Nuclear NIMBY

Long after Enron is forgotten as the political issue of 2002, future historians will note a decision made last week by US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

He formally recommended that 70,000 tons of radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear power plants be disposed below Yucca Mountain in Nevada, for the rest of its natural half-life.

The decision sets a clock ticking for other necessary decisions to be made by Nevada's governor, then the president, and finally Congress, as each is handed this hot potato under a sequence of steps.

Nuclear-waste disposal has been on America's agenda for four decades, with delay after delay only leaving more and more nuclear waste being stored temporarily in near-capacity power plants.

Mr. Abraham's move will hopefully be the beginning of the end of this critical debate.

Even if no new nuclear plants are built, the federal government agreed at the outset of the nuclear age that it would take responsibility for waste storage. It was supposed to have opened a facility in 1998. Even if the Yucca site is approved this year, it wouldn't be ready for use until 2010 at the earliest.

Why such a drawn-out process?

As sparsely populated as Nevada is, its governor and US senators still pack some political punch. And unlike, say, the problem of suburban sprawl around Vegas, Nevadans don't want their state to be a "hot" property for tens of thousands of years.

Beyond these concerns is the question of whether the proposal facility can remain leak-proof, especially since it lies in a seismic zone. Any leakage might leach into ground water.

An added point of contention is the possible vulnerability of such wastes to terrorist attack. Mr. Abraham argues that centralized storage will make security much easier than using multiple sites spread across the US. His critics counter that the constant transport of nuclear waste to a central site, passing through populated areas, will greatly increase opportunities for terrorists.

Yucca, for now, is the best among poor choices. The question of disposal was of little concern decades ago when nuclear power was promised as a cheap and clean fuel. But now the waste must go somewhere. The nuclear plants that supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity aren't closing down any time soon.

Yucca Mountain has been the sole site under serious consideration for well over a decade now. The federal government has already spent $6 billion analyzing the pros and cons.

It's time to move forward.

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