Since the rise of nuclear energy and the Nuclear Policy Waste Act of 1982, our country has asked itself three questions: how badly have we affected our population, is it irreversible, and what steps can be taken to prevent further damage?
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) is a crucial part of how the United States manages and disposes of the high-level nuclear waste created as a result of years of nuclear weapons experimentation and energy production. The NWPA initiated the process of creating a nuclear waste disposal site that had to have the capability to store a high volume of waste and allow its retrieval for testing if necessary, all the while being isolated from the environment and people around it.
Upon further review, the Department of Energy designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a reasonable site, presenting it to Congress and President Reagan in 1986. Geographically, the location is isolated, and the ridge that the waste would be stored in fulfilled the third requirement of an engineered barrier (the caverns within the ridge) working in conjunction with a natural geological structure (the ridge itself). Despite Yucca Mountain being delegated as an adequate repository for waste, the site went through a cycle of political debates led by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, leading its funding to be up in the air, then cut, then restored yet again.
The effects of the resulting nuclear waste have had quite an impact on our population, as well as our environment. This can primarily be seen in three different ways: the harmful levels of radiation that people are exposed to, the economic stress that nuclear waste puts on a town, and consequential environmental damage.
The Navajo peoples of New Mexico were directly affected by radiation from the site when one of the deadliest nuclear disasters in the U.S. devastated the health of the reservation. In June of 1979, the Church Rock uranium mill, run by United Nuclear Corporation, spilled “…94 million gallons of mill process effluent and 1,100 tons of tailings — an acidic, radioactive sludge — into a large arroyo that emptied into the Puerco River,” the primary source of water for the reservation, according to science journalist Carrie Arnold. The effects weren’t disclosed to the Navajo people for several days, during which, livestock drank, children played and bathed in the water, and locals carried on business as usual. Consequently, Navajo miners and non-miners alike were exposed to harmful radioactive particles; they developed neoplasms, a form of cancerous tissue, and died prematurely.
Towns near decommissioned nuclear sites can also suffer economic stress. Zion, Illinois, for example, experienced this with their power plant that dominated the small town’s economy. ComEd, one of the largest energy providers in Illinois, subsidized the property taxes of Zion in exchange for having the nuclear plant as a glaring part of their skyline; in 1997, when the operator on duty accidentally shut off a main reactor, then attempted to boot it back up without proper procedure, ComEd decided it would be too costly to restart the plant and decommissioned it the next year. As ComEd left, the subsidies did as well: property taxes went up, Zion’s value declined and the nuclear waste currently on site couldn’t go anywhere given the lack of a high-level repository. Small businesses were forced to shut down, homes were foreclosed, and the economic impact was evident.
Environmental damage is one of the most prevalent issues that arises from the use of nuclear power and in no location is this more notable than the Hanford Site in Washington state. Used as the primary station to develop nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project, which ultimately created the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “Hanford contained nearly 60 million gallons of highly radioactive waste…,” according to studies by the Hanford Community Health Project HHIN. This amount of radioactivity, which leaked both accidentally and deliberately (as is the case in an incident dubbed ‘Green Run,’ when the U.S. Air Force vented toxic levels of xenon-133 and iodine-131 into both the river and the atmosphere) over the almost 70 years of the site being in existence, isn’t easily contained once released.
Poor groundwater mitigation leads to water tables being contaminated, leaching into the lowest levels of the food chain. The HHIN reported fish being polluted was a massive issue due to Hanford, as it distributed the radioactive particles via food. They also reported that rubble, dirt, and contaminated sand were also carried via wind, affecting “downwinders” (those who lived south of the Hanford site and in the path of the wind currents).
Whether the damage is irreversible or not is another important facet of the nuclear waste debate. Radioactive particles typically have long half-lives (the time it takes for half of the particles to break down) which spells out trouble for health and environmental issues. An isotope of plutonium, plutonium-239, has a half life of 24,100 years, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC); this means that 1 gram of plutonium-239 will lose half its radioactivity only after 24,100 years.
The health impacts of nuclear waste, especially on the Navajo community affected by the Church Rock disaster, may still continue. As long as the environment they live in — which, according to the EPA, still could have “…contaminated mine waste and soils from the NECR Mine Site…migrate off-site via wind and water transport mechanisms” — is contaminated, the Western Navajo people will be impacted severely by radioactive exposure. The EPA also states that “…as uranium breaks down over time, it turns into radium…[and] breathing in high levels of radium can cause adverse effects to the blood, eyes, lungs, and teeth. Exposure to high levels of radium can result in an increased incidence of bone, liver, and breast cancer.” Notably, the EPA also clearly identified the source: “the lack of an engineered containment system for the mine waste.”
Thankfully, economic damage, though a lingering consequence, may not be as severe. Studies from the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations-sanctioned organization, have shown that economies, with ample communication regarding the productivity of the station, will continue to remain steady following a decommission. As shown in the report, “seventy-five percent of workers who left the [Rocky Flats Nuclear] site successfully made the transition (finding a new job, starting a business or retiring)” and “nearly the entire site population attended a transition orientation presentation, familiarizing them with the benefits of the programme.” This kind of communication between a plant and the workers within it ensure that there are no major surprises like the Zion Plant, which devastated the local economy.
Meanwhile, environmental damage may be something that isn’t vestigial. Much like the Church Rock location, Hanford is still a radioactive hazard, and may continue to be so for thousands of years to come, according to HHIN studies. Like Church Rock, dust and sand from the site is contaminated, so large gusts of wind or rainstorms like that of El Niño could have a large, negative impact on the local environment.
While the Yucca Mountain plan may still be stalled, there are smaller, more local tactics that individuals can take, as well as processes already in place, that are geared toward protecting the health of individuals, reinvigorating downed economies, and alleviating the environmental impact of nuclear spills. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken multiple steps on ensuring that companies are held accountable for nuclear accidents or spills. For example, in her study, Arnold notes the United Nuclear Corporation is partnering with the EPA in order to clean up the Church Rock spill, after paying multiple settlements to the residents, relocating them, and running health tests.
In addition, open dialogue and increased cooperation between nuclear facilities and the towns they reside in are two tips that could assist an ailing economy, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. For example, “The Community Assistance programme, operated by the USDOE Office of Legacy Management, sought to alleviate the negative impact of its changing mission on the workforce by ensuring the continuity of their pension and medical benefits.” This kind of effect can greatly resist the financial stress that nuclear plants can put on a small, working town — especially one that, like Zion, that depended on its nuclear industry.
As for environmental damage, it can only be prevented through safe nuclear methods. A combination of increased public awareness, government funding and help and accountability from corporations can push the cause for a truly green, renewable energy source with no negative byproducts; nuclear can be a viable option only if we dispose of it safely.
Nuclear waste disposal is a tricky time-bomb of an issue. The environmental impact and the potential for leaks and contamination increase with every passing year. Political inaction has created a divisive situation that towns with large amounts of high-level waste cannot handle. Until then, Yucca Mountain will remain barren, and the nuclear waste of America will be waiting for a final resting place.
Header image by Natalie Wade