The English Teacher

      The following paper was written in Composition 123, [see lesson plans] and was converted from one word processor format to another and then to html and I may have missed some formatting in the process. In other words mistakes in the paper may be mine rather than the writer's.

The United States and Its Nuclear Waste Problem

by Ryan Affinito
February 12, 2000
[Composition 123]

      Nuclear power has been around for many years in the form of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. The negative aspect of this power has only recently been discovered. Many years of testing and developing were spent to be able harness this great power. A large amount of waste has been produced from this development, and the United States is now realizing it has large amounts of radioactive waste.
      The United States has a serious nuclear waste problem because of its low-level, transuranic, and high-level wastes, as well as leftover uranium mill tailings and other radioactive waste. The contamination caused by this waste has stemmed from a number of defense and energy projects, as well as commercial power plants. Hanford, Three Mile Island, various military sites, and previous bomb testing zones are all a piece of the nation's nuclear puzzle. The containment and disposal of radioactive waste products will be a key to our nation's future and our ability to survive in our present environment. The effects of radioactive waste, the length of their radioactivity, the storage of these materials, and the ever growing need for nuclear power are major threats to our environment.
      In order to understand the nation's nuclear waste problem, the different types of waste must be discussed, so that the reader can obtain a general background of the types of wastes. The first link in the nuclear chain is low-level waste. This type of radioactive waste stems from research and industrial waste that has been contaminated. Some examples of this type of waste are plastic bags, paper, rags, cardboard, packaging material, organic fluids, and clothing that was worn to protect people from the contamination ("Low-Level Radioactive Waste" 1). These types of waste aren't very radioactive, as they have a radioactivity of less than 0.01 curies per kilogram (Ray 145). A curie is a measurement of the rate of radioactive decay (Weber 88). The technical meaning of these levels will be discussed later in the paper. Roughly 43 % (by volume) of this waste comes from research for academic purposes, while the other 56 percent (by volume) comes from nuclear power plants (Ray 145). "Regardless of source, all low level wastes are packaged before being sent to a storage site" (Ray 146). This packaging prior to the waste being transported is one way to unify all of the low level wastes, which are lumped into this large category. This category appears to act like the miscellaneous waste pile, but it does have some general qualifications for the waste, as was talked about earlier. According to the Office of Air and Radiation's internet site, LLW [low level waste] is generated by government facilities, utilities, industries, and institutional facilities. In addition, to 35 major DOE [Department of Energy] facilities, over 20,000 commercial users of radioactive materials generate some amount of LLW. LLW generators include approximately 100 operating nuclear power reactors, associated fuel fabrication facilities, and uranium fuel conversion plants, which together are known as nuclear fuel-cycle facilities. Hospitals, medical schools, universities, radiochemical and radiopharmaceutical manufacturers and research laboratories are other users of radioactive materials which produce LLW ("Low-Level Radioactive Waste" 1).
      As of 1983, there were 3,080,000 cubic meters of low level waste, (Weber 1) and that number can't be any smaller today. The United States most definitely has more low level waste than there was here in 1983, as stated by the Office of Air and Radiation "The clean-up of contaminated buildings and sites will generate more LLW in the future" ("Low-Level Radioactive Waste" 1). That isn't the only type of waste that confronts the U.S., and although it is the largest by volume, it generates very little radioactivity.
      The next type of radioactive waste is called transuranic waste. It is called transuranic waste because the waste is contaminated with "radionuclides of atomic number greater than 92", which is the atomic number of uranium (Weber 9). Transuranic waste gives off alpha rays, and they have a half-life of greater than 20 years (Ray 147). The point at which the radiation levels of an object are at half of their initial strength is known as the object's half-life ("Transuranic Radioactive Waste" 1). Half-lives, and other radiation related items will be discussed in more detail later. This type of waste is considered transuranic if it occurs in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries per gram. Otherwise, if it is less than 100 nanocuries per gram, it is low-level waste (Ray 147-148). The Nuclear Waste Primer: A Handbook for Citizens says, "Transuranic waste comes primarily from the reprocessing of spent fuel from the use of plutonium in the fabrication of nuclear weapons" (Weber 9). Transuranic waste comes mainly from the military's nuclear programs, and the elements that cause the contamination aren't naturally found in the environment. The military is the main source of this waste because of the reprocessing of the Navy's spent reactor fuel, and the reprocessing to get "weapons-grade plutonium" (Ray 148). Some examples of items that may be classified as transuranic waste are rags, tools, laboratory equipment, and containers that hold or have held radioactive waste ("Transuranic Radioactive Waste" 1). These examples sound similar to low level waste, but the main difference, as stated earlier, is that low level waste occurs in concentrations of less than 100 nanocuries, while transuranic waste occurs in concentrations of over 100 nanocuries. "A nanocurie is one billionth of a curie" (Weber 88). Transuranic waste, much like low level waste, comes from a wide variety of sources, which means that the amount of it will surely increase as long as nuclear power is being continues to be used.
      The next type of waste to be discussed is high level waste. This is the most dangerous type of waste as its radioactivity is the highest. According to the Office of Air and Radiation, "HLW [High Level Waste] is the liquid waste that results when spent fuel is reprocessed to recover unfissioned uranium and plutonium. During this process, the fuel is dissolved by strong chemicals, and this results in liquid HLW" ("Spent Nuclear Fuel & High Level Radioactive Waste" 2 hereafter referred to as "Spent Nuclear Fuel"). This high level waste is almost always liquid, unless chemicals have been added to it to form a sludge of calcine, which would rest on the bottom of the liquid. High level waste generates a high amount of heat and must be sealed by "heavy shielding to control penetrating radiation" (Weber 8). High level waste presents problems because of the heat it creates and because some of the radionuclides have long half-lives and high toxicity (Ray 150). Compared to the other types of radioactive waste, there is a relatively low amount of high level waste, but it is still very dangerous despite its smaller quantity. This fact can be seen as "...high level wastes account for only one percent of the volume of all radioactive wastes, but 99 percent of the radioactivity" (Ray 150). Radioactivity will be discussed in greater detail later in the paper. In 1983, there was approximately 306,000 cubic meters of high level waste that came mostly from defense programs at government facilities. Most of these wastes are liquid (Weber 1). As with the other wastes, high level wastes will continue to accumulate as long as nuclear power is being used in this country.
