Photograph by Peter Essick
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
World War II was still being fought in the Pacific during the first week of August 1945, a time when my father and I were vacationing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, eating softshell crabs and lazing by the ocean. In a games arcade I fed nickels to a toy machine gun and fired at Japanese Zero fighters flitting across a screen. On the boardwalk, rifles shouldered, platoons of United States soldiers marched and sang:
The Stars and Stripes will fly over Tokyo,
Fly over Tokyo, fly over Tokyo,
The Stars and Stripes will fly over Tokyo,
When the 991st gets there̴.
One morning my dad showed me a newspaper with red headlines that said a huge bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. The bombs were so big that the boys of the 991st wouldn't have to go to Tokyo after all.
The strong nuclear force, the binding energy that makes atomic nuclei the most tightfisted entities in all creation, had been sundered, unleashing enormous power—the equivalent of 15,000 tons (13,608 metric tons) of TNT in the Hiroshima bomb—as well as a race to create bigger weapons. Seven years later our first hydrogen device, code-named Mike, yielded a blast equal to 10.4 million tons (9.4 million metric tons) of TNT. Mike would have leveled all five boroughs of New York City.
By the mid-1960s, the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had stockpiled around 32,000 nuclear warheads, as well as mountains of radioactive garbage from the production of plutonium for these weapons. Just one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of plutonium required around a thousand tons (907 metric tons) of uranium ore. Generated from uranium bombarded by neutrons in a nuclear reactor, the plutonium was later separated from the uranium in hellish baths of acids and solvents still awaiting disposal.
A long-deferred cleanup is now under way at 114 of the nation's nuclear facilities, which encompass an acreage equivalent to Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Many smaller sites, the easy ones, have been cleansed, but the big challenges remain. What's to be done with 52,000 tons (47,174 metric tons) of dangerously radioactive spent fuel from commercial and defense nuclear reactors? With 91 million gallons (344.5 million liters) of high-level waste left over from plutonium processing, scores of tons of plutonium, more than half a million tons (453,592 metric tons) of depleted uranium, millions of cubic feet of contaminated tools, metal scraps, clothing, oils, solvents, and other waste? And with some 265 million tons (240 million metric tons) of tailings from milling uranium ore—less than half stabilized—littering landscapes?
For an idea of scale: Load those tailings into railroad hopper cars, then pour the 91 million gallons (344.5 million liters) of waste into tank cars, and you would have a mythical train that would reach around the Equator and then some.
In a decade real trains and trucks carrying high-level waste may head to Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the government's choice, and a controversial one, for a permanent repository.
In addition to storing the waste, contaminated soil and groundwater must be treated and stabilized, nuclear reactors decommissioned, buildings demolished, some buried waste exhumed, sorted, and buried again because it wasn't buried right in the first place. The bill for all this will be staggering—perhaps 400 billion dollars over 75 years.
Several federal agencies share the task. The Department of Energy (DOE) runs the facilities and supervises cleanup performed by commercial contractors. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets health and environmental standards for long-term storage of waste. Meanwhile the Department of Transportation supervises most shipments of nuclear materials using standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which also licenses all except military reactors, which are—to come full circle—supervised by the Department of Energy.
I spent six weeks traveling to major nuclear facilities in several states, talking with managers, scientists, and engineers. Many cheerily took time to explain nuclear physics and radiation, but it took the Department of Energy more than four months to respond to an important question: How much nuclear waste in its various forms exists in the U.S.?
I also spoke to environmentalists, who are satisfied that a cleanup is finally taking place but suspicious whether it will be done to their standards. "The government," summed up one environmentalist, "will just lie to you.”
In truth, our nation's nuclear weapons establishment operated in secret for many years, creating a deep vein of public distrust. As a result, emotions can run high when you're talking nuclear waste, weapons, and power. I'll state my bias now—as a former Marine Corps officer I value the profession of arms as honorable and necessary. I view nuclear weapons as a proven deterrent to war, not as a threat to peace. And I support the role of nuclear power in our energy mix. Yet during my reporting I found myself conceding points to environmentalists and even questioning government plans for permanent storage of high-level waste.
