Out Of Sight, Out Of Our Minds

The Rush to Bury Nuclear Waste

by Ward Young

President Clinton's August 11 decision to continue a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing is welcome news indeed, since it is difficult to create new generations of nuclear warheads without nuclear testing. Of course Clinton felt the hot breath of the world's anger at France for testing in Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

At the same time, the Administration is a long way from rejecting the nuclear arms race. Behind our backs and the headlines, Clinton is quietly committed to developing the National Ignition Facility, the most expensive project ever at the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory, designed to simulate nuclear explosions is the laboratory. Lab officials and weapons scientists are lobbying for continued funding for the facility, hoping to undermine the whole purpose of the nuclear test ban, which is to put a halt to the qualitative arms race.

To turn back from the nuclear precipice means much more than halting nuclear testing and dismantling some existing weapons. The nuclear dilemma will continue even beyond the struggle of peace advocates to win out against the development of new nuclear weapons and achieve what is no longer the impossible dream: the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

The legacy of the atomic age will continue as long as the half-lives of the radioactive materials already dispersed into the environment from nuclear weapons explosions and the military/commercial nuclear fuel cycle. Several million people will die from nuclear weapons testing alone, most of them in the far future, according to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

This legacy, as horrible as it is, may be dwarfed by the haphazard dumping of a vastly greater amount of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and dismantled nuclear weapons. Each nuclear power plant generates 500 pounds of plutonium every year, about a hundred times the amount in a nuclear weapon. As of 1994, all of the radioactive waste from US nuclear plants totaled about 25 billion curies, thousands of times more radioactivity than was unleashed by the Hiroshima bomb.

If carried out, current schemes to bury these wastes in shallow landfills at Ward Valley and other so-called "low- level" dumps, and in irretrievable deep burial at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and Yucca Mountain on the Nevada Test Site, are likely to guarantee that nuclear waste will pose a permanent threat.

Ward Valley could become the final grave for the dismantled remains of the Humboldt Bay, Diablo Canyon, Rancho Seco, San Onofre, Pathfinder and Palo Verde nuclear power plants, and probably others. A couple dozen scrapings taken from inside pipes at several other nuclear reactors are the subject of a fierce debate between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission working with government scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and independent mathematicians and scientists, including Lincoln Moses from Stanford University.

From the amount of plutonium found in the few scrapings, estimates can be made of the total amount of plutonium destined for Ward Valley. The independent group of scientists figures the total to be between five pounds and eight hundred pounds, while US Ecology estimates the total at a few ounces.

The debate about how much plutonium and other long-lasting radionuclides would be dumped at Ward Valley desperately needs a wider airing, since to most people, "low-level" conjures an image of slightly-contaminated hospital gowns or test tubes. The nuclear industry and its promoters in government have covered up the fact that most "low-level" radioactive waste comes from nuclear power plants and contains the same elements found in deadly spent nuclear fuel, but in smaller concentrations.

The license awarded US Ecology by Governor Wilson's California Department of Health Services to dump plutonium, cesium, strontium and other long-lived radionuclides in shallow land burial is a license to kill. The victims may never be identified, since deaths caused by long-term exposure to low doses of radiation are difficult to single out from deaths caused by other factors.

John Gofman, one of the world's leading authorities on the health effects of radiation, believes that it is the total of all radiation releases worldwide that counts. Even without another massive, Chernobyl-style release of radiation, the accumulated effects of smaller releases from leaking dumps, transportation accidents, deliberate and accidental releases at nuclear power plants and throughout the nuclear fuel cycle could lead to an intolerable burden of cancers and many other diseases.

Sociologist Kai Erickson characterizes government and industry plans for dumping long-lasting nuclear waste as "out of sight, out of our minds." Burying such waste "... deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it."

We are not so much putting the problem in the hands of future societies as taking the solution out of their hands, Erickson continues. It is possible that knowledge developed in the future may lessen or neutralize the threat from nuclear waste, but unless the waste is kept in such a manner that it can be retrieved, such a solution will be worthless.

The nuclear industry was warned early on that no solution might be found to safely dispose of its radioactive waste. The industry ignored this advice, and now wants the public to become the custodian of its long-lived waste, perhaps the largest debt burden in history. Keep the liability for this mess with the nuclear industry, not the taxpayers. Keep the waste contained and isolated from the environment, monitor and repair containers and begin a serious search for better solutions. Unlike the irrational waste schemes in this country, most European nations keep all their long-lasting nuclear waste separated from the medium- and short-lived variety. They will study deep burial for the long-lived waste for many decades to come and only then decide what to do next, but will never bury it in shallow landfills like that planned at Ward Valley. America's unique nuclear disease is its rush to bury nuclear waste out of sight, out of our minds.

Clinton should level with the American people about the dilemma of nuclear waste. Destroying all nuclear weapons won't solve the problem of nuclear contamination from waste dumps. We need a moratorium on burial of nuclear waste.