OpEd

Story published: 10-29-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Don’t endanger people ‘Into Eternity’


By Frances Lamberts

For a recently published book, Dr. Helen Caldicott interviewed the Danish director of a documentary about the Onkalo repository in Finland, which is to “hide” the spent-fuel waste from that country’s nuclear power plants.

Titled, “Into Eternity,” the film details the bunker-like underground structure, begun in 2004, whose completion and sealing is expected to take 120 years.

Under Finnish law for the project, Onkalo is to quarantine the highly dangerous, radioactive materials “in a foolproof manner for 100,000 years.”

That means some 3,000 generations hence, the director notes, or as long into the future as the human prehistory of the past, when homo sapiens first left the grasslands of Africa.

He wonders what would happen in future ice ages, whose sheets would “depress the crust of the earth” far deeper than the lay of the bunker tunnels.

Or if earthquakes or water seepage create cracks in the bedrock, future wars wreak destruction on the facility, or the man-made materials crumble through corrosion.

The film questions our morality in leaving a legacy of waste to future children which, in the human timescale, is lethally dangerous forever. It asks, too, how we can effectively even warn or inform these of the danger.

What inscribed stone tablet, linguistic, pictorial or other symbol will be devised to convey the threat, what danger sign universally understood over time spans of tens of thousands of years?

The United States is at a crossroads on how our own, far larger store of highly radioactive spent-fuel waste can be kept safely isolated from the environment.

Mostly now stored in water-cooled pools at reactor sites, its many risks, such as from leaks, fires, power disruption through natural disasters or other causes, were not factored in the past when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave permits for new reactors or extended existing reactor licenses.

It did so on the basis of “confidence” that an ultimate solution, or burial in some American “Onkalo,” is at hand.

In 2011, after the Fukushima accident, some states brought suit against the commission’s “confidence” tradition in licensing.

A federal court last year, siding with the states, removed the NRC’s licensing authority until the environmental impacts of the highly radioactive waste, even and especially in the absence of a repository, have been duly examined and dealt with.

Its recently released environmental impact study states the NRC’s continued confidence in a safe solution.

This is based on the expectation that a state or states will soon volunteer to host permanent national burial sites, and shipment to interim storage sites (to be determined) relieve the spent-fuel crowding at the current sites.

Unfortunately, it fails to mandate, as too costly for the nuclear industry, the much safer, on-site interim storage in hardened casks, or to promote electricity generation through means of fuels which don’t endanger people “Into Eternity.”

The commission is seeking public input on its proposal. Email rulemaking.comments@nrc.com by Nov. 27.

A public hearing on the matter will be held Nov. 4 in Charlotte, N.C.