Cleaning up nuclear garbage would be a lot easier if we didn't have to face the chemical and physical chaos of health-threatening radiation, the emission of energy from a radioactive material.
Plutonium or cesium or strontium or other "-ium" elements created in a nuclear reactor emit dangerous radiation that can literally knock electrons off the atoms in our cells, disrupting or destroying cellular function or even causing cells to mutate. This radiation comes in the form of tiny alpha or beta particles or gamma rays traveling with great energy.
Radioactive elements emit radiation because they are unstable; they'd rather be something else. They achieve this by literally going to pieces; many emit particles and waves billions and billions of times each second.
Every radioactive element, including the -ium elements, has a half-life, the time it takes for half of its atoms to decay. Half-lives range from a fraction of a second to billions of years—4.5 billion for uranium 238. Paradoxically, the longer the half-life the less intense the radiation. Slightly radioactive uranium is no health threat if handled properly. After ten half-lives, an element is usually harmless.
Scientists quantify radiation received by people with a unit called a rem. A single wholebody dose of 400 rem, equivalent to more than 40,000 chest x-rays, will kill half the people receiving it. The maximum exposure permitted nuclear plant workers is 5 rem a year.
Everywhere, we experience background radiation, so-called because it's there all the time, mainly cosmic rays and alpha particles from radon gas. Other sources include medical x-rays, TV sets, even bricks, which pick up some uranium from the clay they're made of. Our bodies are slightly radioactive, mostly from everyday exposure to potassium.
The background radiation on a windswept Colorado mesa called Rocky Flats is around 450 millirem a year (a millirem is one thousandth of a rem), but the problem at a weapons plant there of the same name is big-league radioactivity from some of those -ium elements, principally plutonium. From 1952 to the end of the Cold War in 1989, technicians there fashioned chunks of plutonium into tens of thousands of spheres capable of triggering thermonuclear weapons.
Rocky Flats sits between Denver and Boulder and their galleries of critics who religiously chronicled tainted groundwater; drums oozing waste; plutonium-contaminated air ducts, pipes, and soil. Plutonium's nasty habit of being pyrophoric—igniting spontaneously—caused two major fires and myriad small ones, contributing to Rocky Flats' reputation as one of the most vilified weapons plants in the U.S.
Rockwell, the plant's contractor, eventually plea-bargained environmental crimes including acid spills and four other felonies and paid 18.5 million dollars in fines.
Today the buck of criticism stops at Barbara Mazurowski, DOE manager at Rocky, who supervises a cleanup crew of some 5,000 people at a cost of two million dollars a day. Mazurowski confronts me in a stance so sturdy she seems sprouted from Rocky Mountain granite. As she speaks, her hands fly in formation like two jet fighters, veering as she makes her point: "We sullied this environment, and now we're cleaning it up. A site of this magnitude has never been closed. When we're finished in 2006, all you will see here is grass."
Looking at Rocky's 400 acres (1.6 square kilometer) of buildings and roads, I find this hard to believe. But here and there lie heaps of concrete rubble, remnants of buildings already dismantled.
Mazurowski takes me on a tour of Building 771, a former plutonium fabrication center once described as the "most dangerous building in the U.S." and still a radiation threat despite partial cleanup. We stretch into protective rubber clothing from booties to gloves to bonnets. Only our faces are exposed, because there's little chance of airborne contamination.
We pass scores of glove boxes, whose rubber gloves—mixed with lead to shield technicians from radiation—hang as if still waiting for someone to insert hands, reach inside the steel boxes, and manipulate plutonium into a shape appropriate for a thermonuclear explosion.
Workers use torches to cut the boxes, unused since 1989, into chunks to be placed in drums for transport to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, to be buried permanently in 2,150-foot-deep (655.3-meters-deep) caverns hacked out of ancient salt.
The room is humid and dark, and the torches spit out luminescent sparks. I wipe my bare forehead with my rubber-gloved hand, forgetting I have been forbidden to do so because my glove might have picked up an errant speck of plutonium spewing radiation in the form of billions of alpha particles. This is a big deal. Though alpha can be stopped by a piece of paper, they are particularly dangerous if inhaled or swallowed. I own up. A technician waves a radiation counter close to my face to detect any alpha. Fortunately, I'm clean.
