Momma, Don’t Put These Guns in the Ground

John LaForge

Radioactive waste from nuclear reactors is so dangerous and for such an incomprehensible length of time that no permanent, safe location or technique has ever been found to isolate any of it.
Radioactive wastes are produced at every stage of the uranium fuel chain: at mines, mills, chemical conversion and enrichment plants, during fuel fabrication and reprocessing. The most voluminous wastes are the 100 million tons of abandoned open-air uranium mill tailings in the western United States; the most dangerous are the ferociously radioactive used fuel rods.
The government does not have to move this waste — irradiated fuel that is often called “spent” — around the country to a central repository. Moving it would save the nuclear industry money, but Energy Department (DOE) officials declared in 1999 that leaving the waste in storage where it is, at 72 reactor sites and five government reserves, is just as safe as moving it — as long as it is repackaged every 100 years. Dr. Rosalie Bertell, the renowned cancer researcher who wrote No Immediate Danger, argues that our viciously carcinogenic waste must be repackaged every 20 years, so we know if and when it’s leaking.

Choosing a central dump site for between 70,000 and 100,000 tons of this waste would require shipments on trucks, trains and barges for 25 years. It would mean moving the deadly cargo directly through major population centers where severe accidents could turn into radioactive catastrophes. Think Mobile Chernobyl.

The Yucca Mountain dump site project outside Las Vegas, Nevada was canceled for being too wet and too seismically shaky. If water was a show-stopper in the desert, how much more unsuitable are the Headwaters of the Great Lakes? This region’s global treasure of moving, drinkable surface and ground water ought to scratch Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from the list without a second thought. Federal rules now require that the existence of fast-flowing water disqualify a prospective site, but some want that rule repealed.

Fed Scientists: Waste
Repository Could Explode

In March 1995, physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory dropped a bomb on the Yucca plan by charging that the wastes might erupt in an explosion, scattering radioactivity to the winds and groundwater. Dr. Charles Bowman and Dr. Francesco Venneri found that staggering dangers will arise thousands of years from now after the waste containers dissolve and plutonium begins to disperse into surrounding rock.

Just such an explosion occurred in the former Soviet Union, when mishandled high-level liquid wastes exploded in a 1957 disaster that destroyed 30 villages that were evacuated and removed forever from official maps.

The National Research Council said in 1990 that the DOE’s plans for high level waste storage were “bound to fail” because it is “a scientific impossibility” to build an underground nuclear waste repository that will be safe for 10,000 years. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that the site must containerize the radiation for 1 million years — 100 times longer than the impossible. “We think there’s a generic problem with putting fissile materials underground,” says Dr. Bowman of Los Alamos.
That is, don’t bury it. Keep it in view so that problems can be caught and plugged.

In 1989, sixteen scientists at the U.S. Geologic Survey bluntly charged that DOE was using stop-work orders to prevent the discovery of problems that would doom the Yucca Mt. repository. The geologists said, “There is no facility for trial and error, for genuine research, for innovation, or for creativity.” Even the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission complained that work at Yucca Mt. seemed designed mostly to get the repository built rather than to determine if the site is suitable. Even such far-reaching official corruption couldn’t save the money dumped into Yucca Mt.

Good lessons are available from the Yucca experience about what not to do with radioactive waste. Whether the government will learn them is up to us.

— John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, which is co-cosponsoring Into Eternity, an award winning documentary on the Finnish government’s plans for a deep underground radioactive waste repository, Feb. 20 at Zinema2, at 7 pm.