The Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday published standards for protecting health and the environment at the proposed nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the nation may bury radioactive waste from its fleet of 100+ nuclear power plants, and from Defense Department nuclear weapons sites.
The details how many millirem of radiation can safely leak out would be meaningless to most people, who don't often think about their daily dose of radiation.
The bottom line on that, according to EPA as quoted by the Las Vegas Sun, is that the standards are in line with international radioactive waste management guidelines. Nevada's senators and other opponents of the Yucca Mountain storage plan vociferously objected to the rules, calling them dangerous and based on flawed science.
For argument's sake, assume that the millirem limit is safe. What still gives skeptics pause about a central waste storage site, and nuclear power in general, is the time scale it must remain secure.
The EPA set a low leak limit for the first 10,000 years, and then set a standard more than six times higher for the next million years (though still less than one-third the average annual dose of radiation that Americans receive from the sun and other sources today).
A million years.
That's how long radioactive waste from nuclear power plants remains dangerous, how long it must be safely stored, how long people must be wary about coming into contact with too many millirem of radiation.
It may well be, however, that global warming can't be solved without making this bargain with future generations. Nuclear power is a technology we know how to harness today, and it can produce a lot of electricity without a lot of carbon dioxide pollution. Wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are gaining traction, and additional investments will no doubt make them important sources of energy going forward; the question is whether they can provide enough energy, even with aggressive conservation, to eliminate the need for nuclear power. My sense is no.
John McCain has called for building 45 new nuclear power plants by 2020, whereas Barack Obama offers only tepid support, while always noting the intractability of the waste issue. Obama overall has a stronger, more progressive and more honest energy plan that invests $150 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency, whereas McCain's other energy pillar is offshore oil drilling, which is a distraction at best and a geostrategic blunder at worst.
Both candidates say that their overall long-term strategy is the same: Use clean energy technology to achieve energy independence and stop global warming. The tactics differ.Both nuclear power and global warming represent a tacit deal we're making with future generations. If we don't tackle global warming, we decide that future generations will deal with the consequences and hand off the responsibility for dealing with our waste. If we use nuclear power to solve global warming, we trust future generations to care for the radioactive dump and hand off the responsibility for dealing with our waste.
I'm increasingly leaning toward nuclear power as the bargain I'd opt for. Radioactive waste can be contained in some box in a mountainside somewhere as seismically stable as possible. The Pandora's box of climate change just cannot be contained.
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