Nuclear Waste: Where does it belong?
Nuclear waste is best defined as the leftovers from nuclear power. It is very radioactive and unstable and can cause severe, permanent damage to all those in constant contact with it. It is even linked to lung cancer and leukemia. Is this something you want in your neighborhood and around your children? Probably not. Well, the Western Shoshone tribe has to deal with this in their neighborhood. Congress recently passed legislation to dump a lot of the waste from the US on their reservation. I believe that this is not the right thing to do because it endangers lives and I think there has to be another way.
For the most part, nuclear power is one of the cleanest, most efficient forms of energy with the exception of one thing. At a nuclear power plant, heat is generated due to fission. This heat creates steam that turns turbines and makes electricity. The fission occurs due to the nuclear fuel. Nuclear fuel is made of very small pellets of enriched uranium, about the size of a pencil eraser. The fuel will continue to be used until it is spent, meaning it has no effect in generating heat. The spent fuel is the one exception. Once it is spent, it becomes the nuclear waste. This kind of waste is called High-Level Radioactive Waste (HLW) (United States DOE 11). HLW basically consists of the following elements: Krypton-85, Cesium-137, Plutonium-241, and Americium-241 (“Selected” sec. 1-4). I’ll go into more detail about those later, but basically, they all make a very radioactive substance.
Currently, the HLW from all the nuclear power plants are stored on site in giant pools of water. However, these only serve as a temporary spot. The pools are getting full and there’s no other place to put it on site. It has to go somewhere away from people.
As of right now, there is approximately 45,000 metric tons of the spent nuclear fuel on 72 sites across the US. In addition, another 2,000 tons are added every year. By the year 2010, there will be around 60,000 tons total (United States Congress 2). That’s a lot of waste. So where will it all go?
The government says quite simply: Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 50 miles outside Las Vegas. They believe that Yucca Mountain is the perfect place for all the nuclear waste to go. They plan on digging a giant hole into the mountain and a tunnel system inside. The waste will be kept in a series of containers that will aid in shielding radiation. It will be brought in starting in about 2010. After the site is full, it will be kept open for close monitoring for 100 years. After which, the mountain will be sealed for 10,000 more years and continue to be monitored (Zapler 19).
Yucca Mountain has many characteristics that make it a good place to store the HLW. It is said to be environmentally stable and not prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanoes. Putting the waste in the mountain shields everyone from some of the radiation. It seemed like the best place to do this.
Well, it’s not the best place. By putting the waste in Yucca Mountain, it might affect the health of those living around the area. This is not a good plan. One of the reasons why is because its right smack dab on an Indian Reservation, but you would never know that by reading about it. The government considers that land theirs in all of their writing, but they know it belongs to the Western Shoshone tribe under the Treaty of Ruby Valley (“House” par. 6). Because of that, they have sent people to that reservation, as well as some other reservations, to try and convince the tribes that the government can dump radioactive material on their land.
The tribes were offered $100,000 just to consider the proposal, with the promise of multi-millions of dollars more if they agreed. David Leroy, the head of the federal Office of the Nuclear Waste Negotiator, was the man in charge of convincing the tribes. He relied heavily on Indian oratory to get his point across. Honestly, I think this is fairly amusing that a white person would try and use Indian phrases to get them to listen. My favorite quote of his was when he promised that the federal government would be “as flexible as the wind and the sea (Hernandez par. 2+).” However, history has proven otherwise when it comes to most Indian affairs.
Many tribal members who are against this have supposedly been subjected to harassment, physical attacks, and some death threats. “There is so much fear in the community now you could cut it with a cake knife,” said Donalyn Torres from the Mescalero Apache tribe whose tribal council wants to consider waste storage. “If nuclear storage is so safe, the people should consider putting it in their own backyards (Hernandez par. 9).”
Chief Raymond Yowell is very concerned about the waste dumping saying that he and his people have already been subjected to too much radiation because the reservation is just a few short miles away from the Nevada Test Site. Here, over 900 different kinds of atomic bombs have been tested. “…It affected our people, the land, our traditional foods and medicines. Many of those underground tests contaminated the water, the blood of our Mother Earth. A lot of our people are suffering from cancer now. Yucca Mountain will only further contaminate us (“Tribes” par. 11).” Concerning Yucca Mountain, he said, “Yucca Mountain is a sacred site with spiritual and cultural significance in our sovereign territory…” (“House” par. 7).
Tom Goldtooth, the coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said, “The nuclear industry has waged an undeclared war against indigenous peoples that has poisoned our communities…through…nuclear testing…and even experiments involving Native peoples. We’ve already made countless sacrifices for this country’s nuclear programs (“House” par. 3).”
Currently, the closest community in the nation to a nuclear waste storage site is the Prairie Island Indian Community. The Tribal Council President, Audrey Kohnen, released a statement saying that the community is in favor of the Yucca Mountain site. However, this won’t rid the community of the waste. Every nuclear waste cask that is sent away will be replaced shortly with another (“House” par. 14-15). Even with the Yucca site, they won’t be rid of it all.
The government also told the tribes that the new dumpsite would increase jobs. Donalyn Torres (quoted earlier) said, “…they said it would provide a lot of new positions for jobs, but since this is high-level waste, only robots and highly educated people qualify for those jobs (Hernandez par. 33).”
