Friday, July 24, 2009

"Yucca Mountain Syndrome" Infects Colorado

Some people call it "cognitive dissonance." I call it the Yucca Mountain Syndrome. And I'm sorry to report that strains of it are sweeping parts of Western Colorado.

Symptoms of the malady are as follows: It's a fear- and phobia-based psychological disorder in which the infected party understands, on an intellectual level, that public safety will be enhanced if dangerous substances are stored in a secure centralized repository, yet opposes the placement of such a repository in their vicinity, based on an irrational belief that this will do them harm. Sufferers of Yucca Mountain Syndrome (or YMS) deeply care about public safety on one hand, yet refuse to take the steps necessary to improve public safety, if those steps are viewed as threatening to their individual wellbeing.

They want contradictory things but recognize no contradiction. Reasoning with a YMS sufferer isn't possible. And no amount of scientific education or official reassurances will allay their superstition-like fears. In fact, the more one tries to put their apprehensions to rest, the more hysterical their demands for reassurance become.

In individuals, the effects of an outbreak may be relatively benign: the person who lives in a cockroach-infested home because he fears a can of Raid more, for instance. But a mass infection of YMS can have paralyzing consequences for modern society, which depends on citizens acting rationally and having a measure of trust in science and technology.

YMS seems to have its origins in Nevada, stemming from a now-aborted proposal to build a nuclear waste storage facility in the state (at a place called Yucca Mountain). Even many of the leaders in that state -- including members of Congress -- have been infected, clouding their judgments on certain policy matters.

But a new strain of the syndrome has cropped up in Western Colorado, around Grand Junction, in response to a proposal to put a federal mercury repository in the area. And it's already infected the thinking of some state leaders, including Gov. Bill Ritter, who began showing symptoms after the mercury storage issue hit the headlines.

There is no known cure for YMS. We may just have to let the mania run its course -- like the Salem witch hunts ran their course -- and hope that reason is restored in time to avert the calamity that's sure to occur if the nation refuses to deal rationally and responsibility with hazardous waste management and storage.

Until a vaccine is developed, the best we can do is reason with YMS sufferers and hope their fevers eventually pass.

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