Another Chance to Reject Radioactive Waste

John LaForge

Radioactive waste dumpers are eyeing Minnesota’s, Wisconsin’s and Michigan’s granite bedrock again. Back in the 1980s, the area’s rock was under consideration by the Energy Department (DOE) for a deep underground burial site to hold the nuclear industry’s highly radioactive waste fuel rods.

It was at a public hearing on the subject where I first heard the renowned environmentalist and writer Winona LaDuke. Winona took to the podium holding a large, submarine sandwich-like object wrapped in aluminum foil. She had some fun at the expense of the dignitaries and DOE officials when she said she was holding a Nuclear Waste Suppository and that they all knew what they could do with it. LaDuke had comically summed up public opinion on the question, and the critical uproar eventually moved the DOE to scratch Minnesota from its list.

Now, 30 years later, the DOE is again looking for a population politically and educationally backward enough to accept a radiation transfer hub and underground dump. The Sandia National Laboratory issued a report in August titled “Granite Disposal of U.S. High-Level Radioactive Waste,” and in one of its tables says the “Lake Superior Region” has the dump friendly attributes of “low hydraulic gradient, little vertical relief, small number of faults, very low seismic activity and no volcanic activity.” The table doesn’t include a list of waste storage problems like the headwaters of the Great Lakes, the movement of groundwater through the bedrock, fractures in the rock, or the technical difficulties of moving high-level wastes into and through the land of 10,000 lakes for 25 years.

On Christmas Day the Duluth News Tribune reported that government scientists are looking for rock formations in the region because Nevada’s Yucca Mountain project was cancelled in 2009. A few of the scientific showstoppers that brought an end to the Yucca Mt. project have been outlined by me elsewhere (Mpls StarTribune, Feb. 9, 2002; St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 26, 2002; Milwaukee Shepherd Express, May 9, 2002; Reader Weekly, Apr. 14, 2005 and the Duluth News Tribune, Jan. 24, 2012).

It’s sufficient to say that the problem of water in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin will trump the area’s geologic stability when the scientists begin seriously snooping around. This is because keeping water away from radioactive waste containers is the principle environmental, legal and ethical object of any repository. The purpose of a repository is to prevent water from corroding waste casks and carrying deadly radiation into the ecosphere and the food chain.

One little-known reason for Yucca Mt.’s cancellation was the projected cost of keeping water away from the underground casks. The Energy Department’s plan was to install 11,000 titanium “drip shields” that would be set over each waste container in the repository at an estimated cost of $8 billion in 2008 dollars. Without the drip shields in place and functioning properly, soluble radioactive materials would contaminate the groundwater at levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s dose limit within merely hundreds of years. Current law requires that any such dump prevent the spread of radioactive contamination for 1 million years.

As students of the nuclear age well know, radioactive waste is extremely hazardous to living organisms because exposure to radiation can result in death, incurable disease, birth abnormalities and permanent gene mutations that are passed from generation to generation. Radiation is especially dangerous to women, infants and children and the latest science on the damage caused by low doses indicates that it is more hazardous by far than current exposure standards take into account.

I guess to the famous list of things certain — death and taxes — we can add radioactive waste. But at least Minnesotan’s recognize a dirty government suppository when they see one and if history’s any guide will not stand for it.

John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.