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World lacks will and money to clear up radioactive waste.

Call it radioactive indigestion.

Tums won't cure it. Trillions of dollars may simply act as Maalox to coat Mother Earth's stomach lining if some generally acceptable intermediate methods of approved radioactive waste storage ever materialize.

Meanwhile, as one activist said recently, the solution to even greater nuclear waste storage traumas is, "We have to stop producing the stuff." (See story, page 10.) The earth rightly seems unable to digest, and antinuclear advocates and activists rightly seem unwilling to swallow, the idea of "safe" storage of radioactive materials.

From the birth of the atom bomb onward, the world - essentially the United States and Russia, with some significant contributions from France, Britain and China - has been setting nuclear waste out on its sidewalk for a trashman who never comes.

Like Arlo Guthrie in "Alice's Restaurant," who found his own solution for unwanted waste (he dumped it in the woods and brought on the wrath of the law), civilian and military radioactive waste makers have sometimes taken to finding their own solutions. As Greenpeace has lately been documenting, Russia has used the Sea of Japan.

And still the stuff piles up.

Worldwatch Institute's 1993 sustainable society report provides bitter warning: "No one has yet put a price tag on safely disposing of nuclear waste and decommissioining the nuclear power plants that generate it. Coping with the health problems associated with nuclear waste is being left to future generations as part of the nuclear legacy." That's bad news beyond calculation when one reads that Worldwatch's estimate just to clean up other hazardous waste in the U.S. alone could run $750 billion (equal to about three-quarters of 1990's U.S. federal budget).

Also consider that the costs of just cleaning up the U.S. military messes, like Rocky Flats and Savannah River, run beyond $200 billion in estimates - with the alternative, not cleaning them up, being paid in severe health risks.

Say the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War: "Microscopic plutonium particles, when inhaled, will cause cancer with virtual certainty, and new studies indicate graver risks than previously recognized due to low-level exposure to radiation."

Then there's the question of what to do with unwanted nuclear weaponry. The Office of Technology Assessment's report to Congress states: "The difficulties of weapons retirement and warhead dismantlement should not be underestimated. Plans for long-term storage of... nuclear materials must be resolved, and difficult decisions regarding these matters must be made at the highest level of government."

And, we'd add, at the lowest level of democracy - the people themselves.

On that topic, here is a little paper flag of hope to wave. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary favors "site-specific" citizens' groups at places like Rocky Flats and Savannah.

There's one such citizen's commission coming on stream for the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant at Amarillo, Texas. Its advent is due to the activities of a small coalition, STAR, Save Texas Agriculture and Resources.

"Our main concern here," said coalition member Doris Smith, "is our water supply, the Ogallala aquifer - its safety, and its future for our children. Also, we are a prime agriculture area, producing 56 percent of the nation's fed beef and growing a major portion of the cereal grains."

Yet the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce and the region's economic development group want to develop long-term plutonium storage, to seek peaceful uses for plutonium and to escalate the region into a major research center.

Some folks never learn or listen

And yet, through citizen's group such as STAR, and "site-specific" advisory commissions keeping keen watch, perhaps - just perhaps - the tide of public opinion and concern will turn into action on this issue.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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