Modern society provides a long menu of predicaments to inspire our nightmares. For a number of years, climate change has been hogging the spotlight. It’s time to have more nightmares about radiation. Folks think that if we simply quit building new reactors, the nuclear boo-boo will go away, and we can forget about it — wrong! William and Rosemarie Alley have shed much light on the subject with their book, Too Hot to Touch. It reveals a deeply embarrassing chapter that has been omitted from the glorious epic of technology and progress.
Nuclear weapons were invented during World War II. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were turned into ashtrays, but the enormous unintended consequences of half-baked genius have dwarfed the destruction of two cities. We continue to create stuff that will remain extremely toxic for millions of years, and none of it is stored in secure permanent facilities, where it will cause no harm.
The war was followed by an arms race. A hundred new bombs were detonated at the Nevada Test Range between 1951 and 1962. Nuke tests became a tourist attraction. Families sat in folding chairs at open-air spectator sites to see the amazing mushroom clouds. A few minutes after the blast, they were sprinkled with fine dust. Several decades later, the region became “the thyroid cancer capital of the world.”
Lunatics became giddy with nuclear mania. Some wanted to blast a new canal across Panama. Others dreamed of a coast-to-coast waterway across the U.S. Others wanted to nuke Gibraltar, and turn the Mediterranean into a freshwater sea. In the Soviet Union, 120 bombs were used for earthmoving projects.
In 1954, construction began on the first U.S. nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. At that time, nuclear waste was not seen to be especially dangerous. Robert Oppenheimer, at the Atomic Energy Commission, referred to the issue of radioactive waste as “unimportant.” Experts were possessed by a stupefying blind faith in scientific magic — there is a brilliant solution for everything!
They contemplated a variety of schemes for making high-level waste disappear. Some recommended shooting it into space, or burying it in sea floor clay beds. The Soviets disposed it via deep well injection, in a liquid form that may not sit still for millions of years. The U.S., U.K., France, and the U.S.S.R. have dumped a lot of waste in the oceans. The Irish have caught contaminated lobsters and fish.
There are a number of radioactive elements and isotopes. All of them are unstable and become less dangerous over time, degrading at varying rates of speed. Most forms of uranium are mildly radioactive. The atoms that are heavier than natural uranium are manmade, and some remain dangerous for millions of years. Some are water soluble and highly mobile. Some are picked up by plants and animals, and are biomagnified as they move up the food chain.
Experts eventually realized that high-level radioactive wastes were nastier than expected. They had to be stored underground, in geologic repositories that would remain stable for a million years. Serious research began at an old salt mine in Kansas. Then, a plutonium plant in Colorado burned, and high-level waste was shipped to Idaho, where cardboard boxes of it were dumped into open trenches. The media reported the story, and the nation soon realized that nutjobs were in charge of handling terrifically toxic dreck. This detonated high-level fear. Kansas promptly nuked the proposed repository.
The next hot prospect was Yucca Mountain, on the edge of the Nevada Test Site. The government invested $10 billion on 25 years of research. The objective was to prove that the site would be safe for a million years. No place on Earth would be a perfect site. Dr. Alley believed that Yucca Mountain was close enough to ideal. (He spent years on the project, working for the U.S. Geological Survey.)
The core problem was that there were no politically suitable sites in the entire U.S., because every state would fiercely oppose a repository within their borders. The public had a reasonable fear of high-level waste. They also had a reasonable lack of trust in anything the government told them, after years of lies and deceptions. Nevada was no exception. The government’s nuclear testing had already turned much of the state into a radioactive wasteland.
Obama was elected in 2008. Steven Chu was his Secretary of Energy. In March 2009, Chu announced, “Yucca Mountain was not an option.” He presented no explanations or alternatives. Why did Chu kill the project? “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.”
So today, “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries. More are on the way. Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.” As of 2012, American taxpayers were responsible for storing a growing collection of high-level waste — 70,000 tons of spent fuel, and 20,000 canisters of military waste. It’s being stored at 121 sites in 39 states. In 15 other nations, 60 nuclear reactors are being built.
Industrial civilization is doing a fabulous job of trashing the planet’s atmosphere, forests, soils, oceans, aquifers, and biodiversity. This is simply business as usual, and most of humankind is staring at their cell phones. The future doesn’t matter — with the exception of nuclear waste repositories. Almost no study has been devoted to the risks of doing nothing, and letting the crap remain where it is forever. The Alleys steer around this red-hot issue, leaving readers to conjure worst-case nightmares.
Let’s take a side trip to Google. The average U.S. reactor is 32 years old. Reactors are licensed for 40 years. When a license is not renewed, the reactor must be decommissioned, a process that often takes 60 years. First, the reactor is turned off, and the fuel rods removed. Then, wait 50 years. This allows the radiation levels in the facility to cool off, making it much safer for the remaining work to proceed. The buildings and contaminated soils are removed, and the site is restored to a harmless field.
Fuel rods have a working life of about six years. Then, the spent fuel, which is still highly radioactive, is moved to cooling pools, where it must remain for at least five years. Then, ideally, it is stored in dry casks. If the pumps for the cooling pool quit, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air. If the uranium pellets in the rods are exposed to air, they melt, and begin releasing radioactive gasses.
The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods. Cleanup efforts at Chernobyl are hampered by the Ukraine’s wheezing economy. Around Chernobyl, citizens were permanently evacuated from a Zone of Alienation, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
In the U.S., the planned geologic repository did not materialize by the promised date, and no site has been approved, so spent fuel is piling up at reactor sites. The Alleys note that some U.S. pools have been loaded with four times more rods than they were designed for, which increases potential risks. Moving the rods to safer dry casks would cost billions of dollars.
Are we feeling lucky? What will the world look like in 50 years? Will effective geologic repositories be built in time? Fifty years from now, will we have the oil, heavy equipment, transportation systems, functional governments, work crews, and wisdom to safely decommission the existing 440 reactors, plus the new ones being planned? Will all of the reactors safely avoid disasters resulting from earthquakes, volcanoes, plane crashes, warfare, equipment failures, human errors, and sabotage?
If we cared about the generations to come, and if we were rational, what would a sane plan look like? Today, orbiting spacecraft passing in the night can clearly see the city lights below. My grandparents, and all of their ancestors, were born in homes without electricity. They managed to survive without light bulbs, TVs, cell phones, or the internet. They were good people who had satisfying lives. The lights cannot stay on forever.
Alley, William M. and Alley, Rosemarie, Too Hot to Touch, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013.