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Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Nuclear weapons kill...the earth

The Los Angeles Times sheds light on the other victim of nuclear weapons:
A $4.4-billion cleanup transformed Fernald [Ohio] from a dangerously contaminated factory complex into an environmental showcase. But it is "clean" only by the terms of a legal agreement. Its soils contain many times the natural amounts of radioactivity, and a plume of tainted water extends underground about a mile.

Nobody can ever safely live here, federal scientists say, and the site will have to be closely monitored essentially forever.

Fernald is part of the toxic legacy of the Cold War, one component in a vast complex of research labs, raw material mills, weapons production plants and other facilities that once supplied the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Today, these sites pose a staggering political, environmental and economic challenge. They harbor wastes so toxic that the best cleanups, such as the eight-year effort at Fernald, can do no more than contain the danger. Cleaning the properties enough that people could live and work on them again is either unaffordable or impossible.

The radioactive byproducts entombed at places like Fernald will remain hazardous for thousands of years. So today's scientists and engineers must devise remediation measures that will not only protect people today but last longer than any empire has endured -- all at a price society is willing to pay.
Collectively, the former nuclear facilities represent a stunning loss of natural resources and economic opportunity. Millions of gallons of radioactive sludges linger in underground tanks. Dozens of radioactive or toxic groundwater plumes are migrating underground in Washington, Idaho, South Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee, as well as California.
In addition to making a portion of the earth uninhabitable to humans, there's the cost which, incidentally, is one of those many "hidden" costs which is really part of the cost of the military but isn't included in the "defense" budget. It's also, like all such "defense" costs, money which reduces the amount left for human needs, including saving lives (like providing health care to those who are going without):
The nationwide effort to clean up the Cold War nuclear weapons complex began two decades ago and so far has cost more than $100 billion. The cost is expected to total $330 billion over the next three to five decades.
As with the costs of invading Iraq or Afghanistan, such costs are never considered in advance, and we only learn the full extent of them after the fact.

What the article doesn't say, and I don't really know, is how the problems caused by nuclear weapons production differ from the same problems caused by nuclear power generation. The main difference scientifically, as we all know from the situation in Iran, is the degree of enrichment - uranium for nuclear weapons must be more highly enriched. I assume that the problems caused by nuclear weapons production and nuclear power are identical qualitatively, but that they may differ quantitatively. Unfortunately, this article doesn't give us any feeling for what those quantitative differences might be; I welcome reader input on the subject.

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