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Forever Yours: Toward responsible nuclear energy

As I begin this essay I am aware of an underlying fear that I am reaching beyond my known grasp.  Maybe it is that some subjects compel us to speak even as caution counsels silence....

This coming year the Vermont Legislature will decide whether to extend the operating license of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. The topic has already received a great deal of comment and debate and rightly so, as it is an extremely complex subject with significant economic and environmental implications. For this writing, I want to confine my comments to one question:

What is the disposal plan for the spent nuclear fuel rods -- more generally referred to as nuclear waste?

The current best thinking for what to do with the nation's substantial inventory of nuclear waste is deep geologic sequestration. It was originally imaged that each region of the country would have its own repository. Here in New England a site in northern Essex County was studied at some length by the federal government largely because it was remote and because what locals in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom came to feel was their lack of political influence. The site was eventually dropped because of hydro-geologic considerations and because of opposition from the Canadian government which did not favor a major nuclear repository 10 miles from its border. This story pattern in various iterations repeated all over the country. The only site that seemed viable was Yucca Mountain located in the middle of a large secure military test site about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.

The government spent a great deal of money exploring and developing the Yucca Mountain site, but Congress pulled funding before the site was completed partly because of conflicting test results but mostly because of political opposition by concerned citizens in Nevada. Harry Reid, (D-Nevada) and Senate Majority Leader, has vowed that Yucca Mountain will not open. In addition, towns and cities along the transportation routes have worried about the implications of a derailment or truck accident resulting in a nuclear spill.

Nobody, it seems, wants to keep the stuff or have it pass through their town.  Nuclear waste is a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) problem writ large.

In the absence of federal action it would seem we as the beneficiaries of the electricity are the ethical holders of our fair share of the waste. Our Valley population is about 1 percent of the state's, and assuming we have used an average amount of electricity, our fair share of the nuclear waste stored on site in Vernon (home of Vermont Yankee) is about 30 containers. Are we willing to store our fair share here? If not, where?

Since its inception more than 50 years ago the nuclear industry and government have promised a solution to nuclear waste. They are now asking for an additional 60 years. At what point do we simply stop believing in their promises? This is not the behavior of responsible adults. We would not allow our kids to act like this, and be rewarded.

Just because we want or need technology to solve a problem for us does not mean it will or can. Technology is limited by the physical laws of the universe.  It may be that advances in technology will yield an elegant solution, but it is not something that can be promised.

Billboard or Art?

Way back in the misty 1960s the state of Vermont passed legislation prohibiting commercial billboards. Municipalities soon followed with local ordinances. It was all well intended: "Vermont is too beautiful for billboards." And now when my work takes me to other states and I return home I am glad for it. Vermont is too beautiful for commercial billboards.

But when is a billboard art? Where does sign end and sculpture begin? When do our words transcend the commercial and enter the poetic? What place, if any, do we have for public art? Who stands as its judge?

The installation at Lareau Farm is my August art. And like sometimes happens, this art has become controversial as much for its form as its content. My hope is that we can go from controversy to conversation because what we need now is a long, deep and broad conversation about the future of nuclear energy. It needs to be a conversation that is more than just policy wonks talking with technocrats; it needs to include people who make beds and fix cars, people who farm and cook, people who teach and nurse and doctor, people who so often sign up and those who more often sit out. It needs to include all of us, for this decision is a very big deal. 

If it all works out and nothing goes wrong, this period will pass and mostly be forgotten. If, however, we are wrong, our nuclear legacy will burden the generations to follow with economic and environmental chains in a bitter new slavery and our judgment will be in their anguished cries.

Schenk is the founder of American Flatbread in Waitsfield. He lives in Warren.

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