Yet again we are confronted by the limits of human engineering and the dangers of nuclear technology, this time in the disclosure of two leaks at a federal nuclear storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Huge tunnels carved into 2,150 foot deep Permian salt deposits were intended to provide a long term safe solution to disposing of degraded plutonium from weapons production, but in the past two weeks both an underground and aboveground release of radioactivity has closed the facility indefinitely. In the absence of any other storage solution available at the present time, this means that thousands of pounds of toxic plutonium must remain in unsafe conditions, including 4,000 barrels discovered due to the recent wildfire near the Los Alamos Weapons Lab. The barrels had been discarded and forgotten until the fire once again revealed their existence. With the storage facility closed, they will continue to decompose and present a further threat of serious contamination.
I’ve written about this topic repeatedly; that our inability to safely dispose of the most toxic substances ever created by humankind is madness and that we continue to produce radioactive waste at nuclear energy producing power plants and have no solution to storing radioactive spent power rods makes the situation even more insane. Despite this, calls for building new nuclear power plants continue, with none other than Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog now one of the leading advocates. Using global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels as justification, Brand and others see nuclear power as clean and non-polluting. The recent events at the storage facility demonstrate the folly of that thinking. Plutonium is simply too deadly to be toyed with, but that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Fukushima should have rung the death knell for nuclear power, but the accident was written off as due to “older” technology. New technology, we are told, is much safer. Nonetheless, the power of nature dwarfs any present efforts by human beings; earthquakes and tsunamis happen, and many plants are built alongside coastal areas vulnerable to such natural disasters. Chernobyl and Fukushima are still, and will remain, too toxic for human beings for the foreseeable future. Scientists say the first radiation from Fukushima will reach California shores this spring.
The billions spent on nuclear weapons research, protection from terrorists, disposal and reconditioning is a horrid waste of precious resources. We’ve no choice but to find storage and disposal solutions to help clean up the mess made so far, but there is no excuse for producing more waste and risking public health by continued operation of nuclear power plants.
Solar technology has become a viable alternative, and a national mobilization to harness the power of the sun could reduce our dependency on both fossil fuels and nuclear power. The primary reason this has not happened is the decentralization of solar energy and the difficulty to form effective monopolies over the energy it produces. Most homes in America could easily and quickly own their own power-producing solar system, and this eliminates the need for centralized corporate control. It is this fact that is holding us back, not money or technological limits. Widespread conversion to electric vehicles would also reduce air pollution dramatically, but this threatens the oil industry.
Meanwhile, our children and grandchildren will endure the risk of life-threatening radiation for no reason other than the almighty dollar.