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We're Not Gonna Take It
by D. Dowd Muska

uring World War II, Franklin Roosevelt assembled a number of influential senators to seek their support for the Manhattan Project. Making an atomic bomb, he told them, would require constructing a large facility to do the risky work of separating uranium 235 from its isotopes.

After hearing FDR’s spiel, Kenneth McKellar, Tennessee’s senior senator, posed this question: "Mr. President, just where in Tennessee are you planning to put this plant?"

Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome wasn’t much of a problem in the 1940s, but much has changed since then. In recent decades, community after community has refused—sometimes violently—to accept locally unwanted land uses (LULUs). Waste incinerators, landfills and nuclear waste dumps are the usual suspects. But as Herbert Inhaber writes in Slaying the NIMBY Dragon, many other facilities are now getting the cold shoulder, including affordable housing complexes, AIDS clinics and even day care centers.

Citizens are starting to rebel against any new project or facility with the potential to introduce even a slight element of risk to their region (not to mention a possible drop in property values). Anyone who’s been unlucky enough to be in the eye of a NIMBY storm will recognize the players (frightened soccer parents, siting officials, industry flacks, worrisome politicians) and the scenes (raucous public hearings, inflammatory press conferences, protest rallies) Inhaber describes. Simply put, the United States is becoming a NIMBY nation.

Inhaber holds a doctorate in experimental physics, but his primary work is in risk analysis (he’s currently at UNLV). He’s a veteran of many LULU conflicts, and his experiences have led him to conclude that there is a way to crack NIMBY gridlock.

Inhaber’s proposed siting model is a radical departure from existing procedures. Instead of government agencies forcing communities to accept a project they don’t want, Inhaber argues that governments should offer incentives for communities to volunteer a site. Since in a Dutch auction, the price falls (the scheme originated in Holland, where it was used to sell perishable flowers), Inhaber calls his proposal a "reverse Dutch auction." The process is simple: A siting authority announces the need for a LULU. It provides details on exactly what will be built and the possible risk involved. It then starts the bidding, raising the stakes until a community volunteers to be a host.

After outlining his NIMBY-slaying device, Inhaber offers a solid—and spirited—defense against inevitable naysayers. The reverse Dutch auction, he reveals, isn’t a theory—it already exists. Every day, airlines offer cash awards or free tickets to passengers willing to give up their seats on overbooked flights. "Having witnessed some of these auctions personally," Inhaber notes, "I can testify that they are invariably over in a few minutes."

After dispatching the "unworkability" objection, Inhaber proceeds to shoot down further criticisms. Is he arguing for any facility, any place, as long as the price is right? Absolutely not. "Pre-existing environmental or safety rules will be retained in the reverse Dutch auction." What about discrimination against the poor? "I find that rich communities, regardless of the siting system used, will almost always be able to escape facilities they do not want." (In Chapter 10, Inhaber offers a gutsy analysis of accusations of "environmental racism" in general, as well as class-warfare carping about his reverse Dutch auction.)

Does paying a community to swallow an undesirable project amount to bribery? No, he insists, since the process is open and no laws are being broken. Furthermore, Inhaber believes money cannot be the only tool used to fix NIMBYism. Sociological data indicate that communities want control over LULUs, and Inhaber argues that the power to shut the facility down and change its operator is essential for the reverse Dutch auction solution to work.

And yes, Inhaber makes numerous references to the Mother of All LULUs, the Yucca Mountain Project. He mentions many of the low points of the Yucca saga—most notably the state of Nevada’s use of federal funds for anti-nuclear agitprop, and the failure of New Mexico to negotiate a deal whereby the Land of Enchantment would accept the high-level radioative waste repository if the federal government also threw in the superconducting supercollider.

A self-admitted "techno-nerd," Inhaber’s detailed NIMBY analysis sometimes obscures the force of his main argument, and occasional corny references might roll a few eyes. But the star of Slaying the NIMBY Dragon—his reverse Dutch auction model—shines through.

"Whenever possible," Inhaber writes, "we should place decision-making on the level closest to the people. They are wiser than some imagine." If such thinking were not anathema to most of the technocrats charged with siting unwanted facilities, the Battle of Yucca Mountain—and many other NIMBY skirmishes—might have been avoided.  NJ

D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor of Nevada Journal.


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