Above is a cat's cradle of miles of pipes, from which radioactive liquid is being drained. Bit by bit, pipe by pipe, glove box piece by piece, Building 771 is returning to grass.
I left Rocky that day fairly impressed with the professionalism and cleanup efforts of manager Mazurowski and her troops. Later, to get another viewpoint, I sought out Len Ackland, director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of a critical book about the plant, Making a Real Killing. I asked Ackland what he thinks of Rocky Flats going back to grass. He responded with a significant question: "What's beneath the grass?"
The answer: dirt specked with plutonium. Environmentalists would like the plutonium removed; DOE says the radiation will be minuscule, about one millirem a year, adding that it would cost millions to replace the soil.
Rocky flats may be DOE's poster child for cleanup success, but a sister facility, the 586-square-mile (1,517.7-square-kilometer) Hanford Site, in Washington State, is quite another matter. Here reposes the country's greatest volume of high-level nuclear waste.
The Hanford inventory includes 53 million gallons (200 million liters) of waste from plutonium processing stored in underground tanks, nearly 2,300 tons (2,087 metric tons) of spent fuel, four and a half tons (four metric tons) of plutonium, 25 million cubic feet (707,921 cubic meters) of solid waste, and 38 billion cubic feet (1.1 billion cubic meters) of contaminated soil and groundwater. In a storage pool I look at the nation's most lethal single source of radiation excepting reactor cores—1,936 steel cylinders containing cesium and strontium covered by 13 feet (3.9 meters) of water. When a technician switches off the lights, radiation from the cylinders puts on a light show of royal blue.
Hanford reactors made plutonium for the first nuclear explosion, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945 and for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki (the Hiroshima bomb used uranium). Hanford had produced about 59 tons (53 metric tons) of bomb-grade plutonium by the time it closed in 1989.
From the earliest days, Hanford scientists observed that radionuclides—a catchall term for radioactive atoms—were entering the environment. Iodine 131, a gas by-product of plutonium processing, escaped from unfiltered stacks. Water taken from the nearby Columbia River to cool reactors was returned to the river with a burden of radioactive sodium, zinc, arsenic, even some -ium elements.
Later, waste stored in underground tanks leaked into the soil, and 45 billion gallons (170 billion liters) of contaminated liquids were dumped onsite, some near leaking tanks. Thus contaminated plumes were created underground, some threatening the Columbia. The press began reporting claims of increasing rates of cancer in people and birth defects in people and animals in farm areas near Hanford.
In September 1985 Michael Lawrence, DOE manager of the site, met the farmers to consider their concerns. That radiation causes illness in an individual is virtually impossible to prove; nonetheless Lawrence decided to release previously classified information, beginning with 19,000 pages of documents written by Hanford scientists as far back as 1943. Lawrence was the first DOE official to do such a thing, and his decision "raised some eyebrows," he remembers, back in Washington, D.C.
In Hanford other eyebrows were raising, especially those of Michele Gerber, a housewife, mother, and trained historian who was poring over the released documents. "The scientists didn't believe the texts would be read in their lifetime," Gerber told me. "I was dumbfounded at how shockingly candid they were."
During early releases of iodine 131 in the 1940s, technicians nonchalantly recorded that the radioactive gas was spreading farther than anticipated. "They just enlarged their sampling circles," Gerber said, "to 25, 50, 100, 150 miles (40, 80, 161, 241 kilometers), all the way to Spokane and Walla Walla." Trancelike, Gerber read through the night till sunup. "I was thinking—you did what? Why didn't you stop? Why didn't you change the production process to reduce the emissions?"
Many doubted the data until contamination was found in desert flowers decorating the desk of an official. Concern mounted, but Hanford had plutonium production quotas to meet. Special silver filters finally stopped 99 percent of iodine emissions by 1952.
Gerber's book detailing pollution at Hanford, On the Home Front, was published in 1992, a work of history dispassionately told, thoroughly footnoted, the literary equivalent of a nuclear explosion. The fallout: Though Hanford scientists knew they were contaminating the environment, they didn't tell the public about it.
