There's 22 million gallons of nuclear waste under a concrete dome on a Pacific Island, and it's sinking

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/11/12/theres-22-million-gallons-of.html

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Of course we did.

If you want to store highly dangerous nuclear waste with long half lives - you naturally store it on a coral island about two square miles large with an elevation of what? 10 feet.

That you don’t own.

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Oz reporting on this from a few years ago:

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The legacy of imperialism and militarism is a long and destructive one, that ultimately comes back to bite the imperial power in the arse.

I recently watched the following interactive documentary on French nuclear testing in the Pacific, which provides a good overview all the horrible outcomes over the decades of this sort of behaviour: for local residents, for the environment, for activists, for world peace.

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…and it’s that big

“Where shall we store it?”
“Nowhere WE live.”
“Good job. No further questions.”

Dialogue from every hazardous waste storage project ever.

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Do you want Kaiju? Because this is how you get kaiju.

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Hey, good news guys!

In 2013, a report by the US Department of Energy[6] found that the concrete dome had weathered with minor cracking of the structure.[7] However, the soil around the dome was found to be more contaminated than its contents, so a breach could not increase the radiation levels by any means. Because the cleaning operation in the 1970s only removed an estimated 0.8 percent of the total transuranic waste in the Enewetak atoll, the soil and the lagoon water surrounding the structure now contains a higher level of radioactivity than the debris of the dome itself, so even in the event of a total collapse, the radiation dose delivered to the local resident population or marine environment should not change significantly.

Tl;dr: Enewetak is so throughly contaminated, that the dome falling apart won’t make a lick of difference.

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No problem if the dome collapses – because the waters are already contaminated anyway.

While Professor Gerrard would like the US to reinforce the dome, a 2014 US Government report says a catastrophic failure of the structure would not necessarily lead to a change in the contamination levels in the waters surrounding it.

“I’m persuaded that the radiation outside the dome is as bad as the radiation inside the dome,” says Professor Gerrard.

“And therefore, it is a tragic irony that the US Government may be right, that if this material were to be released that the already bad state of the environment around there wouldn’t get that much worse.”

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Does this reasoning actually make sense though? I mean, there’s the level of radioactivity physically measured on a Geiger counter, that’s one thing, but then there’s also the total amount of waste.
I can declare that this first cup contains lethal poison, but this second cup has been diluted with some water so it is less poisonous. If I splash around the first cup I have made the room toxic. If I then splash around the second cup I’ve still added to the total load of poison in the room.

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Thing is, all the rooms were already covered in a thin layer of poison before anyone started screwing around with the cups.

There’s a naturally occurring level of background radiation. If you have a small amount of radioactive waste and mix it with a large quantity of dirt–which is what happened, here–you end up with a large quantity of stuff that is definitely radioactive waste, but is not concentrated enough to materially effect health.

That doesn’t mean you can write it off. From what we understand of ionizing radiation, increasing exposure beyond the unavoidable background radiation (plus sun exposure and radioactive potassium from bananas and the like) can’t have a positive effect, and is likely to have a negative effect–increased cancer risk, for instance. But a small increase of a small number still leaves you with a small number.

Trying to get a sense of how and how dangerous radioactive material is by volume (“22 million gallons”) or made-up units (“1.6 atomic bombs dropped every day for 12 years”) doesn’t work. One kilogram of high-level waste can be more dangerous than an entire landfill of low-level waste.

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A better analogy might be a contaminated hotel room missing its door. Everyone is concerned about the mess in bathroom and how it might leak out under that door. But it turns out the room itself is more contaminated than the smaller bathroom. Focusing on the bathroom may not be the best focus of efforts except to the extent you can more easily plug up the cracks around that door.

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So, if i read this correctly, the ihabitants if this island are as fucked as it is possible to be, and therefore the impending collapse of the dome is no big deal. Well, that’s nice.

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No. Exposure to high levels of radioactive contamination is worse than exposure to low levels of radioactive contamination. The inhabitants are by no means as fucked as it is possible to be.

(Parts, but not all, of the Marshall Islands remain too radioactive to safely inhabit. George Dvorsky summarizes some recent measurements here: Radiation Levels at the Marshall Islands Remain Disturbingly High.)

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Well, from this study, the background radiation there (7.6mrem/year) is pretty much the same as Cornwall in the UK (which has the highest background radiation in the UK, because it’s mostly granite).
Now generally, being compared to Cornwall is seen as a bad thing, and indeed, the inhabitants are widely regarded (in Devon, the neighbouring county) as having webbed feet, but this is usually attributed to the in-breeding, rather than the radiation.

Jokes aside, that’s not a particularly high background level, and in all likelihood, someone who’s had several X-rays will have a higher annual dose than just living there for a year. And it’s almost certainly sunnier than Cornwall.

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/ US-american public and politics: mild shrugging

The problem is we done messed up, we messed up badly, and there isn’t a darn thing that we can do about it. The cleanup failed. They tried to clean it up, but it wasn’t effective. There is just too much radioactivity there, and we can’t clean up the mess. I’m not meaning that it’s not cost effective to clean up the mess- I mean, we can’t clean up the mess and turn those islands habitable again.

The more you study the early Nuclear history, the more you realize that until the mid 1940s, we didn’t have a freaking clue what this stuff could do to people; and until the 1960’s we really didn’t know. We seem to have a better grip on it now and we know how to safely handle these materials and keep them out of the environment and clean up some messes… but we can’t clean up after an atomic bomb.

(Judging from period sources, I don’t think that anyone in the US Military or associated science fields really understood what would happen if you used a nuclear weapon on people; the horrors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki started rolling in and just didn’t stop and kept getting worse. This is not an excuse; it’s just an observation.)

And yeah, when you study the history of atomic research most of the major players in the field died of radiation related illnesses. They really didn’t have a clue.

I grew up believing our country was the greatest nation on earth, because it was the 70s - 80s and I was a kid without the experience or knowledge to know better.

I’ve since learned that the more somebody – including a government – says they are good/great, the less likely it’s true.

Our country has done some horrible shit – still does, honestly – and it sucks for everyone without the capital and resources to insulate themselves from the atrocities, or benefit from them. That applies to all governments and all people. Good people/governments don’t make a big point of talking up how good they are. They’re too busy being good.

Our government is horrible because they can be, our people – including myself – are horrible because enough of us let them be.

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Finally a use for sharks with lasers strapped on their heads.