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March 31, 2008

NIMBY Forever

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It seems that the U.S. does not yet have a place to permanently store nuclear reactor waste material. Congress acted on this matter in 1982 and waste material has been sitting here and there in sub-optimal locations since then because the promised repository remains to be built. Matters could get worse if more reactors are built in response to a need for environmentally "clean" energy sources. (What sense does it make to charge the batteries of a totally electric car each night if the electrical power source is an oil-fired generation plant?)

Seems to me that we've been in a "crisis" mode on this for enough time to have come up with a solution. But politics and interest groups have been working their usual magic.

This interests me because I was involved (peripherally, in the extreme) with the repository issue nearly 20 years ago.

The original plan was to have several repository sites scattered across the country to spread the risk, so to speak. Over time, the number of sites dwindled down to three, and then, finally, one. The remaining site is the Yucca Mountain site in southern Nevada near where atomic bomb tests were made in the 1950s.

My task had to do with population projections of areas near Yucca Mountain -- in practice, this was mostly rapidly-growing Las Vegas and satellite communities; the rest of it is nearly uninhabited. As background, those of us on the consulting team were given a tour of the vicinity, including Death Valley. On our way back to Vegas we spied site-protesters near the Indian Springs entrance to the area. I could understand protesters waving signs if the proposed site was on the Berkeley flats, off Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge or along the north side of 10th Street in the Village ... but in the middle of a desert?!?

Years later I raised this point to a liberal co-worker who assured me that the desert would be a perfectly awful place for a repository. But I couldn't pin him down as to what location might be better.

One interesting part of the background touring was a visit to a test bore on the Hanford Reservation in Washington state. At the time, Hanford was still in the running as a repository site, so a tunnel was bored into the lava and other rock as sort of a sketch of an actual facility, including galleries for the storage containers. The layout was similar to that a a large munitions magazine, the rows of galleries isolating comparatively small amounts of dangerous material. We also got to look at an old reactor. Interesting to see the monitoring instruments that were highest-tech in 1950, but looking like old sci-fi movie props in the digitized late 1980s.

This sounds (or even is) cynical, but the track record suggests that no repository will be built until there is a major nuclear leakage crisis at one of the many existing storage sites. Ain't government wonderful.



P.S. Just in case you don't know, the "NIMBY" in the title means "Not In My Back Yard."

posted by Donald at March 31, 2008


Excelon, Entergy Nuclear, GE and other private companies make healthy profits building and operating nuclear power plants. Of course, a good part of the profit margin comes from foisting the storage of nuclear waste problem onto "we the people". As you note, the "high tech" of the fifties looks quaint by the eighties, which in turn seems primitive by the millennium. Now the government is trying to determine the best way of taking responsibility for a waste product bequeathed to us by the nuclear industry for the next 10,000 years or so. Such a deal!

Urbanites use most of the power but want to dump the waste on rural and wilderness areas ... talk about NIMBY. So our elected politicians, knowing that there are more votes in L.A. than Death Valley, accepts the idea. Why aren't folks who live near Yucca, or who care about keeping some of nature intact, just jumping up and down with excitement at the prospect? Hmmm, beats me.

If it is really safe to store nuclear waste, let's put it as close to where the majority of the power gets created and used as we can. If it isn't safe enough for that, then maybe we need a different approach to energy production.

And yes, I know that there's half a century of waste that needs to be dealt with regardless of what happens and so Yucca Mt. might be the best solution, but that doesn't mean we have to be happy about it.

Posted by: Chris White on April 1, 2008 11:32 AM

Chris, people want to put the waste in geologically stable locations that are well-protected from both the elements and malicious people. Most urban areas just don't qualify...

In any case, there's a third solution no one wants to talk about, apparently. Reprocess the "spent" (it's only a few percent spent) fuel and use it right back in the reactor it came from. That is, recycle instead of looking for the best place to put the waste dump. You still end up with waste after several cycles of reprocessing, but orders of magnitude less of it, and it has a much larger proportion of short-half-life material. So storage for this waste only needs to be secure for decades, not millenia. This is a much easier engineering problem.

