Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Editorial: More muddle on Yucca Mountain

The unnamed editor's flip use of "fallout" in the headline is a sure sign that his editorial on the issue of nuclear waste disposal will be weakly drawn and poorly informed. What new readers may find surprising here is that he ultimately has nothing to say in the space.

This is a big problem in the industry overall. Journalists typically have minimal science or technology background to help them evaluate the stories they're called upon to cover, and the results are often lame to just wrong. The best are diligent about sourcing and quoting. Most just go along as if they know enough, the way they do with political issues.

It's true that Americans are going to have to find a way to deal with the nuclear waste we're already making and nuclear power as a bridge to a more sustainable regime. Mentally boiling that down to "Yucca Mountain, yes or no" is ridiculous.

Perhaps the editor hasn't bothered to look into the history of this plan. It came from the federal level, imposed on Nevadans almost arbitrarily and apparently because Easterners think that Nevada is nothing but wasteland anyway. The people of Nevada have stood up consistently and in great numbers to oppose it, which is why the feds suspended the whole process. The editor calls these obstacles "too high," meaning to me that the opinions of the people most affected shouldn't matter. I'll have to ask him what he'd write if it were Granite Mountain instead.

The nuclear industry brought suit to force the issue, and a judge agreed that once the application is in, the government must go through with the evaluation. This does not mean the government will find that the plan is safe enough to go forward. Most observers believe that it was poorly conceived to start and the long-term environmental and economic costs make it unfeasible. So suspending the application has been the thrifty choice. Why waste resources on a bad plan that won't ever happen?

Large concentrations of high-energy materials are inherently dangerous, so applying our habitual industrial-efficiency model to nuclear waste is just bad policy. We need a smarter solution, one yet to be proposed. The industry will only come up with that if it's forced out of its comfort zone.

At points in the piece the editor seems to agree with most of this, at others he doesn't, for example calling Yucca Mountain a "secure location." His general confusion is evident in the writing, as in this classic stumble across the keyboard: "Arizonans have never been too keen on the thought of truckloads of radioactive waste being trucked along out interstates on their way to Nevada."

The obvious lack of any conviction on the issue means to me that there's another intended message, which I find in "all of this highlights the dysfunctional state of civilian nuclear policy," and "As happy as Reid may be with the issue's paralysis, we as Americans should be distressed." He's probably been supping at the Fox News trough again, and just enjoys grasping the cudgel of a stupid Republican idea to batter Democrats about the head. Pity he can't hit anything with it. 

Finally, what the heck does a small-town paper think it's doing by even attempting to opine on this issue? We're in the middle of a "local-local-local" election, we have wildfires in every direction and more to come, we're not creating enough jobs to sustain our economy, our legislature is consumed with buffoonery — hasn't the editor enough to think about that really matters here?