Americans, without acknowledging it, worship the resilience of nature. This blind trust in the ability of the nation to absorb man-made pollutants, including nuclear waste, has cost them dearly.
Perhaps the most significant recent news about the costs of past beliefs is a byproduct of the nuclear arms race. In July, the General Accounting Office reported that cleaning up the wastes of United States nuclear arms production would cost some $130 billion.To put that figure in perspective, consider that the federal government spent $160 billion on all domestic discretionary programs last year. That's everything from law enforcement to science programs to health research. Right now, no one knows where the cleanup money is going to come from. George Bush will face the unpleasant task of trying to find it.
Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, said the problems found at Love Canal "are like a drop in the Pacific Ocean" when compared with Department of Energy nuclear sites.
One of the primary causes for this enormous bill for taxpayers is that in exchange for protecting us from enemies, the military-industrial complex has won exemptions from many of the laws that govern corporate America.
After World War II, low-level radio-active wastes were dumped into the ground, because, it was thought, the soil would dilute these dangerous materials to harmless levels. At Washington State's Hanford weapon production site, for example, some 200 billion gallons of radioactive waste have been dumped into various ponds and pits, some of it deliberately pumped into ground water. Much of it has flowed into the Columbia River, home of the national symbol, the bald eagle.
Buried dry plutonium-contaminated wastes have also been stuffed into cardboard boxes and rototilled into the soil. According to the General Accounting Office, the amount of nuclear waste accumulated during 30 years of weapon production - some 20 million cubic feet - is enough to cover a four-lane highway with 10 inches of waste for close to 100 miles.
An internal study by Du Pont, which runs the Savannah facilities in South Carolina and nearly the scene of a Chernobyl type of disaster this past summer, concludes that careless dumping over the course of previous decades has resulted in contamination that will exist "for centuries or millennia."
The plan the Energy Department has presented to deal with nuclear waste is a horror story. America's most dangerous weapons-production waste, as well as accumulating wastes from US commercial nuclear reactors, will be stored at Yucca Mountain, 110 miles west of Las Vegas in Nevada. This site lies between aerial bombardment and nuclear bomb-testing ranges and was selected despite warnings from Jerry Szymanski, a department scientist, that it was "unsuitable" for permanent storage of nuclear waste.
Nevada state officials report a laundry list of non-compliance with federal laws, resulting in a loss of radioactive materials into nearby wells.
Ironically, when visiting Soviet scientists were monitoring nuclear testing at the contiguous Nuclear Testing Site, they asserted that it would be naive to think that nuclear testing would not contaminate local ground water. The day after this assertion, Energy Department officials declared that such contamination was not possible.
The department's approach to handling nuclear waste is just one indication of how wrong we have been and how difficult it is to get beyond entrenched beliefs and attitudes. At fault is no single individual, or cast of characters. Generations of Americans share this naive appraisal of nature's capacity to absorb most anything.
Our battle against contamination caused by the military complex is drilling home a most sardonic point. We are busy building bombs we may never use against an enemy, but whose creation, because of shortsighted environmental policies, entails the slow death of America's own citizens and wildlife.
The stately bald eagle now finds that one of its homes is littered with radioactive debris inherited from the decisions of security-minded policymakers who, ironically, invoke its image as a sign of American pride and strength.
(Bruce Piasecki is author of "Beyond Dumping" and "America's Future in Hazardous Waste Management," both from Greenwood Press Inc. He is currently a research fellow at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Peter Asmus is a Sacramento, Calif., writer who specializes in financial and environmental affairs.)