Radioactive waste — the "thousand-year problem" — threatens the world of tomorrow.
Some thirty blocks from Utah's State Capitol building and downtown Salt Lake City is a 3.4-billion-pound pile of rather ordinary-looking sand. Nobody thought it was dangerous. And contractors reported that the fine sandy tailings from the uranium mill made excellent fill for homes and other buildings. Before 1968, over 22,000 tons of the tailings were used as fill at an unknown number of building sites. Eight hundred tons, compacted into a six-foot layer, went under Salt Lake City's main fire station when it was built in 1958. But the sand was not harmless, and it in fact poses a monumental problem that nobody likes to think or talk about.
"Thousands of people work and live in close proximity to the pile and are exposed to radioactive dust, radon gas, decay products of radon gas, and gamma radiation," says Lyman J. Olsen, director of the Utah State Division of Health. The biggest hazard from uranium mill tailings is radon-222, a radioactive gas that emits cancer-causing radiation as it decays into other radioactive elements. A tailings pile may exude radon gas at up to 500 times the natural background rate. The hazard is especially great if radon and its decay products are allowed to accumulate in a confined space such as the basement of a home. And scientists are now finding that Salt Lake City firemen are being exposed to radiation levels seven times higher than those allowed for underground uranium miners, and 50 times greater than those acceptable for the general public. The volume of these hazardous tailings — 500 million cubic feet — is immense. The amount is enough to cover a football field with a pile over two miles high. Besides the 27 million tons of tailings found at inactive sites such as the one in Salt Lake City, another 113 million tons have accumulated at sites where uranium is presently milled. By the year 2000, there could be a billion tons of such wastes. And perhaps surprisingly, the tailings still contain 85 percent of the radioactivity originally in the uranium ore. In Durango, Colorado, dust blown from a 230-foot-high uranium tailing pile located near the town has covered rooftops of homes and blanketed the countryside. Contractors in Grand Junction, Colorado, availed themselves of free tailings and used them in the construction of over 700 homes, businesses, schools, and churches, plus sidewalks and city streets. From 1950 through 1966 some 300,000 tons of tailings were incorporated into various building sites. Now, Colorado Health Department studies show that Mesa County, where Grand Junction is located, has an acute leukemia rate twice the state average. (Cancer often does not manifest itself for 15 to 20 years after exposure to a carcinogenic substance, and uranium miners in Europe and the U.S. have a notoriously high incidence of cancer, especially lung cancer, from breathing in radioactive elements.) Perhaps equally disturbing is that the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission was unaccountably (and irresponsibly?) ignorant of the potential dangers of the tailings. As late as 1959, the AEC authorized the selling of tailings for the construction of buildings in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.
Alarming Radiation Exposure
Victor Gilinsky, a nuclear physicist and member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, points out that the exposed tailings will continue to release deadly radon for more than 100,000 years, becoming "the dominant contribution to radiation exposure from the nuclear fuel cycle." A recent American Physical Society report states that the ingestion hazard from tailings becomes greater than that from high-level wastes from nuclear reactors within the first 1,000 years! In light of such deadly realities, people are becoming increasingly alarmed. The fact is, millions of people are now living with a dangerous legacy of the atomic age: the nuclear garbage of uranium mines which has been distributed and scattered over thousands of locations throughout the western United States. What can be done? The piles of tailings could be buried under 20 to 30 feet of soil or an 8-foot layer of concrete. But to bury these millions of tons of radioactive remains will be equivalent to moving and burying a small mountain. To decontaminate all the homes and buildings that have incorporated the tailings may be virtually impossible, short of tearing them down and burying them. Attempts are being made to remove some of the tailing fill from buildings with radiation levels exceeding limits set by the U.S. Surgeon General, but remedial work is going slowly. Whatever the ultimate solution to the dangers now being created by exposed piles of uranium tailings, it promises to be an expensive lesson in the cost of dealing with the dangerous debris of the nuclear era.
