Environmentalists need to be wary of Coleman

By Michael A. Casper

If we have learned anything from the multitude of investigations, revelations, and pontifications following the collapse on Enron, it is this: The interests of the energy industry are already very adequately represented in Washington.

We now know, for instance, that when energy executives outside the government (such as Kenneth Lay, formerly of Enron) want to get some face time with the energy executives inside the government (such as Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly of Halliburton), the doors are wide open. In fact, the George W. Bush administration crafted its energy policy while working hand-in-hand with representatives from the energy industry. Yet, when environmentalists tried to have a say in shaping our nation’s energy policy, they found those doors were tightly closed.

We, as Minnesota voters, need to keep this in mind when electing a senator this fall.

For Minnesotans concerned about protecting our public safety and our environment, the very last thing we need to do is send a senator to Washington who will add yet another voice to the banal chorus singing the tune of the large energy corporations.

Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman’s support of a central federal repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is another indication that he is ready to join the swollen ranks of politicians supporting the interests of the energy industry.

Coleman has enthusiastically supported the Yucca Mountain plan, now passed by Congress and signed into law last week by Bush, to establish a single federal repository for our country’s nuclear waste at a remote Nevada mountain. Coleman’s campaign, which has been showered with money from the energy industry – more than $60,000 in contributions from more 25 different gas, coal, and oil corporations and political action committees – has been sharply critical of Democratic Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s opposition to the Yucca plan.

One of Coleman’s principal arguments has concerned local economics: He claims that the Yucca plan will allow Xcel Energy to keep its Prairie Island Nuclear Plant, which is running out of room to store its waste, operating. Xcel Energy ($11,550) is one of Coleman’s top contributors.

Coleman has maintained that the Yucca plan is obviously in the best interest of the safety and economy of Minnesota.

First, Coleman’s contention that the Yucca Mountain plan could provide the necessary storage relief for Prairie Island is spurious. A Yucca facility wouldn’t accept waste until 2010 – three years after the 2007 date when Prairie Island is projected to run out of room.

Second, and more important, however, the Yucca Mountain plan might actually put the safety of millions of Minnesotans at risk. While it may be tempting to say the safest and most sensible thing to do is just get nuclear waste out of our backyard and bury it in Nevada, the safety issue is not so simple.

The problem is, of course, we can’t just snap our fingers and have the radioactive waste appear under a Nevada mountain. We have to ship it there, by road or by rail, and there is the rub: The ensuing transportation of nuclear waste itself presents a vast undertaking and an enormous environmental hazard. Consider these facts from the Department of Energy’s own research: The plan will require the shipment of 46,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste across at least 40 different states. The total number of shipments would number more than 100,000 over 38 years.

Starting in 2010, over 1,000 shipments of radioactive waste would be brought through Minnesota, including heavily populated areas like the Twin Cities. More than 3 million Minnesotans live within 20 miles of a route along which radioactive waste would travel.

Given the sheer number of shipments required, transportation accidents are inevitable: The DOE anticipates 66 truck accidents and 10 rail accidents involving radioactive waste would occur over the life of the project.

In contrast to Coleman, Wellstone’s position has been that we must first develop a plan that can guarantee the safe transport of nuclear waste before committing ourselves to a central federal repository. Wellstone, whose campaign has not received any money from gas, coal or oil corporations, clearly articulated these concerns in his statement to the Senate when he opposed Yucca Mountain.

It might have been easier for Wellstone to vote to “get the waste out of our backyard,” but his opposition on this issue is a clear sign that he is not beholden to the energy industry and is sincerely committed to protecting our environment and the public health.

Michael A. Casper, Ph.D., is a first-year University law student. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]