The Hanford site in Washington State on June 30, 2005.

The Hanford reactor in Washington state: home to the world's most contaminated nuclear site. (Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

By Marcelo Gleiser

This week, news headlines are heavy with things nuclear. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is in the Middle East mustering support to increase sanctions against Iran. She claims that "evidence is accumulating" of that nation's intention to build nuclear weapons. There is no question that a radical theocracy with nuclear bombs would be a major destabilizing influence in the region, and a direct threat to Israel. Meanwhile, back home, President Obama announced $8.3 billion in loans for the construction of two nuclear power stations in Georgia, after a three-decade hiatus. The long freeze in nuclear reactor building started after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. Energy strategists diverge as to whether nuclear power is the short to mid-term solution to the energy crisis. Solar, wind, and geothermal power are often cited as alternatives. Although nuclear power plants don't pollute the air, they still generate huge amounts of nuclear waste that most be disposed somehow.

Here is a scary example: the Hanford reactor in Washington state, closed down after the cold war, has the distinction of being the world's most contaminated nuclear site, with 53 million tons of uranium waste in 170 underground storage tanks.

The painful truth is that there isn't a perfect solution to the energy question: every option has its pros and cons, and decisions have to weight them all. The nuclear reactors that currently generate 20% of the current U.S. energy are old and in need of repair. Even if they get updated and new ones are built, causing a welcome decrease on our dependence on fossil fuels, we must face the issue of nuclear waste disposal. Maybe there is a lot to learn from other countries. France, for example, has about 75% of its power coming from nuclear power stations. As a consequence, it has developed several advanced ways of dealing with nuclear waste, from recycling and reusing to special treatment facilities and vitrification. However, even there, what's left is still buried underground. Could space disposal, if made safe and cost-effective, be an option? Imagine an international nuclear-waste-in-space facility, where countries would contribute to costs in tandem with the waste they produce? There is plenty of room out there, as long as the rockets don't explode during launching.

One danger, of course, is that some of this nuclear waste could fall in the wrong hands. It wouldn't take much plutonium to cause a major ecological disaster, for example, if used to pollute the water supply of a major urban center. Power stations are a good example of how sensitive this issue is: some areas of the Columbia River in Washington state have contamination levels 1500 times above the standard for drinking water.

But the true madness is not in nuclear power stations, it's in bombs. The collective history of humankind was redefined after August 6th, 1945, when "Little Boy" was dropped in Hiroshima. The U.S. maintains the distinction of being the only country that has used a nuclear weapon on a civilian population. Without going into the reasons and merits of this barbarous act (I guess I just told you what I think), we may think we now live in a safer world, with the nuclear powers well in check. Cold War is over, right? The playground logic goes as follows: if Jimmy can punch me as hard as I can punch him, we're better off keeping our hands down. Even though this fragile and somewhat mad detente policy has worked for over 50 years, as you start getting more kids in the playground, chances are someone will eventually get punched. Tempers vary, and motives can be made to satisfy all kinds of twisted political and -- abysmally - religious reasons. If life has no value to you due to some grand dream of eternal salvation, it's that much easier to push the button and contribute to the arrival of doomsday. Having the power of destruction, as so many inglorious episodes in history illustrate, makes it all the more tempting.

Current estimates put the number of U.S. nuclear warheads at about 5,000+ by 2012.
Surely, a large improvement from the insane 32,000 max in 1966, but still with the capacity to obliterate the world as we know it several times over. Russia has an even larger stockpile of weapons. Even with all the pressing issues that we face these days - the economy, climate change, natural disasters, diseases like malaria that kill over one million people a year -- we should never forget that our future rests upon an extremely unstable nuclear detente. In so many ways, no issue is more pressing.

categories: Science and Policy

11:30 - February 18, 2010