Yet the frightful problems associated with tailings may seem almost trivial compared to the gigantic headache of safely disposing of highly radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors used for both military weapons production and power generation. The first nuclear reactors were built during World War II for the production of plutonium for atomic bombs. Now government officials are admitting that military nuclear wastes have in some cases leaked out of their storage containers and could threaten the environment. At the government's Hanford Nuclear Works near Richland in southeastern Washington State, over 100,000 gallons of highly radioactive wastes leaked from a 30-year-old storage tank back in 1973. More than 400,000 gallons of high-level radioactive wastes have leaked into the soil from tanks at Richland and Savannah River, Georgia. Some of this deadly garbage may eventually penetrate the soil and enter the water table. The record of past years shows that the military nuclear program has often employed woefully inadequate methods of waste storage.
A similar problem faces the nuclear power industry. About 30 tons of spent nuclear fuel are discharged from a typical reactor each year. Plutonium and other radioactive products in spent fuel must be isolated for thousands of years before the radioactivity decays to a safe level. Otherwise, genetic disorders, cancer and other illnesses can result from contact with even minute particles of the deadly wastes. But the fact is, almost two decades after commercial nuclear reactors began producing electricity, the United States still has not decided how to get rid of dangerous radioactive by-products. Finding a cemetery to contain these wastes safely for half a million years has not been easy. At Maxey Flats, in northeastern Kentucky, industrial nuclear wastes containing plutonium and other deadly radioisotopes have been slowly leaking out of a burial ground into the surrounding soil and water. The nuclear weapons factory just outside Denver, Colorado, known as Rocky Flats, has also leaked plutonium and other radioactive substances into the air, water and soil — for years before anyone discovered it. Attempts to recycle radioactive wastes have also been fraught with unnerving if not alarming problems. In 1966, at West Valley, New York, the Davison Chemical Company opened the world's first commercial nuclear-waste plant. The plant reprocessed about 625 tons of nuclear waste during its six years of operation. But in 1972, West Valley was closed and will probably never reopen. Why? The plant was found unsafe and was contaminating the countryside with radioactivity. Today, the legacy of West Valley's brief excursion into the nuclear-fuel reprocessing business is some 600,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid wastes held in tanks buried in the ground, and some two million cubic feet of buried radioactive trash. Sadly, the radioactive trash has contaminated ground water which flows into Lake Erie, from which the city of Buffalo obtains its drinking water. The cost of cleaning up the nuclear garbage at the defunct West Valley plant may total a billion dollars — paid by the taxpayer. At Morris, Illinois, General Electric spent $65 million to construct a nuclear-waste reprocessing plant. But the emerging problems of disposing of nuclear wastes may preclude the plant from ever opening. At Barnwell, South Carolina, a $250-million plant has been constructed by Allied General Nuclear Services. Yet this plant, too, may find the cost of safely doing business is simply too high and the risks unacceptable. Significantly, Russian defectors report that, in December of 1957, a nuclear-waste depot apparently exploded in central Russia, killing hundreds of people. Though the Soviets are understandably reluctant to discuss it, many hundreds — possibly thousands — of square miles are said to remain contaminated to this day from that tragic accident. In England, drums containing over 100,000 cubic feet of plutonium-contaminated wastes have started corroding in their storage bunkers near Windscale on the northwest coast.
