…But Where Do We Put It?

It’s always been a doozy of a discard problem: where to put radioactive waste? How to make it inert — and keep it that way? It exemplifies the essential dilemma created by so many categories of our discards: how can it be contained?

Recent developments at the Hanford Site, which covers 586 square miles in southeastern Washington state, point to all these questions. Home to the world’s first large-scale plutonium reactor, Hanford was pivotal to the nation’s nuclear-arms build-up. Four decades of operations left behind as many as 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste — two-thirds of the nation’s total — languishing in underground tanks. Leaks from those tanks have already contaminated at least 80 square miles of groundwater.

According to an editorial in today’s Las Vegas Sun, the Department of Energy has a scheme to transform that waste into glass, wrap it in stainless steel, and send it to Yucca Mountain, the federal government’s controversial nuclear waste storage facility (a “repository,” they call it) about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The plan raises many concerns. “There are facilities in South Carolina and in Europe that do similar things,” notes the Sun editorial, “but the Hanford factory would be unique — no one has undertaken this much or a mix of waste as toxic.” The factory, scheduled to open in 2019, has raised alarms from government watchdog agencies concerned about its cost, design, construction, technical specifications, and its overall safety.

“…(T)he nation needs a new nuclear waste policy,” the editorial concludes, “one based on reasonable costs and the science available, instead of answers that may never come.” This is true, but does the technology yet exist to neutralize this most enduring of poisons? Given its lasting toxicity, can there be an articulate and practical “nuclear waste policy”?

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)