It’s not as much in vogue as it was in the early ’90s, but governments everywhere continue to struggle with the issue of nuclear waste disposal. When the Simpsons first debuted, it seemed natural to lampoon nuclear power, by revealing the irresponsible and untrained Homer as a nuclear engineer at a plant with laughable safety and environmental standards.
Nuclear safety came back into the public eye with the Fukushima disaster last year, but the challenge of nuclear waste disposal doesn’t get nearly the same press it once did. Yet while it’s slipped somewhat from our collective unconscious, the actual stuff hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s the thing about nuclear waste: it sticks around.
At the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington, a 10-year project to create a functioning treatment plant has already tripled its expected budget, and at $12.3 billion so far, the costs are still continuing to grow. According to USA Today, the project is both the most costly and the most complicated environmental cleanup ever attempted.
The plant was originally supposed to be in operation last year, but it’s already been delayed to 2019, and could easily take years more, and who knows how many more billions of dollars beyond that. Engineers interviewed in the story spoke of inherent design problems and official concerns that an uncontrolled nuclear reaction could occur inside the plant. There is no less than 56 million gallons of nuclear waste waiting to be processed, but one senior scientist says they’re still trying to move forwards with their “failed design.”
NPR covered a leaked report that revealed radiation levels in the area are higher than previously believed. The nuclear sludge is currently being stored in old underground tanks that were never intended to be a permanent solution. If they begin to leak and get into ground water, the area affected could be huge. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is urging the department of energy to hurry up with this already far-delayed project. “The Columbia River is at stake, all of that area and its vitality.”
The sad thing is this incredible quantity of nuclear waste is not even the by-product of useful energy, but the massive nuclear stockpiles produced by the US throughout the Cold War. Hanford is where Manhattan Project scientists first initiated plutonium production for some of the first atomic bombs, including “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki (“Little Boy”, dropped on Hiroshima, was a simpler uranium-235 bomb). It remained open as a plutonium production site until 1968.
At its height, the US had an arsenal of some 60, 000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the world thousands of times over. Subsequent treaty agreements saw both the US and former Soviet Union begin to downsize their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, however, the overwhelming quantities of waste remain.
More time, money, and research will be needed, it seems, to erase this very messy mistake.
Read more: cold war, environment, Hanford, nuclear disarmament, nuclear disposal, nuclear proliferation, nuclear treatmet, nuclear waste, nuclear weapoons, pollution, radioactive waste, washington state, water pollution
Photo credit: United States Department of Energy.
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