Needed: Fail-safe Disposal
What can be done to ensure that nuclear wastes are isolated from the environment? No one yet has a final answer. But pressures are rapidly building to find an adequate long-term answer. An estimated 5,000 tons of spent nuclear-reactor fuel currently exist in the United States, and experts expect 10,000 tons by 1984. More than 100,000 tons are anticipated by the end of the century. Whatever the solution, the minimum' requirement is isolation for at least 1,000 years, in which time most of the radioactive elements will have decayed to stable substances. Some wastes, however, will have to be isolated for over 250,000 years. One possibility is to bury radioactive wastes in abandoned salt mines. The Atomic Energy Commission originally felt this was the solution to the nuclear-waste problem. But nagging questions have postponed such schemes indefinitely: Can we be sure the wastes will not contaminate underground reservoirs of water, or perhaps be spewed out of the ground by a buildup of heat or an earthquake? In Lyons, Kansas, the AEC planned to bury wastes in an abandoned salt mine, but then found, much to its chagrin, that over 175,000 gallons of water had "disappeared" in a nearby mine. Since no one could be sure that the missing water might not undermine the integrity of the AEC's mine, the scheme to bury highly radioactive wastes at Lyons was scuttled. Still, nuclear experts hope some type of burial plan may succeed and are actively considering at least one salt mine site in New Mexico. Another suggestion has been some type of man-made facility consisting of giant casks arranged above the ground in a pattern reminiscent of Stonehenge. The casks would be literally hot because of the decaying radioactive elements inside, but natural air convection would keep the temperature within bounds. Perhaps a new kind of "priesthood" would watch over the casks-hopefully from a safe distance. Still another possibility is to dispose of the wastes in the uninhabited areas of Greenland, the Arctic or the Antarctic. But climatic changes might melt the glaciers and ice caps, releasing the radioactive garbage which was stored there. The abyssal plain of the seabeds might also provide a burial place for at least low-level wastes. But we know so little about ocean currents and how the seabeds change over long periods of time that disposal at sea could be potentially disastrous, with the oceans dispersing deadly radioactivity throughout the world. Finally, some have suggested that toxic nuclear wastes be rocketed into space — perhaps into the sun. As attractive as this solution may sound, it is impractical and dangerous. First, the cost would be about $2,000,000 per reactor per year, just for waste disposal. Moreover, there would always be the danger of rocket failure which would cause highly radioactive garbage to rain down over wide areas on earth. What is really needed is a fail-safe disposal system good for half a million years. Thus the price of nuclear power will be a future of eternal vigilance and a legacy of radioactive wastes for future generations. Considering the grim possibilities associated with nuclear wastes, we might be tempted to simply reject the atom as a source of power, but this would raise the specter of a world depleted of fossil fuels. Do we wish to leave the future generations without fossil materials — coal, gas and oil — from which to extract fertilizers, medicines, and plastics because we decided to burn them instead of using nuclear power? No easy answers are yet forthcoming.
The Last Days: A Time of Danger
Nuclear wastes, if not carefully controlled and monitored, have the potential of causing great suffering and death in the future — in a period the Bible calls "the time of the end." The apostle Paul, in describing this period, said, "In the last days the times will be full of danger..." (II Tim. 3:1, Phillips translation). The Bible indicates that conditions on this earth will eventually be so dangerous that all life, human or otherwise, will be threatened with extinction. Only the intervention of the returning Christ will prevent global catastrophe. Jesus described this soon-coming period in Matthew 24:22: "And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved [alive]...." Scripture also indicates that when Christ returns, a great ecological restoration will be necessary (Acts 3:20-21). Perhaps this restoration may at least in part be due to the nuclear contamination of the earth's surface. Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California, contends that if just one-thousandth of the radiation emitted by nuclear wastes is lost in storage — that is, if storage is 99.9 percent perfect — then some 190,000 cancer fatalities will ultimately be added to the national death tolls each year. Indeed, the exposure standards for nuclear radiation have been lowered by a factor of 100 over the past 30 years and may be lowered again. Can mankind enjoy the almost unlimited power of the atom and yet avoid its almost immortal pollution? For many, the dilemma of nuclear energy and its deadly wastes is a modern form of the Faustian bargain — for temporary benefits mankind may commit itself to an endless future of suffering. But Dr. Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, prefers a different analogy. "Instead of the medieval tale of Dr. Faust," observes Teller, "I would like to remind you of an older story: Adam ate the apple of knowledge and was expelled from paradise. It is true that all knowledge is dangerous. It is also true that we must work hard, using our heads and hearts as well as our hands, if knowledge is to bear good fruit." One thing is certain: In recent decades, man's technological knowledge has rapidly increased at a staggering rate. Yet so have man's problems. Man apparently does not have the wisdom to rightly use the technology at his disposal. "We run the risk," says environmental scientist Barry Commoner, "of destroying this planet as a suitable place for human habitation." The lethal legacy of nuclear waste is a case in point.