Nuclear revival skirts pesky issue of waste disposal

I'm an environmentalist, but not of the self-hating ilk who detests any and all human effects on the earth.

Eco-diehards are automatically opposed to most forms of development, industry, technology, large-scale agriculture. For these folks, even many passive forms of outdoor recreation, traditionally linked with environmentalism, are frowned upon.

Rather than view environmental questions through a strict ideological lens, a pragmatic approach would be to consider each issue on its merits. Weigh the pros and cons and eliminate the hypocrisy, and you might find that not all development, industry, technology and agriculture is bad.

It's possible to hug trees and appreciate the benefits of the industrial revolution at the same time.

In this light, nuclear power creates an interesting problem. For environmental ideologues, nuclear power is absolutely out of the question. Nightmare visions of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island eliminate even the remote possibility that nuclear power could ever be an acceptable enterprise. Yet a fairly compelling case can be made that nuclear power is more "green" than traditional methods of generating electricity.

Unlike coal and natural gas power plants, nuclear facilities do not generate greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

What's worse for the environment: global warming or the fairly low risk of a nuclear plant meltdown? It's a question that some pragmatically inclined environmentalists are asking these days.

The Bush administration is pushing for construction of new nuclear power plants, and the nuclear industry, which hasn't built a new plant in years, is playing the trendy green card in an effort to sway a skeptical public. Earlier this month, the Nuclear Energy Institute opportunistically came out in support of federal legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, arguing, of course, that nuclear power is the best method to make this happen and is therefore deserving of billions in government subsidies.

Last month, the authors of the best-selling book "Freakonomics" wrote an essay for The New York Times magazine (reprinted in last Sunday's Review-Journal) suggesting that nuclear power is poised to make a big comeback -- if Hollywood doesn't resort to a new round of fear-mongering. The anti-nuke movement of the late '70s was fueled, they point out, by the popular Jane Fonda movie "The China Syndrome."

But the Achilles' heel of all this newfound enthusiasm for nuclear power's greenness should be particularly evident to Nevadans.

What about the waste?

Conveniently, the "Freakonomics" authors, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, make only a passing mention of the waste problem. But the reality is that the thousands of tons of deadly radioactive material generated by nuclear plants seriously diminish the "green" tag.

To hear nuclear advocates talk these days, you'd think the waste issue had been solved, that it's old news not worthy of being brought to the fore. The NEI's lengthy "policy position" on greenhouse gases, which highlighted nuclear power's absence of air pollution, failed to acknowledge the counterbalancing solid pollutants created by the fission process.

Nevadans know better. After all, Nevada is where the nuclear industry and its lapdogs in the U.S. Department of Energy intend to bury the waste.

And Nevadans know that plans to dump the waste beneath Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, are laced with problems and risks. Managers of the proposed nuclear waste repository have done a miserable job over the years of building public confidence in their ability to safely store the waste for centuries.

Further, Nevadans know that transporting all this waste through 43 states is fraught with peril from accidents and terrorists.

For many years, the plan was to bury a total of 77,000 metric tons of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain. But the DOE recently revealed that it wants to build a dump that can hold 135,000 metric tons of waste. As Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., noted at the time, "Doubling the size of Yucca Mountain will only double the danger."

But think about it: If the nuclear industry succeeds in building several dozen more plants, it will need even more storage space in Nevada for its radioactive refuse. Basically, it would never stop coming.

One could argue that nuclear power -- even considering the waste -- is better for the environment than coal-fired power plants that befoul the air, create acid rain and accelerate global warming. That certainly is the argument gaining favor with the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Not being irrationally afraid of nuclear power, I have been tempted by this argument in recent months.

But for those pondering this position, don't conveniently forget that the waste issue remains unsolved, and that it is not a minor problem. Experts have yet to dream up anything more sensible than burying the waste in a porous, earthquake-prone mountain. And they still haven't come up with a convincing plan to keep the deadly waste out of contact with living beings for at least 10,000 years.

One more thing: Critics of renewable energies such as solar, wind and geothermal typically complain that these projects require massive taxpayer subsidies to be economically viable. But nuclear plants are no different, requiring the same huge subsidies to get off the ground.

If American taxpayers are going to spend billions to increase the nation's power capacity, why not invest the money in renewable projects that don't have nuclear's inherent drawbacks?

On balance, nuclear may beat coal, but solar beats nuclear hands down.


Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.