      The most abundant and one of the longest lasting types of radioactive waste is leftover uranium mill tailings. The uranium mill tailings are created during the mining of uranium ore. "When ore is processed to extract uranium, approximately 99 percent of the mass and 85 percent of the radioactivity of the original ore is left as tailings. One principal radionuclide in the pile, thorium-230, a precursor of radon-220, has a half-life of 77,000 years. This [long half life] ensures that the emissions from the tailings piles will remain for a very long time indeed" (Weber 39). There is only one tailing pile site in the eastern part of the country, and its abandoned, so the tailings piles definitely directly effect the people in the western part of the country more. All together, the United States' tailings piles have an approximate total of 200 million metric tons, and individual piles range from about 2 million MT to about 30 million MT ("Uranium Mill Tailings" 1-2). A metric ton is equal to 2,200 pounds. With this staggering amount of tailings being piled up, the radiation that is released, although not highly radioactive, is still being emitted in large amounts. These tailings piles are obviously not easily moved because of their weight. If they were moved, the radioactive dust, that would be stirred up when they were being moved would cause problems. These piles are fairly isolated in regions of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming (Weber 1). These piles have grown as more uranium is needed, so as long as that demand is present, the tailings will continue to build up.
      Another type of radioactive waste that has been mentioned in previous paragraphs is spent fuel. Spent fuel is the result of the operation of nuclear reactors, both commercial and government ("Spent Nuclear Fuel" 1). As mentioned earlier if the spent fuel is reprocessed then it generates high level waste, but otherwise it still remains as spent fuel. According to Daniel A. Dreyfus, who is the Director at the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, To date [1994], the total quantity of spent fuel accumulated at reactor sites exceeds 25,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU) and it is increasing at an annual rate of 1700 to 2000 MTU. By the year 2000, this total amount of spent fuel will increase to about 40,000 MTU. the time the last license for the current generation of nuclear reactors expires, the estimated total quantity of spent fuel requiring disposal will exceed 86,000 MTU ("Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel" 55). Just like the other types of nuclear waste, spent fuel will continue to accumulate as long as nuclear power is being generated in the United States.
      The final type of waste that will be discussed is the waste that is leftover from disassembled nuclear weapons. This information belongs in this section even though it didn't come from an accident. This type of waste doesn't fit into one of the previous classifications for waste, but it still adds to the nuclear waste in this country. Pantex is the major bomb disassembling plant, as they remove "bowling-ball-size plutonium pits" from each nuclear weapon (Andryszewski 97). A total of no more than 12,000 of these pits can accumulate there until a timely study of the environmental impact of the continued storage of these pits at Pantex can be completed (Andryszewski 97). These plutonium pits are a small fraction of the nuclear waste that has piled up in the United States. When these pits, along with low level waste, transuranic waste, high level waste, uranium mill tailings, and spent fuel are combined, they are the vast majority of the nation's nuclear puzzle.
      With that background on the different types of waste, it is now important to learn about the nation's nuclear history and some major examples of the contamination that has occurred in the U.S. It is important to not only know the difference between various types of waste, but also to know some of the reasons and events that put the waste where it is now. The main reasons for contamination caused by nuclear power are human errors and ignorance. The Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma argues in its feasibility study, that employees who work at nuclear facilities are heavily trained. The study says, that the "Training of employees who work with nuclear fuel is thorough, aggressively administered, and methodically tested. In nuclear power plants employees spend 20 % of their time, or one week in five in training. Each employee is certified as to his training or skill level, then trained to achieve the next skill level, each time reviewing and being drilled on the fundamentals. In addition, all employees are closely supervised by seniors, and constantly audited by NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] inspectors" ("Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel" 270 hereafter cited as "Interim Storage"). However, this is only a feasibility study and therefore the statement is argumentation, but the study shows how people are supposed to be trained at these facilities. The training standards are improving as we learn more and our technology continues to advance. Despite this extensive employee training, the employees still must use their knowledge at the right time to avoid a mishap, and as long as humans aren't perfect, this skill will never be perfect. Therefore accidents will happen. On March 11, 1958, a B-47 accidentally dropped an unarmed nuclear weapon in the vicinity of Walter Gregg's house in South Carolina. Since it was unarmed, only the conventional explosives detonated, but it resulted in a crater 50-70 feet wide and 25-30 feet deep. The explosion caused damage to a church and five other houses in the area ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 2). That is one example of how human error can cause serious problems. Also, a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in New Mexico, and another hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in the ocean near Savannah, Georgia ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 2). These examples did occur in the late 1950's and our training and knowledge is better now, but the same mistakes can definitely happen again because humans make mistakes.