The public felt betrayed. Roy Gephart, a geohydrologist who had been involved with Hanford for 28 years, said Gerber's book taught him "things I never knew. I talked to workers who said they were taken by surprise when they read the book. They felt deceived. That's why many Americans distrust us today."
Gephart is now a program manager in environmental sciences at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a federal facility near Hanford. "The important thing is to do the cleanup right and regain the public trust," he says, "but that may take another generation."
They're building a four-billion-dollar plant now at Hanford to vitrify radioactive waste in glass for storage, burying low-level waste in giant pits lined with impervious plastic, finding cesium in the dirt of reactor storage pools, roofing old reactors in steel for a 75-year wait until radioactivity diminishes, and installing hundreds of wells to monitor underground plumes. "If the plumes ever threaten human health," says Gephart, "we plan to intercept them, build barriers, and stabilize the contaminants. However, most plumes will remain untouched because of cost, risk, and the lack of suitable technology."
Michele Gerber looks back: "The Cold War really was a war," she says. "And Hartford was a battlefield with a different kind of destruction, radionuclides pervading the environment. You can't have the production that Hartford did and not have the waste. I'm optimistic we'll clean it up. All I ever wanted was a clean river."
Another Cold War battlefield, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), west of Idaho Falls, began its career as a firing range for battleship guns in World War II. Later this vast expanse of sagebrush and shrub became a research center for nuclear reactors and for a time was used as a permanent repository for some nuclear waste.
INEEL received thousands of barrels of waste by train from Rocky Flats until October 1988, when Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus ordered state troopers to block the shipment. The train motored back to Colorado, among its freight cars a maroon one numbered 6503 that you can still see on a siding at Rocky—the waste long ago removed, of course.
Shipments soon resumed, however. In 1995 INEEL decided to burn the plutonium-contaminated waste in a state-of-the-art incinerator. As explained to me, the machine would separate the plutonium while burning PCBs and other chemicals. An infinitesimal fraction of plutonium might escape, INEEL experts said, but not enough to be harmful.
A hundred miles (160 kilometers) away in Jackson, Wyoming, a cowboy-chic redoubt of the wealthy as well as a way point for tourists bound for Yellowstone, folks did not see it that way. They worried about "a cloud of plutonium particles blowing in our direction," said Angus Thuermer, Jr., editor of the Jackson Hole News. "Alarm bells were ringing from one end of the valley to the other. INEEL said it was safe, but a lot of people here don't trust the government."
One was Gerry Spence, a famed trial lawyer who frequently appears on TV talk shows wearing a deerskin shirt. "INEEL acted as if these nuclear particles would drop the minute they hit the Wyoming border," he said. At a meeting of a thousand Jacksonians in 1999, Spence laid out the plutonium threat. "It was a closing argument before the jury," he remembered, "and the people prevailed." Harrison Ford pledged $50,000 to the cause. Others joined, and in a half hour Spence had raised $500,000. An organization was launched, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free.
In an editorial, Powder, a skiing magazine, speculated that Jackson skiers would schuss on "nuclear powder" during a "nuclear winter," leaving headlamps at home, presumably because the night would be lighted by the glow of nuclear material.
Plutonium doesn't glow in the dark, however, and some Jackson citizens were mighty skeptical that plutonium cinders would smudge their town. "There's no evidence, zip, that plutonium or any other radioactive material will descend upon Jackson," said Jerry Fussell, a former professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee specializing in nuclear systems risk assessment. "Can you imagine a whirlwind in Idaho Falls winding up and pitching nuclear materials to Jackson Hole? Ridiculous.' Fussell, who has served as a U.S. delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency for discussions of radioactive releases, said, "It will be a disgrace if Jackson prevents operation of that incinerator."
Prevented it was. Gerry Spence sued, and after a year of wrangling, an agreement was struck: INEEL would investigate alternatives to incineration of the plutonium-contaminated waste, which remains on site. Spence agreed not to bring suit questioning the disposition of other waste. One INEEL official told me, "It's not the most pleasant thing, having Gerry Spence on your tail."
