Thursday, May 26, 2011

War and the Environment: Schizophrenia

"The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, operating since 1999, is the boneyard for detritus from nuclear weapons and defense research. It can handle 6.2 million cubic feet of waste, the equivalent of about 156,000 55-gallon drums. In fact, much of the plutonium-drenched scrap it receives is packaged just that way.

WIPP isn't designed to store spent fuel from nuclear [power] generating plants, which in the United States alone increases by 3,000 tons each year. It is a landfill only for the so-called low- and mid-level waste - stuff like discarded weapons-assembly gloves, shoe coverings, and rags soaked in contaminating cleaning solvents used in fashioning nuclear bombs. It also holds the dismantled walls of machines used to build them, and even walls from rooms where that happened. All this arrives on shrink-wrapped pallets containing hot hunks of pipe, aluminum conduits, rubber, plastic, cellulose, and miles or wiring. After its first five years, WIPP was already more than 20 percent full.

The first site to begin shipping to WIPP was Rocky Flats, a defense facility on a foothills plateau 16 miles northwest of Denver. Until 1989, the United States made plutonium detonators for atomic weapons at Rocky Flats with somewhat less than a lawful regard for safety. For years, thousands of drums of cutting oil saturated with plutonium and uranium were stacked outside on bare ground. When someone finally noticed they were leaking, asphalt was poured over the evidence. Radioactive runoff at Rocky Flats frequently reached local streams; cement was swirled into radioactive sludge in absurd attempts to try to slow seepage from cracked evaporation ponds; and radiation periodically escaped into the air. A 1989 FBI raid finally closed the place. In the new millennium, after several billion dollars' worth of intensive cleanup and public relations, Rocky Flats was transmuted into a National Wildlife Refuge."

From The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

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