And it’s not as simple as saying that the Indians can just move off the land. This is their land. The government has taken away the Indians land once, so why should they do it again? Yucca Mountain is also one of the Indians most sacred places. It is where most of their beliefs center. So by them moving off, they are forced to leave the sacred land. Also, in moving off, it won’t be easy for families to stay together. They are used to living close to one another, but if they move, they may not get that chance. It isn’t right to think that the Indians should move because we need to dump our radioactive wastes there.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, there’s more. Indians aren’t the only ones that will be affected by the HLW dumpsite. There will be highways and railroads constructed across the country leading to Yucca Mountain for the waste to be dropped off. These will go past several cities on an almost daily basis with tons of waste on board, affecting everything in the path. Each shipment by rail might have as much as 240 times the radiation released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Zapler 20).
The government says that the transportation method is very safe and it is a very unlikely that a major accident will happen. They did drop tests on the casks that transport the waste to see if they will break open in a crash. However, it is reported that the crash speed was only 35 miles per hour when most of the trucks carrying them would be going 65-70 mph (United States Congress 11-12). Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., said regarding the transportation trucks, “The President has created 100,000 targets of opportunity for terrorists who have proven their capability of hitting targets far less vulnerable than a truck on an open highway (“Tribes” par. 13).”
If there was such an accident from the transportation, so much could go wrong. I mentioned earlier the four main parts of HLW. In a major accident, these will become quite a problem. Krypton-85 is a radioactive gas. In an accident, it would be released into the atmosphere and inhaled by those under the plume. Cesium-137 is a metal that burns immediately in the air and will explode in water. In an accident, it would cause a plume of radioactive particles that would be inhaled and ingested by those in the vicinity. Within about 30 seconds, a mixture of Krypton and Cesium would cause people in a building ¼ mile away to inhale 14,500 millirem of radiation. That’s 1450 times the amount received during a normal x-ray. Both of these will cause lung cancer if inhaled (“Selected” sec. 1-2).
Plutonium-241 and Americium-241 have about the same affects. In an accident involving an explosion, particles of each would be released in the air and be inhaled by nearby people. This will cause leukemia and lung cancer (“Selected” sec. 3-4).
There are several other government officials that are against the Yucca Mountain site. Several representatives brought up their reasons why they disagree. They said that originally, in 1982, the Department of Energy was supposed to look at five geologically different sites and to select two of them; one east of the Mississippi and one west. However, in 1987, they claimed that the original act was amended for political, not scientific, reasons so that the only site that could be studied was Yucca Mountain. This was also known by Nevadans as the “Screw Nevada” bill. They also said that the Department of Energy failed to do certain tests, or did them incorrectly so as to get the site approved quicker (United States Congress 10).
Another thought to consider is that Yucca Mountain has the possibility for volcanic action and is directly on a fault line that could lead to earthquakes. The Department of Energy says that this won’t be a problem, but I want to know how they can see 10,000 years into the future. The world will change so much in that many years, but we may not be there to see it because all of humanity will be killed by radiation. Well, maybe it’s not that extreme.
If something does go horribly wrong with the mountain site, nearby communities will have to be evacuated, meaning Indians may have to move out of their land. Families might be separated, but what may be more important, they will be forced to leave their sacred ground.
The Indians and other Americans are wondering if there is any other way to store the waste. There are a few different ways. One is that the waste can stay in the power plants, like it is now. It is a risky option because it is not entirely safe. Many accidents have already happened in the plants, and more will come, especially if there will be more and more waste stored there.
There is a way to recycle the spent fuel using a procedure called reprocessing. In this, uranium and plutonium are removed from the spent fuel. However, this method is much more expensive than mining the uranium, so it is an uneconomical way of doing it (United States DOE 12).
There is also talk about researching a method called transmutation. This is a process that lowers the toxicity levels of the waste. This reduces the storage time from 10,000 years to a simple three hundred (Zapler 21).
The best solution possible is to get rid of nuclear power altogether. We have a great source of energy called the sun, yet we haven’t been doing anything about that. It’s a renewable source and very clean. There’s no waste left at all. And the sun isn’t due to die out in the next few millennia.
Right now, the $58 billion Yucca Mountain project is under way. Don’t worry, the money isn’t coming out of your taxes, it comes from your electric bill (United States DOE 5). There are huge tunnels being drilled into the side of the mountain as you are reading this. In about seven years, it will be ready for the first shipment and storage. So for seven years, the Western Shoshone Indians can live fairly radiation free. However, one of their most sacred sites is being destroyed, but right now, they don’t have much choice.
Only time will tell what happens with the waste; whether an earthquake occurs and breaks the casks open and exposes the HLW to the water, or if a truck tips over near a residential area. Both will be terrible for the air and quality of life, especially for the Indians. “The Navajo language doesn’t even have a word for ‘hazardous,’ the closest word is ‘scary.’ It’s like describing a light bulb to a blind person. It’s a whole different concept (Hernandez par. 35).”
Hernandez, Juan Avila. “How the Feds Are Pushing Nuclear Waste on Reservations.” The Circle Sept. 1999: 8
Selected Elements of High-Level Radioactive Waste. 2003. The MapScience Center. 24 Apr. 2003
Taliman, Valerie. “House Approves Yucca Mountain.” Indian Country Today 15 May 2002: A1
Taliman, Valerie. “Tribes, States Will Fight Nuke Waste Dump.” Indian Country Today 6 Mar. 2002: A1
United States. Congress. House. Committee on Energy and Commerce. Approval of Yucca Mountain Site: report together with dissenting views. Washington: US GPO, 2002
United States. Dept. of Energy. Yucca Mountain Project Office. Why are Scientists Studying Yucca Mountain?. Washington: US GPO, 1995
Zapler, Mike. “Yucca Mountain.” Planning. Vol. 69 Issue 2: 19
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