The one snag is that reprocessing of nuclear fuel is more or less illegal in the US (see PL 95-242). It's not clear to me from the text whether the US government itself could just reprocess, or whether it would need a UN-supervised facility for the purpose. It might be the latter. It's pretty clear that private reprocessing is a definite no-go, and I'm not seeing the federal government rushing to build non-military breeder reactors...

It seems to me that the proliferation situation, as well as the energy situation are pretty different from what they were 30 years ago, and it's time to rethink this legislation. But nuclear proliferation is a convenient bogeyman, especially for older voters, from what I can tell.

Posted by: Boris on April 1, 2008 12:17 PM

Yes, the problem of environmental obstructionism is a plague.

And, now, Chris, I'm going to tell you the real story of why you know the name "Woodstock."

Two capitalist entreprenuers created the myth and prosperity of Woodstock. One was Albert Grossman, who brought the big league music scene to town. The other was Mike Lang, owner of the Woodstock festival corporation. These people, not loony hippies, are the reason you know the fame of Woodstock.

Grossman was the East Coast version of Bill Graham. He managed, at times, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrision... just about every great 60s star you can imagine. He moved his business lock, stock and barrel to Woodstock and created the music scene in town.

Mike Lang owns and produced both major Woodstock festivals. He used to be my next door neighbor. Against the opposition of the usual environmental obstructionists, he made the festivals work in upstate New York.

Day trippers to Woodstock arrive hoping to see a town that delivers on the promise of the great works of Grossman and Lang. They are invariably disappointed. The environmental obstructionists, leftist extremists, feminazis and others destroyed Woodstock's ability to develop into a long term mainstream big time music business. Out of the opportunities that Grosssman and Lang created, virtually nothing remains.

The last decent club in music, Cafe Espresso, was owned for years by Marty, a redneck good old boy who didn't care about anything except selling beer. He was bought out by East Village communists who turned the Cafe into a place for their political friends to play. Not surprisingly, within a short time they went bankrupt.

Woodstock should have become a place where tourists could expect to hear great American bands, experience the excitement of the 60s, etc. Instead, the obstructionists have driven the music scene into the ground. It really no longer exists. Every development has been destroyed by the demand for Utopian perfection. Woodstock should have a theme park on the edge of town complete with a big time music venue.

What's left is a town where even the local musicians can't make a buck playing. As usual, the left creates failure wherever it gains power.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 1, 2008 12:32 PM

ST, I'd love to hear your take on how Woodstock figures into the situation in Darfur.

I'm actually all for nuclear power, and all for storing the waste in a remote area such as Yucca.

Posted by: JV on April 1, 2008 3:13 PM

I read somewhere that the solution to the disposal problem is the sea floor. Specifically dropping the nuclear waste, encased in lead, to the bottom of the deep ocean trenches. Eventually the waste will disappear forever as the trench in which it sits is itself subsumed under another ocean floor by techtonic plate motion.

Posted by: ricpic on April 1, 2008 5:06 PM

Ya know there ST you make a lot of presumptions. No info new to me in your "explanation of why I know the name Woodstock". I spent more than a few evenings at Cafe Expresso during Marty's ownership and remember Joyous Lake, etc. I saw Jack DeJohnette with a trio in a little strip mall cafe/deli just outside of downtown once upon a time, too. And attended one of Karl Berger's jazz fests over in Hurley. And on and on I could go.

Before the hippies Woodstock had more than a couple of beatnicks and before that it was "invaded" by the Arts & Crafts utopian freethinkers responsible for Byrdcliffe. So, your point in terms of NIMBY-ism is what? Too many hippies didn't want to create a Disney-esque fake Woodstock (which if memory serves actually took place in Bethel) Music Festival theme park?

As for nuclear power, I'm agin it! Tain't natural and I don't like leaving my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grankids shit that will still kill them if they forget and mess with it. I'm old fashioned that way.

Posted by: Chris White on April 1, 2008 5:13 PM

My God people, how many of you have a science degree, matter of fact how many of you people have studied elementary physics or chemistry? When are you people every going to learn that long term radioactive material is actually safer than short term radioactive material. Read up on the principle of conservation of energy. Ignorance of science is what makes up the basis of fear of Nuclear power. Instead of doing an arts major do a science one.

