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King: Time to speak up

Public meetings on nuclear policy need input from engaged, informed citizens

POSTED: October 30, 2011 1:00 a.m.

The United States was established as a representative democracy: The people elect the government. Today, we increasingly frame ourselves as a participatory democracy: Citizens participate in government decisions.

Voting is not enough. In fact, all the hoop-de-la surrounding elections can divert interest and energy from issues that affect our lives far more than who we send to Washington.

Whatever the next president or the next Congress does while in office is more or less temporary. One hundred years from now it will probably be ancient history. But what the country decides to do about certain problems, like nuclear waste, will impact us for generations to come.

Can the average American actually participate in these decisions, decisions that are both technical and political and are often highly emotional? They can, and two weeks ago I saw the process in action. I attended the Southeastern meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste.

Background: In the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 the U.S. government, in an effort to encourage a nascent nuclear industry, promised to take possession of irradiated nuclear fuel rods (spent fuel) and dispose of them in a safe underground repository.

In return the government would collect money from the operators and their ratepayers to cover the cost. So far the government has collected over $24 billion but no repository has opened.

Today, after three decades and five administrations, spent nuclear fuel and other high level nuclear waste is still in temporary above-ground storage, either in cooling pools or dry cask containers, and most of it is stored outside of containment. Even if the reactors themselves are safe, which is questionable in view of recent discoveries, the irradiated fuel rods in the pool are still radioactive and can burn if water in the pools is lost. This is what happened in Fukushima, Japan, following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

When Barack Obama was running for president, he promised to establish a blue ribbon commission to address the problem. By 2010 the Commission was in place and went to work. Early this year they issued a draft report and began a series of public meetings to explain their recommendations and gather public comment.

The chairs of the commission are retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. The meeting in Atlanta, the third in a series, was hosted by Southern States Energy Board. These are very open meetings. Anyone can come, anyone can speak, anyone can question. But you had better know what you are talking about.

Speakers ranged from nuclear industry representatives to anti-nuclear activists. The one thing they had in common was extensive fact-based information and years of experience. They all knew their stuff.

The people in the audience were no less well-informed, and they were given ample opportunity to ask questions. If Times readers feel they are up to these standards, there is still time to submit a comment. Go to http://brc.gov, but do it today. The comment period ends Monday.

This is participatory democracy. It is not a matter of opinion. You may be for nuclear power, or you may be against it, but wherever you stand, your position needs to be based on facts and reason, not something you heard on a talk show or at a political rally.

For years, I worked with the League of Women Voters to "get out the vote." It was heresy when I wrote a column saying sometimes people shouldn't vote. Too many votes are cast based on a candidate's personal charisma, his or her religious beliefs or other factors that have little to do with the candidate's judgment or experience.

A participatory democracy offers every citizen the chance to make a difference, not just by voting or voicing an opinion but by bringing their time and knowledge to the table; but the most important factor is trust.

At present, it doesn't exist. This has got to change.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears regularly on alternate Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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