Transcript of the audio recording:
A quiet crisis has been building on clean water in the byways of bureaucratic Washington. It has reached alarming proportions over the last year and a half. It concerns the threat from the radioactive waste legacy of decades of nuclear weapons production. Among the resources at risk are the Columbia River, the Snake River Plain aquifer, and the Savannah River. Recently, in a nasty surprise, uranium, tritium, and other materials were found migrating from the Los Alamos National laboratory in New Mexico to the Rio Grande, via a spring.
Over 90 million gallons of deadly high-level radioactive waste, mostly in liquid form, were created during the Cold War. They are stored 239 tanks at the Energy Department’s Hanford, Savannah River, and Idaho sites. Dozens of these tanks have leaked.
Further, millions of cubic feet of solid radioactive wastes, highly contaminated with plutonium, were dumped in shallow trenches and pits in the 1940’s, 50s, and 60’s, packaged in nothing more than cardboard and wooden boxes or 55-gallon drums. The Idaho lab alone has over a ton of plutonium in such dumps. There are considerable uncertainties about exactly how much is in Los Alamos waste, but it’s a lot.
Throughout the nuclear weapons complex, some of the groundwater is polluted, often at levels greatly exceeding safe drinking water limits. Generally, this has not yet affected offsite or public water supplies seriously. But such good fortune may not last, given the quantity and longevity of the wastes. Some radionuclides like americium and plutonium, are migrating far faster than was thought possible when they were carelessly dumped. A failure to retrieve them from the high-level waste tanks and the plutonium waste burial sites, in order to store them away from usable water resources could prove very costly. If even a fraction the radioactivity migrates into water bodies, the problem could become unfixable.
The Energy Department has been trying to reclassify some of these dangerous wastes as low-level wastes by fiat, so that it can pour cement into the tanks, or simply cap the dumps and leave the waste in place rather than retrieve it for safer storage. Federal courts have upheld the view of states and public interest groups that the federal government can’t just change the rules and walk away from its obligations. But, in the face of such adverse rulings, the tendency of the nuclear weapons bureaucracy is to go to Congress and get the rules changed there.
Creating de facto high-level nuclear and plutonium waste dumps in close proximity to irreplaceable water resources is wrong. The public should not let the federal government even think about it. If you want to know more about some of the threats posed by waste from nuclear weapons production to water resources, please look up the website of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, www.ieer.org. This is Arjun Makhijani.