Nuclear power is not mired in regulatory uncertainty because the science is unsettled, the overwhelming majority of scientists accept physics and the really overwhelming consensus of nuclear physicists accept the safety of nuclear power.
Before you think, 'well, they would, wouldn't they?' keep in mind that climate scientists have far higher acceptance of global warming models than other scientists too. We rely on the confidence of experts in fields to help guide policy issues on science topics. Yet while we vilify any skepticism on climate change models, an entire multi-billion industry has sprung up around energy activism and claiming that, unlike climate change, the experts in the field cannot be trusted.
While advocacy groups like Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace raise a lot of money fomenting fear and doubt about food and energy, two of the three biggest science policy issues America faces today, they are not alone in taking the blame for why we don't have a real nuclear waste disposal policy. That blame falls squarely both on politicians and the judges who allowed the Obama administration to unilaterally cancel the Yucca Mountain project in a shocking abuse of executive power.
We did once have a nuclear waste storage plan. It had been tested, verified and argued for decades - expensive, and worth every penny. It was a state-of-the-art modern facility designed to replace over 100 local storage options currently in use. How did it happen? Wasn't the Nuclear Regulatory Commission created in 1974 to come up with science-based solutions and implement them without being hijacked by politicians?
Indeed it was, but when not one but two anti-science activists are appointed to run it - and they both campaigned against Yucca Mountain, which is why they got the job - you know science has left the building. The latest head of the NRC even put together a whole book criticizing Yucca Mountain as a disposal site, denying the work of every scientist who contributed to numerous International Atomic Energy Agency, National Research Council and Department of Energy studies, including the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which found it would still be safe 10,000 years from now.
Allison Macfarlane, now chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, instead said storage was unnecessary - yes, storing nuclear waste is not urgent. A weird claim for an activist to make, though she is a geologist and not a physicist. But MacFarlane was only the latest problem, a functionary put in place to reliably kill the project and who would be enthusiastic about leaving science out of any thought process.
Years earlier, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, of Nevada, who was against nuclear waste in any desolate, safe, wasteland in the Nevada desert - classic Not In My Back Yard-ism - held up all of President Bush’s executive branch nominations until Bush agreed to put his former aide Gregory Jaczko on the NRC. Why would anyone agree to do that? Well, the media climate was different then. When Republicans hold things up now, we get doomsday prophecies about a fiscal cliff and claims that they're doing it because they don't care about Kwanzaa. But when Democrats did it to Republicans, it was smart politics and completely justified, so Harry Reid was not called anti-science despite the fact that he denied decades of research by scientists to rationalize his personal belief.
In Science Left Behind, we had to cover a lot of ground to show all the ways social authoritarian progressives hijack science time and again - and that meant Yucca Mountain had to be just one example; a scant two pages when a book can only be 300 pages long. But it always merited a book in its own right because it typifies how a science manipulation problem we were told originated with President George W. Bush and that was limited to Republicans was actually a cancer long before and has become worse since.
Had a Republican president secretly ordered the starvation of a long-running science project while publicly setting up a fair 'blue ribbon commission' on it, the Union of Concerned Scientists would be gathering 4,000 signatures to protest his efforts to "manipulate and control science for political reasons" but, like war protests, science protests about anti-science behavior disappeared when a Democrat started doing the manipulation. Who was on that 'blue ribbon' impartial commission supposedly giving a fair chance to Yucca Mountain while the president was killing the funding for the project? The same Allison MacFarlane, who now runs the body whose work she is against.
President Obama broke the law, plain and simple, but legal issues are too arcane for a science article, and he did it to support his anti-science agenda. There was no interest in letting science drive the nation’s science policy, any more than there has been regarding any other science issue. Instead, past, current and scientific findings were irrelevant because they violate his personal world view. At least President George W. Bush only limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research - what would the reaction have been had he publicly appointed a commission to 'study' it after he already privately declared he wanted it dead, and then put an anti-hESC person in charge of the NIH?
Fortunately, Adam White writing at The New Atlantis has gotten into details I could not. He writes an excellent overview of what went wrong in an article called "Yucca Mountain: A Post-Mortem", and it is definitely worth a read if you truly care about restoring science to its rightful place, and not just about science integrity when one party is in the White House.
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