Any hint of ‘nuclear’ merits a full, transparent response

By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – There was a dust-up last week about whether Mississippi should ever-ever-ever become a home for nuclear waste.
Guess what?
Mississippi has been a home for nuclear waste for nearly 30 years.
As of 2008, there were 770 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Claiborne County. As of 2011 there were 1,020 casks of this material, government reports say.
Doubtless, there’s more now. Tons more.
GGNS is the only nuclear-fired plant generating electricity in the state. It has set all kinds of production records since selling its first kilowatt of “juice” in 1985. And, as is true for all commercial reactors in the United States, depleted “fuel rods” are still on the premises. Initially, the material was in pools of water. The more modern storage method involves the super whiz-bang casks.
Be clear: Nuclear waste is here. Mississippi is a nuclear waste repository.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be as far away from this stuff as possible. Depending on a variety of factors, it remains potent – possibly lethal – for hundreds of thousands of years. Hard to imagine. This is 2013. Unless the material at Grand Gulf is moved, it will still be there and still be hazardous in the year 302,013, maybe 502,013.
Every state with a nuclear plant is a nuclear waste repository. Every state with a nuclear plant will be a nuclear waste repository for the foreseeable future.
Now, to a second point: For Gov. Phil Bryant to have the slightest chance of public approval for any waste storage or reprocessing plant that might be on somebody’s drawing table – which is what the dust-up was about – he’s going about it all wrong.
The public doesn’t need its governor in bed with a potentially hazardous industry.
The public needs leadership that deals with this topic at arm’s length.
What we know is there’s a group called the Mississippi Energy Institute. It has a website (www.mei.ms.) It has the ear of the governor. When Bryant unveiled his proposals for the state’s energy future (“Energy Works”) last fall, lo and behold, it could have been something written by MEI. It called for research, exploration, innovation (good stuff) as well as tax breaks and incentives (which tend to find their way into industry proposals).
Last week, an MEI report was disclosed and a portion said a nuclear waste center in Mississippi would “serve as a platform for significant opportunities” for short-term, medium-term and long-term nuclear waste storage.
Immediately, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said “no how, no way” to any conversation that contained the words “nuclear waste” and “Mississippi” His district includes the Richton area, where salt domes deep underground have been mentioned many times before as ideal places for long-term storage. Those folks don’t want to be a “dumping ground.” Palazzo is their champion.
Bryant said he was “disappointed.” He blamed the media “hype.” He has not (yet) sung the praises of the jobs and money that could come with the waste, but his initial reaction was clearly in defense of the MEI report.
That was off-putting, to put it mildly. Here is a guy whose political party advanced in recent elections by fueling the public’s view of government as untrustworthy. Bryant is fervently against “big government.” Yet when it comes to something like nuclear waste storage or reprocessing nuclear fuel, he chooses to be coy? How can he think that’s smart?
If anything comes of any of this, the first step will be getting all Mississippians past the notion that to take other state’s waste makes us subservient. That’s would be tough enough, but getting anyone to trust a governor who gladhands every industrial bigwig he meets? Impossible. And rightly so.
What Mississippians have every right to expect is that any industrial proposal, hazardous or not, be accepted and reviewed in a calm, balanced, scientific way.
That wouldn’t make everybody happy. Grand Gulf still has skeptics, people who think it should be shut down.
But it’s the right approach.
Mississippi’s energy future is not a contest between good and evil. It would be dumb not to have a group such as MEI studying options for the state’s energy future.
The missing ingredient, for now, is transparency.
It’s not “hype” that makes alarms go off when the word “nuclear” is in any proposal. Leaders who want people’s respect should start by respecting people.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.