A Cruel Legacy

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Half Life—The Lethal Legacy of America's Nuclear Waste

A tank farm at Hanford, Washington, built in the 1940s, uses only single-wall tanks to store radioactive sludge from plutonium processing. Many of the tanks have leaked, tainting groundwater.

Photograph by Peter Essick

Half Life—The Lethal Legacy of America's Nuclear Waste

Written by Michael E. Long
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
World War II was still being fought in the Pacific during the first week of August 1945, a time when my father and I were vacationing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, eating softshell crabs and lazing by the ocean. In a games arcade I fed nickels to a toy machine gun and fired at Japanese Zero fighters flitting across a screen. On the boardwalk, rifles shouldered, platoons of United States soldiers marched and sang:
The Stars and Stripes will fly over Tokyo,
Fly over Tokyo, fly over Tokyo,
The Stars and Stripes will fly over Tokyo,
When the 991st gets there̴.
One morning my dad showed me a newspaper with red headlines that said a huge bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. The bombs were so big that the boys of the 991st wouldn't have to go to Tokyo after all.
The strong nuclear force, the binding energy that makes atomic nuclei the most tightfisted entities in all creation, had been sundered, unleashing enormous power—the equivalent of 15,000 tons (13,608 metric tons) of TNT in the Hiroshima bomb—as well as a race to create bigger weapons. Seven years later our first hydrogen device, code-named Mike, yielded a blast equal to 10.4 million tons (9.4 million metric tons) of TNT. Mike would have leveled all five boroughs of New York City.
By the mid-1960s, the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had stockpiled around 32,000 nuclear warheads, as well as mountains of radioactive garbage from the production of plutonium for these weapons. Just one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of plutonium required around a thousand tons (907 metric tons) of uranium ore. Generated from uranium bombarded by neutrons in a nuclear reactor, the plutonium was later separated from the uranium in hellish baths of acids and solvents still awaiting disposal.
A long-deferred cleanup is now under way at 114 of the nation's nuclear facilities, which encompass an acreage equivalent to Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Many smaller sites, the easy ones, have been cleansed, but the big challenges remain. What's to be done with 52,000 tons (47,174 metric tons) of dangerously radioactive spent fuel from commercial and defense nuclear reactors? With 91 million gallons (344.5 million liters) of high-level waste left over from plutonium processing, scores of tons of plutonium, more than half a million tons (453,592 metric tons) of depleted uranium, millions of cubic feet of contaminated tools, metal scraps, clothing, oils, solvents, and other waste? And with some 265 million tons (240 million metric tons) of tailings from milling uranium ore—less than half stabilized—littering landscapes?
For an idea of scale: Load those tailings into railroad hopper cars, then pour the 91 million gallons (344.5 million liters) of waste into tank cars, and you would have a mythical train that would reach around the Equator and then some.
In a decade real trains and trucks carrying high-level waste may head to Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the government's choice, and a controversial one, for a permanent repository.

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