In the newspaper
business, there's the “straight news lead” – an
introductory sentence or two that should offer the plain,
unvarnished facts about the story to follow.
Here's an example:
“The chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public
Works Committee plans a comprehensive hearing on the
safety of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste
Then there's the lead
you might see in a column such as this one. It's a
slightly different version of what you just read:
“Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who would
rather chew worms than watch the nation build a
radioactive waste dump in Nevada's desert, will assemble
anti-dump experts before her committee to make a case
about the depository's flaws.”
Not that we fault Boxer for this approach, because the
simple fact is this: Although the issues surrounding
construction of the Yucca Mountain dump are hugely
technical, enormously complicated and best left to
scientists, it is those with a keen political interest in
the proposed repository – Boxer, President Bush, lawmakers
who want radioactive waste out of their states – who will
have the most to say about whether it gets built.
CRUNCH TIME APPROACHES
The Yucca Mountain dump has been decades in the making,
but the coming months are a critical time for it. By next
summer, the Department of Energy plans to go to the with
an application for a construction license. From there,
federal regulators will review the case for the dump – the
geology, seismology, hydrology, transportation routes,
waste canisters and more – to answer questions of great
concern to lawmakers such as Boxer.
Can water infiltrate and carry radioactivity to
drinking water? How easy might it be for terrorists to
attack the facility? Could an earthquake damage waste
canisters and release radioactive materials into the
environment? Is it possible those canisters might corrode
prematurely and expose their radioactive contents within
the underground dump?
As the race to submit the license application
accelerates, just about every hearing you'll read about –
whether it's before Congress or before a regulatory agency
– is likely to be too colored by politics to offer
impartial answers to those questions.
If Bush could have his way, he would have opened Yucca
Mountain yesterday to advance his nuclear-power-dependent
energy initiative, which, to be successful, requires a
place to store the resulting radioactive waste.
If a dump doesn't open, the courts will continue
socking the Department of Energy with heavy penalties for
failing to take the waste off the hands of reactor
operators. And because the Department of Energy is
ultimately answerable to the president, imagine the
strings that will be pulled to make Yucca Mountain look as
safe as a 6-year-old strapped into a Volvo.
IT'S ALL PERSPECTIVE
Ask just about any lawmaker in Nevada – Democrat or
Republican, local councilman or the governor – to opine on
the “science” of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain,
and the consensus is that it's really bad for the
environment and really, really bad for public health. It
is a consensus practically unheard of in such a diverse
group of politicians, except when it comes to matters of
Boxer, who took the reins of the Environment and Public
Works Committee after Democrats seized control of the
Congress in the last election, has promised that in coming
months she will assemble a hearing to examine the safety,
health and permitting issues surrounding Yucca Mountain.
For context: Boxer is a long and active foe of Yucca
Mountain, having voted against it in 2002.
As for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it's a
five-member body led by a Bush appointee who was once
assistant to the secretary of Defense for nuclear and
chemical and biological defense programs. Another is a
former GOP staffer who had a long career at the Los Alamos
National Laboratory. And a third once worked for Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who would just as
soon toss a grenade at the dump site as look at it.
Now that should make for some lively discussions – all
of them based purely on science, of course.
Dana Wilkie is a
Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and
a longtime observer of California politics and social