My young friend Katharine is studying to be a doctor. When I told her that a number of public places in the San Francisco Bay area have unusually high levels of nuclear reactor waste, she thought for a moment and said, “The only thing worse than knowing is not knowing.” She is right about that.
Nuclear reactor waste contains some of the most dangerous and long lasting substances that mankind has ever created. They are the even-numbered atomic weight isotopes of uranium, plutonium, and curium. If atoms can be called monsters, then these are the ones. They are born inside nuclear reactors when some of the fuel becomes supercharged with energy.
Think about blowing up a balloon. It takes more and more air until it becomes unstable and then explodes. These monster atoms are just like that, except that they explode with the force of an atom bomb on a one atom scale. They are tens of thousands to billions of times more likely to do this when compared to natural radioactive atoms. This is called spontaneous fission. Back in the day students were taught that spontaneous fission was a rare event and of little consequence. Those days are long gone. What started as few milligrams of man-made plutonium in 1940 has now become many tons. If you are around nuclear waste you will inhale dust. This will allow these rogue atoms to enter your body, and that is not good.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, began operating in 1854, For 39 years from 1956 to 1995 they constructed, overhauled, and refueled nuclear powered vessels. In his two-part AVA article, ‘Working the Mare Island Nukes’ Fred Gardner quotes shipyard workers who recall routinely discharging radioactive material into the Napa river. The Navy closed this shipyard in 1998 and is responsible for its clean up. Recent soil sampling of a 2.2 mile section of the city of Vallejo on the eastern side of the Napa river suggests that the Navy has left something behind. Sixty percent of the samples show significant levels of reactor waste. How could this dangerous material wind up in residential areas of Vallejo?
During the clean up the Navy tested thousands of samples but for the wrong substance. Somewhere along the line a decision was made to use cobalt-60 as an indicator of radioactive waste contamination. Perhaps they wanted to save taxpayers some money or speed up testing. Cobalt-60 has a short lifespan so, over a 50 year period most of it will disappear. Testing for cobalt-60 can suggest that a clean-up is going well and that radioactive contaminants are decreasing when in fact, the long-lived monster atoms are building up to hazardous levels. Simply put, the Navy never did thorough testing for transuranic isotopes like plutonium. When reactor waste was discharged into the Napa River it mixed with silt, settled to the bottom and was dredged up and used as landfill in the city of Vallejo. This brought the monster atoms into residential neighborhoods.
The radioactive rose garden in Livermore, California illustrates another way that reactor waste can build up to hazardous levels in an urban environment. For years Livermore lab personnel poured waste containing plutonium down the drain where it entered the city waste treatment facility. Later, treated solids from this facility were used as fertilizer and soil amendment in city parks and other areas. The logs showing where this stuff went have been lost but, if we look for it, it can be found.
It was a hot summer day as I walked past the historic Carnegie library and toward the little rose garden beyond. Andrew Carnegie was an interesting guy. Born in 1835, son of a weaver, in a one room cottage in Scotland, he emigrated to Pennsylvania at age 12. This kid was a fast learner and bright. He started as a bobbin boy in a textile mill and became America’s richest man. It was his belief that a person should spend the first half of their life becoming educated and making a living and the second half helping the common man. To this end he founded over 3,000 libraries throughout the English speaking world. Just beyond the rose garden there is a small plaza and on this Saturday senior citizens were setting up tables for some event. Two older women eyed me suspiciously as I scooped up a little soil. Perhaps they thought I was stealing roses. Neither of us knew at that time that this little garden had been contaminated with nuclear waste.
Later, a city police car drove up as I was taking a sample from just outside the Lawrence Livermore lab fence line. The officers wanted to know what I was up to. When I told them they said, "If you want to find radiation you should go up to the old hospital.” They gave me directions and, with their blessing, I was on my way. The hospital is south of the city, situated on a hill, surrounded by trees. It has a great view of the valley and was deserted except for a security guard and a car full of tourists taking pictures. The officer asked me why I was there and then declared that no soil sampling was allowed. I told him that the Livermore police had sent me there for that purpose and he replied, “They may be the law down there but I'm the law up here.” I never did get a sample and to this day I wonder what was going on. Was that place contaminated? Was something being hidden? Was this officer the one at greatest risk?
Nuclear waste in our neighborhoods is a serious national problem. If you live in a city with a Naval facility that services or has serviced nuclear powered vessels or where laboratories or firms use nuclear material you may be at risk. So what can we do? Honest and appropriate testing is the first step. This defines the problem. Second we need to support the Navy to ensure that they have the resources necessary for a thorough clean up. After all, Naval personnel, their dependents, and civilian workers are likely to be the ones at increased risk. Most importantly, in the spirit of Andrew Carnegie we need an independent soil testing laboratory to locate problem areas and provide independent test verification. This will help the public gain confidence in clean-up efforts. Lastly we might want to reconsider the whole idea of nuclear power. Every reactor we build provides energy for about three generations but creates waste that will somehow, have to be managed for over 1,000 generations. We can do better.
(John Mills lives in Ben Lomond)