Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nuclear Waste - As Long As We Don't Think About It, It Will Go Away

Popular opinion seems to be incredibly averse to the idea of nuclear waste dumps being located, well, anywhere.  Anywhere near them, at a minimum, but to a large extent anywhere at all. This idea seems to be rooted in the notion that as long as you don't approve a permanent place for nuclear waste, then the waste itself will just disappear. The reality, of course, is that it just keeps building up at temporary locations, which are much less suitable than most of the proposed permanent locations.

Take the story of Yucca Mountain, the proposed long-term storage facility in Nevada. Let's let wikipedia tell the story:
Although the location has been highly contested by environmentalists and non-local residents such as in Las Vegas over 100 miles away, it was approved in 2002 by the United States Congress. However, under pressure from the Obama Administration funding for development of Yucca Mountain waste site was terminated effective with the 2011 federal budget passed by Congress on April 14, 2011. ... This leaves United States civilians without any long term storage site for high level radioactive waste, currently stored on-site at various nuclear facilities around the country...
What's the worst thing that could possibly happen to nuclear waste? Let's assume that, defying all likely physics, the nuclear waste somehow manages to transform itself into a supercritical mass of weapons grade material, causing a nuclear explosion wherever it's being stored. That, we can all agree, would be pretty damn bad.

So let me submit a modest proposal.

The US has currently performed 1054 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1992. A good number of these took place at the Nevada test site, 65 miles from Las Vegas. So why not just store the waste there? Is there anything that could conceivably happen to the waste that would be worse than the 928 nuclear explosions that have already occurred there!  Do you notice people fleeing Las Vegas because a whole lot of nukes were exploded 65 miles away? I sure don't. As long as people aren't thinking about the nukes, they seem content to go on their merry way.

There was a proposal to store nuclear waste in Australia, which is blessed with huge areas of worthless, geologically stable desert. Cue the environmentalists shrieking about the possible impact on the priceless dirt out there, and the possibility of contaminating the water supply in a place that gets virtually no rain anyway. If I were an Australian politician, I would offer to store nuclear waste from around the world, and commit to paying out the proceeds as a cheque to each household. That way you could make an ad that explicitly captured the tradeoff:

"What do you care about more? This $500 cheque? Or the fact that radioactive materials might be stored on a worthless patch of desert where the Brits already tested a bunch of nuclear bombs?"

Put that way, the debate might suddenly become a lot more reasonable.

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