It was good to see Chris Hubbuch’s article concerning nuclear waste on the front page recently in the Leader-Telegram. This is an issue that we cannot ignore.
There is currently no way to render nuclear waste harmless. Efforts have focused on storage of the waste for the 70 years since the beginning of its generation. Our focus needs to change.
Research to find a way to render the waste harmless must be a priority. I cannot believe this will cost more than the cost to store the waste for the hundreds of thousands of years it will take for the radioactive wastes to naturally decay.
As Hubbuch pointed out, most of the nuclear waste in this country is in temporary storage, near or at the sites where it was generated. Since most nuclear power plants were sited near bodies of water to use for cooling, this means that the nearby water bodies, much of it fresh water, are at risk for contamination. It also means that the potential for acts of terrorism is widespread. It further means that the potential for leaks of the nuclear waste due to natural disasters is widespread.
The answer, according to some, is to deposit the waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. As the only potential nuclear waste storage site seriously considered by the Department of Energy for decades, Yucca Mountain has received considerable scrutiny. An extensive geological study of models of basaltic volcanism was done, and the findings published in 2008, by Eugene Smith of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, along with earth scientists from the University of Hawaii and Columbia University.
Smith is the professor who taught my mineralogy and petrology courses when I was a student at UW-Parkside. A volcanologist who has done extensive research in the American Southwest, he is a painstakingly careful scientist, thoughtful and thorough, and more demanding of his students than any other professor from whom I had the pleasure to learn. We can absolutely rely on his research and that of his colleagues, who concluded that Yucca Mountain is not suitable for the storage of our radioactive waste.
Some, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, would say that Congress was remiss in limiting investigation of potential sites to Yucca Mountain. Some would urge the investigation of other potential sites. Instead, our priorities need to be (1) keeping the waste temporarily safe in its current locations, (2) ceasing the production of any more nuclear waste, (3) finding a way to render nuclear waste harmless and (4) investing in green energy.
As an earth scientist, I can tell you that there is no such thing as a geologically stable formation, not over periods of geologic time anyway. No site can be guaranteed to be stable for the hundreds of thousands of years required for radioactive wastes to decay into stable isotopes. Exacerbating this problem is the human stupidity of injecting fracking wastes into deep aquifers, causing significant earthquakes in several states of the Lower Midwest, previously labeled by geologists as part of “the stable interior.”
It defies common sense, economic sense, any type of sense, to continue to produce waste that is so dangerous to human health and the environment, when there is no process to render that waste harmless. The U.S. Department of Energy manages only 15 percent of the nuclear waste in our country. Only about 8 percent of all our nuclear waste is stored at the Hanford site in Washington state, much of it high-level radioactive waste. The waste at Hanford has already contaminated 200 square miles of groundwater beneath the site, and has been leaking into the Columbia River for decades. Radioactive waste from Hanford, which is in eastern Washington, has been measured as far away as the Oregon and Washington coasts. The estimated costs to clean up Hanford alone range in the tens of billions of dollars.
Ask any archaeologist or historian how long human beings are able to keep track of things. I have repeatedly seen articles featuring time capsules that were forgotten by all and that were unearthed less than 100 years after they were buried. How much do we really know about civilizations that existed 5,000 years ago? Do we really believe that nuclear waste, buried in some place such as Yucca Mountain, will be curated by future generations for hundreds of thousands of years?
Kudos to the Canadians, who have just enacted carbon-fee-and-dividend as a national policy. If we follow the example of our neighbor to the north, it would be a step in the right direction. It is a policy that shares support on both sides of the political aisle in our own country. But turning to nuclear power as a substitute for fossil fuels is not the answer.
We’ll soon have a new Congress. Let your representatives know that dealing with nuclear waste and developing green energy are priorities for all of us.
Conde, of Eau Claire, is an earth scientist who worked for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 17 years.