The infamous bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” he replied. I call it the “Willie Sutton Principle.”
You do what is necessary to get what you want, regardless of right or wrong.
Sadly, too many of our political leaders operate on the Sutton Principle. Why do so many fib, dissemble, and willfully remain ignorant on critically important issues? Because that’s where the votes are — and the money.
Take the case of nuclear power. Nuclear power has been proven beyond any doubt to be by far the safest and most environmentally friendly significant source of energy available for humanity at this point in history.
Yet the myth of the terrible dangers posed by the use of nuclear power continue to hinder its development.
Indeed, over the last 30 years the state of Nevada and far too many of its leaders have actively cultivated this myth.
Solar and wind are not currently major sources of energy worldwide and are unlikely to be so for the foreseeable future, if ever. These so-called renewables will not be able to supply the world’s need for electricity 24/7, year-round in the decades ahead — think 7 billion people today, fast approaching 9 billion.
Only three energy sources can do that: coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Gas and coal are very damaging to the environment and human health. Nuclear, on the other hand, is environmentally friendly and has very little negative impact on human health. See the table and sidebar.
Clearly, nuclear fears don’t match the facts.
According to research by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen at the NASA Goddard Space Center, the production of nuclear power “prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971–2009.
This amounts to at least hundreds and more likely thousands of times more deaths than it caused. An average of 76,000 deaths per year were avoided annually between 2000–2009.”
Given nuclear power’s proven safety and environmental advantages, why isn’t our country cutting back on the use of fossil fuels and constructing more nuclear power plants? Much of the answer can be found in the Willie Sutton Principle. It’s the votes and the money — and the ignorance of many of our leaders.
Votes and money are to be had in opposing nuclear power. Vested interests feast on public fears and lack of understanding of nuclear power.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act signed into law in early 1983 was an effort to find a permanent home for the spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants. In 1987, Yucca Mountain, located in Nye County, was singled out as the lone candidate for permanent storage of that spent nuclear fuel.
If Nevada had played its cards right at the time, Yucca Mountain could have resulted in considerable economic growth for southern Nevada, serving as a seedbed for the area to become a world center for science and engineering research and development, providing enormous benefits for Nye County, the state of Nevada, and the nation. This is not speculation; it is fact.
Instead, some of Nevada’s leaders — not that many at first — began a caterwauling of criticism and obstruction against Yucca Mountain that continues today.
As a result, nearly 31 years later, the Yucca Mountain spent fuel storage effort is much delayed, contributing to a long hiatus in the construction of new nuclear power plants in this country. In the meantime, France has gone 80 percent nuclear for its electricity.
One could argue — quite reasonably, I believe — that, given the relative safety of nuclear power, this opposition has led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people over the past 30 years caused by our ongoing over-reliance on fossil fuels for power. Nevada’s opposition to Yucca Mountain, to put it kindly, has been misguided.
As if to exemplify the Sutton Principle, Senator Harry Reid has built his political career upon his unwavering opposition to Yucca Mountain; his political exploitation of the issue has been in full flower for three decades.
More than 30 years ago, a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy advised the DOE that the real obstacle to the development of a facility for permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel was not technical, but social.
The techniques and requirements for long-term safe storage of spent fuel were well understood and quite doable. The big problem was the social factor — public opposition. How right that contractor was.
The problem with developing Yucca Mountain and moving Nevada forward into a potentially bright future in science and engineering lay in too many Nevadans’ ignorance and fear of nuclear technology and the near inevitability there would be politicians ready and willing to exploit that ignorance, either cynically or from their own lack of understanding of the issues.
It was the Sutton Principle: When there are banks, someone is going to try and rob one. When there’s a hot issue, you can bet some politician is going to try and milk it for political power or money or both. For banks, guards are the solution; for politics, it’s education of the public.
Simple, huh? Yes, if somebody will do the educating — a big if!
Between President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in early 1983 and today, no branch of the federal government, including the Department of Energy, which has jurisdiction over Yucca Mountain, has made a sustained effort to educate Americans — more importantly, the residents of Nevada — on the production and safety of nuclear power and the proper safe handling and storage of spent fuel.