I repeated the remark to Spence, and he smiled. We were sitting on the back porch of his ranch north of Dubois, Wyoming, where Spence looks taller and younger—he was 71—then on TV. A chirping gallery of robins and warblers failed to interrupt his gloomy assessment of nuclear waste storage.
"The idea that we could find some safe way to deal with that waste is simply a myth," Spence said. "First you have to haul it. Am I to believe that there will never be any acts of God that will intervene? That's what they said about the Titanic."
Other people on the nuclear waste trail spoke with equal candor—a scientist, an activist, a DOE manager, an environmentalist, and a river guide.
Arjun Makhijani Smart, informed, thoughtful, this India-born Ph.D. in electrical engineering has critiqued the nuclear scene for 20 years. The most dramatic sideburns I have ever seen hang from his temples like onions—white, bulbous, huge. With eight staffers he runs the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think tank in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Makhijani told me he'd rather do something else, but DOE keeps him busy.
"I am a constructive critic," he says. As an example he offers his detective work on the amount of transuranic waste haphazardly buried in the 1950s and '60s, when trucks simply dumped barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste into pits and trenches. A layer of soil was spread over the waste, then heavy equipment leveled it. The process was repeated.
Trying to gauge the amount of waste in the pits, Makhijani studied government records and concluded that officials were guessing: "They were throwing darts." He sent a critique to DOE, which looked it over for two years and finally agreed with him, admitting there was ten times more radioactivity in plutonium—contaminated waste buried in pits throughout the nuclear weapons establishment than they thought. "There is a ton of plutonium in Idaho alone," says Makhijani. "Some of it is leaching through the soil and threatening the Snake River aquifer."
Makhijani favors the phaseout of nuclear power, replacing it with wind power. "In 12 Midwest states there's enough wind potential to generate three times the U.S. production of electricity," he says.
Marcus Page In Las Vegas, I met this antinuclear, peace activist who was once arrested for protesting Star Wars at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. He regularly shows up at antinuclear protests, where he unpacks a portable radio station and starts broadcasting for Catholic Worker Kommunity Radio. At our meeting he wore a dimpled, narrow-brimmed, round-topped, black felt hat that seemed a bit too small, exactly the kind of hat, I imagined, that Rumpelstiltskin himself would have worn. I admired it. Page immediately took it off and gave it to me.
Page wants to abolish nuclear weapons and power plants because "they just create more waste. There is no safe way to store it, so it is irresponsible to generate radioactive materials that last for hundreds of generations."
Ines Triay Another of DOE's talented young managers, Triay escaped from Cuba at the age of three with her parents and later earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Miami. She manages the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a repository that expects to receive 850,000 drums of transuranic waste by 2035. "I intend to reduce that by at least 15 years," says Triay, who runs the plant "like a business," despite a plethora of regulations. "There are literally tens of thousands of requirements I have to meet," she says. "Many duplicate and waste time and money." If she succeeds, she will achieve a cost underrun of around eight billion dollars off the original 16-billion-dollar figure.
Joni Arends She's the waste programs director for Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, an environmental group in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Late one afternoon at a Tex-Mex restaurant on Cerrillos Road, we sat at the bar, and I listened as Arends recited a list of government environmental mischief, from alpha particles to omegaton anxieties. After three Dr Peppers I asked, "Joni, is there anything the United States government has done in the past 50 years that you approve of?"
She looked away thoughtfully, and after a time looked back. "Yes," she said, "President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System."
David Lyle A river guide, Lyle feels happy when running rapids and "lousy" when looking at a humongous mound of uranium tailings close by the Colorado River near his home in Moab, Utah. Because ammonia leaches from the tailings into the river to threaten endangered fish, because cancer-causing radon wafting from the pile has settled as a radon "fog," and because he's just tired of looking at ten million tons (nine million metric tons) of tailings.
"The citizens of Moab have yelled about this for 25 years," protests Lyle.
The Moab pile is an ugly duckling amid the glorious desert scenery of Arches National Park and the Scott M. Matheson wetlands nearby. DOE is pondering whether to move it—at a cost of 364 million dollars—or to attempt to contain the leaking ammonia and other groundwater pollution.