      Along with human errors, nuclear reactors have had problems, mainly because they have been a work in progress. There is a word that strikes fear into the eyes of anyone who knows about nuclear power. That word is meltdown. " The worst possible accident would be a meltdown of the intensely radioactive fuel, with the release of radioactivity to the environment. Such an accident could happen in a light water reactor if the flow of coolant water were to be interrupted. For that reason, there are many backup and redundant safety systems to guard against that possibility and there is a totally independent supply of cooling water" (Ray 126). This sounds like a perfect plan to protect against any type of failure in the reactor, but it definitely hasn't proven to be perfect. It is hard to know that there is a problem in reactor design until something goes wrong, but if something does go wrong the resulting effects have hazardous possibilities.
      On March 28, 1979, peoples' eyes were opened to just how serious nuclear power is. The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was the site of the nation's worst nuclear scare in history. This partial core meltdown was the result of a faulty part worth 15 cents (Dolan 28). This accident occurred after an emergency feedwater system test began 42 hours earlier. In this test, a valve is shut and then reopened, but for an unknown reason the valve wasn't reopened ("Three Mile Island 2 Accident" 1). Since the valve wasn't reopened, thousands of gallons of water escaped from the Unit 2 reactor. This water was meant to be used as cooling water for the core of the reactor. The temperatures in the fuel core rose to 5000 degrees Fahrenheit and meltdown began. The fuel core only melted through the first layer of the containment structure, but had it broken through the second layer of the structure, the accident would have been on the same scale as Chernobyl ("Three Mile Island" 1). Fortunately for Americans, the result of the Three Mile Island accident was only a partial core meltdown, and a hydrogen explosion was narrowly missed ("Three Mile Island" 1). According to extensive testing done by multiple government agencies, "Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a full set of X-rays is about 6 millirem. ... the collective dose to the community from the accident was very small" ("Three Mile Island 2 Accident" 3). Just because the community wasn't severely affected by the partial core meltdown, the possibility for a huge disaster stared the nation right in the face. Fortunately total meltdown was averted, but the adjacent Unit 1 reactor at Three Mile Island will continue to operate until the year 2010 ("Three Mile Island" 1). This event will probably always be remembered for what it could have been.
      Nuclear power has also caused other problems in the U.S.. A nuclear facility on the west coast is located in Hanford, Washington. Hanford is a government facility that is used to produce plutonium for atomic weapons. This government facility released billions of gallons of liquids and billions of cubic meters of gases that contained plutonium between 1944 and 1966. These radioactive wastes found their way to the Columbia River, and the Columbia Basin ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 7-8). It is true that this happened years ago but these wastes remain radioactive for long periods. As of 1990, the radioactive waste hadn't caused any serious underground water contamination (Dolan 75). Nobody knows whether or not the waste will cause future problems, but the possibility definitely exists.
      Problems with nuclear reactors, and the waste produced by them have sprung up all over the country, although most incidents have occurred prior to the 1980's. On November 1971, in Morticello, Minnesota a "water storage space at Northern States Power C's reactor filled to capacity and spilled over. 50,000 gallons of radioactive waste water dumped into the Mississippi River and some [was] taken into [the] St.Paul water system" ("US Worst Nuclear Accidents" 1-2). Whenever radioactive water is released it can cause trouble because of our dependency on water. On November of 1992, the Sequoyah Falls plant, located in Gore, Oklahoma, which is a privately owned American factory that makes fuel rods and armor piercing bullet shells, was shut down. It was shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) because of a release of toxic gas. When the government investigated the facility more thoroughly, they found that the company was aware that uranium had been leaking onto the ground. The uranium had entered the ground at a level 35,000 times greater than the federal law allows. The plant was finally closed down after numerous citations by the government for nuclear safety and environmental rules violations ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 8). Finally, in 1979, highly enriched uranium was released from a top-secret nuclear fuel plant. The uranium contaminated 1,000 people with 5 times the yearly dose that is allowed ("US Worst Nuclear Accidents" 1-2).
      Nuclear weapons are also a piece of the total nuclear picture. The testing of these weapons, as well as the weapons that have been lost and haven't been detonated, have contributed to the country's nuclear waste contamination. Perhaps the best known test site is located in Nevada, and is called the Bomb Test Site. It was the facility where the first nuclear weapons were tested. In 1968, an underground nuclear test at this site broke through the ground and released fallout. In 1970, another underground test produced radioactive steam that was thrown 8,000 feet into the air ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 6). There is a fairly large amount of radioactive waste that is located in the ocean, off the east coast of the United States. The waste is mainly lost nuclear weapons that haven't even been detonated. In 1954, there was a reactor aboard the USS Seawolf, which was the nation's second nuclear submarine. The reactor and submarine were purposely sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. The reactor contained an estimated 33,000 curies of radioactivity, which likely makes it the largest radioactive object ever deliberately dumped into the ocean, and the reactor has never been found ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 4). Oceanic contamination by radioactive waste has occurred from nuclear weapons, and inadequate disposal plans. "From 1946 to 1970 approximately 90,000 canisters of radioactive waste were jettisoned in 50 ocean dumps up and down the East and West coasts of the U.S., including prime fishing areas, as part of the early nuclear waste disposal program from the military's atomic weapons program" ("U.S. Nuclear Accidents" 6). At that point in nuclear development, people weren't very informed and they decided to put the waste wherever they wanted to. The responsibility that comes along with nuclear power wasn't anywhere to be found in these early years of the nuclear age. These quick fix disposal plans, along with other nuclear accidents of the 20th century, have left the United States in position to feel the repercussions for years to come.
