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Nuclear waste the lethal garbage.

An avalanche of household garbage is not the only hazard that threatens to choke the life from this world. It pales into insignificance alongside a far greater and deadlier waste problem. Since man first learned to harness the atom for making nuclear weapons and for generating electricity, scientists have been in a quandary as to the safest possible methods for disposing of the highly radioactive nuclear waste the systems produce.

Thousands of millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to find ways to prevent people and the environment from being contaminated for generations to come by this deadly waste. A formidable task, indeed, since radioactive waste can remain lethal to all living things for thousands of years!

For decades much of this waste was simply dumped into on-site pits and seepage basins in the belief that the dangerous materials would become diluted and rendered harmless - an assumption that has proved catasthophic in its effects, as we shall see. Millions of gallons of high level radioactive waste were stored in giant underground tanks; other waste was sealed in barrels and stored above ground, another method of disposal that proved dangerous.

So hazardous and lethal is this nuclear waste that scientists considered everything from shooting the waste into outer space to putting it under the polar ice caps. There is now under investigation the feasibility of dropping canisters of waste into the northern Pacific Ocean, where they would be expected to penetrate a hundred feet into the mud below the ocean floor. "We've got stuff on this planet that we're going to have to deal with, either on land, in water or below the waters of the ocean. That's all we've got," said the vice president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

For now, as a stopgap solution until a safer and more permanent method of disposal can be found, most of this radioactive material is stored in water-filled pools inside sealed buildings. Ontario, Canada, for example, has 16 nuclear reactors that have already produced more than 7,000 tons of radioactive waste, now stored in such containers. Britain too is faced with the perplexing problem of what, to do with her waste. Presently, high-level waste is being kept in aboveground sites, and this policy is expected to continue until leakproof underground sites can be found and tested. France, Germany, and Japan are also trying to come to grips with their nuclear waste problem.

Official policy in the Unites States," reported The New York Times, "is that the safest method is burial in a |deep geologic repository,' someplace dry, stable and desolate. But finding the spot is proving tough." Tough indeed! According to scientists, it must be such a dry and stable place that it can safely house the material for 10,000 years. Although some of this atomic waste can remain lethal for an estimated 250,000 years, experts believe that so much geological change will take place over 10,000 years "that it is pointless to try to plan for longer." "I don't know of any estimation model on the face of the earth that could even talk about a 1,000-year projection," said one noted radiation expert. He added that it was "difficult to talk about a health risk 10,000 years in the future".
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Publication:Economic Review
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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