Moscow Times, Monday, Dec. 17, 2001. Page 10
Two Legs Good, Four Legs Better?
By Matt Bivens
WASHINGTON -- Many unkind things have been said of the Russian Nuclear Power Ministry's business scheme to adopt the world's radioactive waste. But for proper perspective, consider what Minatom's counterpart in the United States has been up to. That would be the so-called U.S. Department of Energy.
It's really, of course, the U.S. Department of Making Nuclear Weapons -- and, these days, the U.S. Department of Scratching Its Head Trying to Figure Out How to Pay for Tidying Up Afterward. From Tennessee and South Carolina to Idaho and Washington state, the department is pondering what's collectively the most expensive environmental cleanup in world history -- rivaled only by the similar mess in Russia. How to afford it all?
One way: feed "slightly" radioactive scrap into the steel mills for recycling. It would then add slight radioactivity to everything from spoons to sports cars to children's braces (two-thirds of the metal coming out of U.S. steel mills is recycled) but what the hey, it'll save a few bucks. Needless to say, no one other than the department really likes this proposal.
Another example of Department of Energy cost-cutting can be found at Rocky Flats, Colorado, 26 kilometers outside of Denver. Rocky Flats is where the department for nearly 50 years manufactured plutonium "pits" -- modest-looking spheres that would fit in the palm of one's hand (if one were stupid), and which constitute the explosive core of nuclear weapons. A half-century of often-rushed work has spread plutonium across the site. The plan now is to scoop up radioactive soil and contain it somehow, before time and runoff carry it into the water supply and food chain.
But how much soil-scooping is enough? Past practice has been to clean sufficiently to satisfy computer models that look at future generations who might farm the land -- not because we'd like them to farm there, but because we don't want our grandchildren to be accidentally poisoned. Plutonium will be around for 24,000 years, and institutional memories tend to fail after just a few decades.
The department, however, has been flirting with a new standard: declare Rocky Flats a wildlife preserve -- an idea that has support all on its own in the rapidly developing Denver environs -- and then clean to satisfy models suggesting future generations will be, say, wildlife preserve workers.
Since park rangers will only be briefly on the land, not living on it and farming it, this theoretical approach could allow more plutonium to be left behind. Arjun Makhijani, director of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says there has even been talk that a little radiation makes a better nature preserve; as the Chernobyl region has shown, where people fear to tread, animals are king.
This Enron-esque approach to clean-up accounting has scientists and activists like Makhijani concerned. "At Johnston Atoll in the Pacific [the site of nuclear weapons tests], the soil was cleaned to a level of 17 picocuries per gram. The initial [DOE] proposal for Rocky Flats was [to leave behind radiation levels] almost 40 times as high," Makhijani told a thinly attended press conference in Washington last week.
In the face of public opposition, the department has been reviewing the idea of a wildlife preserve for three-antlered deer. It should offer its latest in a long line of grudging clean-up proposals early next year.
Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].