15. Plutonium is Forever

Sources: 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 it.

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 lung cancer.

There have been two great hopes for nuclear waste disposal-Yucca Mountain in Nevada and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

Yucca 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 10,000 years.

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.

"In 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."

Monika Bauerlein 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.

"This 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."