Last week these people, as well as residents of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Minnesota, where similar protests had been mounted, heard that their states no longer were in contention for a high-level nuclear waste facility. The search for a suitable repository for the radioactive waste produced by commercial reactors and defense activities has been narrowed to sites in the states of Washington, Nevada and Texas, and efforts to situate a second facility in the East have been scrapped, according to Energy Secretary John S. Herrington.
That news prompted elation among residents east of the Mississippi and a rush to the courthouse by state officials in Nevada, Texas and Washington to challenge the federal government's selection process.
All this just serves to reaffirm in the minds of many that the driving force behind nuclear-waste decisions in this country is, and has always been, politics, pure and simple. Other things, such as technology and public safety, are way down on the priority list.
In many respects, the decision to build just one high-level waste facility is sensible politically and environmentally. Quite probably, a single repository will be adequate to meet the nation's needs for the foreseeable future. Why should the federal government move ahead with developing a second multibillion-dollar waste site before it has any operating experience with the first one? Would it not be wiser to sacrifice only one piece of ground to debris that retains radioactivity for thousands of years and will require a specially designed hieroglyphic so future civilizations can understand what was buried in the 20th century?
The nagging question that remains in the wake of last week's announcement is this, however: Will the site selected by the Energy Department be the best location, or will it just be the most politically expedient?
In marked contrast to the uproar in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Virginia and elsewhere, officials in towns adjacent to the federal nuclear installation at Richland, Wash., greeted their selection as a prime candidate for a high- level waste site calmly. "It means jobs," said one official. While that attitude doesn't prevail far beyond the borders of the towns, where opposition to the waste site is strong, it may be all that the Energy Department needs.
The fact that department officials aren't confronted with angry protesters in Richland may convince them to overlook the fact that the geology and hydrology beneath the site appear to make it unsatisfactory for the safe isolation of the waste.
By narrowing the search to three sites, the department may have scored a public-relations coup (except in Nevada, Washington and Texas), but it also may have ensured that the nation will not get the safest waste repository.
The waste now is being stored where it is generated - in deep pools adjacent to nuclear reactors and at federal defense installations. It is a temporary "solution" to the disposal problem. As long as politics drives the nuclear-waste decision-making process, however, the status quo is far preferable to making a costly mistake that will be around to haunt mankind for thousands of years.