Posted by: Slumlord on April 1, 2008 5:37 PM

"Too many hippies didn't want to create a Disney-esque fake Woodstock (which if memory serves actually took place in Bethel) Music Festival theme park?"

Yes, that is precisely my point.

Woodstock has no political/social philosophy... except for retread Stalinism. It was, in fact, the birthplace of the Communist Party U.S.A. The anti-business, anti-development faction in Woodstock is directly descended from the Communist Party.

The only thing Woodstock does have to offer is a commercial music business. So, yes, a Disney-esque theme park is just about its only hope for commercial development.

The original concert took place in Bethel precisely because of the environmental obstructionism of Woodstock.

The best managed mid-level clubs I've ever seen (and played in) are those owned by Disney in Orlando. Disney knows how to give middle class people what they want. Commies and anti-development crusaders are determined to force people to like what's good for them.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 1, 2008 8:29 PM

Slumlord, I do happen to have a degree in physics. Thank you for asking. Long-half-life waste will have a lower rate of radioactivity than short-half-life waste, assuming that the total number of decays in its decay chain is not too much smaller (which is not a terrible assumption if the long-half-life stuff is U-238 or something of that ilk). Of course depending on the decay chain you might also get different kinds of radiation (certainly alpha vs beta vs gamma, but also exact energy spectrum), and this last has the most effect on whether the container becomes "hot", which is what some people worry about.

But in any case, storing short-half-life material in Yucca Mountain, say, is just as easy as storing long-half-life material: the facility is deep enough to deal with either right now. At that point the short-half-life waste has the distinct advantage of not requiring storage that will be stable on geologic time scales. This makes finding a decent storage matrix material, containment vessels, and so forth much easier.

Of course you have the NIMBY issue no matter which one you want to store. And that issue could be helped somewhat by just needing to store less waste, no matter what sort of waste it is. Less waste means being able to take more precautions per unit of waste to alleviate whatever reasonable concerns people have. And honestly, people deal better with "I'd like to store a ton of hazardous stuff here" than with "I'd like to store 200 tons of hazardous stuff here." It might not be rational, but that should be no surprise given the context.

Posted by: Boris on April 1, 2008 10:17 PM

So ST, don't I remember seeing something on your site about a women's clothing store in downtown Woodstock that you don't patronize because you prefer to save a few $$ shopping in a chain store in Kingston? It's not that "hippies" are anti-business or anti-capitalist per se, so much as it is they are anti-giant corporation, anti-global capitalist. Which would seem to be the same as anti-New Class to reference some of the other 2BH threads.

Posted by: Chris White on April 1, 2008 11:27 PM


Anti-business? Anti-capitalist?

Chris, you are a commie. I know that you think that you aren't.

This is a fairly common syndrome on the left. Every 10 to 15 years the old Stalinist slogans get recast into glowing new phrases. That's because in the period people realize that it's the same old shit. And, it's always the same old shit.

And every generation, the far left deludes itself into thinking that it's discovered something new.

You didn't discover something new, Chris. You're just an old fashioned commie. As is often the case, you are just not bright enough to know it. The hippies thought they'd discovered something new. They didn't. It was just retread Stalinism.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 2, 2008 7:59 AM

Once again Shouting Thomas resorts to nasty slurs, insults, ad hominum attacks and sheer nonsense. Where's the logic, where's the sense of humor, where's the willingness to accept that others might have different ideas without flaming them as "not too bright old fashioned commies"?

In what way is a preference for locally owned businesses over massive corporations a communist idea? What makes a preference for clean, sustainable and de-centralized energy sources over massive nuclear power plants owned by big business with big government subsidizing all the negatives (security, waste storage, etc.) a "commie" notion?

Or are you just pissed that my response to your jab about Woodstock showed knowledge (however minor) based on actual regular visits to the area for decades to see friends and not purely drawn from popular media distortions?

If I were to close with a parody, would it be held against me by anyone other than the person being parodied? I hope not.

Shouting, you're just an old fashioned right wing facist wannabe. As is often the case, you are just not bright enough to know it.

Posted by: Chris White on April 2, 2008 6:08 PM

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