      Since a fairly extensive background on the types of waste has been achieved, and knowledge of how radioactive waste began to contaminate the U.S. has been acquired, it is now important to know how radiation can cause problems. The information in the following pages about radiation has been briefly mentioned at earlier points in the paper. Radioactivity obviously has a huge role, since this is what makes the waste dangerous. If it weren't for the radioactivity then plutonium would be as harmless as household garbage. "Radiation harms living creatures by damaging individual atoms inside individual cells. A massive dose of radiation can scramble enough cells so badly that the victim's body can no longer function, leading to death within a few painful weeks. With lesser doses, the damaged cells can survive to reproduce damaged copies of themselves" (Andryszewski 18). There are three main types of radiation rays. They are gamma, beta, and alpha rays. Gamma rays have the highest penetrating power, and this is the type of radiation that most nuclear waste emits (Andryszewski 8). These type of rays are short electromagnetic rays that have low energy, and act similar to X-rays (Ray 97). Beta radiation rays are stronger than gamma rays and are slightly less penetrating. They can penetrate skin, but are much more prone to cause harm when they are ingested. They are often mistaken by the body as a "chemically similar element" (Andryszewski 18). Alpha rays are the strongest, but least penetrating of the three types of rays. "Alpha radiation can do the most severe localized damage to living tissue, but it is the least penetrating. ...if a long lived radioisotope that emits alpha radiation, is inhaled or swallowed or gets into a wound, even a tiny speck can do terrible damage. The longer it remains embedded in living tissue, the more harm its likely to cause" (Andryszewski 17-18). This type of radiation is what gives some types of wastes the potential to be very hazardous to the environment and to people. The wastes and their radiation will be discussed in the next paragraph. However, the alpha particles that make up the alpha rays can be easily blocked. A simple sheet of paper will block the alpha rays (Ray 97). These types of radiation are each emitted from different types of waste. They each have certain qualities that make them unique, but some are found in the same type of waste. They can each be dangerous in their own way.
      It is now very important to learn how a couple of different wastes relate to the radiation, and how that radiation is transferred. First, most transuranic waste generally doesn't emit high levels of penetrating radiation, but some transuranic wastes do ("Transuranic Radioactive Waste" 1). Gamma radiation is usually found in uranium mill tailings piles ("Uranium Mill Tailings" 1). Both of these sources indicate that gamma radiation is emitted by some forms of nuclear waste. Radiation can be transferred in a number of different ways. According to one source, "Radioactive material can be discharged into the air, into water, or directly into the ground" ("Radioactivity in the Food Chain" 1). The same source indicates that radioactive fallout can cause environmental problems by landing on vegetation, land surfaces, lakes, and rivers, or by discharge into lakes, rivers, and the ground (1). The radiation can enter the river in a wide variety of ways. At Hanford, river water was used to cool nuclear reactors, after the reactor was cooled, the water returned to the river with radiation. Another route was that when the holding period for the river water was shortened, there was less time for the radiation to decay, and thus the water going into the river was more radioactive. Finally, "When the fuel coverings split, some of the radioactive fuel went into the cooling water and the river" ("Radionuclides in the Columbia River: Possible Health Problems in Humans and Effects on Fish" 3 hereafter cited as "Radionuclides in the Columbia"). These were problems that occurred at the Hanford nuclear plant in Washington, but it is very possible that they could happen in any other reactor. Once the radiation from Hanford was in the Columbia River, it had a number of different ways it could effect people. A portion of the radioactivity settled behind dams, and some of the other radiation was concentrated in fish and shellfish. The Columbia River was pumped for water that was used for city drinking water and for irrigation for farms ("Environmental Pathways Reveal How Hanford Radioactivity Reached People" 3 hereafter cited as "Environmental Pathways"). The radioactivity in the river could also expose people to radiation if the person: drank contaminated water, ate any contaminated river wildlife, spent time on the shoreline of contaminated stretches of the river, swam in contaminated sections of the river, ate produce that was irrigated with contaminated river water, or went boating on contaminated stretches of the river ("Radionuclides in the Columbia" 5). Radiation can obviously move quickly through the food chain and not be noticed until something goes wrong. The duration of individual objects' radiation differs from object to object.
      The radioactive waste that is contaminating objects remains radioactive until the radiation stops being emitted by the contaminated waste. Earlier in the paper, half lives were briefly mentioned, but they will now be discussed in further detail. The point at which the radiation levels of an object are at half of their initial strength is known as the object's half-life. An object can still be slightly harmful after its half life has expired, but not nearly as harmful as it was before its half life expired. An object is only completely safe after its radioactivity has been completely emitted. The half lives for different radioisotopes vary according to the strength of their radioactivity. "For example, half of the original amount of plutonium-239 [a highly radioactive radioisotope] in the waste will remain harmful after 24,000 years" ("Transuranic Radioactive Waste" 1). That is just one half-life for one radioisotope, but "Half-lives of radioisotopes range from a fraction of a second to millions of years" (Andryszewski 17). The length of radioactivity is why it is so important that the U.S. realizes this nuclear waste problem, because the radioactive waste that is already present could seriously harm future generations.
      Just as radioisotopes have their own respective half-lives, different radioactive substances deliver their radiation in a number of different ways ("Environmental Pathways" 2). The amount of radiation that is acceptable is important to know, because it sets standards for the nuclear industry. "There are several factors which affect the actual dose [of radiation] to people. These include: 1) food consumption; 2) food distribution; 3) radioactive decay; 4) dose factors and radioactivity in the body; 5) age / gender" ("Radioactivity in the Food Chain" 3). According to one source, citizens of the United States annually receive 160.81 millirem (Dolan 21). A millirem is one thousandth of one rem, which is the measurement of the amount of radiation absorbed by an object. "A dose of 10,000 rem attacks the nervous system and may cause swift death. A dose of 300 to 500 rem is said to kill about 50 percent of the time. Doses from 100 to 300 rem are likely to cause radiation injury" (Dolan 21). Hopefully a general knowledge of acceptable and unacceptable radiation doses has been reached, but remember the doses of radiation that will affect one person may have no effect on another, unless the dose is of a massive quantity.
