Not in Everybody’s Backyard

A new way to think about the transportation of nuclear waste.

Critics of the environmental movement rightfully point out that “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, is a poor argument against waste dumps. If the waste isn’t dumped in my backyard, it will get dumped in someone else’s backyard, and that “someone else” will almost certainly have less money and less political clout than me. Environmentally, NIMBY is a zero-sum game—what doesn’t get dumped here gets dumped there—and inegalitarian to boot. No principled liberal wants to play the NIMBY game.

The NIMBY taboo has made it awkward for environmentalists to align themselves with the state of Nevada in opposing the shipment of spent nuclear fuel to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, an issue on which the Senate is expected to vote this month. (The House already voted to allow the shipment.) Nevadans don’t want nuclear waste in their collective backyard, but if the alternative is to keep nuclear waste scattered at 38 sites around the country, isn’t it better to ignore Nevada’s parochial concern? That seems to be the consensus, endorsed even by liberal publications like the Christian Science Monitor. But the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has come up with a creative way to reframe the Yucca Mountain controversy. Rather than cry NIMBY, it has devised a Web search engine to demonstrate that the real issue is what Chatterbox will call NIEBY—not in everybody’s backyard.

Click here and enter your street address and ZIP code. Then click “Get Map.” A map will appear with a green star denoting your home. Thick black lines on that map indicate rail or highway routes by which nuclear waste will likely travel to Yucca Mountain. (The source is Appendix J of the Energy Department’s Environmental Impact Statement on Yucca Mountain.) The proximity of these lines to your house or apartment is the degree to which the waste will likely travel through your backyard. (The Energy Department projects 175 rail and truck shipments a year, starting in 2010.) Just above the map, inside a rectangular box, it says how far your home is from an existing nuclear waste route, and how far you live from the nearest waste source.

Chatterbox lives 48.5 miles from the nearest spent-fuel depot, at Baltimore Gas and Electric’s Calvert Cliffs power plant on the Chesapeake Bay. That’s not Chatterbox’s backyard. But—uh-oh—the nearest likely rail route for nuclear waste to travel on its way to Yucca Mountain is 0.2 miles (three city blocks) away. That is Chatterbox’s backyard. To be sure, Chatterbox’s welfare isn’t a major societal concern. (We can always get more columnists.) But what about President Bush? The White House is 1.1 miles away from the nearest likely waste route. Chatterbox ran his thumb down his Christmas mailing list. Martha and Peter, who live in Claremont, Calif., live 2.9 miles away from the nearest likely waste route. Joao and Elsa, who live in Rye, N.Y., live 1.5 miles away. Phil and Pam, in Portland, Ore., are 0.1 miles away. Mike in Pittsburgh is 1.8 miles away. Wistar and Tom in rural Vermont live 92.8 miles away. OK, listen up. If terrorists start blowing up trains carrying nuclear waste, let’s all meet at Wistar and Tom’s place.

The point is not that Chatterbox has an unusually large number of friends who live near likely nuclear waste routes. It’s that our nation’s hub and spoke transportation system, combined with most people’s tendency to want to live near an urban center, puts almost everyone near a likely nuclear waste route. Indeed, Environmental Working Group says one in seven Americans live within one mile of such a route. E Pluribus Unum: Out of many NIMBYs, one NIEBY.

The Energy Department and the nuclear industry answer that we already live in a NIEBY world. Each year, there are 300 million shipments of hazardous waste along these same routes. Some of this is flammable, which spent fuel is not. None of it, though, is so radioactive that Congress plans to store it in a cave for 20,000 years. All right then, continue the utility companies, if the stuff takes that long to degrade, why leave it scattered at nuclear plant sites around the country? Isn’t it vulnerable to terrorist attack there, too? Wouldn’t it be better to stash it in the hard-to-reach caverns of Yucca Mountain? The trouble with this argument is that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has admitted that nuclear plants are projected to generate spent fuel almost as fast (2,000 tons annually) as Yucca Mountain will be able to store it (3,000 tons annually)—and that’s not counting the 45,000-ton backlog. Even after Yucca Mountain opens for business, a heavy volume of nuclear waste will remain stored at plant sites.

Chatterbox’s only beef with the Environmental Working Group’s new NIEBY paradigm is that it’s coy about the ultimate solution to this problem. “We don’t have a position on whether or not a single repository is a good idea or a bad idea,” says Mike Casey, vice president of public affairs. Chatterbox can’t speak for Casey or the Environmental Working Group, but in general it’s Chatterbox’s sense that over the long term, environmentalists know that closing off options to store nuclear waste is an effective way to shut down nuclear power plants. Chatterbox thinks this is a smart strategy. If the problem is what to do with waste that remains a threat to human health for 20,000 years, why not limit the scope of the problem by restricting the quantity of this waste? “We want to shut down nuclear power” sounds crazy and radical, and so Greens avoid saying it. In fact, though, it’s the sensible conservationist position.