Bring us your waste!

Glowing repository just one more attraction in "Earthquake-land"

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted August 9, 1999

If there is any "nuclear waste disposal crisis" in America today, it's entirely an artifact of an unwise series of federal interventions.

In the late 1940s, American industry found itself with a huge investment in nuclear technology thanks to the breakneck race -- ordered and coordinated by the U.S. Army -- to develop a nuclear bomb before Hitler's Germany.

In fact, German scientists turned out not to be as close to a working bomb as was believed, but hindsight is 20/20. Given that Nazi scientists had beaten the allies to the punch with jet and rocket planes and ballistic missiles, we can only shudder to imagine what might have happened had Hitler succeeded with his own "Manhattan Project," while a less gung-ho America shrugged and said, "Let's not bother."

In the event, American industry found itself in the late 1940s with a huge investment in the new technology, and pressure quickly arose to exploit "the peaceful atom" for everything from excavating canals to generating "electric power too cheap to meter."

At that point, Washington should have stood aside and said: "The war's over; let the private market decide." Those building and operating atomic power plants would then have been required to seek liability insurance from common underwriters, who would presumably have required premiums big enough to indemnify themselves against any possible accidents -- and who doubtless would have asked, "By the way, what binding, private contracts have you guys signed to dispose of your spent fuel, later on?"

But those industrial conglomerates were by now accustomed to having Uncle Sam wave away such difficulties with the magic wand of "national policy," you see. So the original Atomic Energy Acts set -- by federal decree -- a maximum amount of damage such firms would ever have to pay per casualty should such an accident ever occur. See how much simpler that is?

The waste disposal problem was handled with a similarly cavalier resort to ultimate federal power: Congress simply declared the federal government would take custody of the spent fuel, and put it wherever Washington darn well pleased.

Had the free market been allowed to operate, those private insurers would by now have required nuclear power plant operators to negotiate voluntary contracts with states or counties or nations willing to accept and store their waste for a fee.

If the federal government had a role, it might merely be to require sensible containment and rank potential sites for suitability in the entombment of stuff with a 50,000-year half life -- with the solid granite mountains of Wyoming or Montana probably ranking slightly behind those of New Hampshire on the preference scale, due to the shorter travel distances involved in getting most of America's spent fuel rods to the Granite State, from where they are now.

And where would Nevada -- further west and with a population density higher than Montana's -- place on such a list?

Surely not at the top, following a recent 5.6-magnitude earthquake near Scotty's Junction -- about 130 miles northwest of Las Vegas but even closer to the one and only site which the United States Congress (so well-celebrated for its members' expertise as geologists and mining engineers) has determined suitable for "investigation" as a possible underground disposal site.

The Aug. 1 quake (strong enough to send plants swaying and knock cans off shelves more than 100 miles away) was hardly unique -- it was similar in size to the 1992 quake at Little Skull Mountain. In fact, Glenn Biasi, a seismological researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, says similar quakes have been occurring in Nevada for 30 million years, and are part of the ongoing process which is still building the state's geologically "young" geography, as opposed to the much "older" and more stable geologies of areas like New England -- home, coincidentally, to so many nuclear power plants (while Nevada has none.)

But the fact that Nevada's Yucca Mountain is hardly the best site for a waste dump is only part of the story. The main point is that those who made good profits from nuclear power are now left with an asset which could still have great value at in the future, should safer methods of fuel reprocessing be developed.

Thus, there could be numerous communities in this country or hemisphere which would happily negotiate to accept a storage fee for the stuff, under terms which would allow them to share in the profits should it once again become a valuable commodity in the future -- while the current owners' private insurers would still wisely require state-of-the-art containment.

In the free market of a free republic, that's how fortunes are made -- by weighing just such risks and opportunities, and investing accordingly.

While the kind of economic and political system in which some distant Commissar of Energy decrees based on "political considerations" into whose turnip patch the toxic sludge will be poured -- he alone deciding how "safe" it needs to be, and no complaining allowed -- used to go by a considerably different name.

Vin Suprynowicz, assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is author of the new book, "Send in the Waco Killers," available at 1-800-244-2224, or via web page

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