Safety first

It happens every time there’s a business downturn. Nevada businesspeople point to the proposed federal dump at Yucca Mountain for other states’ nuclear wastes as Nevada’s financial salvation. Right on schedule, Robert Barone, supported by economist Tom Cargill, made that proposal at a business conference in Reno last week.

Barone and Cargill said the state should accept the waste dump and the waste in order to get financial benefits.

Unfortunately, press coverage was shallow, leading to the creation of misinformation. A Reno Gazette-Journal story referred to “the federal dollars it [the dump] would bring” and an Associated Press story, a rewrite of the RG-J piece, made reference to “the federal money” as though these funds actually exist. They don’t. We invite Mr. Barone to identify the federal statute that guarantees such funding. It doesn’t exist. The only federal funding available in association with the proposed dump is money to allow the state and counties to make their cases and deal with the possible siting. Once the dump is sited in Nevada, those will go away.

In addition, Mr. Barone’s lack of political savvy—he’s a business consultant and chair of a car insurance company—in what is plainly a politically tainted site selection process is fatal to his proposal. Negotiations for benefits would be with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which during its entire existence under its present name and configuration as well as earlier versions has been one of the most lying and malevolent agencies in U.S. history. After the Atomic Energy Commission—one of DOE’s predecessor agencies—lied about the detectability of nuclear testing in order to prevent a test ban treaty, veteran journalist I.F. Stone called it “just the worst agency. They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there.”

More recently, says former Nevada Nuclear Projects Director Robert Loux, DOE played games with exactly the benefits Barone claims will come to Nevada. Loux said DOE has a history of dangling money early and then reducing or withdrawing commitments once facilities are built. He cited as an example New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), where radioactive wastes are stored. In addition, he said, DOE used payment commitments for WIPP in ways never envisioned in negotiations: “They used it to hold the state hostage for permits.”

Moreover, Loux said, the funds for such payments are subject to annual congressional appropriation, and DOE can’t commit itself into the future—which doesn’t keep it from doing so.

In other words, there is no honest broker with which Nevada can negotiate.

Finally, there is the lesson that every child is taught: safety first. It doesn’t seem to matter to Mr. Barone, who says, “It’s ridiculous to think it [nuclear waste] is dangerous,” but to those in the real world on both sides of the Yucca Mountain issue, nuclear waste is very dangerous, and that is an issue that should be settled before a site is selected, much less benefits negotiated. And scientists, wishful politicians and businesspeople notwithstanding, tell us the safety issues are unsettled.

Fortunately, all of Nevada’s major leaders responded to Mr. Barone’s suggestion of trading safety for money by sticking with safety first.