      Radiation can have a number of harmful effects on organisms when the acceptable dosage level is broken. Radiation can move throughout the body in a multitude of ways. "Once inhaled or ingested, the radioactive material is transferred to the blood" ("Radioactivity in the Food Chain" 3). Once the radiation is in the blood stream, it has many different possible avenues to travel through. According to one source, radiation can: pass through a cell and not do any damage; damage the cell but not in a non-repairable manner; damage the cell beyond repair, so that the cell produces new cells with the same damage; or the radiation could completely kill the cell ("Genetic Effects and Birth Defects from Radiation" 2). Once the radioactivity has settled into a place, "Biological functions will eliminate some of the radioactivity over days or years. In most cases, only a small fraction of the ingested radionuclides stay in the body. The body excretes the rest" ("Radioactivity in the Food Chain" 3). Radioactivity from nuclear accidents has been linked to a number of health problems. "A report made by Oak Ridge Associated Universities and the University of North Carolina links incidents of cancer in workers at the Savannah River nuclear power plant, located near Aiken, South Carolina to exposure to radiation" ("Timeline of Nuclear Technology 1983-1998" 1). There have been many cases where radiation is linked to health problems. Some examples of those problems are birth defects, many forms of cancer, and psychological stress ("Three Mile Island"1). According to another source, ... it [radiation] can induce what is known as radiation sickness- an often fatal illness that attacks the bone marrow, gastro-intestinal tract, and central nervous system and causes weakness, diarrhea, fever, chills, boils, vomiting, the loss of hair, and a dramatic decrease in the white corpuscles in the blood. White corpuscles are blood cells that help us fight off disease and illness (Dolan 21). The radiation can do serious damage and the health problems that radiation can cause are horrendous and can definitely be life threatening.
      The knowledge of these health concerns has come to the surface in a variety of ways. One of the less known ways that the knowledge of radiation came about was through human experimentation. The U.S. government sponsored, through its different departments, a number of tests that were run on humans to find the effects of radiation on human beings. According to officially printed government reports, people were often experimented upon to find out more about radiation and its effects. The report says that sometimes the humans were "captive audiences or populations that experimenters might frighteningly have considered 'expendable': the elderly, prisoners, [and] hospital patients suffering from terminal illnesses... For some human subjects, informed consent was not obtained or there is no evidence that informed consent was granted" (American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens" 1 hereafter cited as "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs"). According to the same source, on several different occasions, radioactive iodine was released on humans. The release of the radioactive iodine was intentional, and on three occasions, humans were exposed. The experiments were run in Idaho, at the National Reactor Testing Station. The Atomic Energy Commission, which came before the DOE, sponsored the tests, which were conducted between 1963 and 1965. The AEC wanted to improve their knowledge of how radioactive iodine is transported ("American Nuclear Guinea Pigs" 22). There are many other examples from this source, but they all reflect one theme, and that is that the government became increasingly knowledgeable about radiation and its affects, but at the expense of U.S. citizens. "The government covered up the nature of the experiments and deceived the families of deceased victims as to what had actually transpired. [In some experiments] Doses were as great as 98 times the body burden recognized at the time the experiments were conducted" ("American Nuclear Guinea Pigs" 1). These experiments contributed to our knowledge of radiation, but many people suffered because of them. These experiments show how little was known at that point in time. Since that time, our government has become much more informed about radiation and its effects.
      The knowledge that we have gained as a country has been applied to try to correctly deal with the waste that has accumulated. In order to see the whole nuclear picture and how the waste that has accumulated must be dealt with, it is very important to understand the government's role in this process. There are four major groups that are in control of nuclear waste and its disposal. They are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Department of Transportation (DOT). The EPA was established in 1970, and it is "... responsible for developing environmental protection criteria for the handling and disposal of all radioactive wastes" (Weber 5). The EPA must develop these standards for DOE-operated and NRC-licensed facilities ("Spent Nuclear Fuel" 3). According to one source, the DOE assumed the responsibilities of the AEC and the Energy Research and Development Administration after it absorbed their powers, and therefore it must carry out the government's high level waste management policies. It is in charge of developing a national low level waste disposal program (Weber 5). The DOE must also develop a deep geologic repository, which was authorized by Congress for the disposal of high level waste ("Spent Nuclear Fuel" 3). This geologic repository will be discussed later. The NRC was established as an independent regulatory agency in 1974. "The NRC develops and enforces regulations to protect the public health and safety from all commercial nuclear activities..." (Weber 5). The NRC also licenses facilities and ensures that the facilities follow EPA standards ("Spent Nuclear Fuel" 3). More importantly however, "NRC shares with the Department of Transportation the responsibility for developing, regulating, and enforcing safety standards for the transportation of radioactive waste" (Weber 5). Finally, the DOT must develop standards on all safety aspects of the transport of radioactive materials and on all modes of transportation (Weber 40). The information about the different roles of these groups is important, in order to understand the siting and development of disposal facilities, which will be discussed next.
