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Policy myths create bad policy

Last week Bob Halstead, director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, spoke before the Nye County Commission. He briefed the commissioners on funding shortfalls and other problems facing the federal efforts to build a dump for high level nuclear wastes. In the course of his presentation, as Mark Waite reported in these pages, Halstead reported on some of the misinformation that is floating around about Yucca Mountain in Nye County, previously the all-but-certain site for the dump.

“They create the impression a repository was ready to accept waste and the current administration walked away from it,” Halstead said. “Simply not true.”

Three years ago, I reported on this policy myth after discovering that the nuclear power lobby and other supporters of the Yucca site were spreading the story that the dump had already been built and was ready to start taking wastes.

During a 2010 U.S. House debate, Rep. Ed Whitfield said, “As I said, we have already spent billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain. In fact, in the very near future it was getting ready to open.” (Whitfield’s home state of Kentucky has a privately operated uranium enrichment facility at Paducah that has generated 140,000 tons of nuclear waste, and the Kentucky Senate in 2011 voted to repeal the state’s moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants, thus making the generation of more waste possible.)

A Newsweek reader wrote in a letter to the editor, “The site can already hold everything we have and was being doubled before all work was stopped.”

At the right-wing site Free Republic there is this comment: “The reason I think that the waste belongs in Yucca Mountain is because we have already built the facility—no other reason.”

It is all claptrap, of course. A lot of suitability work costing about $8 billion was done at Yucca Mountain, but not on a dump. The construction of a Yucca dump would cost about $96.7 billion, though with inflation and the passage of time, that figure is probably low now.

This kind of myth helps drive a lot of mistaken government policies. Here’s another one: When the 1998 legal settlement between the states and the tobacco industry was negotiated, state attorneys general worked to create the impression that the funds that would be coming to the states was legally required to be spent on health care and/or smoking prevention, which was false. The settlement had no such requirement.

But the myth did its work. Policy was affected by the falsehood. In state after state, the health lobby hijacked the bulk of the settlement funds. Other worthy needs, from domestic abuse to education, were stiffed. In Nevada, Gov. Kenny Guinn initially said he would go along with the supposed “requirement,” but then successfully proposed a college scholarship program for Nevada high school graduates. Even so, the health care lobby walked off with most of the money. The process was distorted by fakelore that gave one interest group an advantage.

Here’s another one. George W. Bush during his presidential campaign pushed the line that parents “vote with their feet,” taking their kids out of public schools and putting them in private schools. The claim helped pass No Child Left Behind. In fact, private school enrollment was falling at every income level.

Whole segments of public debate, like the drug war and climate change, are heavily influenced by policy myths. Journalism is nearly always complicit in spreading these myths, usually by repeating them without first checking them out. And government always falls for it, spending money on the wrong “solutions.”

Policy myths can even kill. Remember weapons of mass destruction? “But disaster lies in wait for those countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out,” journalist I.F. Stone once said.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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