Our Heedless Dispersal of Radiation

John LaForge

“The nuclear age has become the cancer age.” - Petra Kelly, Fighting for Hope

“The U.S. military continues to rank among the world’s largest generators of hazardous waste, producing nearly a ton of toxic pollution every minute.” - William Thomas, Scorched Earth

In 1978, the federal government acknowledged that 50 U.S. nuclear sites were a human health hazard. Leukemia and other cancers in nearby areas were statistically more prevalent that in normal towns. By 1989, the government had identified 3,200 sites at 100 DOE weapons facilities that had contaminated soil, ground water or both. The total is really “45,000 potentially radioactive sites around the United States and 20,000 of them are government owned.”

Testifying to Congress in 1988, Dexter Peach, an assistant comptroller general at the General Accounting Office, said, “… to clean up thousands of sites owned by the federal government at which uncontained radioactive wastes are contaminating soil and ground water … may be the government’s biggest challenge.” George Kritz, a former Energy Department official with the remedial action division in Germantown, Maryland, told the New York Times 30 years ago, “We’re going to be in this cleanup business 50, 100, 150 years form now.

Nuclear weapons and reactor fuel production have radioactively contaminated so much of the United States that official cost estimates of merely a partial clean-up -- the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2000 that large area cannot be cleaned to safe levels – are $365 billion and climbing. Part of the reason for the daunting dilemma is that, as the government discovered in 2000, ten times more plutonium waste from weapons production was dumped “into soil or buried in flimsy containers” than was earlier estimated. (“US Estimate of Spewed Plutonium is Raised: Tenfold,” NY Times, Oct. 21, 2000)

Radioactive contamination of the environment occurs every day as a result of the normal operation of commercial nuclear power reactors, military and civilian research reactors, Navy shipboard propulsion reactors as well as the transportation and use of radioactive isotopes in medicine, industry, science, war and war preparations. This contamination is permitted by federal regulators because nuclear reactors can’t even operate without ongoing releases of radioactive water and gases. Hot, radioactive gas and liquids are vented all day, every day in order to control the pressure, temperature and humidity inside the reactor core — and to keep workplace radiation levels from exceeding exposure limits for employees.

In addition, Army records disclosed in 2005 show that, like reckless drunk drives, it secretly dumped at least 500 tons of unidentified radioactive waste and about 32,000 tons of chemical weapons off the coasts of eleven states between 1945 and 1970. About 317 tons of radioactive waste was thrown from ships in June 1960 off the Virginia-Maryland line.

During the same period, the Army dumped thousands of tons of toxic military wastes into Lake Superior. Over 350 tons of wastes from one production site alone, the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant near Minneapolis, Minnesota, was secretly rolled off barges less than two miles from the drinking water intake for the cities of Duluth and Superior. The era of reckless endangerment of Great Lakes water resources started at least as far back as 1945, when 600 tons of World War II machine gun ammunition was tossed into Lake Superior 1.5 miles from Duluth

More than five metric tons of plutonium were dispersed around the world by atmospheric bomb tests, satellite reentries and burn-ups, effluents from uranium reprocessing, accidental radiation fires, explosions, spills and leaks. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War have estimated that about six million curies of cesium-137 and about four million curies of strontium-90 were dispersed to the atmosphere by above ground bomb tests. Dr. Rosalie Bertell said, “It frightens me very much that there is a whole blanket of radioactive material in the upper atmosphere, and no matter what we do it’s coming down. Not all of this radioactive material has impacted on the food chain yet, so it will be coming down from the atmosphere for a long time to time, getting into the ocean and the plankton, and the fish, then onto the dinner table.

The bio-accumulation of long-lived radioactive wastes from nuclear power and weapons presents an unfathomable threat to human and environmental health, especially in conjunction with the cumulative effects of about 80,000 other mostly unregulated chemicals that are routinely poured, sprayed or dumped into the environment.

The next time your doctor or your neighbor or anyone tells you “everything causes cancer” you can reply, ‘No, that would be nuclear power and weapons.”