OPINION – We’ve been down this road before.
The objective, a decade ago, was to block the path of a Department of Energy plan to collect nuclear waste and transport it, via truck and rail car, from nuclear sites across the country and deposit it at a Nevada Test Site facility called Yucca Mountain, located about 90 miles from Las Vegas.
There was, of course, serious opposition to the plan because of the inherent dangers of transporting this deadly waste through densely populated areas.
It mattered to us, of course, because much of this waste would be transported along the Interstate 15 corridor on its way to Yucca Mountain. The threat of terrorism – subversive groups have long lusted after nuclear materials, even waste products to construct what are known as “dirty bombs” – or the possibility of accidental spills was a matter of grave concern to those who live along the routes planned to deliver the waste to Yucca Mountain.
The site even became a campaign issue in 2008, with President Barack Obama pledging to halt the project, which he did when he cut funding for the program after taking office.
The issue, however, has come alive again as the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission have unveiled plans that could reopen the nuclear waste site issues – not only for the Yucca Mountain site, but another facility about 30 miles from the Yucca Mountain site.
As before, the proposal is couched in language that emphasizes the plan as being important in terms of “national security,” and that the risks of moving this material – as far as 2,000 miles in some instances – are worth taking to place all of this toxic waste in a national repository.
We didn’t like the idea a decade ago and we like it even less today.
What we’re talking about here are 403 solid metal canisters, approximately the size of a fat baseball bat being buried in trenches below a 40-foot level with a layer of shipping containers filled with radioactively contaminated materials ranging from worker uniforms to machine parts stacked on top. An 8-foot layer of dirt would be loaded over the top of the site.
The thought of transporting that much nuclear waste at distances of up to 2,000 miles is irresponsible. No matter how much the DOE and NRC claim the routes and dates of shipment would be kept secret, there is no guarantee that the materials could be shipped entirely under cloak-and-dagger disguise. There are no guarantees that the vehicles involved will not tip and roll or be involved in some a traffic accident. And, most importantly, there is no guarantee against seepage from the transporting vehicles or leakage of the waste into the ground and then atmosphere once buried.
In other words, a large percentage of the population could, potentially, be exposed to the effects of radiation should one mishap occur along the route.
But, the Nevada Test Site, where more than 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted during the Cold War, is again being targeted as the dump site for the waste.
We all know what happened in the aftermath of those nuclear tests. Those living in the region of the Nevada Test Site – including those in Southern Utah – were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation in the atmospheric fallout. More than 50,000 claims have been approved under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to the victims and families that suffered illness and death as a result of poisoning from the fallout in the extremely limited area RECA has approved for claims. We know, the damage was much more extensive, however. In his book, “Under The Cloud,” researcher Richard Miller shows us in a very detailed map how fallout from the nuclear tests fell on each of the contiguous 48 states, drifted into parts of Canada and Mexico, and even made its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.
The heaviest concentrations, of course, were in the U.S. West, where innocent civilians were dosed by nuclear poison.
Southern Utahns were told the clouds passing overhead were harmless, so families would take their vehicles out to vantage points in Snow Canyon, into the west desert, or onto ridges along Cedar Mountain to watch the flash from the blast and the ensuing clouds. As they drove home from their outing to watch the blast and passing clouds, they were often stopped by government researchers clad in HAZMAT suits who would run Geiger Counters over their vehicles, recording the amounts of fallout.
The trusting residents were told that all they had to do was wash the dust from the fallout off of the vegetables they grew in their gardens, that they needed only to beat the dust out of the clothes and bedding hung out to dry in the backyard and all would be well.
And, as we later learned, these were all lies, which led to Sen. Orrin Hatch penning and sponsoring the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which passed through Congress in 1990.
So far, nearly $2 billion has been awarded to victims – known informally as Downwinders – of the carnage. I was once told that the reason RECA hasn’t been expanded to include all Downwinders is because the government couldn’t afford to pay that much in legitimate claims. So, RECA only covers those who lived in a limited geographic area during a certain time. It does not include those who lived in hotspots across the country, like northeastern Missouri, parts of Nebraska and the many other areas where fallout rained in alarming quantities.
It was a human sacrifice of incredibly outrageous proportion, all in the interest of “national security,’ couched in lies and disregard, which is why we remain suspicious of renewed efforts to complete the studies at Yucca Mountain, as recently ordered by the NRC, and the proposal to ship waste to another spot in the already beleaguered, contaminated Nevada desert.
There are concerns, to be sure, about security and protection of the population and environment in regards to this nuclear waste. However, transporting this material, whose half-life is measured in tens of thousands of years, across busy U.S. highways and byways and depositing it in the unstable environment of a desert that has high potential for seismic activity and is already highly irradiated, is irresponsible and unacceptable.
There are alternatives, such as research into how to safely use the nuclear waste for safer, more environmentally healthful usage.
The bottom line is that this nation let the atomic genie out of the bottle more than 70 years ago and has no way of putting it away in a safe and useful manner.
But, the answer to the problem is not in a foolish plan to possibly expose even more people to the damning waste than is necessary.
The answer is to place safety at the forefront of any proposed plan, and this idea of transporting this poison thousands of miles is simply not provably safe.
There are those who will argue that efforts to stop these proposed plans are simply reacting in the “not in my backyard” realm.
Maybe, but we have a right to take that stance because damage has already been done in our backyard.
And, we don’t need more.
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Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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