Think you can predict what might happen in 4.5 billion years or even a mere 24,000 years from now?
If you are of sound mind, your answer would likely be, “of course not.”
Yet, there are those in our midst who are paid to convince us (with a straight face), that it is safe to permanently bury, in deep underground repositories, highly radioactive and toxic nuclear fuel wastes. Some of these substances will be dangerous to living organisms for unimaginable and incomprehensible spans of time. Worse yet, these folks are actively pursuing the development and construction of such monstrosities.
Can a human-made underground nuclear waste repository completely isolate and contain long-lived radioactive poisons for the time required to render them inert and harmless? Any one who says it can, needs a period of serious reflection.
Consider Plutonium 239, one of the components of irradiated nuclear fuel waste, with a “half-life” of 24,000 years. (meaning one half will have decayed in that period of time, but the remainder will continue to be as radioactive and as toxic as it was when it was removed from the reactor).
Try to contemplate those staggering periods of time. Think about the changes in the earth that have occurred over the same eons of time in the past. Speculate over the possible kinds of geological changes which could occur in the future. And, finally, think about the damage to health and safety that these radioactive and toxic substances can do when they come into contact with the external environment.
Consider the human populations which might be nearby when these invisible radioactive substances inevitably work their way out of the repository and into the surrounding land, water, and air.
If our far future descendants should be unlucky enough to inhale airborne Plutonium particles, which remain radioactive in the body, and highly damaging to the lungs and other human organs, the onset of lung cancer is a distinct possibility.
Or, if iodine-129 (half-life of 17 million years) escapes from the repository and is ingested from milk, fruits and vegetables, the primary health risk is thyroid cancer.
And so on.
Why, you might ask, would anyone even consider creating underground nuclear waste garbage dumps? Why would they even take the risk of sticking it to their own descendents? Why are they not pursuing a truly scientific way of dealing with these substances?
Very good questions. Perhaps the answer is as simple as the fact that we humans are pretty adept at fouling our own nest and that we always take the easy way out. But, actually, it is far more complicated then that.
In 2011, the ongoing nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Japan, is definitely putting a crimp in the major expansion plans of the world’s nuclear establishment. Its efforts to create a world-wide nuclear energy “renaissance” has become increasingly elusive. But even prior to the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the public was already leery about the concept of permanent underground burial of nuclear reactor waste.
As the nuclear waste inventories continue to increase at the reactor sites, the industry continues to pursue its “out of site, out of mind” underground burial approach. The nuclear advocates, including many a duped politician, believe that if they can convince us that burial is the ultimate solution to the waste problem, then, it hopes, there will be greater public acceptance of more nuclear energy. But, how they can do this in the face of the Fukushima tragedy and the likelihood of accidents and terrorist attacks in an increasingly unstable world, is beyond me.
In the United States, construction of a major repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was finally terminated by the Obama Administration. After a fortune was spent on site exploration, it was deemed to be geologically unsuitable, e.g. surface water intrusion, seismic activity. A “Blue Ribbon” Commission was established to study the issue, and with the usual lack of imagination, concluded that the underground burial method should proceed, hopefully hosted by volunteer communities.
In Canada, during the early 1980’s, efforts by the Crown Corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd. (AECL) to locate suitable sites in Cambrian Shield granite rock formations, were thwarted by objections from nearby communities. Later, the underground burial idea was put on hold after a lengthy Federal Environmental Assessment Review Process.
The current Canadian effort is under the aegis of the nuclear industry dominated Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). It is currently undertaking a new site selection effort and is handing out large sums of money to some relatively remote communities in north Saskatchewan and Northwest Ontario, for “educational” purposes.
The one thing the nuclear establishment has in its favor these days, is a terrible world economy. Some misguided populations may actually sell their souls to the devil.
I think it is rather revealing that searches for nuclear waste repository sites always seem to concentrate on small, often remote communities. During the initial 1985 U.S. repository siting process, I recall a memorable statement by then Vermont’s tough-minded Governor, Madeleine Kunin. In a letter to John Herrington, then US Energy Secretary, she challenged his search for a repository site in Vermont's granite rock. She expressed the main concern of many people when she stated that the US nuclear waste siting program contained criteria which targeted sparsely populated and rural areas.
In no uncertain terms, the Governor told the Energy Secretary ". . . (that) "I firmly believe that if the facility isn't foolproof it must not be built. If it is, it can be located anywhere."
Governor Kunin put her finger on one of the most flagrant contradictions in nuclear waste management programs and certainly one that seems to be operating in Canada now. On the one hand, the public is told by the nuclear establishment that underground "disposal" is safe. But on the other hand, their efforts for research and siting all seem to concentrate on low population areas. As the Governor said, if it really is safe, and foolproof, ". . . it can be located anywhere." Of course she was right. Why not big cities and metropolitan areas
I strongly believe that the day will come when science, not politics and commercial interests, will solve the nuclear waste problem. Science created these radioactive substances, and science will transmute them to inert, harmless, substances. The technology is already on the drawing board.