FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Archaeology and the Atom

by KENT SHIFFERD

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., (kshifferd@centurytel.net) 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.

More articles by:
May 31, 2016
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
Imperial Blues: On Whitewashing Dictatorship in the 21st Century
Vijay Prashad
Stoking the Fires: Trump and His Legions
Patrick Howlett-Martin
Libya: How to Bring Down a Nation
Uri Avnery
What Happened to Netanyahu?
Corey Payne
Reentry Through Resistance: Détente with Cuba was Accomplished Through Resistance and Solidarity, Not Imperial Benevolence
Bill Quigley
From Tehran to Atlanta: Social Justice Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani’s Fight for Human Rights
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump, Sanders and the Exhaustion of a Political Model
Bruce Lerro
“Network” 40 Years Later: Capitalism in Retrospect and Prospect and Elite Politics Today
Robert Hunziker
Chile’s Robocops
Aidan O'Brien
What’ll It be Folks: Xenophobia or Genocide?
Binoy Kampmark
Emailgate: the Clinton Spin Doctors In Action
Colin Todhunter
The Unique Risks of GM Crops: Science Trumps PR, Fraud and Smear Campaigns
Dave Welsh
Jessica Williams, 29: Another Black Woman Gunned Down By Police
Gary Leupp
Rules for TV News Anchors, on Memorial Day and Every Day
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail