August 13, 2004

Nuclear Fearmongering
Posted by Dale Franks

One of the biggest victories of the environmental movement over the last thirty years has been to convince the public that nuclear power is unsafe. Now, Jonah Goldberg writes, the Kerry campaign is putting that same kind of fear-mongering to good use in Nevada when discussing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository. The only trouble is that, like most fear-mongering, it's based mainly on lies.

Kerry keeps harping on safety concerns, as if it's safer to keep the waste where it is, spread out all across the country in various cooling ponds.

Now, I've been to Yucca Mountain and interviewed the scientists there and read quite a few of the studies. And, frankly, I have no idea what Kerry is talking about. Yucca Mountain is indisputably the safest conceivable installation for nuclear waste in America - and, quite probably, on the planet. If terrorists wanted to, say, crash a 747 into Yucca Mountain, they'd pretty much have to get past the Nellis Air Force base, where the Air Force practices blowing things up. It's also the home of the Air Warfare Center and the Air Force Weapons School. It is where the Thunderbirds practice and the site of the International combat-training exercise known as "Red Flag." Yucca Mountain also abuts the highly secure Nevada Test Site where we've blown up a kajillion atomic bombs.

Oh, and I should add that even if the terrorist-seized plane got through and smacked the repository head-on, it wouldn't even rattle the canisters under thousands of feet of Yucca Mountain rock. In fact, a direct nuclear strike would mean next to nothing in terms of safety.

But hey, even in the hugely unlikely scenario - and I really mean hugely unlikely - that some nuclear material did get out, it would still be in the middle of a godforsaken desert. Even what little groundwater there is there - on the edge of Death Valley - is self-contained.

Anyway, I could go on, but the science on this issue is so settled that no one really disputes it. That's one reason why we've heard so much hyperbole in recent years about how dangerous it would be to transport the waste to Yucca Mountain. Once the waste is there, it's not going to bother anybody.

The fear-mongering over these so-called "mobile Chernobyls" is bogus too. The containers can withstand virtually any imaginable attack. In tests, they even drop the things from way up high onto steel spikes and nothing happens. There have been more than 3,000 nuclear waste transports since 1964 without a single release.

The controversy over Yucca Mountain has nothing whatsoever to do with safety. The fundamental issue is that the environmental lobby wants to put up every hurdle possible in order to prevent any nuclear power generation for any reason.

Let me be as clear as possible: Nuclear power generation is the safest, cleanest, most efficient power generation technology in the world. Bar none. The amount of waste generated by nuclear power generation is, while dangerous, compact and solid. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution generated by oil and gas generators, it is infinitesimal. A 1000-megawatt plant produces 1 cubic yard of radioactive waste per year. Compare that to a coal plant of similar capacity, which would produce 10 tons of waste per minute.

The waste itself is solid, and would be placed in sealed containers under thousands of feet of solid rock. The opposition to Yucca Mountain, like the opposition to nuclear power itself, is pure, unalloyed Luddism.

Now, the waste that we would produce all over the country would be radioactive enough to kill 10 billion people, if they were exposed to it. Yet somehow, every year we produce enough barium to kill 100 billion people, enough ammonia and hydrogen cyanide to kill 20 trillion people, and enough chlorine to kill 400 trillion. Somehow, we manage to do that without killing anyone. With nuclear waste, ground into power, fused with glass, placed in steel containers, and put in a concrete bunker several hundred feet underground, there's not much chance of anyone being exposed to it.

Air pollution from coal, on the other hand, is estimated to cause 10,000 deaths a year in the US alone. In one year, a 100-megawatt coal power plant generate 1.5 million tons of solid waste that are chock full of toxins and carcinogens, and we usually dump it into landfills or piling it up in hills. And that's only the solid waste. That doesn't count, say the 600 pounds of carbon dioxide or 10 pounds of sulfur dioxide that go up the chimney every second.

And we're all breathing that.

Professor Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, in his book, Before It's Too Late, predicts that if the US were to go completely nuclear for power generation, the total added health risk covering the entire process, from uranium mining to waste disposal, would be the same as raising the speed limit by 0.006 miles per hour. The risks eliminated by ending coal, oil, and natural gas power generation would be far, far greater.

We are at a very dangerous point in our history. We have a highly technologized, scientific, civilization that requires extraordinary amounts of technical learning just to keep the trains running. At the same time, we have fewer, and fewer people who know how to keep all this complicated machinery working.

It's not helpful to also have an environmental lobby that keeps trying to throw monkey wrenches into the machinery, and politicians who are willing accomplices in that sabotage.

Or, for that matter, a public education system that teaches our children to parrot the beliefs of the environmental lobby without question.

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