For Spence, Makhijani, Arends, and many others, the safety of nuclear materials shipped by highway and rail is a prime concern. Near Chugwater, Wyoming, I encountered such a shipment when returning to my home in Denver from a fishing trip. A clutch of military humvees with troops, big Chevy Suburbans wearing "Security Forces" signs, and a circling helicopter rode shotgun around a large white trailer bearing a U.S. Air Force logo—all creeping along at 50 miles an hour (80 kilometers an hour) on an interstate that allowed 75 (121). On the door of the lead vehicle another sign declared, "The United States of America."
How to find out whether this was nuclear waste or just something nuclear?
I decided to create a nuisance, pulling past the convoy and parking by the roadside, holding my cell phone suspiciously, I hoped, with my laptop open. The third time I parked, it was dark. I had given up attracting attention.
Suddenly my door was cracked open by a fit, squarely built man in a blue jumpsuit with cartridge belt who identified himself as a U.S. marshal. "We're wondering why you're doing this," he said. He had sneaked up behind me with his lights off and now shielded his right hand, cupping his sidearm I supposed. The helicopter hovered, its spotlight in my face.
I sputtered that I was a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC writer working on a story on nuclear waste. "We know who you are," he replied. Just then the convoy with the trailer passed.
"Is that nuclear waste?" I asked.
"No," he replied.
"Can you tell me what it is?"
Marshal Douglas Lineen closed my door and departed, and so did the helicopter, leaving me resolved to stop annoying these people and to try to find out if the suspect cargo might be a nuclear warhead.
"With all that security, probably a complete weapon," said Douglas Ammerman, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when I asked him later. Ammerman makes a living banging up one-quarter- to one-half-scale steel containers designed to carry nuclear waste.
His technicians drop, burn, immerse, try to puncture, and otherwise torture such containers to test their integrity. In one spectacular instance, they rammed a locomotive at 81 miles an hour (130 kilometers an hour) into an obsolete, full-size cask mounted on a flatbed, damaging the locomotive but not the cask.
Ammerman told me he couldn't think of a situation that might rupture a cask. "Perhaps if you were going past Mount St. Helens when it blew," he offered.
Don Hancock, the nuclear waste program director for the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, challenged Ammerman's statement. Hancock noted that a freight train carrying hazardous waste wrecked last year in a tunnel in Baltimore, causing a fire that burned for five days. "They had to close the tunnel. Suppose that had been a spent fuel shipment?" he asked.
Hancock observed that a propane fire burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093.3 degree Celsius). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission specifies that casks be tested by burning them in fuel for a half hour at a temperature of 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit (801.7 degree Celsius).
At the offices of the NRC in Rockville, Maryland, I put the question to E. William Brach, director of the Spent Fuel Project Office. Why 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit (801.7 degree Celsius)? Brach looked at me, then turned a quizzical expression toward Mark Delligatti, senior project manager, who shrugged.
It turns out the NRC adopted the standard in 1965, taking it and other canons from International Atomic Energy Agency requirements published in 1961. Hancock regards these 40-year-old standards as obsolete.
"I would like to see full-size containers tested to failure," he says, "as automobiles are. We need to know what kind of crash or fire will rupture a cask."
An important consideration, it would seem, because shipments of high-level waste on the nation's highways and railroads could eventually deliver tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel, from nuclear power plants and Navy ships, and other dangerous waste to a repository. Spent fuel from power plants alone increases at the rate of 2,000 tons (1.8 metric tons) a year. Already some plant water-storage pools are filled, and the overflow spent fuel is stored above ground in casks that can be licensed as safe for at least 20 years. Some say store the stuff above ground and maybe new technology will come along and solve the problem.
If the government has its way, shipments will head for Yucca Mountain, 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, chosen by Congress in 1987 as a potential resting place for the nation's spent fuel rods and other high-level waste. DOE has invested four billion dollars testing and tunneling Yucca amid controversy as thick as the compacted volcanic ash that comprises the 1,500-foot-high (457-meter-high) ridge.
Adamantly, the state of Nevada finds "significant and unacceptable risks" just about everywhere it looks in Yucca Mountain, from geology to groundwater to nickel alloy containers (for the spent fuel) that DOE says will last at least 10,000 years. More like 500, says Nevada, and many environmentalists agree.
