Nuclear Waste: ‘Cleanup’ Means Dumping It ‘Somewhere Else’

Nuclear waste of all types is a huge problem in the United States and world wide. Unscrupulous entities have abandonned nuclear waste in Africa, on Orchid Island near Taiwan, and off the coast of Somalia, originally triggering the emergence of Somali pirates to protect their fishing grounds. Radioactive isotopes have a vast range of lifetimes, from a few days to millions of years. New isotopes with their own properties called 'daughter products' are created as radioactive materials break down. We are talking about effects on future generations that exceed our understanding of life on Earth.

In the U.S., a vast network of public and private sites were involved in Cold War nuclear weapons production for decades. Hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated materials piled up all over the country, in addition to what has already been leaked or dumped. Compared to what is needed, little research or money has been applied to reversing the problem. 

All efforts toward ‘cleanup’ involve transporting  waste on freeways or trains through highly populated areas and dumping it somewhere else. There are only a few national sites available for permanent storage. Those living dangerously near to dump sites are inevitably poorer and browner than those making the decisions in Washington DC. Above, 'low level' wastes are transported to the Nevada Test Site for open pit storage, a technology some call "kitty litter technology". 

104 nuclear reactors in the United States have been accumulating used fuel rods for decades, before a viable long term storage option existed.  It still does not exist. Hospitals and other medical facilities accumulate nuclear waste from Xray and other diagnostic procedures, as well as radiation treatments. 

Globally, nuclear reactors produce less energy than renewable sources. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is killing Americans, not  anyone else: the uranium miners and plant workers and downwinders from weapons tests. Most independent experts agree that the safest interim solution is to immediately:

Step One: Stop Making It

Every three-year old knows that when the sink is overflowing, you turn off the tap. Even after the closing of the Proposed Yucca Mountain High-Level Dump, and the multi-reactor meltdown at Fukushima in 2011, efforts are underway in Georgia and elsewhere to build new nuclear power plants. This is crazy.

Step Two: Contain It 

Contain and monitor (not abandon) nuclear wastes as close as safely possible to their sites of origin (but not in the middle of the Mississippi or on major fault line, for example). Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS) is the best choice for storage of used nuclear fuel on site, while a reasonable long term storage site is found.

Step Three: Fund Reasonable Alternatives

The U.S. government should show leadership in funding reasonable long-term solutions for waste storage and a range of renewable sources of energy. Different sources are available to different areas.

Current classification categories for nuclear wastes are confusing, because they often have little to do with how long the waste will last, or how dangerous individual particles are to health. Waste is mainly categorized by whether it is generated by the military or by electrical utilities.
High-level waste is both military nuclear weapons production byproducts and the civilian unstable used fuel rods from nuclear reactors. Fuel rods (see below) are actually one million times more radioactive after use than before use, so the term "spent fuel" is highly misleading. (See Yucca Mountain and HOME Projects pages for more information about high level wastes.)

Transuranic waste
 is mixtures of radioactive materials and other dangerous heavy metals, mainly generated by nuclear weapons production.

Low level waste is mainly non-military, and can include everything from hospital equipment to every broom and pair of booties from a nuclear reactor, to the concrete buildings themselves. However, it can include a low concentration of very deadly particles of elements such as Plutonium, which take hundreds of thousands of years to completely deteriorate. (LL Waste below, being transported to the Nevada Test Site, 2005.)

Low Level waste transported to the Nevada Test Site in 2005.

Mill Tailings
are the radioactive soils and heavy metals remaining after uranium mining and milling into ‘yellow cake’ ore.

Greater Than Class C waste is a new catergory which lumps together wastes that don't fit other categories.  In 2011, the U.S. was still working on classification, and finding a permanent dump site for thiese wastes.

Depleted Uranium (DU) is the byproduct of concentrating Uranium ore for nuclear weapons and reactor fuel. It existed in quantities too vast for affordable cleanup at General Electric sites in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Since it is denser and heavier than lead, someone had the bright idea of "recycling" it into armor-piecing ammunition and armor plated tanks and military vehicles, which have been widely used in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. On impact, it vaporizes into microscopic particles easily absorbed through breathing or inestion. U.S. veterans have been impacted, but worse is the billions of abandonned shells and damaged vehicles, which are causing disease, as well as birth defects in the children of exposed individuals. In February 2012, it was announced that 14% of all children now born in Fallujah, Iraq, hae birth defects.  DU lasts hundreds of thousands of years.

The dumping of barrels in unlined pits pictured left was actually officially refered to in DOE documents as 'Random Stacking'.

the ongoing attempt to avoid cleanup costs by returning thousands of tons of contaminated metals from weapons plants to commercial use, where, according to Robert Alvarez, "some percentage of it would inevitably end up in stainless steel items such as intrauterine devices, surgical tools, children’s orthodontic braces, kitchen sinks, zippers, and flatware."