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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been called many things during his 22-year Senate career, but the name that sticks when the issue of nuclear power comes up is "NIMBY." That's because Reid has fought tirelessly to block construction of a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in his home state. There's a funny thing about his critics, though: Not one of them has ever suggested shipping the country's hazardous radioactive waste to his or her own state or district instead of Nevada.
The usual bleating about Reid's obstructionism and Nevadans' paranoia arose after the release of President Obama's proposed budget, which trims funding for the Yucca Mountain project to the minimum needed to keep the regulatory process involved in its construction alive -- a strong signal that there will be no further work done on the repository during Obama's term in office. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the administration is working on an alternative program that involves multiple interim and long-term waste storage facilities around the country.
When it comes to highly radioactive nuclear waste, pretty much everybody is a NIMBY. Setting aside the factthat scientists have yet to develop the technology to safely store this waste for the thousands of years it takes to decay, there's the fact that it has to be transported to the disposal site -- mostly by train -- creating the opportunity for spills. Even if the nuclear dump isn't in your backyard, the train tracks might be, and the closer you live to the center of it all, the greater the danger. Little wonder that Nevadans aren't excited by the prospect of a glow-in-the-dark desert.
The depressing thing about Yucca Mountain is that for all its flaws, including the discovery that water flows through the mountain faster than previously thought and thus could contaminate nearby areas, it probably still represents the safest place in the country for a nuclear repository. Not only is seismic activity in the rangeminimal, but the mountain is in a remote and desolate region at the edge of a site used in the 1950s for atomic testing. If we can't dump the waste in a nuclear test zone, where can we? That, in a nutshell, is the problem with nuclear power.
Pro-nuclear activists, whose ranks are growing as the nation looks for non-carbon-emitting sources of energy, needn't fret too much about Obama's proposal, which tables but doesn't end the debate about Yucca Mountain. Yet the move probably would delay some pending applications for construction of nuclear plants, and may even stop some. That's all for the good. Nuclear power is much too risky and expensive to be seen as a reasonable solution to climate change.