Early on, there was a small effort by DOE to engage in educating Nevadans, but under pressure from the state, it was stopped. For whatever reason, other than answering a few questions at public meetings and some guided tours, public education just wasn’t part of DOE’s Yucca Mountain program.
The nuclear power industry, including the manufacturers and construction contractors of nuclear power plants and the nuclear power producers, have never made an effort of consequence to educate the public on nuclear power issues. This despite the fact that America was getting about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy.
Moreover, neither the federal government nor the nuclear power industry has made an effort, at least that I know of, to assess the public’s understanding and beliefs about nuclear power. Such research would have provided insight into the public thinking on the issue and how their fears and concerns might best be addressed.
I know this to be the case because I personally tried to get DOE, both in Nevada and Washington, D.C., to fund such research, and finally gave up in frustration. This, despite the fact DOE was spending billions to assess Yucca Mountain’s suitability for storage of spent fuel and early on had been warned that social factors would be key to the effort’s success.
As a result, opponents to Yucca Mountain and nuclear power have had a free ride to fib and dissemble on the dangers to Nevadans from the development of Yucca Mountain, basking for three decades in their own and their followers’ ignorance.
Harry Reid and Richard Bryan rode opposition to Yucca Mountain to the U.S. Senate, with Senator Reid eventually becoming Senate Majority Leader. Amazingly, in an effort to finish off Yucca Mountain once and for all, one of Reid’s strategies has ended up getting President Obama and his administration crossways with — that is to say, in violation of — the 1983 nuclear waste law; so say important recent court decisions.
The Way Forward
My own sense of the issue is that after 30 years of wandering in the wilderness, Yucca Mountain may well be approaching a tipping point.
If Senator Harry Reid were to resign today, Yucca Mountain would be back on track in six months or a year. The same would be true if the Republicans took control of the Senate.
It might even happen if Senator Reid is replaced as Senate Majority Leader, should the Democrats maintain control of the Senate. President Obama has no good reason to oppose Yucca Mountain other than to please Senator Reid.
The president’s home state, Illinois, has lots of spent fuel in temporary storage, some close to Chicago. The idea of storing spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites around the country indefinitely is a truly stupid idea and a result of Sutton Principle politics.
More and more, Harry Reid will come to be seen as an impediment to progress as views change as the world looks down the gun barrel at big-time energy-related problems. The Senator is holding up human progress.
CNN, the cable television network, through its motion picture division, CNN Films, has produced a documentary film on nuclear power, its safety and future. Titled “Pandora’s Promise,” it was made by film director Robert Stone and discusses the “weaknesses of renewables” and emphasizes the safety and advantages of nuclear power.
The network devoted an evening recently to showing and discussion of the film.
The film is the kind of important and enjoyable educational effort that DOE and the nuclear industry should have been putting out for the last 30 years.
I believe that the film and the importance of its message, signal a coming shift in public attitudes toward nuclear power and Yucca Mountain, and that such a change will offer enormous opportunity for Nevada and certainly for Nye County.
Nevada is not a rich state and must develop alternative strategies in order to provide more opportunities and a high standard of living for its people in the future.
With Yucca Mountain, southern Nevada, notably Nye County, will have the opportunity to become a major world center for science and engineering research and development.
The Nevada Test Site (aka NNSS) is the largest underutilized resource for development of avant garde resources in America, I believe.
Not just nuclear power, but other energy sources; and not just energy, but all types of science and engineering.
It’s worth noting that Bill Gates—yes, that Bill Gates—is currently involved in developing a new type of nuclear reactor that will burn spent fuel.
There is talk of building a prototype that will cost $5 billion. Where? In China. Why not on the Nevada Test Site? Researchers at MIT are working on the same problem.
Let’s move Nye County forward on these issues. I propose two things: we start a website to help educate the public on the safety and advantages of nuclear power, including Yucca Mountain.
Secondly, we begin a study group to start looking at possible scenarios for advancing Nye County as a site for science and engineering research and development, using the webssite to promote our ideas. It’s time to start getting ready.
Remember what Bob Dylan said: “The times they are a-changin’.” You know what they say about opportunity — it favors the prepared!