The following public statement, made by Joe Clark on January 16, 1986, speaks for itself. At one time Joe Clark was the Prime Minister of Canada, but in 1986 he was Minister of State for External Affairs in the Mulroney cabinet.
The US Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the Department of Energy (DOE) to issue guidelines for the selection of sites for the construction of two permanent, underground repositories for high-level nuclear waste (both civilian and military). The DOE was to study five potential sites in the western United States for the first repository, and then recommend three to the president by January 1, 1985. Five additional sites were to be studied as possible locations for a second repository in the eastern United States and three of them were to be recommended to the president by July 1, 1989.
The search for a second repository focused on crystalline rock in the northeastern states, not far from the Canadian border. Concerns over the possibility that radioactive pollutants could be carried into Canadian waters turned the search for a second repository into an international issue.
Very early on, citizens from Quebec entered Vermont by the busload in a show of solidarity to express their joint opposition to the proposed nuclear waste dump. In both Quebec and Vermont, opposition grew by leaps and bounds, being widely reported in the mass media and reaching the highest political levels.
The Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, famously proclaimed that his province would never allow a permanent nuclear waste repository within the territory of Quebec or on its borders. Jean Charest, then the Member of Parliament from Sherbrooke, Quebec — just a short distance from Vermont — successfully mobilized the Canadian government to become involved through its embassy in Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, growing opposition was being manifested by US citizens and politicians in the eastern United States, particularly in Vermont. At one public meeting that was broadcast live throughout the state, the lieutenant governor asked DOE officials a blunt question: “Whose decision is this, yours or ours? Because if it is our decision, then we can keep this meeting very short indeed. And if it’s your decision, then what exactly is the purpose of this meeting?”
The choice of a site for a second repository was clearly becoming a major political liability.
In December 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to designate Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the only site to be characterized as a permanent repository for all of the nation’s nuclear waste. The amendment repealed provisions in the 1982 law calling for a second repository in the eastern United States.
The Age of Nuclear Waste is upon us. Ordinary citizens and their elected representatives must become involved. The stakes are too high to leave such decisions to the nuclear establishment, which includes the regulatory agency. What’s good for the survival of the nuclear enterprise is often in conflict with long-term human welfare.
As Emilio Varanini, chair of the California Energy Resources Development and Conservation Commission, said back in 1978:
“Excessive optimism about the potential for safe disposal of nuclear wastes has caused backers of nuclear power to ignore scientific evidence pointing to its pitfalls. That’s the real crux of what we found — that you have to weigh scientific evidence against essentially engineering euphoria.”
As Michael J. Keegan of Don’t Waste Michigan has said, “Delusion is not the solution to pollution.”
A policy of Rolling Stewardship, with Hardened On-Site Storage where appropriate, based on a societal commitment to provide for continuous monitoring and retrievability, with periodic recharacterization and repackaging of the wastes, is the only acceptable approach for the foreseeable future. Those in charge of the nuclear waste should be independent of the nuclear industry, but they must have all the necessary information and resources to keep society and the environment safe from the radioactive legacy of the nuclear age. An official “changing of the guard” every 20 years or so will provide the opportunity for a complete and detailed review of what has been accomplished in the past and what improvements can be made for the future.
The industry sees nuclear waste as a public relations problem. Nuclear proponents want to be able to abandon the nuclear waste, limit the industry’s liability, and let amnesia slowly set in: “Let’s pretend it never happened”.
Rolling Stewardship begins with the frank admission that getting rid of nuclear waste is impossible at the present time — it is an unsolved problem. The only approach that is justifiable on
scientific and ethical grounds is, not to abandon these wastes that will remain dangerous for millions of years, but to safeguard them on an intergenerational basis in the interests of society as a whole. We know how to do it safely, one generation at a time, as long as we stop adding to the problem.