A Nation of Immigrants

Radioactive Waste

Thanks for the thoughtful articles on immigration by David M. Kennedy ("Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?") and George J. Borjas ("The New Economics of Immigration") in the November Atlantic. Kennedy deserves praise for pointing out the unprecedented, potentially destabilizing migration from Central America to the states from Texas west to California. Borjas rightly stresses the harmful effects of current immigration policies on lower-income Americans.

Yet neither article addresses what I consider to be the key issue in the debate over immigration -- namely, what is the ideal size of the U.S. population fifty or a hundred years from now? For the past generation immigration has been the leading source of America's population growth. In particular, it has been a major cause of the growing congestion in urban areas such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Miami -- and, closer to where I live, in Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Columbia, and Atlanta. If high rates of immigration continue, the Census Bureau predicts, the U.S. population will grow from about 265 million today to roughly 450 million by 2050.

Wouldn't the quality of life -- for natural systems as well as for our children and grandchildren -- be better if the U.S. population stabilized at under 300 million instead of nearly doubling in the twenty-first century? The November, 1996, issue of National Geographic notes that "Colorado [a mecca for recent immigrants] is losing some 90,000 acres of rural land a year to . . . development." Similarly, rapid population growth in my native North Carolina is transforming beautiful farms, forests, mountain meadows, and coastal wetlands into unsightly, pretentious subdivisions.

Thinking ahead, as the Harvard scholars Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May urged us to do in Thinking in Time (1986), one asks, Does it make any sense to keep the gates open for a continuing flow of immigrants? And wouldn't closing them make it more likely that nations like Mexico and India would take more seriously their manifest need to limit their own populations?

Ralph B. Levering

David Kennedy is correct that the earlier European immigration should properly be understood as a movement from overpopulated rural Europe to industrial cities. Those cities were in Europe, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere (Buenos Aires, for example). However, the effect on the United States did not stop with the passage of restrictive immigration legislation in the 1920s. The source of immigrants just shifted, from southeastern Europe to the southeastern United States, and this resulted in the northward migration of American-born blacks from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. Economic growth in the northeastern United States absorbed those immigrants, whether they were from Ireland, Italy, or Alabama. Sometime around 1970 the growth rate of the U.S. economy shifted from the historical average of three percent to about one percent. Hence distributional issues have come increasingly to the fore of national politics ever since (affirmative action, welfare, trade restrictions).

George Borjas is correct that the economic impact of immigration at the levels under discussion is probably small in the aggregate but potentially large in its distributional impact. This has always been true -- native male laborers in the northern United States probably experienced a "silent recession" in the twenty- year period prior to the Civil War owing to immigrant competition. However, economic growth was strong enough to absorb that impact with only a fleeting nativist reaction: know-nothingism.

Ultimately, the issue is U.S. economic growth -- the causes of which, both historically and currently, are little understood. Is the economy growing fast enough to absorb the regressive distributional impact of immigration without triggering a backlash from low-income native Americans? The earlier European immigration was absorbed by an America that, within the constraints of the business cycle, experienced sustained economic growth high enough to minimize social tension. The current immigration is being absorbed by a different America, one with an anemic economic growth rate. I doubt that we will be able to absorb immigrants as easily as our ancestors did.

James J. Bante

The excellent articles dealing with immigration illustrate a common shortcoming: that the narrow window of economics is the primary viewing port this nation ought to use for observing immigration's effects and proposing solutions. Economics does play an important part, but we need to view the issue from a much larger perspective, that of overall population pressure.

Few recall or even know that the 1972 Rockefeller Commission concluded that immigration would provide no benefits to a growing population, that the economy does not depend upon it, that democratic representation is diluted by it, that the life of the average person is not enhanced by it, and that most of our major problems would be easier to solve if we stopped growing. This was proclaimed more than twenty-four years and 55 million people ago, and we are still avoiding the issue.

Setting aside a discussion of natural resources as they relate to supporting a given population, how do we even begin to assess the social, psychological, and political carrying capacity of a nation like the United States? One example will suffice to illustrate where we find ourselves on the continuum from optimum to apocalypse, and should suggest that we move in a different direction.

When this nation was founded, the ratio between federal representatives and constituents was 1:30,000. Today the ratio is 1:600,000 and growing. This twentyfold increase in the ratio translates into a twentyfold dilution of each citizen's effective political representation. The ratio is even greater in the Senate. Another way of expressing this is to note that we would need 8,700 members of the House, rather than the current 435, to restore the original ratio.

We have heard much over the past several months lamenting the lack of voter participation, the general disgust with politics, the alienation from public life. Voter turnout has steadily declined, from around 80 percent at the turn of the century to less than 50 percent on November 5.

Multiple reasons are paraded in newspaper headlines, talk-show chatter, and TV broadcasts. If only we got the money out of politics, or outlawed negative ads, or provided greater access for alternative candidates, then things would be better. Perhaps. But the accumulative effect of our growing population is never mentioned, and it seems to me that we are tragically missing a most important contributor to our collective malaise.

