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U is for Uranium: Our ultimate undoing

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
July 25, 2002


"Today every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or madness." — President John F. Kennedy

As a child of the cold war I remember being instructed in the fine art of duck and cover. More fun than fire drills, this exercise in futility was designed for both earthquakes and nuclear attack. Thankfully I have yet to employ this questionable survival technique.

By the time I made it to high school, and my critical thinking skills began to assert themselves, I began to doubt what the leaders of my free world were telling me. Under the memory challenge leadership of Ronald Reagan we were being told nukes in the Soviet Union were a threat, but the ones in our own backyard were not. Suffice it to say this did not compute.

Now I'm sure it will surprise no one to learn I attended more then my share of anti-nuke rallies. I did this for three reasons: one, because Americans needed to be heard, two, because it fueled my angst driven poetry, and three, it agitated my dad, who at the time worked security at San Onofre. The rock concerts weren't bad either.

Although existing plants were not going to be decommissioned, the anti nuke message was a success, and no new nuclear power reactors have been placed in the U.S. since 1973.That is the good news. The bad news is science has yet to find a way to safely store any of the radioactive waste produced in the U.S. since April 24, 1942.

All nuclear power plants produce weapons-usable plutonium. Like uranium, a sphere of plutonium smaller than a tennis ball can be used to make an explosive device capable of killing thousands of people. Nuclear weapons aside, even power plants are far from benign energy production facilities. The most notable accidents being Three Mile Island in the United States, Chernobyl in Russia, and most recently the Tokaimura generation facility in Japan.

This brings us to the new nuclear threat facing Americans. As if tempting fate, not to mention would be terrorists, on July 9,2002 the Senate rejected Nevada's attempt to block construction of a permanent storage site for highly radioactive nuclear waste from power plants at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. This means all the nuclear waste, from 39 states, will now be criss-crossing America on rails and roadways. Why the federal government would single out the residents of Nevada for this lethal litter, against their will, is hardly a mystery.

Money is at the heart of this vote. As California's false energy crisis has dramatically demonstrated, the dirty politics associated with dirty power trumps public health and citizens rights every time. Also not surprising is how fast George W. Bush's campaign rhetoric to support state rights over federal meddling evaporated once exposed to nuclear industry lobbying. In George's over simplified world, when it comes to toxic waste and personal ethics, out of sight is out of mind.

Yucca Mountain is being designed to house 77,000 tons of spent commercial, industrial and military nuclear fuel, with the first shipments due to begin arriving in 2010. At least 5 lawsuits are pending, which means Yucca Mountain is hardly a done deal. The state of Nevada is Environmentalists are becoming increasingly successful in delaying and stopping destructive policies through legal action.

Make no mistake Yucca Mountain is disaster delayed. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is convinced the tons of waste, from 103 nuclear reactors, shipped through 40 states can be stored safely for the tens of thousands of years it will remain radioactive entombed beneath an ancient volcanic ridge. Contradicting such Pollyanna musings, on July 12, 2000, the Yucca Mountain region was rocked by an earthquake measuring a 4.4 on the Richter scale.

Despite what the nuclear industry and the Bush Administration spout as gospel, nuclear power is not clean, nor is it harmless. If nuclear power, and it's resulting waste, were clean and harmless, uranium, its primary component, would not be used in weapons of mass destruction, nor would it need to be buried underneath a mountain in the Nevada desert.

Sadly the majority of our representatives in the House and Senate have decided to follow the lead of our polluter in chief by forfeiting ecological wisdom in a favor of short-term politics. Such a decision could easily ultimately destroy us all.

So much for gravitas.

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