Transporting and Storing Nuclear Waste in New Mexico

Jun 29, 2018

Commentary: Peter Goodman’s 27 June radio address, delivered in his usual soft, soothing voice, is, nevertheless, a biased and, wittingly or not, a fear-mongering commentary on a proposal to store nuclear waste in New Mexico.  To the ordinary NIMBY response to most large-scale construction projects, Goodman adds unreasonable concerns about anything labeled “radioactive.”  Whether he means to or not, he thus associates himself with other environmentalists who inflame discussion of proposals to build nuclear power plants or waste storage facilities, or to transport nuclear wastes from one to the other.

By either outright lies or concealed truths, environmentalists compromised their trustworthiness about nuclear power long ago.  I recall a front-door meeting with an activist seeking signatures on an anti-nuclear power petition; we knew each other, yet with a perfectly straight face, he affirmed the lie in the first sentence in his handout: it takes more energy to build a 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant than it generates in 30 years.  When I challenged this claim, he assured me that he had a report supporting it and would give me the reference if I called his office; when I phoned on the appointed day, I learned that his group had disconnected the phone and closed the office.

I knew the truth because, for the better part of twenty years, I consulted on many aspects of nuclear power, including safety, health, and environmental issues.  Concerns about transporting and storing nuclear waste have prompted studies of the possibilities of accidents and terrorist attacks on rail or road shipments or at surface or subsurface storage facilities.  In turn, these studies have prompted regulations and programs to protect citizens from hazards and the environment from harm.  As a result, the record for transporting and storing nuclear wastes, from low-level medical to high-level military waste, for well over half a century is unblemished as far as citizens and the environment are concerned: no deaths, no ascertainable adverse health effects, and, though remediating even small releases can be expensive, negligible environmental effects.

Anti-environmentalists do not deny this record; indeed, they say, as Goodman said, nothing about it.  Instead, they alarm the public about the very risks which some of the smartest scientists, engineers, and technically oriented public officials have addressed and—so far, so good—effectively abated.  Yes, radioactivity is persistent, can cause death and impair health, and can pollute soil and water.  But none from civilian nuclear power facilities has identifiably done so because these specialists have worked diligently and successfully to ensure that potential risks of transportation and storage are not realized in actual effects.

The industry’s big failure has been poor public relations; it has not trusted the public by being open about either the risks or their success in reducing them.  Transparency is prerequisite to trust.  The public should focus on the company’s ability and willingness to act immediately with sufficient resources to prevent or mitigate any mishap and on management’s openness to address citizens’ concerns about anything at any time.

I have no stake in the proposal for storing nuclear wastes at a new site in New Mexico and for transporting wastes to it.  I can well believe that “temporary storage” can last for a long time.  But I know that no public good can be served by fanning fears and thereby vitiating public discussion of this issue.  Goodman’s snide remark about Governor Martinez’s and Congressman Pearce’s “wisdom” is a cheap shot, self-demeaning and disrespecting his hearers by appealing to their prejudices and passions.  He is ordinarily a better columnist than one who uses slanted reporting and sarcastic remarks which arouse emotions about nuclear waste.  I urge a do-over broadcast to balance, by amending, his analysis of this proposal.