M. Boyd Wilcox

David Kennedy talks about the "virtual extinction of the parochial school system" and "the empty schools" that supposedly "litter the inner cores of the old immigrant cities."

The last time I checked with the National Catholic Educational Association, which keeps track of such things, there were 8,293 parochial schools, with 2.6 million students. More than a thousand of these schools are in inner cities, including New York and Chicago, where city officials are trying to figure out why they work and public schools often don't. Enrollment is rising at all levels, with preschool enrollment up by 400 percent over the past ten years.

Clearly Kennedy is right when he says that new immigration raises new questions. To answer them, though, he needs to get a little closer to the data.

John Fialka

America cannot morally justify a total ban on immigration, nor can it forsake its responsibility to help others bring their standard of living up to ours. But neither can we give foreign governments an eternal safety valve for not taking the politically difficult steps needed to reduce their people's desire to emigrate. In order to preserve the small fraction of the Creation that is left, we must take a balanced approach and reduce our high levels of immigration.

Robert Bloksberg-Fireovid

Several correspondents make what might be called the environmental case against immigration: that immigrants exacerbate already troublesome pressures on scarce natural resources such as agricultural and timber lands and water supplies, and contribute disproportionately to population growth. There is no doubt some truth in those arguments, though one might ask whether it is low-wage immigrants or affluent natives who are more aggressively gobbling up precious mountain meadows and coastal wetlands. I don't think we would be appreciably better able to grapple with our thorniest environmental issues if we eliminated all immigration tomorrow, for the simple reason that the principal dynamics of environmental degradation spring from consumerism and from technologies that have little or nothing to do with the kinds of lives most immigrants lead.

The population issue is trickier. Estimates of the immigrant contribution to recent population growth in the United States range from about 30 percent to 50 percent, depending on what sort of allowance is made for the differential in native and immigrant fertility rates. Yet if one takes a global perspective, it may well be the case that immigration from emerging to developed countries eventually lessens planetary population-growth rates, for the well-known reason that the prospect of upward economic mobility -- the main motive for immigration, after all -- is the single most powerful incentive for the voluntary limitation of reproduction. To put it another way, those same immigrants whose high fertility rates relative to native-born Americans nudge up population-growth rates in the United States might have been even more prolific had they remained in their low-opportunity countries of origin.

As for John Fialka's census of the Roman Catholic school population: he has the numbers right for the 1994-1995 school year, and as a grateful product of the Catholic school system, I'm delighted to know that some 2.6 million students are still benefiting from its programs in 8,293 schools. My point, however, had to do with the long-term decline in Catholic-school enrollments. The source he cites, the National Catholic Educational Association, reports that in 1960 there were 12,893 Catholic elementary and secondary schools, enrolling 5,253,000 students. The difference between 1960 and 1996 amounts to quite a few "empty schools" -- 4,600 of them, to be exact, not to mention some 2.6 million fewer students, fully half the 1960 enrollment.

Re Steven Nadis's article "The Sub-Seabed Solution" (October Atlantic): The author talked with me at length. His two short quotations from me were the tip of the iceberg, though, as far as the information I shared with him goes. At his request, I sent him a stack of documents -- including London (Dumping) Convention meeting reports, technical papers, and news clips -- all of which made it clear that the dominant view of scientists and others is that seabed burial is a bad idea.

Seabed-burial concepts were the subject of a number of Sandia Lab and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development studies in the 1970s and 1980s, prior to the Department of Energy's termination of the program in 1986. Contrary to the testimony of Charles Hollister, the leading proponent of seabed burial, those studies were neither comprehensive nor transparent. Citizen groups concerned with those studies, for example, were not allowed to participate in, or even observe, the periodic technical reviews, despite repeated requests to do so.

A series of international agreements dating back to the late 1950s reflect special and growing concern with the potential harm of ocean disposal of radioactive wastes. In 1970 the newly established Council on Environmental Quality concluded that ocean dumping of radioactive wastes presented a serious and growing threat to the marine environment. It recommended that the ocean be considered a dumpsite of last resort, despite some dumping in the forties, fifties, and sixties, and no such dumping off U.S. shores under a U.S. permit has occurred since.

In 1976 the Environmental Protection Agency issued a legal opinion that seabed burial of radioactive waste is, in fact, ocean disposal or "dumping" under our domestic Ocean Dumping Act. That policy has never been seriously challenged, let alone reversed. And with good cause. In contrast to land masses, the oceans are a continuous space with three broad types of interface: land margins, the atmosphere, and the seabed. Thus it is difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the permanent isolation of radioactive wastes -- if "buried" in the seabed -- from the biosphere.

As Nadis himself predicted, on November 8, 1996, the governments participating in the global treaty that regulates ocean dumping agreed to amendments that prohibit seabed burial of radioactive and industrial waste.

Clifton Curtis

Washington, D.C.

Steve Nadis was misled by one of the few people he interviewed -- Charles Hollister, who stands to gain from research on ocean dumping. Nadis suggests that the ocean-disposal option for radioactive wastes has been kept a secret from the public; in fact it received a great deal of media attention.

