By Michael Mariotte


If there is one issue most Congressmembers would just as soon hammer nails into their heads as actually address meaningfully, it’s radioactive waste.

It’s a no-win issue for most members: no one, including no one in their own districts, wants nuclear waste around. So their usual bet is to try to gang up on some other state (like, say, Nevada) and write laws to try to shove the waste off on it. Except when that doesn’t work (like, say, in Nevada) that can come back to haunt them, since next time their state may be the one ganged up on.

And even if they successfully gang up on a state for a while, there’s the little problem that the waste has to get from where it is to where it’s going. And that happens on our highways and railways, which–for very good reason–tend to go through our cities and towns. Getting the waste from where it is to Nevada, for example, means radioactive waste shipments–thousands of them–passing within about a half-mile of some 50 million Americans.

That’s a lot of voters. Voters who don’t want to be stuck in a traffic jam behind a truck carrying lethal nuclear waste. Voters who don’t want to look out their window and see a train pulling along deadly radioactive waste casks. Voters who were so pissed off at the transportation issue–known popularly as “Mobile Chernobyl”–in the 1990s that a New Mexico State University study found something like 26% of them were willing to commit civil disobedience to block the transports. That’s the number I testified to in follow-up questions to my appearance before the Senate Energy Committee on March 24, 1999 anyway.

To make the math easy: 25% of 50 million people is 12.5 million people. That would be, by a moonshot, the largest civil disobedience action in global history. And hey, some of those living further away, say a mile or so, might join in too.

In other words, for most Congressmembers, it’s a no-win issue. Sure, they might get some contributions from the nuclear industry to vote one way; but they might just get hammered by the voters anyway.

But a small cadre of Congressmembers however, like the Senate’s Lamar Alexander, can’t seem to get enough of the issue. And so it was Alexander, along with Energy Committee chair Lisa Murkowski (my 1999 testimony cited above was before the same committee when her father Frank was chair; nobility in America is not a fairy tale) and Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Maria Cantwell, leading the way on Tuesday in introducing the newest, latest, greatest radioactive waste legislation ever: S. 854.

Said Alexander, “If we want to continue to have low-cost, clean power from nuclear reactors, which today produce about 60 percent of our country’s emission-free electricity, then we have to have a place to put the used nuclear fuel. That means we need to end the stalemate over what to do with our country’s nuclear waste by finding a way to create both temporary and permanent storage sites that would complement other solutions,”

Added Murkowski, “This legislation is an important step toward advancing the use of nuclear power in America.”

While S. 854 hasn’t yet been posted online, we are happy to report that this newest, latest, greatest radioactive waste legislation ever is….actually, appears to be exactly the same as last year’s radwaste bill, S. 1240, that never even made it out of the Senate Energy Committee. As far as we can tell, only the bill number and date have changed. And Sen. Wyden, no longer chair of the Energy Committee, has been replaced as a co-sponsor by Cantwell. Both are concerned about the radioactive mess at Hanford, you see, and both would rather see that mess foisted on someone else than remain in their jurisdictions. The Hanford mess won’t be “cleaned up,” their only hope is that some of it can be moved to some other unsuspecting state.

While the Republican sponsors hailed the bill as necessary for the future of nuclear power, the Democratic sponsors focused on the bill’s consent provisions, which, while inadequate, provide a greater measure of community consent than did the 1987 “Screw Nevada” bill that forced the Department of Energy to focus only on the Yucca Mountain site as a possible waste dump.

Now that even the NRC staff can’t recommend that Yucca Mountain be licensed, obtaining a state’s and community’s consent is probably a pretty good idea. Of course, the community must know what it is consenting to and in this case, the bill fails completely–putting the consent before the horse as it were. The community would have to consent to the facility without knowing exactly what rules and regulations and environmental standards the facility would be required to meet.

The real purpose of the bill, as it was last session, is to get DOE moving on a “consolidated interim” storage site for the nation’s high-level radioactive waste. A temporary parking lot for casks chock full of some of the most lethal material mankind ever has devised. Great idea.

Not only would an “interim” site likely become permanent–because no one in their right mind actually wants a permanent site for this stuff in their backyard so once it gets moved somewhere who’s going to take it?–but if it weren’t permanent, then all that waste would have to be moved again. See above about those 12 and a half million people who said they’d be willing to commit civil disobedience to prevent the first round of shipments. A second round, perhaps after a few “minor” accidents? Could be quite a lot of people out there blocking the train tracks….

What’s most disappointing about the bill is that clearly, since nothing was changed, nothing has been learned over at the Senate Energy Committee. A lot of groups and a lot of people submitted comments to the Committee as it drafted that first bill, and then hearings were held on it with more substantive comments. And not a one was incorporated.

Of course, if it had been up to Sen. Alexander, the bill would have directed the opening of Yucca Mountain yesterday. A day after introducing the bill, Alexander told DOE Secretary Moniz at a hearing, “I should note that federal law designates one repository for our country’s used nuclear fuel, Yucca Mountain. After years of delay, I want to be clear: Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution to our nuclear waste stalemate.”

Somehow Alexander managed to work that into a statement once again blasting wind power…

As it is, the bill doesn’t directly address Yucca Mountain.

But Yucca clearly was on the mind of some critics, like former NEC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky, of the bill and the DOE’s entire radioactive waste program. By the way, the DOE, coincidentally or not, picked Tuesday to announce that it wants to separate the commercial and nuclear weapons-oriented radioactive waste programs, which so far have been rolled into one. Perhaps Cantwell should have held off putting her name on S. 854, since the commercial end of the bill is far more repugnant to her constituents than the Hanford end would be considered a plus.

Since nothing much has changed in the bill yet, and no hearings have been announced, here are a few links that may be helpful for those who want to delve more deeply into its substance:

*Official statement and summary of the bill by its sponsors.

*Statement by 100+ clean energy groups on the “consolidated interim storage” issue.

*Testimony of David Locbaum of Union of Concerned Scientists on S. 1240.

*Testimony of Geoff Fettus of Natural Resources Defense Council on S. 1240.

*NIRS page on Mobile Chernobyl.

Michael Mariotte

March 27, 2015 (Remember Three Mile Island. 36th anniversary is tomorrow. And if you’re not old enough to remember, learn about it for the first time)


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Filed under: Radioactive waste Tagged: civil disobedience, Lamar Alexander, Mobile Chernobyl, Murkowski, S. 854, Yucca Mountain

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