Nukes and NIMBY

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So ... do you think our area needs a new nuclear power plant?

You may have missed this little item, what with all the hot Anna Nicole news and all. But DTE Energy (the company that sends all of us those cheery little letters every month asking for money to keep the lights on) wants to build a new nuclear power plant in Monroe.

Don't they already have one there? Yes, but good old Fermi 2, its twin towers plainly visible as you whiz along I-75, is wearing out. Nuclear plants are only made to last 40 to 60 years at most, and you can't build them overnight.

Matter of fact, it can take five years just to get a license. If things go smoothly, any new plant might be able to start emitting steam around 2013. If it does get built, this would actually be the third generation of nuclear plants on the site, the first being the infamous one which suffered a near-meltdown in 1966, an episode immortalized in the book We Almost Lost Detroit.

Twenty years ago, after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, building any new nuclear plant would have been politically impossible. Even now, the mention of anything nuclear is apt to upset a lot of people. Proposing to build a new plant in Michigan may indeed spark demonstrations, at least once the media move on from the far more important question of when to take Anna Nicole's body out of the refrigerator.

Yet the level of noisy opposition is far less than it used to be. Nuclear plants have actually had a pretty good safety record. Last week I talked to David Lochbaum, a former nuclear engineer now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has been highly critical of the industry for years, but even he is not flatly against building a new plant in Monroe.

What is not in doubt is that we will need more energy.

State regulators recently said Michigan needs some kind of new primary power plant by 2015, and nuclear seems the most likely candidate. Yes, you can talk about conservation, and you should. Still, this has been a month when people would have cracked plutonium in their basements to stay warm if they had to.

But there is one major drawback we haven't yet discussed.

What do we do — what do all the nation's nuclear plants do — with the spent nuclear fuel? This is especially a problem for DTE Energy. The stuff remains radioactive and highly dangerous for thousands of years.

Within three years, they will run out of room to store the rods in the huge fuel storage pool they now maintain on the site. Then, they will have no alternative but to store it in heavy steel containers known as "dry casks."

Then the casks will pile up. And up and up and up. Something similar is happening at nuclear power plants across the country. Michigan's first nuclear plant, Big Rock, near Charlevoix, was torn down years ago. Not a brick remains.

Except, that is, for a building holding the spent fuel rods. There are pools and piles of these things all over the nation. The most logical thing — especially in the age of terror — would be to have one central site where all this stuff is to be safely stored and guarded.

And there is supposed to be one — the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada. The federal government agreed on this as the place years ago. After numerous delays, it is now on course to start accepting nuclear waste ... 10 years from now, on March 31, 2017, Al Gore's 69th birthday. Except that ... it probably won't happen. Why? For one thing, the new Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is from Nevada, and doesn't want his peeps irradiated.

"Yucca Mountain is dead. It will never happen," he says. Nevada, while small in population, also has become a closely fought swing state in presidential elections. Had Our Al carried it in 2000, it would have been impossible to steal the election from him.

The trouble with any other proposed site is the same: Where to store nuclear waste is the ultimate NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — issue. Nevada makes a lot of sense; it is sparsely populated, and the federal government owns 87 percent of the state's land.

Except that Nevadans don't want it there. But we have to find a central storage location somewhere, and soon, or we are courting disaster.

And no, Melvindale would not be an appropriate site. By the way, guess what other site was in contention before they settled on Yucca Mountain? Deaf Smith County, Texas.

Somehow I don't think Dubya would go for that.


Speaking of the devil: If there is one must-have, must-read book everyone should have at their elbow as a new election season gets under way, it is New York Times columnist Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (Penguin Books, $25.95).

This is the single best account of the lies, the sheer incompetence and the gross wrongness of the worst administration in the history of this nation.

But it's more than that; there is plenty of evidence here of the utter banality and cowardice of most of the press corps and the vast majority of the Democrats, who didn't even really play an opposition party on TV. Anyone who labels this book as mere partisan Bush-bashing is lying or hasn't read it.

I think Greatest Story is most effective because it is chronological — you find yourself reminded, again and again, of crimes and compounded screw-ups that you had forgotten. I am a natural cynic who came of age under Richard M. Nixon, yet every so often I had to stop reading just because I was overwhelmed with disgust. What everyone who cares about this country — or themselves — should do is buy this book, keep it close and add their own subtitle: Never Again.


Big Pharma update: Last week's column talked about the shocking fact that Michigan is the only state in the union that does not allow its citizens to sue big drug companies if their products kill them or make them sick.

Since then, the Michigan House of Representatives has voted, 70-39, to end this outrageous immunity, which seems straight out of Mussolini's Italy. But the Republicans who control the Michigan Senate care more about Big Pharma than their constituents. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester Hills) indicated they want to keep it from even coming up for a vote.

No wonder. No matter how much money Big Pharma poured in, they would likely lose, since some of the 21 Senate Republicans fear the future wrath of the voters. Thirteen House Republicans crossed over to do the right thing. If Democrats hold firm, they would only need two Republican senators. Again, you ought to let the Republicans, especially Lord Bishop, know how you feel.

By the way, they wouldn't be able to thwart the will of the people this way had the districts been drawn fairly. Most people (54 percent) voted for Democratic candidates for the state Senate, but a little clever gerrymandering and a couple Green Party candidates helped Republicans retain control.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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