      Nuclear waste is obviously a problem in the United States because it continues to accumulate year after year. The accumulation of this waste caused Congress to pass the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which states that geologic burial be used to permanently dispose of the nation's high level wastes (Dolan 85). According to a government internet site, the DOE was responsible for finding a site that would capable holding these high level wastes. The DOE decided on Yucca Mountain as the best potential site for the nation's first geologic repository for high level waste. Yucca Mountain is located in Nye County, Nevada on the Nevada Test Site, which is federally owned land. The DOE said that the repository would be built about 1,000 feet into the mountain and approximately 1,000 feet above ground water ("About Yucca Mountain" 1). The cost of the Yucca Mountain Project has been enormous. The site must be deemed suitable, and the process to determine its suitability has already cost an estimated 6 billion dollars. The bigger problem is that the opening date, if ever, is 2010 ("Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act" 18). It will be opened in 2010 only if the site is approved by the NRC, but if it isn't approved, than the country's disposal plan is back to square one, minus 6 billion dollars. If the Yucca Mountain facility and its licenses are approved, then the geologic repository could hold 63,500 tons of high level waste in sealed containers. It is important to have a brief background of the Yucca Mountain facility because it is a huge step in solving our nuclear waste problem. The Yucca Mountain facility is discussed in detail because of its importance and the funds that have already been put into it. The Yucca Mountain development plan must be approved in a number of steps, and that is why it is such a long process. The DOE, EPA, and NRC all play a role in determining Yucca Mountain's suitability. DOE is responsible for determining the suitability of the proposed disposal site as well as developing, building, and operating the geologic repository. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will develop environmental standards to evaluate the safety of the geologic repository proposed by DOE. NRC will license the repository after determining whether DOE's proposed repository site and design comply with EPA's implementing regulations... ("High Level Radioactive Waste" 1). The nuclear waste problem must be solved soon because the waste continues to accumulate, but this process has definitely slowed down the progress of the project.
      The process of determining whether or not Yucca Mountain is a suitable site for the nation's first geologic repository for the permanent disposal of high level waste has begun. The DOE has already started to check Yucca Mountain's suitability. According to this source, there are four objectives to the program: 1) find out hydrologic, geologic, and geochemical conditions of the mountain; 2) give out information which is needed for a package design of waste containers; 3) develop a design for the repository facility; and 4) determine whether or not Yucca Mountain can meet NRC and EPA protection and safety requirements ("Spent Nuclear Fuel" 3). The DOE obviously has a large task ahead of it, but the other groups also have items that they must deal with. One source states that the U.S. Geological Survey, which serves as an advisor to the DOE and NRC, conducts investigations into the geological suitability of the site for the DOE's environmental assessments. The source also states that the USGS acts as a consultant to the NRC when it considers the DOE's applications for suitable sites and disposal programs (Weber 6). Another source of information, stated that the EPA had to get recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), hear comments from scientists on the NAS report, and hold meetings with the DOE and NRC and their scientists. Other countries' regulations, federal agencies actions, and guidance from national and international groups all had to be taken into consideration when dealing with the Yucca Mountain site suitability ("About Yucca Mountain" 2). The EPA must address all pathways for radiation to travel: air, ground, water, food, soil. The standards are strict; none of the closest residents to the site could have any greater than a "...3 in 10,000 chance of contracting fatal cancer", which is within the acceptable risk range that the agency must abide by ("About Yucca Mountain" 1). This completes the technical aspect of the Yucca Mountain site, but there are many concerns by both politicians and community members. These concerns can't be pushed aside so quickly, because a nuclear waste accident could scar this country and its resources for a long time.
      Now that each group is working on fulfilling its part of the nation's disposal problem, concerns are arising. These concerns are due to the amount of time and money that has been invested in the Yucca Mountain site suitability studies. Alaska's Senator, Frank Murkowski, says If after 3 to 6 years more work at Yucca Mountain and a total expenditure of at least $9 billion on our nuclear waste disposal program, Yucca is found either not to be suitable or licensable, we do not have very many places to turn. We currently have no contingency plan for waste storage. We will simply have to start over. I think the time has come to ask if we are headed down an expensive, dead end road that only delays addressing our real problems, or if we really don't have an answer ("Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act" 2). This point of view is shared by other people and the high cost of developing a permanent disposal facility may be too much for some people to handle, especially since there is no guarantee that Yucca Mountain will ever totally qualify as a suitable geologic repository. People in Nevada are also not very happy that the government wants to put all of the nation's high level waste in Nevada. This view is expressed by their Senator, Richard H. Bryan who stated that Nevada isn't for sale because its citizens health and safety won't be jeopardized by the nuclear power industry. He said that Nevada's rights as a state were being violated because all of the nation's worst nuclear waste would be going there. He finished by saying that Nevada had already done more than its share to help solve the nation's nuclear problems ("Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act" 15). Nevada can't be blamed for not wanting to host the nation's high level waste, but if the Yucca Mountain site is denied, the repercussions could be very serious. With the amount of time that goes by when these sites are being evaluated, a backup plan could be way down the road.
      Yucca Mountain is so important because it is a possible solution to high level waste storage and disposal, but there are other types of wastes that must be stored. According to one source, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) is an underground geologic repository near Carlsbad, New Mexico. This site has been dug out of a salt bed, 2,100 feet underground. It is slated to store up to 2 million cubic meters of transuranic waste ("Transuranic Radioactive Waste" 2). This site is capable of holding so much more transuranic waste than there is in the United States, that some people are worried that it may be difficult for the government to resist burying other types of waste there (Andryszewski 84). Just like Yucca Mountain, WIPP must meet a variety of environmental standards. According to a government internet site, the EPA has to certify that WIPP meets all disposal regulations. "Even if the EPA certifies the WIPP, the agency will have to determine, on an ongoing basis, whether it continues to comply with the disposal standards as well as all other federal environmental laws, regulations, and permit requirements that apply" (Transuranic Radioactive Waste" 3). It seems to be basic knowledge now that any type of disposal facility must be thoroughly researched and continually checked to make sure that it complies with all safety standards and regulations. This project like the one at Yucca Mountain will undergo scrutiny, but because WIPP stores lower level wastes, it will probably receive less opposition. These are the two major types of disposal that are now being considered in the U.S., but there are a handful of other alternate disposal methods for all different kinds of radioactive waste.
