Nuclear Waste—The Lethal Garbage
AN AVALANCHE of household garbage is not the only hazard that threatens to choke the life from this world. It pales into insignificance alongside a far greater and deadlier waste problem. Since man first learned to harness the atom for making nuclear weapons and for generating electricity, scientists have been in a quandary as to the safest possible methods for disposing of the highly radioactive nuclear waste the systems produce.
Thousands of millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to find ways to prevent people and the environment from being contaminated for generations to come by this deadly waste. A formidable task, indeed, since radioactive waste can remain lethal to all living things for thousands of years!
For decades much of this waste was simply dumped into on-site burial pits and seepage basins in the belief that the dangerous materials would become diluted and rendered harmless—an assumption that has proved catastrophic in its effects, as we shall see. Millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste were stored in giant underground tanks; other waste was sealed in barrels and stored above ground, another method of disposal that proved dangerous.
So hazardous and lethal is this nuclear waste that scientists considered everything from shooting the waste into outer space to putting it under the polar ice caps. There is now under investigation the feasibility of dropping canisters of waste into the northern Pacific Ocean, where they would be expected to penetrate a hundred feet [30 m] into the mud below the ocean floor. “We’ve got stuff on this planet that we’re going to have to deal with, either on land, in water or below the waters of the ocean. That’s all we’ve got,” said the vice president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
For now, as a stopgap solution until a safer and more permanent method of disposal can be found, most of this radioactive material is stored in water-filled pools inside sealed buildings. Ontario, Canada, for example, has 16 nuclear reactors that have already produced more than 7,000 tons of radioactive waste, now stored in such containers. Britain too is faced with the perplexing problem of what to do with her waste. Presently, high-level waste is being kept in aboveground sites, and this policy is expected to continue until leakproof underground sites can be found and tested. France, Germany, and Japan are also trying to come to grips with their nuclear waste problem.
“Official policy in the United States,” reported The New York Times, “is that the safest method is burial in a ‘deep geologic repository,’ someplace dry, stable and desolate. But finding the spot is proving tough.” Tough indeed! According to scientists, it must be such a dry and stable place that it can safely house the material for 10,000 years. Although some of this atomic waste can remain lethal for an estimated 250,000 years, experts believe that so much geological change will take place over 10,000 years “that it is pointless to try to plan for longer.” “I don’t know of any estimation model on the face of the earth that could even talk about a 1,000-year projection,” said one noted radiation expert. He added that it was “difficult to talk about a health risk 10,000 years in the future.”
When scientists unlocked the secrets of the atom, they unleashed a strange new phenomenon with which they were not prepared to cope—the deadly pollution nightmare that was to follow. Even after being warned of the potential danger, government officials deliberately ignored the warnings. As atomic weapons became the priority of the nations with the ability and materials to make them, regard for the health and lives of people and the quality of the environment was abandoned. Sloppy procedures in containing the deadly waste were used. For example: At one atomic weapons plant, “more than 200 [thousand million] gallons [750 billion L] of hazardous wastes, enough to inundate Manhattan to a depth of 40 feet [12 m], have been poured into unlined pits and lagoons,” wrote U.S.News & World Report of March 1989. “Toxic seepage has contaminated at least 100 square miles [260 sq km] of ground water. Some 45 million gallons [170 million L] of high-level radioactive effluent are stored in giant underground tanks, and more than 50 Nagasaki-size bombs could be built from the plutonium that has leaked from these containers,” the magazine said. It is estimated that the cleanup of this site will cost as much as 65 thousand million dollars.
Some holding tanks built to contain nuclear waste became so hot from radioactive heat that they cracked. It is estimated that half a million gallons [2 million L] of radioactive waste has leaked into the ground. Drinking water has been contaminated by radioactive strontium-90 to a level a thousand times the allowable limit for drinking water as set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In another atomic weapons plant, “radioactive substances from waste pits holding 11 million gallons [42 million L] of uranium . . . are leaking into an aquifer and have contaminated wells a half-mile [0.8 km] south of the facility,” reported The New York Times. The paper also reported that in Washington State, thousands of millions of gallons of contaminated water were poured into the ground, and a steady stream of radioactive tritium is flowing into the Columbia River.
In Idaho traces of plutonium have escaped from shallow waste pits at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, reported The New York Times. “They are moving through rock layers toward a vast underground water reservoir that supplies thousands of southern Idaho residents.” The deadly element has penetrated to a depth of 240 feet [70 m], nearly halfway to the aquifer, the paper said.
How deadly is this plutonium waste that has poured into the rivers and streams and has belched into the air? “Plutonium remains radioactive for 250,000 years,” reported The New York Times, “and even microscopic particles can be lethal if they are inhaled or swallowed.” “Inhaling even a speck of plutonium dust can cause cancer,” said Newsweek magazine.
The immediate and long-range effects of nuclear waste on people are not known. They may never be. Suffice it to say, however, that at one atomic plant, 162 cancer cases have been reported among those living within several miles of the facility. People are afraid to drink the water, and fear abounds. “They’re going to have anywhere from six to 200 extra cancer cases,” said a university doctor and consultant to the plant workers. “They’re all scared. They feel like they’ve lost control of their environment and their lives.”
And so they have. Many centuries ago a faithful prophet of Jehovah said: “I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) Certainly history has proved these words true—dramatically so in these last days. The growing garbage crisis is only one of man’s many failures to direct his steps wisely.
However, there is no need to despair. Bible prophecy shows clearly that soon this present system of things will be removed and a new world ushered in by the Creator. He will not much longer tolerate what man is doing to the earth and to himself but will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth.” (Revelation 11:18) After that, under the Creator’s direction, humans will learn how to care for the earth properly and how to use its resources wisely.—Psalm 37:34; 2 Peter 3:10-13.
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Nuclear waste can remain lethal for 250,000 years
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“Inhaling even a speck of plutonium dust can cause cancer”