Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo of The Middlebury Campus
Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Wellstone and the Nuclear Question

Author: [no author name found]

When a plane carrying Paul Wellstone crashed over Minnesota two weeks ago, America lost a courageous statesmen and a determined advocate. But for the Northeast, which is home to the highest concentration of nuclear power plants in the country, the loss carries special meaning. During 12 years in the Senate, Wellstone's concern for the health and safety of all Americans, and his willingness to take up unpopular (at least among politicians) and politically dangerous causes, made him a vital participant in the debate on nuclear energy. With his passing, there is a great void in the very soul of American democracy.
I first heard the name Paul Wellstone in connection with the Texas-Maine-Vermont Compact and the west Texas town of Sierra Blanca. The compact, which was sponsored by Vermont's Senator Leahy, would have rid both Maine and Vermont of much of the radioactive waste produced by the Vermont Yankee and Maine Yankee nuclear power plants. Instead, the waste would have been trucked down south, to Sierra Blanca, a rural town in Texas. The plan was rapidly gaining widespread approval in Congress — after all, who stood to lose?
A similar facility in Barnwell, S. C., was reaching its capacity, and communities that had long welcomed the presence of power plants were beginning to balk at the suggestion that highly toxic waste would remain on site. But as much of the Senate unashamedly lined up behind the compact, only Wellstone stubbornly dissented. For months, Wellstone campaigned relentlessly for the people of Sierra Blanca, and kept the bill from going to vote.
As Wellstone explained, the fight against the facility was about protecting poor, minority communities across the country from playing host to the toxic waste of more affluent neighbors. At the time that Sierra Blanca was selected for this project, it was one of the poorest towns in Texas: The average income was less than $8,000, and 39 percent of residents lived below the poverty line. The largely Hispanic community was already home to one of the largest sewage treatment facilities in the world, each day bringing a new load of 250 tons of sewage from New York City. Moreover, the town was far from ideal as a storage site: Sierra Blanca sits on a flood plain and is located approximately 30 miles from an earthquake fault line. "For good or ill, we bear moral responsibility for what happens to the people of Sierra Blanca," Wellstone said at the time. And yet, even as the senator was becoming something of a folk idol to those fighting the project, Wellstone was marked an extremist by his colleagues in Congress.
When the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission bowed down to the tremendous popular opposition that had formed around the compact, and voted unanimously in October 1998 to deny the licensing application, Wellstone proclaimed, "Sound science, at least for now, has prevailed over politics of the lowest common denominator. We should remain vigilant to guard against future efforts to site dumps in areas like Sierra Blanca, areas chosen through the path of least political resistance."
It was a statement that the overwhelming majority of American politicians, however much in agreement, would never have had the courage to utter.

Edith Honan is a senior from Connecticut