      These next types of disposal are only briefly written about because they are either in the very early development stages, or they deal with types of waste that aren't very harmful compared with the waste that will possibly be stored at WIPP and Yucca Mountain. One source says that the U.S. has begun investigating the possibility of burying containers filled with radioactive waste at sea. The government is focusing research on water that is 200 miles off shore in the northern Pacific Ocean and northern Atlantic Ocean. It is thought that because the sediments there consist of fine grained sand, that if the packages are dropped, than they will sink into the stable sediments (Weber 65). This place in the ocean is considered a desert where there is no life, and where radioactive waste can be safely stored (Ray 153). Another option is to store the waste at the site of the nuclear reactor. Another source states, that it can cost 21 million per year for on site storage, and eventually the wastes will have to be moved to a permanent storage or disposal facility (Andryszewski 37). A different source says that this type of storage is being performed at some reactors right now, and is safer than others because no transportation is needed ("Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act" 190). Another way to deal with waste, mostly low level waste, is to use pre-disposal processing to reduce its volume. This process separates radioactive from nonradioactive components of the waste. The only setback is that as the radioactive waste volume is reduced, the concentration of radioactivity in the remaining waste is greatly increased ("Low Level Radioactive Waste" 3). All of the methods of disposal are very important because some will be used as temporary and others for permanent storage. Their importance lies in the fact that the waste must be safely held at each step along the way.
      The present nuclear power situation is important to know about because it affects everybody in this country in one way or another. According to one book, the U.S. has 114 commercial and 17 government nuclear power plants, and there are 16 more commercial plants being planned (Dolan 29). These currently operating plants have a combined 1,200 years of experience (Ray 123). These commercial and government reactors have produced their share of radioactive waste.
      Although the number of commercial nuclear reactors far outweighs the government's number of reactors, the government produces much more highly radioactive waste. According to a government internet site, less than one percent of the nation's high level waste comes from commercial reactors while ninety-nine percent of it comes from government reactors("Spent Nuclear Fuel" 2). There are 32 shallow land disposal sites in the U.S., which are dangerous because they are easily uncovered and are usually of medium range radioactivity ("Low Level Radioactive Waste" 2). These old disposal sites could cause problems in the future.
      As written about earlier, Yucca Mountain is a major key to solving our nuclear waste problem. However, if it is approved, transportation of high level waste will be a huge hazard, which is definitely a part of today's nuclear power situation. According to one source, if Yucca Mountain is opened, 43 states will have direct ties to the transportation of waste that goes there. A nuclear spill on an American highway could be extremely hazardous ("Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act" 129). The transport vehicles would be rolling time bombs. These transportation hazards would affect all transported waste, not just the waste that would be sent to WIPP and Yucca Mountain.
      The various disposal methods have caused concerns to come to the surface, which has created some requirements for facilities to meet. According to one source, "New disposal facilities must be designed to avoid two kinds of failures: those caused by long term processes such as subsidence and those caused by more unpredictable events such as human intrusion (either intentional or unintentional) and natural disaster" ("Low Level Radioactive Waste" 3). These stricter guidelines should reduce problems because better disposal methods will be ensured. Another good point, is that it seems unfair to require states that don't have civilian nuclear reactors to store the wastes that have accumulated in other states ("Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel" 291). This argument of transporting a state's waste to another state would apply to WIPP and Yucca Mountain because these sites would be storing the nation's load of transuranic and high level wastes, respectively. As mentioned earlier, transportation would be a problem as there would be 16,000 shipments of high level waste to get all of that type of waste into Yucca Mountain ("Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act" 13). This is a wide variety of different issues, but it is important to know that many issues dealing with our nation's nuclear situation are being heatedly discussed.
      Our nation has grown dependent on nuclear power, as 22 percent of our electricity comes from it ("Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel" 9). Nuclear power is becoming increasingly more valuable because it is less expensive, and more efficient than fossil fuels, such as coal or oil (Dolan 18). This dependency means that nuclear waste will continue to accumulate, and thus add to the problems that already stem from nuclear power. One problem is that as our dependency grows, our storage area decreases. Its estimated that by 2010, our nation's spent fuel storage will reach 80 percent of its capacity, which is why finding a permanent disposal method is so important ("Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel" 111). Unless a permanent facility can be approved and begin operating, the waste will run out of room to be stored.
      As is clearly stated by this paper, the United States has a serious nuclear waste problem due to the different types of radioactive waste that it produces. These wastes are low level, transuranic and high level waste, as well as uranium mill tailings and leftover nuclear weapons. This waste has come from commercial and government facilities. Human error and lack of complete knowledge of nuclear power has caused the contamination of both land and sea through a number of nuclear accidents. Hanford and Three Mile Island were facilities that have played a huge role in our nuclear history, and they have been seen all over this country as examples of problems that have been caused by nuclear power. This nation must contain and dispose of these waste products if the citizens wish to remain in the present environment. These waste products are so dangerous because of their radioactivity, half-lives, and the health problems that there radiation can cause. Our struggle to find a disposal facility, coupled with our dependency on nuclear power, are major threats to our environment. Look for WIPP and Yucca Mountain to be approved because of the funds that have been put into them, and because our alternatives are a short list. Hopefully, these planned facilities will solve our nuclear waste problem.


