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The Nuclear West Today

Commercial nuclear power
Of the 103 nuclear power plants in the U.S., only eight are located in the West. Three (Arizona, California, and Washington) of the 11 Western states have nuclear power plants, while 28 of the 37 states to the east have nuclear power plants.

While about 20 percent of electricity nationwide comes from nuclear power, less than ten percent of Western electricity comes for nukes, far less than hydropower, coal, and natural gas. In addition, the West has abundant renewable energy resources (wind, solar, biomass) such that nuclear power is unnecessary for future electricity needs.

Two major conclusions from those realities should be emphasized. First, since the vast majority of nuclear power plants are not in the West, most of the waste generated by those plants is also not in the region. Virtually all of the highly radioactive irradiated fuel is still on site, because there is no place to take it.

Second, those power plants were sited without consideration for long-term storage and transportation and their effects on the West. People and governments in the West were not involved in those siting decisions. Transportation was not a factor-in fact when the plants were sited and constructed there was no idea of where the storage site(s) would be or how transportation would be accomplished. Those major public policy decisions, which were made in the 1960s and 1970s, should be considered irresponsible with respect to storage and transportation. And future decisions should not repeat such practices.

However, the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Utah for long-term surface storage and the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada are the only sites targeted for those power plant wastes.

Nuclear weapons
The Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons facilities are more regionally distributed with eight major sites in the West and seven other major sites. Consequently, nuclear weapons waste also has been stored throughout the nation at those sites.

Major contamination has occurred at those sites, so it is likely that significant amounts of wastes will remain in perpetuity because of the inability to retrieve them, the lack of technology, or the large costs.

Workers have been contaminated, thousands are sick and hundreds have died from exposures. The federal government has been slow to acknowledge those problems, and the lack of effective implementation of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 should be considered a national disgrace. Contamination has extended off-site, affecting many people and posing a continuing threat, which will grow unless effective cleanup occurs and new waste production is prevented.

Of the sites with long-term nuclear weapons production missions, the three design laboratories (Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia) are in the West, the Nevada Test Site is in the West, while Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Savannah River Site in South Carolina; and the Pantex Plant in Texas are to the East. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory has both nuclear weapons and nuclear power missions. The new plutonium production facility is to be sited next year (see pages 4-5). The two deep underground waste disposal sites are in the West-Yucca Mountain and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Uranium mining and milling
Virtually all of the uranium mined and milled for U.S. nuclear weapons and power plants came from the West. (Much of the uranium now comes from other countries.) The uranium mill tailings sites are in the West, and most of the waste is staying on or near those sites. Most have been declared "cleaned up," though there is still contaminated ground water. There also are significant health problems affecting thousands of uranium miners and workers and their families. Congress approved the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990 and 2000 to provide payments to some uranium workers and victims of fallout from nuclear weapons testing. But that law does not cover all diseases of those victims and provides no compensation to people that worked at uranium facilities after 1971.

"Low-level" waste
Not included on the map are the "low-level" nuclear waste disposal sites and smaller nuclear weapons sites from the Manhattan Project. In the 1970s, four of the six major low-level waste dumps were not in the West, but only the Barnwell, South Carolina site remains open and by June 30, 2008, it intends to accept wastes only from South Carolina, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The other operating sites are in the West at Hanford, Washington, and the Envirocare site in Utah.

Community Partners
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Table of Contents

"Contrary to federal officials' vision of a largely vacant area, the West was never nearly empty enough. It contained too many residents who would, inevitably, be exposed to the pollution released by nuclear weapons programs. It also contained intricate ecosystems which, far from making for an "empty" place, ensured that radioactive and chemical waste would be absorbed into, distributed about, and concentrated within the landscape in quite complicated ways."
From The Atomic West

Edited by Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay
University of Washington Press, 1998

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