People have no idea what to say when I tell them I write about nuclear waste for a living. They might ask if I studied nuclear engineering in college, or maybe nuclear physics. Sometimes I play along with that idea, telling them that I’m a mad scientist, a descendant of Albert Einstein who’s unwilling to tap into his genius for the horrible way the world would uses it. But the truth is I have no designs of pursing scientific celebrity; I write about nuclear power plants for a trade journal. I’m just an average man with average intelligence, maybe slightly below average, maybe slightly above average, depending on who you ask. I’m a trained journalist who’s good at translating dense material for the public. Whose skill set began developing in Aspen, Colorado, where I worked as a reporter, delivering bureaucratic translations on real estate development. I digested miles of zoning codes and regulations and spit it out in plain English, so that people in Aspen could understand real estate developers’ intentions with their properties. So that they could know whether those plans aligned with their own vision of Aspen.
I’ve since graduated to the federal level, now delivering translations about America’s massive nuclear waste problem. Most people don’t know anything about it. So here’s the issue, which is the exact same issue with many things in this country: Congress cannot agree on what to do with the waste. Since the 1980s, nuclear power has produced about 74,000 metric tons of it. This waste is sitting at 100 power plant sites around the country because Congress can’t decide where to bury it. It can be found in places like southern California, where residents fear a Fukushima-like disaster in a major metropolitan area, given the waste’s proximity to fault lines and the Pacific Ocean. Others say the waste is safe where it is, and that lawmakers are essentially screaming fire in a crowded movie theater when they discuss these dangers. Congress had originally signed into law that they were going to bury all this waste in the Nevada desert. So nuclear waste communities geared up and began preparing to ship the waste to Yucca Mountain, which is about 90 miles from Las Vegas. But then Nevada decided they didn’t want to become a nuclear waste dumping ground, citing the impact it might have the Vegas tourism industry. The waste has since been stranded around the country, as Republicans and Democrats try to agree on a long-term solution.
I found myself at a conference in Vegas a few months ago, talking to the people who are trying to solve the issue. Naturally I gravitated toward the drunkest man at the event, who was sitting at the roulette table looking disheveled. He explained his system of betting, which involved throwing his chips all over the board and downing a cocktail while that little ball spun around the wheel and decided his fate. This man, it seemed, was a genius, a drunken savant of sorts, as the dealer had been pushing chips his way all night. Me — I left the roulette table after several hours, penniless and disillusioned, wondering about my friend, who remained red-faced and full of life, pondering his next play, his next toss.
My talents have also taken me to a conference in Charlotte, just weeks after police shot and killed 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, which inspired riots around the city. The hotel where I was staying had been thrashed, the sliding glass door at the entrance destroyed and replaced with wooden panels, which were covered in graffiti — messages of solidarity for this volatile city. A few of the people I spoke with seemed confused by what had happened. A bartender, who served me up some Carolina style barbecue, told me that Charlotte is one of the safest cities in America, that nothing like this ever happens. A cab driver told me how he had advised a couple against taking a ride downtown that week. They didn’t listen, though, and they got caught in the middle of the riot. The protesters surrounded the vehicle and rocked it back and forth, but nothing more. Of course, none of this has anything to do with nuclear waste, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant to the original question.