America’s Fukushima : If We Don’t Act Now, We May Not Be Able To Avoid The Next One
I am in awe of the periodic table. But if you stood me in front of a tank containing all the elements on the table, I would recoil in shock and horror. That’s because the tank would contain not just carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus, but also plutonium, uranium, and every other radioactive element. At the US Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, there are 177 tanks of chemicals containing almost the whole periodic table—including 500 kg of plutonium.
Last week, the whole site—which converted uranium to plutonium for atomic bombs during the Cold War but now exclusively acts as a storage facility for nuclear waste—was put on lockdown after one of the tunnels containing highly contaminated waste collapsed. Luckily, analysis showed radioactive waste hadn’t become airborne and contractors quickly filled the tunnel—one of 1,000 places in the 586 sq mile (1,500 sq km) area that is known to hold some form of nuclear waste.
Even then, the collapse made international news because Hanford experts had long expected a disaster to happen any day. The mishandling of nuclear waste at the site and the ongoing clean-up delays make Hanford one of the riskiest places on Earth. Two whistleblowers, who were employees of companies tasked with cleaning up “the most polluted site in the western hemisphere,” say that Hanford could become America’s Fukushima.
Hanford’s challenges are great because of the sheer amount and complexity of the waste it stores, but every country with any nuclear waste struggles to deal with it one way or another. Although nuclear reactors—both for creating weapons and for generating power—have been operating since the 1940s, there is still no place in the world where the radioactive waste produced in the process can be stored permanently and safely.
A 2016 report from the European Commission found that the cost of disposing nuclear waste and decommissioning plants for its 16 member nations far outstripped the money allocated towards it. The bill is expected to be more than €250 billion ($280 billion), but only €120 billion is available. Worse still, the continent doesn’t have enough decommissioning know-how (paywall).
Ted Nordhaus, director of research at the Breakthrough Institute, says that people confuse the nuclear weapons industry, which has failed to address its waste problem, with the nuclear power industry, which has more stringent regulation in place to better manage waste. “Neither the physics nor the technologies are the same, nor are the institutions that manage the two technologies,” he writes.
Indeed, the nuclear waste from weapons development is more complex than that from spent fuel in a power plant. But it isn’t always true that different bodies handle these different wastes.
The UK’s Sellafield site has tasked a single company with cleaning up waste both from the Cold-War era weapons program and from the site’s decommissioned nuclear power plant. There are some 13,000 workers on the 2.3 sq mile (6 sq km) site, and it has been plagued with safety concerns for decades. The clean-up of the site is supposed to take more than 100 years and cost the UK government in excess of £120 billion ($156 billion).
What Nordhaus is correct about is that we understand fairly well how to process and securely store most of the waste generated by the power industry.