"About Yucca Mountain." Siuslaw High School Library Link. January 26, 2000,

Andryszewski, Tricia. What to do About Nuclear Waste. Brookfield,Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, 1995.

Dolan, Edward F. and Margaret M. Scariano. Nuclear Waste: The 10,000 Year Challenge. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Hanford Health Information Network. Genetic Effects and Birth Defects from Radiation Exposure. Pamphlet Released in Fall of 1994.

Hanford Health Information Network. Radionuclides in the Columbia River: Possible Health Problems in Humans and Effects on Fish. Released in the Summer of 1995.

"High Level Radioactive Waste." Yahoo. January 12, 2000,

"Low Level Radioactive Waste." Yahoo. January 12, 2000, wysiwyg://41/

Ray, Dixie Lee and Lou Guzzo. Thrashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal With Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things). Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1990.

"Spent Nuclear Fuel & High Level Radioactive Waste." Siuslaw High School Library Link. January 26, 2000,

Technical Steering Panel of the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project. Environmental Pathways Reveal How Hanford Radioactivity Reached People. Fact Sheet Number 3. Released in February 1992.

Technical Steering Panel of the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project. Radioactivity in the Food Chain. Fact Sheet Number 6. Released in February 1990.

"The Three Mile Island Partial Nuclear Meltdown." Lycos. January 12, 2000,

"Three Mile Island 2 Accident." Lycos. January 17, 2000,

"Timeline of Nuclear Technology (1983-1998)." Yahoo. January 12, 2000,

"Transuranic Radioactive Waste." Yahoo. January 27, 2000, wysiwyg://34/

United States. Congress. House of Representatives. American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens. 99th Congress, 2nd session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1986.

United States. Congress. House of Representatives. Interim Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel. 103rd Congress, 2nd session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1994.

United States. Congress. Senate. Amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. 104th Congress, 1st session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1995.

"Uranium Mill Tailings." Yahoo. January 27, 2000, wysiwyg://35/

"U.S. Nuclear Accidents." Yahoo. January 27, 2000,

"US Worst Nuclear Accidents." Compton's Encyclopedia. CD-ROM, 1996 ed. (Has been checked by Mr. Danielson)

Weber, Isabelle P. and Susan D. Wilshire. The Nuclear Waste Primer: A Handbook for Citizens. New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1985.

Return to:
Teaching Composition Page