Nuclear Waste Dumps Exchange Old Problems for New

Nuclear Waste Dumps Exchange Old Problems for New
reprinted from
The People
June 24, 1995


More than 50 years after the dawn of nuclear weapons, nuclear power and nuclear research, U.S. capitalism still has no way of safely disposing of the growing mountain of nuclear waste generated annually. The only "solution" to the problem of nuclear waste this social system has been able to come up with -- dumping it -- is merely a continuation of the problem.

In 1980, with then-existing federal nuclear waste dumps filled to the brim and overwhelmed with leaks and radioactive contamination of the nearby environment from decades of accumulating high- and low-level waste, Congress enacted the Low-Level Waste Policy Act. It ordered states to form compacts with one another and build their own storage sites for "low- level" nuclear waste produced within their borders.

To date, only 17 states have granted licenses for such facilities, due in no small degree to widespread recognition that burying or dumping such wastes is a negligent "solution" that leaves the question of safe disposal to future generations. Many states have understandably refused to permit a nuclear waste dump on their own soil, given the environmental nightmares that already exist at virtually every major dump site used over the past few decades.

For those states without access to a dump site, on-site storage of the nuclear wastes produced at individual industrial, medical or research facilities is creating a mounting problem. In California, for example, as much as 113,000 cubic feet of such waste has been added to on-site containers every year since 1992, when the few federal facilities accepting California wastes began closing their doors. The last such facility closed last July.

This dangerous buildup of on-site nuclear wastes has been going on for years. It no doubt helped to prompt Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's recent decision to approve the transfer of 1,000 acres of federal land in California's Mojave Desert to state officials for the construction of that state's first dump site for low-level nuclear wastes. Babbitt said that before the transfer can be completed, additional soil testing must be completed and a limit set on the amount of plutonium the dump site can admit. In fact, serious environmental concerns are already known to exist.

The proposed operating license for the new facility was first granted in 1993, but three U.S. Geological Survey scientists warned that radiation could leak into ground water at the site and eventually contaminate the Colorado River, 20 miles away. Babbitt ordered a study of the question by the National Academy of Sciences. A 17-member panel concluded last month that such contamination was "highly unlikely." Two scientists dissented, however, citing studies that show radioactive tritium resulting from Nevada bomb tests in the 1950s has been found 100 feet below the site. "Critics say," the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS reported earlier this month, that "the discovery shows that radioactive pollution migrates downward much faster than supporters of the project admit."

In addition, there is serious concern about the safety record of U.S. Ecology Inc., the private company the state wants to operate the plant. According to the MERCURY NEWS, its critics point to "a dubious history that includes radioactive pollution at sites in Kentucky, Illinois and Nevada."

The state license that will likely be granted after more soil testing, and once limits on plutonium are set, would allow the facility to hold up to 5.5 million cubic feet of waste, sealed into 55-gallon steel drums. It would remain open for an estimated 30 years, encircled by barbed wire and patrolled to keep out intruders. Some of its wastes would remain radioactive for thousands of years.

What would exist at the end of those 30 years is sure to resemble the environmental catastrophes that already exist or are waiting to unfold at major radioactive waste dump sites that have long been full. Transporting nuclear wastes from all over California -- and Arizona and the Dakotas, which would also deposit their low-level wastes at the facility -- will have its own set of risks.

This is the best capitalism can do: substitute one set of risks for another, while its privately owned industries and services keep pouring out more of their radioactive poisons and other profit-motivated toxic by-products -- including high-level wastes from nuclear weapons production and research, and nuclear power plants, for which there is today not even a single open dump site.

The problem of nuclear waste is not one that capitalism is able to solve. Efforts to do so under this system above all else attest to the truth of the socialist contention that every time capitalism "solves" a problem it creates a new one. It will take a fundamentally different type of social and economic system to even begin to rationally address the problem -- a socialist society, freed from what Marx once referred to as "the furies of private interest" that now control technology and its uses.