take out our toxic garbage, so that we can continue making more of it. However, the industry offers no real solution, just a quick political fix. Shifting the radioactive-waste mess from one place to another will not solve the problem; it will make it worse.
Commercial nuclear reactors have generated about 22,000 tons of highly irradiated waste in the United States, which will remain hazardous for 250,000 years. The industry and the government have found no safe way of isolating the toxic substances from the environment for this period of time.
Oddly enough, those trying to foster a crisis atmosphere have shown little inclination to curb the creation of the hazardous substances. Experience has demonstrated that the best form of environmental protection is pollution prevention. Using energy more efficiently and substituting cleaner, safer renewable technologies such as wind and solar for polluting nuclear and fossil fuels would prevent the creation of nuclear wastes to begin with.
The nuclear utilities, however, continue generating their toxins and lobbying the federal government to move the trash into somebody else's backyard. The industry is targeting Nevada, a sparsely populated state with only four representatives in Congress -- and no nuclear power plants -- for an ''interim storage facility.'' In blatant disregard for the state's right to protect the health and safety of its citizens, the nuclear lobbyists seek to override opposition from Nevadans and ram a dump down their throats.
But Nevada is far from the only state that would be affected by this plan. Forty-five states lie on transportation routes that nuclear waste would take if it were moved from reactors (the great majority of which are east of the Mississippi) to a Nevada dump.
Shipping large quantities of irradiated fuel from points across the country to a centralized facility raises serious concerns. Not only do transportation accidents pose the risk of radioactive contamination, injury, and death, but even accident-free transport of highly radioactive materials risks exposing people along transport routes to radiation.
WHAT should be done with radioactive wastes? They should stay where they are for now, remaining the responsibility of the corporations that created them. Meanwhile, the US needs to ''reinvent'' its deeply flawed waste-management program and seek an alternative that is justified by sound science, not politics. The nuclear utilities argue that the federal government owes them a bailout, since they have been paying ratepayer dollars into the Department of Energy's Nuclear Waste Fund. However, the fund was established to pay for a permanent solution to the waste mess, not for interim storage. All of the fund's money, and more, will be needed for a permanent repository, when one is established.
Current policy in Congress calls for investigating the suitability of a site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a permanent underground repository. Unfortunately, politics, not science, has driven the site selection and characterization processes. Concerned that the site cannot meet environmental standards for high-level waste, the nuclear industry and its allies in Congress have endeavored to change the standards to fit the site.
Congress should reject the plea of nuclear utilities for corporate-welfare legislation and seek a long-term solution to the radioactive waste problem -- not a political quick fix.