05/17/2010 02:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oil Spills and Nuclear Waste Dumps: Giving States Choice

The "American Power Act", the Kerry/Lieberman energy bill, was drafted to offer a lot of encouragement for offshore drilling. But then the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapsed in the Gulf of Mexico and reminded everybody that, though drilling rig collapses are extraordinarily rare, they make a disastrous mess when they happen. The incentives to drill were kept, but the legislation was quickly amended to give states veto power over offshore drilling within 75 miles of shore.

Why is that offered as a compromise? Does it make any less likely offshore oil rigs might collapse? Of course not. And it only marginally reduces the risk of onshore damage should a spill occur, since whether the oil comes ashore is a matter more of tides and currents and wind and rate of release than proximity. So why does giving states veto power somehow make the risk of offshore drilling seem different?

In a word...choice. As I point out in How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, Any risk we choose to take feels less threatening than if the same risk is imposed on us by others. The best example of this is cell phones and driving. Have you ever been on your phone motoring down the road, and you look over and the driver in the lane next to you is using his phone, and speeding up and slowing down and weaving in and out of his lane (just like you), and you say to yourself, "That selfish ba--ard is putting me at risk! Boy, they oughta ban cell phones and driving!" You're doing it, but the other guy doing it to you makes your blood boil.

You should be more worried about DWP -- Driving while Phoning -- yourself. The risk you will hurt or kill yourself by DWP is four times greater than being hurt by another chatting driver. But doing it by choice, just doesn't feel as threatening. Of course with driving, you are also playing the risk down in your mind because of the psychological influence of that warm fuzzy -- albeit false -- feeling of control. But there is a purer example of the influence of choice on risk perception, on a societal scale, having to do with the permanent disposal of high level nuclear waste.

In the U.S., three potential sites for such a repository were originally being investigated, starting back in the 70s. But in 1986 Congress voted to only fund research on the site near Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain. Public resistance to that point had been minimal, but when Nevadans realized Congress essentially was imposing the risk on them, opposition escalated dramatically and grew so intense and gained such political traction that the U.S. government recently abandoned work on Yucca. Nearly 10 billion dollars later and 30+ years later, we're back to square one.

Let's compare that to Finland. Their government announced they would find a place to dispose of nuclear waste and just several years later, the facility is not only sited but it's nearing completion. And choice had a lot to do with that success. The Finns first identified all the communities that could take the stuff, based on the geology and hydrology and climate -- the science. Then they offered the candidate communities several million dollars to engage in a several-years-long process of learning all the details of what would be involved.

And then -- here's the kicker -- the Finnish siting process said that at the end of that research phase, any community that wanted to could JUST SAY NO! They had an absolute veto. 4 communities vetoed the idea. Two saw the benefits (high paying jobs, taxes) as outweighing the risks (the stuff will be buried and sealed miles deep in solid rock) and competed to host the facility. They fought to host a high level nuclear waste dump. Imagine if they were told they had no say in the matter! Like the people in Nevada were.

So we're back to Kerry/Lieberman's idea to give coastal states veto power over offshore drilling. It does little reduce the actual risk, but everything to make the risk feel different. That's how it is with perception or any risk. It's not just a matter of the science and the probabilities and the facts. It's how those facts feel. The supporters of the Kerry/Lieberman energy bill know it. The U.S. Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, charged with figuring out what to do with nuclear waste now that Yucca is dead, would do well to also recognize how important risk perception will be to the success of whatever they come up with.