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Archaeology and the Atom


We have all heard of the city of Idu.  Right?  Thousands of families living there, carrying out their normal lives, government housed in lavish buildings, written documents, trade, religion, etc.  Well, it was lost.  A whole city lost.  Idu flourished in the 13th century B.C.  We knew it had existed from some ancient Assyrian records, but had no idea where it was.  Archeologists finally found it last year, buried in northern Iraq.  And then there is the case of Richard the Third, one of the most famous kings of England who died in one of the most famous battles in the year1485, just 528 years ago.  You would think his tomb would have been a carefully preserved site viewed by thousands of tourists today.  But in fact no one knew where he was buried until last year when archeologists found him under a parking lot!  Let’s consider nuclear power plants and weapons manufacturing in the light of Idu and Richard.

Nuclear power plants and weapons manufacturing produce a host of deadly radioactive waste (including the bombs even if they never go off).  Tons of it each year.  Radio nucleotides are among the most toxic materials on the planet.  They are biocides which attack the higher forms of life more first and then work their way down the chain.  At the lower end of the spectrum of complexity, some organisms like lichens seem immune.  High dose exposure to humans causes prompt death by internal hemorrhaging.  Lower doses can cause cancers.  During the nuclear testing that occurred above ground up until 1962, the U.S. experienced an epidemic of childhood leukemia.

Some folks are touting nuclear power as a solution to the problem of global warming, noting that it does not produce carbon dioxide, one of the chief greenhouse gases.  Well, when used in a power plant to boil water to steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity, it doesn’t, but the mining, processing and transporting this material to the plant rely on fossil fuel, a major source of greenhouse gases.  Still, let’s ignore that.  The deadly wastes last a long time.    Radioactive material does decay over time at a rate which is measured in half-lives.  That is, if you have a ton of the stuff, half of it will into some other product (which might also be radioactive) over a given period of time, and then half of the remainder will do the same over another, same given period, and then half of the remainder, etc.  At the end of 3 half-lives you still have an eighth of a ton.  The half- life of plutonium is 24,000 thousand years.  That means it needs to be kept away from the public for 144,000 thousand years at a minimum.  The half-life of uranium 238 is 4.5 million years.  You get the picture.

Electric power in the U.S. that is produced by our existing nuclear plants and by weapons manufacturing together turn out 2,300 tons of waste each year, about 800 from the power plants.  Over the past 40 years, it has added up to about 67,000 tons.

All this high level waste (as opposed to “low level waste” as is discarded from a hospital X-ray machine) produced to date in power plants is so hot when it comes out that it needs to be stored in deep pools of water for 4 to 5 years or even up to 10 years.  Then it is removed and is stored in casks on site.  The casks seem to have a life of about 50 years.  In the U.S., nuclear plants currently produce about 20 percent of our power.   If we were to rely on nuclear power for all of our electrical generation, the amount of waste generated would climb to 11,500 tons per year or 40 to 50 times over the expected life of a nuclear plant, about 50,000 tons.  Note also that at the end of its useful life, a reactor producing electric power or plutonium for bombs is itself so irradiated that the whole thing is high level waste.  It has to be dismantled and buried. All this to turn on the lights for our brief moment in history. Leaving aside the increased chances of another Fukushima (or a Three Mile Island, or a Chernobyl), and the fossil fuel burned in preparation, and thinking about Idu, and Richard, do we really believe that this deadly waste can be sequestered from human contact for longer than civilization itself has existed, indeed for as long as humans have existed on the earth?

There are other ways to make electricity, namely solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro dams, and there is always conservation.  Why would anyone in their right mind risk going nuclear as a way to deal with global warming?  And aren’t we glad that the people who lived at Idu did not have nuclear power or nuclear weapons?

Kent Shifferd, Ph.D., ( is an historian who taught environmental history and ethics for 25 years at Wisconsin’s Northland College.  He is author of From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years (McFarland, 2011) and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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