Putting the Public Back into Public Policy

Date: 16 Mar 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Putting the Public Back into Public Policy

by David Morris and
Pamela Neary
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Proponents and opponents of a centralized nuclear waste repository are both off the mark. The nuclear waste issue is more than an environmental, energy or economic issue. It goes to the heart of our federal-state relationship. It sets the stage for determining whether we still believe that democracy requires an actively engaged citizenry who are allowed and encouraged to claim responsibility for decisions having a significant impact on their future, or whether a more distant government should preempt local decision-making. Recent debate about creating a central nuclear waste repository all but ignores this critical juncture in our democratic evolution.

Those in favor of preempting the authority of Nevada to refuse to become the nation’s nuclear waste dump argue that this is a national emergency. But what exactly is the nature of the emergency? It is that if people were forced to accept the responsibility for their own energy detritus, they might decide to close down nuclear plants.

Nevada is one of the very few states in this country that can legitimately claim to have no responsibility for the nuclear waste problem. It has no reactors. Moreover, according to the Energy Information Administration, Nevadans do not consume any nuclear electricity. And Nevadans are overwhelmingly opposed to having the nuclear wastes from other states imposed upon them.

Those in favor of forcing Nevada to become the nation’s interim nuclear waste dump argue that putting all of our radioactive eggs in one basket is safer than storing them in 74 locations in 40 states. Environmentalists respond that sending thousands of nuclear waste-carrying trucks and trains across the country each year itself presents a daunting safety problem. The Department of Energy justifies the proposal to relax environmental safeguards currently required for nuclear waste storage because the site is to be only an interim facility; but common sense and experience tell us that an interim site will inevitably become a permanent waste site.

The Congress is right about one thing. No American wants to live near a radioactive waste dump. Just before the Senate vote, the Senators from Washington, Tennessee and South Carolina were convinced to sign on in return for a revision to the bill that explicitly prevents any of those states from becoming interim waste repositories. All three have nuclear reactors. All three contribute to the radioactive waste problem.

Indeed, the impetus for the deal-making with Washington, Tennessee and South Carolina was their citizens’ growing opposition to playing host to the wastes generated by the nuclear weapons industry. Responding to fears about storing radioactive waste on the shores of the Mississippi River, the Minnesota legislature has required a nuclear power utility to locate another community willing to accept the waste or to shut down the reactor by 2003. And, by referendum, Californians voted to close down one of their reactors.

In contrast, the Senate has voted to preempt the authority of Nevada in order to protect the continued operation of nuclear power. And now the House seems poised to follow suit. If the Senate is able to override the President’s expected veto, the result will be the generation of an additional 2,000 tons of radioactive waste each year. By separating those who receive the benefits from those who assume the responsibility, Congress has moved to ensure that over the next 15 years we will produce as much radioactive waste as we have over the last 30 years.

Let’s not be naive. In politics, principle often gives way to expediency. Yet it is amazing that this Congress, which has so aggressively embraced the conservative rhetoric of devolution and personal responsibility, is now just as aggressively promoting the abdication of those principles and supporting big government’s trampling of states’ rights and the rights of the citizens of Nevada.

As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Without power and independence, a town may contain good subjects, but it can contain no active citizens.” It time to ask which is the more important for our future: active citizens or the nuclear power industry?


David Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Pamela Neary is a former state legislator, now Associate Director of ILSR’sNew Rules Project, a project to design rules & public policies that strengthen local communities.

All rights reserved. Copyright© 1997 Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Reproduction encouraged with acknowledgement to ILSR.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.