by Project Censored
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Radioactive waste is building daily throughout the United States and the government doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The failure of the media to fully address the issue of increasing radioactive waste qualifies this story for nom­ination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1981.

RADIOACTIVE WASTE IN THE SEA — from 1946 to 1970, barges and planes dropped radioactive trash into 50 ocean dumps up and down the east and west coasts of the United States including prime fishing areas that serve the top 20 cities in the country. To this day we don’t know how dangerous they are.  A length investigation by Mother Jones revealed that the government’s radioactive dump site monitoring program was and is a sham. The findings: 1) nuclear officials practiced a policy of deception and benign neglect during three decades of dumping radioactive wastes; 2) only $250,000 has been spent studying the existing dumps since 1974 and almost none of this has gone to test health hazards. Meanwhile, $30 million has been doled out to scientists looking for a way to stash high-level waste beneath the ocean floor; 3) marine scientists believe that radioactive waste dumped during that 25-year period is being consumed by fish; despite this, federal officials have made no real effort to ascertain what the dangers might be to the public; 4) peak release of radioactivity from the dumps could come during the 1980s; thus the country’s fisheries may now be radioactive time bombs. SOURCE: Mother Jones, 7/81, “You Are What They Eat” by Douglas Foster.

THE MILITARY’S UNKNOWN A-WASTE — while public interest generally focuses on commercial nuclear power plants, wastes from atomic weapons production accounts for half the radio­activity and more than 90 percent of the volume of nuclear waste in the U.S., including some 77 million gallons of high-level liquid waste that results annually from the manufacture of plutonium. Most of the weapons-related liquid waste is stored in 169 temporary underground tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.  Since the mid-1950s, there have been more than 20 instances of leakage at Hanford totaling at least 500,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste. While the Reagan administration plans to increase nuclear weapons production, it has yet to discover what to do with all the radioactive waste we already have. SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor, 12/28/81, “Military’s A-Waste — A Growing Problem” by Brad Knickerbocker.

THE $120 MILLION BURIAL CHAMBER THAT DIDN’T WORK — the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, focal point of industry and government hopes for early disposal of nuclear wastes, sprung a fatal leak last December. After the DOE spent $120 million carving out a burial chamber in “permanently stable” salt, a drill struck a large body of hot salt water. Proximity to such a large amount of corrosive brine makes the site unsuitable for nuclear-waste storage. SOURCE: This World, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/7/82, “Bury the Nuclear Dream by Daniel Deudney.

HOT WHEELS ON THE HIGHWAYS — a National Academy of Sciences report reveals that the Reagan administration plans to funnel thousands of truckloads of highly toxic spent atomic reactor fuel on public highways to one or more dumps in the West or Southwest. Scientists warned that funneling the country’s atomic waste shipments to one central permanent repository could create a dangerous bottleneck. Further, said one scientist, “The Federal government’s own studies say if one percent of the hazardous material escaped through sabotage or accident, thousands of people could die.”  SOURCE: San Francisco Chronicle, (UP), 11/6/81, “Central Dumps for A-Wastes Attacked.

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A DEAD REACTOR? — on July 23, 1976, Pacific Gas & Electric’s Humboldt Bay nuclear reactor in Northern California shut down for refueling — and has not reopened since. The plant is located in an earthquake zone and regulators closed it down due to fear of possible ground movement. Now the facility is a leading candidate to become the largest light-water commercial reactor in the nation ever to be decommissioned. Previously decommissioned reactors have been government-sponsored experimental projects. The problem is that PG&E apparently does not know how to decommission Humboldt Bay; it has never before had to deal with a dead nuke. Further, researchers discovered that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not require decommissioning plans at the time of licensing. And Humboldt Bay may merely be the tip of the nuke-berg. All 72 licensed commercial reactors in the U.S. today will have to be decommissioned in our lifetime because reactors have a lifespan of 30-40 years. Also, there are 119 licensed research reactors nationwide; DOE currently has more than 100 facilities that are ready to be decommissioned. And the military has more than 135 reactors. Two solutions being explored by the NRC are “mothballing” and “in-place entombment.” Both possibilities have a problem — they require more than 230,000 years of safe storage. SOURCE: Mother Jones, 1/81, “Taking Apart Your Neighborhood Nuke” by John Ross.