Who Will Haul Off Our Nuclear Waste?
Birds don't carry Geiger counters. Nor can they read warning signs that surround radioactive storage sites.
Of course, we humans are told not to worry - as long as trained and paid security guards are around to repair the fences. But how can we keep birds and other creatures safe from the greatest threat to life on Earth since the dawn of man?
When Chernobyl melted down, people for miles around were forced to leave their homes, not knowing if it would ever be safe to return. When the atomic power plant in Fukushima Dai-ichi was overwhelmed by a tsunami and spewed radiation for miles, people were forced to leave their homes, not knowing when it would ever be safe to return.
Now that the Pandora's box of nuclear technology has been opened, humanity must find a way to contain its consequences and make the world safe again.
In the United States alone, there are more than a hundred commercial nuclear power plants. There are countless other locations where radioactive materials are used for medical purposes, research, industrial processes, not to forget nuclear-powered naval vessels and atomic weapons.
We are assured by experts from industry and government that the risk of exposure to radiation from those sources is small and manageable. But one critical step in the process has not been explained: What will happen to nuclear waste that is now being stored in "temporary" sites across our country and around the world?
Who will eventually dismantle the power plants and their reinforced concrete "containment buildings," their maze of pipes and valves? And is there any safe place to "throw away" less obvious varieties of radioactive waste such as contaminated laboratory equipment, hazmat suits, gloves, boots and other sundry items?
A permanent storage area has been under construction in Nevada at the site called Yucca Mountain, but political and economic pressures have brought progress on the repository to a virtual halt.
The most publicized objection to Yucca Mountain is fear that transporting atomic waste on public rights of way might result in accidents. Environmentalists also point to the possibility of radioactive contamination of the water table under the Yucca Mountain repository.
The latter objection can hardly be reconciled with the fact that the water table (if there is one) under the area adjacent to Yucca Mountain lies beneath one of the most radioactive sites in the world. For decades after World War II in Nevada, more than 200 A-bombs were detonated aboveground and more than 800 were exploded underground. How much more contaminated can an area get? What other conceivable use can be made of such an uninhabitable wasteland?
In response to concerns about transporting nuclear waste, let us consider the beginning of the trail of just one prominent radioactive element, uranium. After uranium ore is mined, it is transported to industrial facilities around the country (and the world), where it is refined and fabricated into fuel rod bundles (or further into weapons-grade material). The finished bundles are then transported to nuclear-fueled generating plants all around our country.
This industrial processing of radioactive material from mine to power source has been overlooked by the public and has apparently provoked little concern over the possibility of mishaps.
Only after the atomic fuel has been expended do people seem concerned about the dangers of transporting its dangerous remnants to a safe repository. Politicians and power company directors appear quite content to accept the supply side of the chain while coyly permitting nuclear wastes to accumulate, putting off their responsibility of safe, permanent disposal to future generations.
After profits are made, who then will pay the cost of cleaning up the mess? If past actions by industry are any indication, if we survive, it will be the government, the taxpayer, you and I!
No matter whether one is for or against nuclear power, its legacy will be dangerous for countless generations, not only in our own country, but also around the world. Even if we resolve our own issues of permanent storage, where will other countries find safe and secure disposal sites?
Let us hope that this realization will inspire a new and widening circle of global sanity. We must find a place where that deadly waste can be buried, so deep, so far away, that it will not return to the surface again for at least a million years.
Birds don't carry Geiger counters.
Richard Siege lives in Southern Pines.
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