Boulder Weekly


Nuclear nonsense
The government wants to sell you radioactive waste

by Pamela White
July 18, 2002

I used to joke the U.S. government would someday decide to get rid of our nation's troublesome nuclear waste by putting it in vitamin pills and selling it to us. We'd start seeing food labels with RDAs for plutonium, strontium and americium. Folks from the FDA would begin a campaign to convince us that in small amounts, radioactive contaminants were actually good for us.

Unfortunately, I wasn't far from wrong.

Faced with 1.6 million tons of radioactive scrap metal, the federal government has come up with an alternative to disposing of this metal in government-run landfills. As Mother Jones reports, the feds would like to recycle that metal and release it for use in general manufacturing.

This means that metals which for 60 years have been considered dangerous to human health could end up in tricycles, bed frames, plumbing, forks, spoons, pots and pans.

There are rules to prevent this from happening. Which is why the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are working hard to change the rules out of the public eye.

Who needs to worry about Al Qaeda's dirty bombs when our own government is planning on putting dirty goods in our homes and department stores?

But try to be sympathetic. The federal boys are facing a real problem. They have millions of tons of radioactive waste-all of which was generated by America's lust for nuclear primacy-and few places to put it.

This includes high-level radioactive waste so deadly that it kills within minutes. There's also transuranic waste, including clothing and tools contaminated by man-made radioactive metals; low-level radioactive waste, like steel beams from decommissioned nuclear power plants; and uranium mill tailings.

Most of this material is destined to travel our nation's highways, where at 65 miles an hour anything could happen, but hopefully won't. It will leave places like Rocky Flats and Hanford and be driven to secured government-run facilities like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., and the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

While some people sleep at night imagining that WIPP and Yucca Mountain are the solution to part of our problem, the fact is these materials will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Given nature's propensity for rearranging the landscape through floods, earthquakes, and volcanism-and humanity's propensity for constructing things that fail-it's doubtful whether either WIPP or Yucca Mountain will outlast the half-life of plutonium 239, a relatively modest 24,000 years.

In fact, the DOE is working to prove only that Yucca Mountain will last for 10,000 years, despite the fact that the peak radioactive levels for this waste won't be reached for some 400,000 years.

The good news is there probably won't be any human beings left on Earth by then. But just in case, we can all instruct our descendants to avoid Nevada after the year 12,000.

Low-level waste currently goes to secured government landfills. Burying this material in this fashion is extremely expensive. Further, these landfills are hard to come by and fill up all too quickly. With the amount of nuclear scrap expected to soar in coming years, the government is looking for an easy way out.

Using the language of environmentalists and capitalists, government officials have begun to talk about "recycling" irradiated metals and making it available to industry as an "asset." Further, changing the rules to put this scrap on the market will allow the United States to trade this material globally. Steel beams from Rocky Flats could become building supports for a skyscraper in Taiwan.

But this is one kind of recycling and free trade we can do without. Scientists say there is no way for the federal government to be certain that exposure to any level of ionizing radiation is safe. Nor is there any way to determine the cumulative effect of being exposed to multiple sources of radiation over many years.

Rather than experimenting on our families in an effort to be rid of this radioactive burden, the feds would do better to bring an immediate halt to any activity that generates nuclear waste. This means shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing them with less lethal forms of energy production. It would also mean halting uranium mining and putting a definitive end to the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons. For each day such activities continue, the nuclear waste problem increases.

In splitting the atom, the United States created a monster it cannot control. Like Mary Shelley's monster in the novel "Frankenstein," our creation could well come back to destroy us. We cannot control it. We do not fully understand it. And we cannot make it go away.

Some conservatives have tried to put a happy face on it by saying that nuclear waste is the price we pay for being a superpower. But this price is so high we can scarcely fathom it. The Iroquois nations, when making an important decision, tried to determine what impact their choice would have seven generations into the future. With nuclear waste, we know we are putting people at risk more than 7,000 generations into the future.

Here's the ugly truth: Centuries after we killed countless thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by perverting nature, that perversion will still be killing us.

While we might be powerless to stop that from happening-certainly there's no permanent solution on the horizon-we can at least keep steel from yesterday's nuclear power plant from becoming the griddle on which we cook today's breakfast. Call your congressional representatives and tell them you wouldn't even wish this low-level radioactive waste on them.

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