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2001: A Nuclear Waste Odyssey

Nuclear waste,
buried now in haste,
will still be deadly in
12,001 A.D.
What's the rush?

A large and toxic legacy of the 70,000 U.S. nuclear weapons are hundreds of contaminated sites, tons of nuclear wastes stored in buildings, leaking into the ground, and contaminating water. Nuclear power plants are much less contaminated, but are storing about 40,000 tons of irradiated (spent) fuel. Some of the waste is extremely dangerous (deadly in just seconds of exposure) and even more persists for thousands of generations. One of the great nuclear myths is that such wastes can be "disposed." In fact, the nuclear waste problem cannot be "solved." It can only be managed for better or worse, and will become an even bigger problem if more nuclear weapons are produced and more nuclear power plants are built.

This year culminates 20 years of efforts to select an irradiated fuel disposal site with the expected decision being Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Some utility companies are targeting the Skull Valley Goshute reservation in Utah for "temporary" storage. In addition, the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to weaken health and safety requirements and expand WIPP, its transuranic waste repository in New Mexico. The new administration plans to build new nuclear weapon production facilities and to promote construction of new nuclear power plants, although none have been ordered since 1978.

There are many inequities in dealing with nuclear wastes. Here are some examples:

  • Although 85 percent of the nuclear power plants are in the eastern half of the continental U.S., the two repositories and the storage site are in the west. Because no one wants a long-term storage or disposal site, they are located in places with little political power rather than being sited based on technical merit.
  • The "science" of determining whether sites are adequate is given to DOE and its contractors which have a vested interest in saying that the location is satisfactory. DOE laboratories use their supercomputers to "model" the site's "performance" for thousands of years. Citizens, tribes, and states do not have equivalent resources to challenge those models.

Not surprisingly, citizens have strongly opposed disposal sites. More surprisingly, they have had some success. This year is the big test, however, as a huge majority of Nevadans, as well as their congresspersons, governor, and legislature all oppose the Yucca Mountain decision and have made a convincing technical case against the site. Nonetheless, if past practice continues, DOE and President Bush will approve Yucca Mountain, and the majority on both houses of Congress will support DOE and the president and oppose the Nevada veto of the site. The courts will then have to decide whether to support the political decisions or stop Yucca Mountain because of its technical and legal problems.

While present and future generations of Nevadans are most endangered if wastes are brought to Yucca Mountain, people near highways and railroads in 42 other states also will be seriously at risk from thousands of shipments.

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.

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