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If America Ever Runs Out of Ideas, It’ll Run Out of Energy : Time to put nuclear power in perspective and develop other options

The United States will not soon break petroleum’s stranglehold on its way of life because it has nothing to take the place of oil. Why? In large part because political and industrial leaders have refused to level with American voters. Instead, they led Americans to think they can avoid hard energy choices, on nuclear power or any other energy source. Instead, they led them into an energy trap.

Disposing of nuclear waste is just one example. For nearly two decades, the nuclear industry preached that getting rid of nuclear waste was more a matter of political will than technical skill. If politicians would stop pandering to public concerns about where to bury nuclear waste, the message went, safe hiding places would be found in short order.

You don’t hear that sermon anymore. Not since Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the sole survivor of a long list of possible waste sites, began sending geological signals that it may not be the perfect place that scientists once said it was.

Not that the bureaucrats were wrong about Washington’s lack of backbone.

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Congress seized upon the general sentiment among Americans that nuclear power is a good thing--as long as it is being generated far from their neighborhoods. Thus, members wanted to keep government geologists from poking around granite masses in their own Atlantic states or salt domes in states along the Gulf of Mexico. So they effectively put every place but Yucca Mountain off limits.

The Yucca site, northwest of Las Vegas, no longer seems the perfect place, because there is some evidence that ancient earthquakes have let deep ground water force its way to the surface through cracks in the rock. If so, it could happen again. And if canisters of radioactive fuel rods were buried in the mountain, some future earthquake could send water into the Yucca nuclear waste burial site. If the ground water bathed canisters that were still hot, the encounter could cause a steam explosion that would scatter radioactivity around the West. Some scientists say this notion is far-fetched, but it could leach radioactive waste into Nevada’s water table and perhaps into California’s.

Further study may show that Yucca is as safe as any place, or a better site may turn up. But that could take 20 years.

The 1982 law that narrowed the search to Yucca Mountain also requires scientists to certify that any disposal site the government chooses will stay bone dry for 10,000 years. Science can deliver no such guarantee, the National Academy of Sciences said in July, only the best possible research.

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Energy Secretary James D. Watkins had that figured out before the academy report was issued; his team was told to stop trying to find evidence to support Congress’ choice of Yucca Mountain and was ordered to prepare a study based solely on science.

What happened at Yucca is a classic example of energy decisions without energy policy. First, Congress picked a desert site so remote from most Americans that few members would get complaints from home. Technicians then tried to prove that burying nuclear waste was simple when politics did not interfere.

Watkins’ energy report may be Washington’s last chance to level with Americans about their energy future. It must start a free-swinging debate over the real energy choices. It must force the nation to decide whether it can live with only a promise from science that it will do its best to bury nuclear waste safely. If not, does nuclear power have a real future? How much should be spent on alternative energy resources? And what should they be?

Setting energy policy by following the line of least resistance is leading toward a buildup of 400,000 or more American troops in the Middle East, the world’s largest treasure of oil. Guarding that treasure may be America’s only choice, but the desperate fact is that nobody knows for sure--because nobody asked the hard questions on energy policy. Time is up.

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GROWING POWER

Nuclear’s share of U.S. electricity output.

1980 Oil: 10.8% Nuclear: 11.0% Hydro and other: 12.3% Natural gas: 15.1% Coal: 50.8% 1989* Oil: 5.5% Natural gas: 9.3% Hydro and other: 10.3% Nuclear: 19.0% Coal: 55.9% * Projected based on nine-month figures Source: U.S. Council for Energy Awareness .


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