Local Self-Reliance: Prohibiting Transport of Nuclear Materials in New York

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Recent battles over the issue of nuclear waste storage serve as yet further examples of the current administration's "forked tongue" when it comes to conflicts between local self-determination and nuclear power.

The latest local self-reliance column covers the legal battle between the federal government suing New York on prohibiting transport of nuclear materials in New York.

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Ironically, the same
administration that claims to support local
self-reliance–and he delegation of authority from
federal to state and community levels–is actually
centralizing authority and preventing local self-reliance
when it comes to such issues as nuclear energy.

Recently, New
York City enacted legislation prohibiting transport of nuclear materials in New York. Concerned over
the possibly disastrous effects of–and he potential
for–accidents involving vehicles carrying such
substances on local thoroughfares, the city council believed
that it was exercising a clear right.

But the federal
government disagreed . . . and so the United States
Department of Transportation sued the city, arguing that
nuclear power is a national issue, and therefore the federal
government alone has authority to regulate operations
(including the transport of materials). Fortunately, the
courts decided otherwise . . . and upheld the Big Apple’s

Recent battles over the issue of nuclear waste
storage serve as yet further examples of the current
administration’s “forked tongue” when it comes to conflicts
between local self-determination and nuclear power.

years ago, storage sites for radioactive waste were
established–by federal mandate–for broad regions
of the country. Generally, these sites are located in
politically conservative, and largely pronuclear, states . .
. such as South Carolina, Nevada, Washington, and Utah.

the lack of certainty over the long-term security of existing
storage techniques has caused even these states to express
concern about dump sites. Last summer, for example, Governor
Matheson of Utah told the federal government that–until
an environmental impact statement could be
developed–he’d do his best to stop any further attempts
by the administration to establish a dump in that state’s
Canyonlands National Park. [EDITOR’S NOTE: For further
information on this issue, see the Friends of the Earth
column in this issue on page 106.]

Also, in August, Nevada’s Department of
Environmental Protection voted 4 to 1 to close its existing
waste dump, leaving only two remaining sites–one in
Washington and the other in South Carolina–in the
country. But the Sagebrush State may well run into the same
trouble Washington encountered last year when its legislature
made a similar move to ban further dumping: The United States
sued, and the courts upheld the federal government’s
preemption of local authority.

Nuclear power and democracy are, apparently, incompatible.

However, the contradiction between the administration’s stated philosophy and actual
deeds is not confined to the issue of nuclear energy. For
example, at the time of this writing (early September), a
bill is wending its way through Congress that will–if
passed–give coal companies the right to seize private
property on which to build coal-slurry pipelines. The firms
argue that the pipelines would reduce the cost of
transporting coal, thereby lowering the price of electricity.

But should coal firms–or any corporate entities, for
that matter–be awarded the power to confiscate a
person’s property? As you probably know, that right was given
to utility companies years ago . . . for generations, now,
they’ve been allowed to take over private land on which they
plan to build transmission lines. There was little resistance
to the policy at first. But as the country grew, the wires
carried higher and higher voltages and the towers became
taller . . . and residents–fearing that the magnetic
fields surrounding the crackling lines might damage the
health of humans and animals–began to voice their

In fact, some years back, a virtual war broke out
between local citizens and powerline construction workers in
Minnesota. Farmers shot out glass insulators and overturned
towers . . . and eventually the FBI was called in and built
guard posts every few hundred yards along the construction
sites, to protect the crews and equipment.

Of course,
American history is fraught with examples of the tug-of-war
between political philosophy and the demands of technology.
Thomas Jefferson once envisioned the U.S. as a democratic
nation based on the independent landowning farmer. Toward the
end of his life, though, Jefferson had reluctantly accepted
the economic value of big cities and altered his political
vision of America: Our system could no longer be based on
one-to-one democracy . . . instead, the country would have a
centralized representative government.

Now, we seem to beat
another such turning point in our history. Local
self-reliance is a philosophy that carries with it a
technical dynamic. The machines with which we surround our
lives, the productive capacity we strive to build, can
promote our independence . . . or undermine it. If, in fact,
the Reagan administration is correct–that is, if the
people of this country really do want decentralization of
authority and responsibility–then all of us, including
our leaders, will have to rethink our current dependence on
technologies that by their very nature belie that democratic