Science in Christian Perspective



Not An A voidable Problem
William G. Pollard

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 88

Three questions may be asked about nuclear wastes: What are they? Where do they come from? and What will we do with them? The first two questions are adequately answered in the preceding article by Ellen Winchester on "Nuclear Wastes." The third, however, is a different matter. Those whose primary purpose is to oppose nuclear energy approach this question in one way, while those who are neutral or in favor of nuclear energy approach it quite differently.
There already exist in the world great quantities of high level nuclear wastes generated in the production of nuclear weapons. Sooner or later we must dispose of them regardless of our feelings about nuclear energy. They won't go away simply by wishing them out of existence. Those charged with the technical responsibility for the development of permanent disposal methods are convinced that it can be done with adequate safety by deep burial (6004,000 m.) in several geologic formations including bedded salt, some shales, and granite. The remaining problems are mostly political, together with the difficulty of achieving a consensus on which among several ceramic or glass matrices for the wastes and particular geologic formations are best. Sooner or later we must settle on one among these alternatives and go ahead. It is not something we can continue to debate forever. At the same time all of these alternatives have a miniscule probability of ever returning even detectable radioactivities to the earth's surface and an essentially zero probability of returning amounts dangerous to human health. It is equally true that neither for this problem nor any other in the life of civilized man can absolute safety be absolutely guaranteed for all future time.

Those, however, who have little interest in contributing to this problem but are anxious to find telling arguments against nuclear energy take a quite different approach. For them the object is to demonstrate that the disposal problem has no solution. This is the case with Winchester's article, The opening sentence of the second paragraph sets the stage with the loaded statement, "the tragic hunt over which human hubris may have tripped is that nuclear waste stays poisonous practically forever." In fact, after 600 to 1,000 years such waste is no more "poisonous" than natural wastes already in the earth in the form of rich uranium ores. After 10,000 years they are less "poisonous" than was the uranium from which they were originally derived. These are admittedly long periods, but they are hardly "forever." Later on after correctly characterizing the natural radiation dose from 100 to 250 millirem per year and the additional average medical dose as 70 millirem per year, it is stated "scientists learn more about how unsafe even tiny increases above the background level can be." What scientists have in fact learned is that no measurable health effects on either animals or man can he detected at all below 10 rads (10,000 millirem for man). This statement stands in the face of contrary opinions later attributed to Ralph Nader and Alice Stewart. Several such opinions including the one concerning uranium mill tailings are stated without any recognition that they have been discredited by competent authorities. One of the most surprising statements is that "Reactor grade plutonium is so highly refined that one-tenth as much will do the same" as plutonium 239.
It is strange that the Sierra Club should have seized on radiation and radioactivity as the ultimate environmental catastrophe. There must be hundreds of agents in our environment which are greater threats to human health than a radiation dose of 250 millirem or even 1,000 millirem per year. Yet articles such as this ask us to do without electricity for fear of added exposures of 10 millirem per year or less, or else force us to coal with its enormously greater real environmental insults. It is extraordinary to what lengths we can he driven by irrational fear!

See Dr. Pollard's earlier article on page 70 of this issue.