15. Plutonium is Forever
Utne Reader, 1624 Harmon Place, Ste. 330 Minneapolis, MN 55403, Date: July/August
1992, Title: "Plutonium Is Forever," Author: Monika Bauerlein; Harper's
Magazine, 666 Broadway, 11 th Fl. New York, NY 10012-2317, Date: August 1992,
Title: "The Last Cold-War Monument," Author: Alan Burdick; Los Angeles
Times, Times-Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, Date: 7/26/92, Title: "All
Shook Up," Author: Jennifer Warren
SSU Censored Researcher: Blake Kehler
SYNOPSIS: In the 1950s, a nuclear energy critic warned "nuclear
waste is like getting on a plane, and in mid-air you ask the pilot,
how are we going to land? He says, we don't know -- but we'll figure
it out by the time we get there." Well, 40 years later, we're ready
to land our nuclear plane, and we still haven't figured out how to do
Each year, the nuclear industry produces tons of high-and
low-level waste not knowing what to do with it. Nicholas Lenssen, a researcher
at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, estimates the worldwide volume of
high-level nuclear waste at more than 80,000 tons. In 1990, the world's 413 commercial
reactors produced 9,500 tons. And that's not counting the tens of thousands of
tons from weapons programs, and medical and industrial uses. In 1989, U.S. reactors
alone produced 67 times the plutonium it would take to give everyone on earth
There have been two great hopes for nuclear waste disposal-Yucca
Mountain in Nevada and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.
Mountain was selected by the Department of Energy (DOE) as the national "permanent
repository for high level nuclear waste." But after ten years of research
and $6.7 billion spent by industry, including $2 billion in taxpayer funds, not
a single hole has been dug in the mountain. The primary obstacle to the Yucca
Mountain site is public opposition. In June 1992, a 5.6 tremor confirmed fears
in Nevadans already leery of their state becoming the permanent home for tons
of waste which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. It now appears
that this repository will evolve no further.
Unlike Yucca, WIPP is not intended
to house high-level waste but rather low-level nuclear garbage -- radiation contaminated
rags, rubber gloves, test tubes, pipes, etc. Nonetheless, the dangers of radioactivity
in this waste make it imperative that WIPP not leak (appreciably) for the next
Incredibly, the site selected for WIPP is in a stratum of
salt thought to contain significant amounts of brine. The DOE itself estimates
that within 20 years of burial, the thousands of soft-steel drums containing the
waste will corrode and their contents will be exposed. Despite the potential hazard,
however, WIPP seems destined to open. It is the only existing repository and,
with the apparent demise of the Yucca repository, the pressure for a dump site
is building. In any event, critics say that WIPP is only a partial solution. To
contain the volume of plutonium-contaminated waste currently in retrieval storage
across the country would require three WIPPs; to hold the entire backlog of military
and commercial waste, ten WIPPs would be needed.
Yet another hurdle must be jumped what kind of a sign do you put up
to warn whoever may be inhabiting the earth in 10,000 years to "Keep
Out" of WIPP? The simple "keep out" sign probably would
not suffice. As Alan Burdick, senior editor of Sciences, asks, "Who
knows whether humans will speak English ten millennia hence -- or whether
the term 'human' will still apply?" As Burdick reminds us, of the
original Seven Wonders of the World, only one -- Khufu's pyramid in
Egypt -- still stands, a mere 4,500 years old; Stonehenge is a thousand
years its junior. And remember, plutonium is forever.
COMMENTS: Monika Bauerlein, managing editor of City Pages, an
alternative weekly in Minneapolis, says that, except for some coverage
in the alternative press, the issue of nuclear waste hasn't received
much attention anywhere for as long as she can remember.
"Mainstream coverage has been largely limited to: a) post-Gulf
War stories about whether nuclear energy could be our salvation after
all; and b) local stories in areas with a specific interest -- towns
near a potential waste repository, etc.
"From what I have seen covering this issue over the years, the
U.S. -- and the world -- is at a crossroads on the question of nuclear
energy. The nuclear industry, having laid low for most of the past decade,
is beginning a major push for a 'new, safe' generation of reactors that
are supposed to not only generate power, but also help us save the ozone
layer. The Bush administration's National Energy Strategy calls for
at least doubling the number of reactors in the next 20 years, and there's
no indication that the Clinton team would change those plans at least
in the immediate future.
"During the debate on this strategy before Congress in 1991
and 1992, there was practically no media coverage of the nuclear waste aspect;
instead, most stories revolved around fuel-efficiency standards and the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge. Consequently, major decisions were made with little
or no public input decisions which can and probably will affect not just us, but
countless generations to come.
"This is particularly frustrating because, despite the official
line that disposal plans are perfectly on track, government and industry
officials admit that a solution (including a `permanent repository')
appears further and further away, rather than closer at hand. As a result,
even people who are normally nuclear energy boosters -- some utility
executives, for example -- are beginning to say that building any more
plants is simply not cost-efficient.
other words, this issue is overripe for public debate and decision-making. Even
assuming that the question of reactor safety has been solved (and it hasn't),
what will make or break the nuclear program are 'front-and-back end' matters including
uranium mining and processing (another vastly under-covered story) and nuclear
waste. And we only know one thing for certain: the longer we take to address these
things, the bigger a problem we have on our hands."
has one final comment and warning:
"I clearly remember Chernobyl -- I still treasure a radioactive
sweater I was wearing the night it rained nuclides in Germany -- and
the resulting rash of stories about nuclear safety. The story died down
after a while, which, unfortunately, tends to make people think that
the issue must have gone away. Of course it hasn't. And in some ways,
I find it astonishing that there hasn't been more attention -- from
the media, but also from activists.
is a question that divides the establishment (nuclear-powerboosters vs. skeptics)
and affects local communities, opening unlimited possibilities for vigorous arguments
and grassroots interests. It also bridges the gap between areas too often separated,
like economics (how long can we afford to ignore a problem if it's starting to
cost us?), environmental protection, race (why are so many of the tentative sites
on or near Native American lands?), etc.
"In a word, it's one of those
issues that virtually scream for a real public debate --not only over the future
of the nuclear program, but over the future of this society as a whole."