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Nuclear Waste: an American Disaster

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It’s like something out of a science fiction movie. Nuclear waste – hundreds of millions of gallons of it – are buried underground after the Cold War. Years later, it threatens to contaminate major sources of food and water for an entire nation. The government spends billions each year on cleanup efforts, but still struggles to find a solution. And the public remains largely unaware that the problem exists. Unfortunately, it’s not fiction. All of the above is playing out right now on (and under) American soil.

Nuclear waste is not, like some might suspect, a problem confined to several failed laboratories in the middle of nowhere. One out of three Americans lives within 50 miles of high-level nuclear waste. Some of it, like Plutonium, is lethally dangerous and will be around for roughly 250,000 years.

The Problem With Nuclear Waste

The problem with nuclear waste is this: ever since it started being produced in the 1940’s, the United States has not figured out a way to get rid of it – or even store it safely. Storage facilities old and new are failing, leaking radioactive material into the earth and water surrounding them. Cleanup efforts are always underway, but funding, although substantial, is inadequate. And every day, this waste is seeping further towards farms, cities, and major rivers that are used for irrigation and drinking water.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies puts it rather politely. “Our inability to tackle the political difficulty surrounding the waste issue undermines our energy, environment, and national security policy. ”But the potential cost of this disaster is incalculable. At best, certain areas could become uninhabitable for many years. At worst, millions of Americans could be exposed to the generations-long effects of radiation poisoning.

To put the situation in perspective, let’s look closer at one example of contamination. Some call it “The most toxic place in America”. Nuclear experts have referred to it as “an underground Chernobyl, waiting to happen.” But to the public, it’s known simply as the Hanford Site.

Hanford Nuclear Site

The Hanford Site, or the Hanford Project, was once one of the biggest nuclear facilities in the world. Established in Washington State in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, it produced plutonium used in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki and the tests leading up to it. The plant was expanded further during the Cold War, eventually including nine nuclear reactors and five massive plutonium production complexes.

Hanford was mostly decommissioned after the Cold War, but decades of manufacturing left behind 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste. This waste was stored in lead tanks buried underground.

Environmental Disaster

Years later in 2010, it was discovered that these underground tanks were leaking – more than 640 gallons of waste per year – into the earth. That waste is currently seeping through the soil towards the Columbia River, one of America’s largest. One million people live in the 42 cities and towns located below Hanford on the Columbia River. They draw 5,000 cubic feet per second of drinking water directly from that river every day. There are also over 8,000 farms below Hanford in Washington State. These farms are irrigated using water drawn directly from the Columbia. If the leaks contaminate the river, it’s nearly impossible to estimate the environmental cost.

Humanitarian Disaster

Current and past plant employees have been stricken with diseases including beryllium poisoning, dementia, cardio-pulmonary disease and several forms of cancer. In many cases, medical and workers” compensation claims filed by employees were denied by the Department of Energy, citing inconclusive evidence that the health impacts were work-related. The extraordinary cost of treating complex illnesses has forced workers to sell property, liquidate retirement funds and declare bankruptcy.

The Cleanup Effort

A cleanup effort has been underway since the 1980’s, which costs $2 billion per year. In 2016, it was estimated that the total cost to complete the cleanup would be $107 billion. The work is as dangerous as it is expensive. Even now, plant workers are being put at risk by new leaks and new types of contamination that are being discovered every year.

Public Awareness

Considering the scope of this disaster, public awareness is not especially high. The Department of Energy releases information on the contamination and cleanup to the public, but there is no great effort to raise awareness for the issue. The same goes for contaminated areas across America. It almost seems like an ironic joke that in late 2015, the Hanford Site was designated as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park – a sort of national monument commemorating the project, complete with visitors centers and park rangers. No mention of nuclear contamination can be found on the visitor webpage.

Supporting Nuclear Waste Cleanup

The Hanford Site in Washington State is just one example of America’s nuclear waste problem. Similar stories are playing out across the nation. In fact, more may be waiting to happen. There are 100 nuclear plants currently operating in America, creating new waste that no one is sure what to do with in the long run. We need a plan to deal with our nuclear waste. We need more funding for cleanup efforts. Sufferers who have already been affected should be taken care of. The problem of nuclear waste is not going to go away. For decades, the American Government has failed to meet its legal obligations to manage and dispose of nuclear waste. We need strong support for positive action to be taken.

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