It's an old joke, but it's still true: More Americans were killed by Ted Kennedy's car than by nuclear power. Washington's about to have another big debate about nuclear power, and amid all of the inevitable fearmongering and hysteria, you should keep that joke in mind.
The reason for the debate is President Bush's recommendation to Congress to designate Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. I recently visited Yucca Mountain and the only thing uncontroversial I can report to you is that it is a big hole in the ground; a big, expensive hole in the ground. Beyond that, opinions differ.
My opinion is that it's a perfectly good place to store nuclear waste for 50 to 300 years, though it's designed to hold it - quite safely, thank you - for at least 10,000 years.
Now I know, Nevadans don't want the nation's nuclear garbage in their back yard. I have sympathy for them. As in many Western states, Nevada feels like it gets the shaft from the East Coast. Indeed, roughly 95 percent of the waste intended for Yucca Mountain will originate east of the Mississippi.
The federal government owns 87 percent of Nevada's land and it has a history of being an arrogant landlord. Heck, it detonated some 800 nuclear bombs on Nevada. That'd tick off anybody.
But that's as far as my sympathies go. Federalism, after all, is a pretty thin reed for Nevadans to stand their opposition on. Yucca Mountain is already federal land (it sits adjacent to the Nevada Test Site and Ellis Air Force base, making it virtually terrorist proof). And it's not like Nevada is famous for opposing federal subsidies, roads and military bases.
Currently there are 103 nuclear power plants in 39 states, generating 20 percent of America's electricity and zero percent of greenhouse gasses. The radioactive waste from these plants - roughly 42,000 metric tons of it so far - is scattered in 131 different locations. Almost all of it is held in "temporary" holding facilities. By law - and good conscience - the feds need to find a permanent home for it.
The National Academy of Sciences, which has signed off on the Yucca Mountain plan, has reiterated time and again that the best place to keep this stuff is in a geologic repository. One day, we'll be able to send it into the sun or render it benign with a few squirts from an eyedropper. But for right now, burying nuclear waste deep underground away from people and water is, according to scientists and engineers from all around the world, the best solution.
Environmental and anti-nuclear groups say they favor geologic storage, too, but just not at Yucca. They've been denouncing the project as a "geologically unstable" white elephant. They've been particularly eager to scare the bejeebers out of Nevada residents, telling them that it's not a matter of if there will be a major disaster, but when.
The reason for all of this nonsense is simple. If we don't put nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain, it will probably mean the end of the nuclear power industry in the United States (which is why the utilities are spending lots of money in favor Yucca).
No nuclear plant has been built since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Power companies want to build new reactors, but nobody's going to finance or license them until the nation figures out where to dump our nuclear garbage. If Yucca is killed, it could take 20 or 30 years to find another viable (but less qualified) site.
Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been leading the anti-Yucca fight in Congress. His latest desperation ploy is to try to scare the rest of America the way Yucca opponents have scared Nevadans. He's doing this by claiming that the waste packages used to transport spent fuel are "mobile Chernobyls." Reid and others leave out the fact that there have been more than 3,000 waste transports in the United States since 1964 without a single radioactive spill. (By the way, nuclear waste doesn't actually "spill." Before shipping it is processed into a hard, dry ceramic.)
These waste containers have been cooked in aviation fuel, dropped onto unyielding concrete and plunged onto steel spikes, and they have come through with flying colors. These are not the (very dangerous) tanker trucks you see on the highway or on train cars.
And, even if one did spill its cargo, it wouldn't be the horror story it's made out to be. You could stand a half mile from the very worst waste and get less additional radiation than you do from the cosmic rays we're all exposed to every day. You'd get a lot more extra radiation from living in Spokane, Wash. - where there's lots of radon - or from moving to a high-altitude city like Denver.
Nuclear waste is dangerous. But so are coal and oil. Thousands of early deaths, for example, can be attributed to respiratory diseases associated with smokestacks. Opposing Yucca Mountain, or nuclear power in general, because you're afraid of radioactivity isn't an informed position. It's a sign of scientific illiteracy.