If you’re looking for mountainside property, one place to avoid would be Yucca Mountain, Nevada. That’s likely to be the case for a long time — say, about the next million years.

Just how long Yucca Mountain may be an undesirable location came to light earlier this month in a court case over the U.S. government’s plan to bury nuclear waste there.

There’s no dispute that nuclear waste remains dangerously radioactive for a long time; the dispute was over just how long.

Washington’s burial plan made provisions for protecting the public from radioactive leaks for 10,000 years — quite a long time for a culture that no longer has the patience to even dial telephone numbers.

But it wasn’t long enough to satisfy a U.S. appeals court, which dealt Washington a temporary setback in its 17-year effort to win the right to bury nuclear waste at the Nevada site — over the objections of Nevada.

The court cited evidence from the National Academy of Sciences to the effect that radioactive leaks could be expected for up to a million years. For what it’s worth, the academy predicted the risk would be greatest about 300,000 years from now.

These sorts of mind-boggling numbers merely highlight the ongoing, unsolved dilemma of disposing of nuclear waste, a gigantic problem that would seem, on the face of it, to rule out any move in the direction of making ourselves more reliant than we already are on nuclear power.

Incredibly, however, this isn’t the case. The Bush administration has expressed keenness for building new reactors.

And, right here in Ontario, the McGuinty government is currently contemplating whether to freshly embrace nuclear power, as it tries to figure out how to deal with an expected energy crunch.

There’s been surprisingly little public debate over the prospect of a revived commitment to nuclear power, even though it would involve us hitching our wagon more tightly to a power source that has been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of most people since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania — not to mention the actual meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986.

Given this public disenchantment, there’s been no investment in new nuclear reactors in Canada or the U.S. since the 1970s.

Ontario made massive investments in nuclear power in the 1970s — investments that saddled Ontario electricity consumers with enormous debts that we are still paying off.

These plants haven’t just been financially disastrous; they also haven’t worked that well.

Eight of our 20 reactors were shut down in the mid-1990s. Today, five are out of order and require very expensive repairs. The rest will soon be coming to the end of their natural life, if a nuclear plant can be said to have such a thing.

All this would seem to confirm the view that nuclear power is a phenomenon best put behind us — except, of course, for working out that pesky problem about how to get rid of the waste that’s already been generated.

But the anticipated energy crunch in Ontario has given new life to the nuclear industry.

“The industry is circling the injured beast like sharks in the water,” says Ottawa-based energy consultant Ralph Torrie.

The McGuinty government just announced it would spend another $900 million to finish repairing one of the Pickering reactors, a move Torrie compares to a gambler believing that if he makes just one more bet, he’ll win all his money back.

The revived interest in nukes is partly due to the realization that other energy sources, particularly coal and oil, are contributing to global warming.

We appear to be left with the choice of either frying the Earth or contaminating it for the next million years.

In fact, neither is necessary. Torrie argues that the solution lies in adopting available technologies for more energy-efficient appliances and lighting systems. We’ve already made huge advances in this direction but could go much farther.

A recent study by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute backs this up, and sets out in detail how Ontario could use efficiency gains to wean itself off both nuclear and coal-fired power plants. The study notes that nuclear power “has never lived up to its promise.”

Indeed, the nuclear industry wouldn’t even be in business if it didn’t enjoy the huge helping hand of government.

Canada, like other countries, has passed legislation limiting the nuclear industry’s liability in the event of a meltdown.

That’s been great for the industry, but it’s also meant that Yucca Mountain and vicinity will likely be an area to avoid for the foreseeable future.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...