The Silver Lining That Glows in the Dark

July 21, 2008 | | Comments Off on The Silver Lining That Glows in the Dark

As lawmakers search for ways to reduce our national carbon dioxide output, some far out suggestions for cooling the planet have popped up. Have you heard about the sun shade proposal? We would launch a huge sheet of trillions of reflectors into space, giving the Earth some quality shade time. How about the one where we build a volcano that shoots sulfur into the air? Or the one where we build a forest of artificial trees that suck more CO2 out of the air than natural trees? Compared to these, building more nuclear power plants sounds downright sane.

It is true that nuclear power is cleaner in some respects than, say, coal power. But even though nuclear power production is better for our air, its byproducts have the potential to cause us serious problems in the future. Right now, the hot button issue in the nuclear industry is low-level radioactive waste. This is the stuff that power plants and some medical facilities use in their day to day operations, like tools, clothing, and test tubes. These random pieces of radioactive detritus can take up to 500 years to lose their radioactivity.

Right now, low level radioactive waste can either be stored where it’s produced, or shipped to a licensed disposal facility. Here’s the catch– America only has three of these facilities, and one of them just closed. Until this month, Washington, Utah, and South Carolina were home to the only three low level radioactive waste disposal sites in the country. On July 1, after almost 40 years of national junkyard-dom, the disposal site in Barnwell, South Carolina stopped accepting several classes of waste from all states except New Jersey and Connecticut.

Thirty years ago, governors from across the nation got together and proposed a plan for every state to take care of its own wastes, either through building its own disposal facilities, or by contracting with other states. Congress made this plan a law in 1980. Fast forward to today. Many states have not set up their own facilities as they were supposed to, and one has even sued the Federal government, claiming that the national plan Congress adopted in the 1980’s was unconstitutional. The nation now depends on Utah and Washington to accept the bulk of our low level radioactive waste.

What’s the silver lining in all this? For over twenty years now, states have failed to fulfill their political obligations to provide for disposal of their own wastes, indirectly putting more and more pressure on the nuclear industry to come up with its own solutions. Confronted with decreasing disposal capacity, the nuclear industry has actually reduced the amount of some classes of low level radioactive waste that it produces.

Perhaps this small environmental case study demonstrates that scientific ingenuity can sometimes help when political ingenuity breaks down. As lawmakers across the country search for political solutions to our environmental problems, the apolitical ingenuity of scientists, businesses, teachers, and even that couple down the street from me who made their old Mercedes bio-diesel compatible, proves that when the top lags, change can come from the bottom up, even when there’s something glowing in the dark down there.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mandj98.

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