More often than not the subject of my Sunday article is the biggest political news of the week just ended. In using Kyle Swenson’s Monday, May 20th article in the Washington Post entitled, “Marshall Islands ‘nuclear coffin’ in danger of leaking nuclear bomb waste due to sea level rise” as the basis of today’s article feel I have stayed consistent. Let’s explore.
I hate to rank any single issue as the number one threat to America, but climate change is certainly in the very top tier of threats. As I’ve often said and written: What good is your house or job when you can’t drink the water or breathe the air? America has survived recessions, wars, depressions, unemployment, bad presidents along with health and weather emergencies. With any luck and perseverance we will continue on that path. But to steal a cliché, there is no planet B.
Except for the willfully ignorant, we know that man’s actions since the Industrial Revolution have severely impacted climate change. Most of that is due to the burning of fossil fuels. Any practical plan must include alternative energy sources. We aren’t about to give up all the conveniences of modernity and most require power, much of which is generated using fossil fuels. I think the complete elimination of fossil fuel is a wonderful but largely unachievable goal; in the foreseeable future anyway. However if we do not exponentially expand our use of alternative energy sources we are passing a death sentence on most plant and animal life on the planet very much including ourselves. One alternative energy source that must be considered is nuclear energy.
There are legitimate concerns about the use of nuclear energy. I recently read Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. One of my hopes in reading the book was that it would move me to be either pro or con nuclear energy; sadly it didn’t. The book coupled with some subsequent research and discussions have to a degree reassured me that nuclear safety has vastly improved in recent decades. Considering past disasters I’m not sure that is adequate reassurance. The issue that still plagues me is the nuclear waste. This is where I become 100% a NIMBY person! I do not want nuclear waste transported or stored near me!
Swenson’s article deals with nuclear waste from bombs dropped between 1946 and 1958. I realize the nuclear waste from nuclear power plants is less potent but it is still too dangerous for my taste. This story also illustrates how promises and plans don’t always work out the way they are “sold”. I highly recommend that you take a few minutes and read the article.
The bomb wastes were stored in a 328 foot deep crater (created by one of the test blasts) and then covered by 18 inches of concrete. That sounds pretty secure to a non-bench scientist like me. It isn’t, this was originally intended to be a temporary fix.
In 1983 the Marshall Islands gained “quasi-independence” from the United States. As part of the deal they assumed responsibility for the “nuclear coffin”. Since the Marshall Islands don’t have the money to upgrade or replace the coffin, what was intended to be a temporary repair became a permanent fix. Then several issues appeared. The bomb crater was never properly lined which means that sea water can seep into it (and presumably waste seep out). Also now the dome is cracking. As sea level rises there is a very real danger that the top of the dome will end up under water.
All nuclear waste is not equal but in our Marshall Islands example Plutonium-239 is among the waste. It has a half-life of 24,100 years. To put that timeline in perspective, if you believe in Jesus that means that since the time He was born until today would be less than 10% of the time required for this material to lose half of its toxicity.
You can color me skeptical and concerned yet open minded about incorporating nuclear power in our mix. This much I am certain of; we need to proceed with caution and make extremely long-term provisions for not only the building and safety of plants but the handling and ultimate storage of the nuclear waste.
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