Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NIMBY and Risk

Christine Todd Whitman, the former Administrator of the EPA and former Governor of New Jersey spoke at our September ACHMM conference in Minneapolis, MN. I was impressed. The point of her talk was that we need to have balance in what we present for the future in terms of economic growth and meeting current and future energy needs. Her mantra was:

“We need to stop saying “no.”

The use of the word “no” dates back probably to the first true word uttered by man. Even God told Adam and Eve “just say no.” Unfortunately we have taken to saying the word “no” when we should be saying “yes – but proceed with caution.” Barack Obama has been very cautious in not mentioning nuclear power as a potential energy source for fear his base will jump ship. This is a prime example of not looking at what is best all around. You want to lower your carbon foot print – go nuclear, you want to reduce pollutants into the air – go nuclear, you want to lower the amount of foreign oil you import – go nuclear.

So why not go nuclear? Two reasons:
  • That’s what the Republicans suggest – so the Democrats must say “no.”
  • The public does not understand no such thing as zero risk.
And that is what drives policy – one side says go which the other side must, for their own self interests, boldly state “stop.” Then mixed into these two sides is a public that has not been educated on how to properly assess risk. In fact – they have been lead to believe that any risk is bad unless they themselves choose to partake in it.

“But the nuclear plants will generate waste that will stay radioactive for like a million years!” So? If properly managed – for example at Yucca Mountain – it will not present a risk. In order to have a problem that must be exposure, in order to have exposure it must be transported through the environment to the receptor (i.e. human). Tucked deep inside the salt mine – it ain’t a going anywhere.

"But to get it to the site it must be transported – it could be released then!” Not likely (and therein lies the problem – I can’t say it ain’t a never going to happen). How can I say not likely? Because I have seen for myself that they have engineered transportation caskets that can be hit by a train and remain closed. They have engineered out a real potential concern while the waste is being transported. If it can withstand a train it can withstand a truck or car or possible explosive device.

"But...but...but...well anyway still, not in my backyard!"

A grenade poses a substantial risk, however it was engineered to be safe when the pin is in place. If you take that same grenade and bury it deep in the ground it will still pose the same capability as it did before – but the risk of harm is minimized to a point where we could all reasonably say – “I am safe from that grenade.”

That is how we need to look at everything that posses a risk – can we engineer out the risk to a point where we can reasonably say “My concerns have been addressed.” It is not about risk vs. reward but about lowering the risk to a point where we can all feel comfortable. That means both sides have to give, and, in the words of Ms Whitman:

“We need to stop saying “no.”

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