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Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - August 1995

We aspire to send our spent-fuel rods to Nevada; much of our municipal solid waste goes to Ohio and Indiana; much of our sewage sludge goes to Oklahoma and Texas; we've contracted to send incinerator ash to Virginia; our

incinerable hazardous waste goes to Texas and elsewhere; and so on.

By regulating each waste stream separately, we create massive unnecessary conflict. Every siting attempt becomes a forum for the state to exercise its isolationist impulses, while forgetting that it exports many other kinds of waste to other states. Additionally, by imposing a waste disposal facility on a state or a locality, an unwanted neighbor is turned into a hostile invader. The widespread use of the preemption doctrine to overrule state or local laws fires up the isolationist impulse and makes the local opposition even more vehement.

Numerous psychological studies have shown that people will accept voluntary risks several orders of magnitude greater than involuntary risks. People will parachute out of an airplane or drive without seatbelts, but they don't want to live 10 miles from a secure landfill. By attempting to ram a facility down the throats of an unwilling community, the physical risks involved (em even if objectively small (em become involuntary and therefore magnified a hundredfold in the minds of the neighbors. It becomes a war (em and a war that the facility advocates cannot win. There have been hundreds of attempts, but there is not a single example in the United States in the last two decades where a hazardous or radioactive waste disposal facility was successfully sited, and remained open, on a new site in a community where the local government supported sustained opposition.

Surprisingly, however, many communities have volunteered for disposal facilities. The reason seems largely a matter of local culture. Different people and groups of people perceive risk differently. Waste disposal facilities tend to be less polluting than many factories that people willingly accept (em oil refineries, steel mills, or chemical plants. Places with such a factory, or with a military installation (em especially one that is closing (em are often willing to take a waste disposal facility. In such cases, successful sitings have been blocked because the states vetoed the plan. For example, Oak Ridge, TN, was willing to host a storage facility for high-level radioactive waste, but Tennessee said no. The voters of Fall River County, SD, voted in favor of a low-level radioactive waste facility, but the state said no. Right now, Lincoln County, NV, is trying to host a radioactive waste storage facility, but the state is balking. There at least a dozen other examples.

A voluntary approach has worked in Canada, however. The provinces of Alberta and Manitoba both successfully sited HW facilities by calling for volunteers; both were besieged with offers.

I propose that all the waste streams be considered together. The federal government would decide how much disposal capacity and how many facilities are really needed, after available means of waste minimization have been exhausted. The federal government would then decide which states would have responsibility for what facilities.