Hollister, who is not a biologist, clings to the belief that deep-sea life is insignificant. Marine biology advanced beyond that view many years ago, but Nadis did not interview marine biologists. Those who worked on the Sandia project would, of course, agree with Hollister that they should have been able to do more research: scientists always believe that more research is needed, because research is their livelihood. However, they would also tell you that one of the discoveries of that project was an immense, hitherto unknown diversity of animal life on and in the deep-sea floor -- potential victims, perhaps.

Nadis worries that the water table will become contaminated by radioactivity if the waste is buried in Yucca Mountain. Yet Hollister claims that no radioactivity would escape into the ocean water that circulates through the muds at the bottom of the sea!

Hollister believes that "gravity" will keep radioactive wastes "down." But dissolved materials move with the water, be it groundwater or ocean water. Large-scale circulation eventually returns ocean-bottom water to the surface, just as surface water sinks. Furthermore, research reported a few years ago in Science describes an up elevator for deep-water microbes living on debris that becomes buoyant as it decomposes. That and the marine food chain are possible vectors for sea-floor contaminants to escape into the biosphere.

Finally, Nadis touts Hollister's research on the effects of the Soviet nuclear sub that sank in the Norwegian Sea: no effects were found. He fails to mention, however, that the research cruise probably did not come close enough to the site of the submarine to measure effects, if there were any. Furthermore, effects from the seepage of radioactivity can be expected over a longer period of time than the three years between the sinking and the research, as is admitted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Boyce Thorne Miller

Unfortunately, in his brief discussion of Yucca Mountain, Steve Nadis does not mention its favorable features; he simply repeats the dramatic but technically minor or invalid objections used by opponents of Yucca Mountain: its proximity to seismically active faults and a volcano, and the possible rise of the water table to flood the repository. All have been thoroughly studied and publicly reviewed.

Earthquakes may cause the surface to shake but are not a hazard in tunnels deep underground. The volcano is a small cinder cone about 400 feet high and ten miles from the site. The risks that a similar volcanic vent would intercept the repository are estimated at about one in 100,000 over the next 10,000 years. The possible rise of the water table to the level of the repository was dismissed as baseless by a seventeen-person National Research Council panel.

The main problem in a repository is keeping moving groundwater that could dissolve and transport nuclides away from the waste. U.S. Geological Survey scientists in the early 1980s suggested that the DOE locate a repository above the water table at Yucca Mountain. All other proposed sites are below the water table, where any openings eventually fill with groundwater. Because the tunnels would be several hundred feet above the water table, which is about 1,800 feet deep in this arid region, they would never fill with water. At worst a small amount of water dripping or intermittently draining from fractures might encounter the waste canisters.

The naturally dry tunnels at Yucca Mountain could allow the waste to be monitored for centuries and retrieved if necessary. Because Yucca Mountain lies in a closed basin near Death Valley, the lowest point in the United States, the only people who might ever be at risk would be those who used water from deep wells south of Yucca Mountain in an area about ten by twenty miles. The risks would occur only during future wetter glacial periods (when New York and Chicago will be under several hundred feet of ice).

Yucca Mountain has been studied in great detail for fifteen years. No serious flaws have been found, and it continues to be a good potential solution for U.S. high-level nuclear waste.

Eugene H. Roseboom Jr.

I appreciate the assistance provided by Clifton Curtis in the preparation of my article, but he offered little evidence to support his claim that scientists have ruled out the sub-seabed approach on technical grounds. Moreover, nothing he said -- and none of the written material he sent -- persuaded me that the emplacement of wastes in geologically stable muds and clays well beneath the ocean floor is the same thing as "ocean dumping." So far as I can tell, sub-seabed disposal has about as much to do with "dumping" as the interment of nuclear wastes in Yucca Mountain has to do with "littering."

Although Boyce Thorne Miller contends that I was "misled," I consider his letter to be misleading and, at times, blatantly incorrect. Contrary to Miller's allegations, Charles Hollister, a geologist and an oceanographer by training, has considerable expertise in deep-sea biology, having written a 700-page book on the subject (The Face of the Deep) for Oxford University Press. Miller's suggestion that ocean water circulates through muds 100 meters beneath the sea floor has no basis in physical reality. As for the sunken Soviet nuclear submarine, Hollister and his colleagues not only got their monitoring equipment "close" to the site but actually placed the devices inside the vessel -- a fact documented on videotape.

Eugene Roseboom's comments, in contrast, were remarkably well informed. I agree that Yucca Mountain may prove to be a suitable repository for high-level nuclear wastes. Nevertheless, the site, as suggested in my article, was selected largely for political reasons -- the result of a process sometimes referred to as the "screw Nevada" strategy. What's more, Yucca Mountain could house only a portion of the high-level wastes that will have accumulated in the United States by the time of its anticipated opening. For this reason we still need to explore a range of disposal options, which is what my article was all about.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; Letters; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 8-15.