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A Brief History of the Nuclear Waste Problem - Why Our Nuclear Waste Facilities Sit Empty

Justin Stark

Posted on February 7, 2020 00:00

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The hard push for nuclear energy during the 1970s energy crisis created a backlash to which government agencies failed to address citizen concerns or make quick, clear decisions on how to solve the nuclear waste issue. Almost 50 years later, government agencies and the citizens still can't agree on what to do with nuclear waste.

 

People in the 1950s lived in fear of the atomic bomb. Not only for the fact that you could be disintegrated in an instant, but what was perhaps scarier was the slow agonizing death of extreme radiation exposure that caused bone marrow failure to those not close enough to be killed immediately.

Just a few years later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) would begin to counter the previous scary nuclear narrative by highlighting the benefits of radiation not only for energy but also food preservation, and medicine. When people bring up the fear of nuclear reactors, they often attribute it to the bomb being the public's first exposure to this great power. Had the energy source been widely introduced before the bombs, public opinion on nuclear power might be starkly different.

With some modest skepticism, most were receptive to the moderate amount of nuclear energy produced in the United States not knowing much about the technology or radiation. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the public would begin to turn on the AEC and nuclear energy. In 1973 a leak at the Hanford facility resulted in 115,000 gallons of nuclear waste to be spilled in the Columbia River undetected for 51 days. Even when the AEC promised all was safe, the public demanded immediate action. 

Governor Andrus of Idaho was pressured to start a movement that other states would soon copy of asking for all waste materials to be removed from local facilities and stored at a permanent repository. Seeing as at the time Idaho held 90% of the nation's low-level waste, this was a big task for the AEC. The problem was (and still is) that no state wanted to be home to a giant radioactive waste graveyard.

The AEC had the added burden of immediately finding a permanent storage facility, something they thought they could wait years on. The overarching problem is the complexity and misunderstanding of radiation by the general public paired with their appetite to dictate policy on the matter. Every environmental or health report telling the public that living near nuclear waste is safe was regarded as self-serving government agency lies.

Even if they are right, many thought having the waste in their state was risky or made their home a "nuclear waste dump." The rapid, high capital cost expansion in the 1970s, combined with the public demand to remove waste from their home states, resulted in the nuclear industry unable to financially perform these tasks while also modernizing facilities to meet new regulations, leaving the United States nuclear industry to choke on its waste and die.

Nuclear science is a highly technical subject. There are things the public can sway policy on, but this is one where citizens might want to leave it to the experts and not pressure the government into unnecessary, industry killing practices out of fear. The Yucca Mountain storage facility sits empty not for environmental or public health reasons, but because of stigma and misunderstanding.

Justin Stark

Posted on February 7, 2020 00:00

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