In January, Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Energy, declared the site "scientifically sound" and "technically suitable" for development, forwarding the matter to the President as the law requires, while firing a shot across the bow of battleship Nevada.
Nevada fired back. Senator John Ensign retorted, "The Department of Energy has been hell-bent on building Yucca Mountain no matter what the science, what the ethics, what the cost." Governor Kenny Quinn threatened to bring suit all the way to the Supreme Court.
After President Bush approved the site on February 15, Nevada filed a notice of disapproval on April 8, sending the matter to Congress, which can override Nevada's veto by a majority vote. Pending state lawsuits and approval of DOE's license application to the NRC, DOE will proceed to build the site, which could be in operation as early as 2010.
The Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that DOE must demonstrate that Yucca Mountain can meet EPA standards for public and environmental health for 10,000 years. Does that mean radioactivity won't be a threat after 10,000 years? Nope. The peak radiation dose to the environment will occur after 400,000 years, according to DOE.
Nevertheless, and despite objections from many scientists, EPA decided on 10,000 years because of "tremendous uncertainties" beyond that period.
"Do you think we will still have a Department of Energy 300,000 years from now?" I was asked by Steve Page, director of EPA's Office of Radiation and Indoor Air.
I don't know. But there's no uncertainty about how long it takes radioactivity to subside, about ten half-lives. For plutonium 239, this is 240,000 years.
There are no textbook solutions. Some environmentalists would settle for a compliance period of 250,000 to 500,000 years. The Swedes are shooting for a lot longer. To store their high-level waste, they plan to use steel containers coated with copper, which won't corrode in the absence of oxygen, imbedded 1,800 feet (549 meters) in granite (an option rejected in the U.S.) and surrounded by impervious clay to inhibit moisture transport. They expect this architecture to contain radioactivity for a million years.
That's plenty of time for Homo sapiens to experience evolutionary changes. Perhaps to a species we might call Homo furioso, wondering loudly—what were those ancient Americans thinking when they put that hot stuff in the earth and decided 10,000 years was time enough to contain it?
There may be a better way, according to Yoon Chang, associate director of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago and an expert in reactor technology. Today's inefficient reactors burn only 3 percent of the fuel. The other 97 percent is declared "spent," fit only for Yucca Mountain.
In an ambitious recycling project, Chang wants to use that fuel in an advanced "fast" reactor that, on paper, promises to burn 99.9 percent of the fuel, including all but 0.1 percent of the plutonium and its -ium friends requiring long-term storage. "Most of the waste will be an ashlike residue of fission products that will be harmless"—now hear this—"in only 300 years," Chang predicts, though some disagree.
Not even Homer Simpson could melt down a fast reactor, says Chang. Its sodium coolant has a high boiling point—today's reactors use water—and would absorb excess heat. Meanwhile, the fuel elements would expand and separate, stopping the chain reaction "without human intervention." Basic fast-reactor technology has been demonstrated, says Chang, and the next step is to get it working smoothly in one advanced design, an enormous project that would take "around ten years and two billion dollars in federal funds."
Fast reactor sounds too good to be true, and may be. Skeptics question whether its promise can be realized, noting, for example, that sodium catches fire easily. But Chang is optimistic.
Would you like to make a two-billion-dollar bet to settle this? Or would you rather build a Yucca Mountain every 50 years or so and make Homo furioso really mad? Perhaps you want to chuck everything nuclear and put your money on power from wind or solar sources.
These are questions the country will have to face, along with garbage problems still unsolved. One that haunts me concerns five plutonium-processing plants at Hanford. Three of these dingy gray hulks sprawl about a thousand feet (304.8 meters) long with walls of reinforced concrete up to eight feet thick. Tear these monsters down, and where do you put that rubble?
Some people are suggesting, don't tear 'em down. Fill 'em up with low-level waste and cover everything with the good earth. I like that, a harmonious conclusion to a contentious chapter in the nation's history-radioactivity returned to the womb that bore it.
The Innovators Project
Three decades ago, the innovative physicist had a eureka moment that explained the universe.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
A modern crew learns the secrets of sailing a restored New England whaling ship.
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.