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Originally published Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Daydreaming through the nuclear-power night

Bringing back nuclear power to the Pacific Northwest has been such a taboo subject in political circles that you would think the rivers would have to run dust-dry before the topic is accepted at wine parties in Magnolia.

Bringing back nuclear power to the Pacific Northwest has been such a taboo subject in political circles that you would think the rivers would have to run dust-dry before the topic is accepted at wine parties in Magnolia.

But times change, and so do the requirements of power. Nukes are the fact of electrical life in this state and others, often in the nonspoken world of, "they are there but we don't talk about them."Yet no rational policymaker can take nuclear energy completely off the table. Certainly, other nations have recognized that, and nearly every state.

This week, two events — one overseas and one in California — sent different messages about the future of our light bills. In Italy, the country reversed its decades-old ban on nuclear power stations. That decision, delivered by popular vote in the 1980s, forbade the creation of nuclear power plants.

The afterlife of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island was still ticking and the great weakness of nuclear power, the Achilles' heel of nuclear waste, gave everyone a hangover.

But Italy announced this week it would rejoin the civilian nuclear-power-plant community in five years. The United Kingdom recently introduced nuclear in its power mix when, according to The New York Times, British Business Secretary John Hutton lumped nuclear power among the "low-carbon sources of energy."

Italy, the largest net importer of energy in Europe, looks aghast at the price of oil, the fragile pipelines that reach Europe from Russia and the calamities of the Mid-East. Just as we do.

In today's editorial on the facing page, The Seattle Times notes the disaster — both politically and legally — of Initiative 297, the ill-conceived idea that this state could instruct the federal government how to handle the waste stored at Hanford.

These pages, plus so many other editorial voices in our state, have scorned and lamented the federal government's sporadic cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland. In effect, Washington took on a burden of national defense when it was needed during World War II and the Cold War, and has been paying the price ever since.

But anger is not always rational, and neither was I-297, a declaration by the people that no more nuclear waste would be shipped to the Hanford reservation until a cleanup was completed. Such an easy vote, such a vote free of cost to Washingtonians, such a noble idea — and so wrong it mocks the notion of rational thought.

That's what a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals thought, in so many words, when it upheld a lower court's decision that the states have little power to regulate what's on a federal reserve.

If America returns in full sunlight to nuclear power, which I think eventually it must, it has to do so with federal authority — perhaps a single design for all plants, perhaps with borrowed technology from the Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese. To let such power stay idle is going to be too much waste for future generations.

But back to the autopsy of I-297, as calculated a suicide as ever seen in the public sector.

Fine lawyers, some in the governor's office, some aspiring to be governor, some sitting in Congress and some just sitting, must have known the initiative was doomed on legal grounds. People in the Tri-Cities, who know Hanford and nuclear waste firsthand, came to The Times and both predicted the passage of the empty initiative and foretold its resulting confusion and cost.

Those who can't abide the science of nuclear power won that day at the polls. The loss was again one of public confidence in the initiative process, the deliberate coyness of politicians who are paid to know better about the relationship between the federal government and the states, and the daydreamers who think so shallowly about the energies of feeding and lighting the nation.

Daydreamers, indeed, or officeholders calculating the odds of backing an initiative without legal merit. Either way, a sorry bunch.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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