When a low-level radioactive waste dump explodes


It was just the other day that I was upbraiding the mainstream media for taking its eye off one of the most important stories — to my mind, anyway — of this decade: The nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, and the lack of focus on the potential for similar accidents at atomic sites both here in the United States and around the globe. Simply put, we have too many nuclear power plants that are either too old or are sited in dangerous spots such as earthquake zones, and which are poorly maintained or regulated. The impact of Fukushima — with large uninhabitable zones, and increasing reports of residents and cleanup workers who’ve been sickened or even died after expose to radiation released in the 2011 catastrophe — should have been enough to spur a shift in policy. The idea that it could happen again — and perhaps even in a more heavily populated zone — is nothing short of unconscionable.

But it’s also to remember that while power plants — and of course, the never-quite-vanished specter of a nuclear war — are the most visible danger of our atomic society, it is far from the only one. Indeed, much of my career as an environmental lawyers has been devoted to the invisible threat of radiation on the so-called “scale” that gets pulled up from under the earth during the oil production process — a kind of waste that threatened unsuspecting workers and property owners. The thing is, a number of major industrial sources — from power plants to hospitals — produce, cumulatively, an enormous amount of radioactive waste that must be disposed of somewhere. In the United States, we’ve seen very few communities willing to accept these wastes. A  large amount goes to the relatively open state of Nevada, and last week something went wrong:

 A video of Sunday’s explosions that preceded a fire in a state-owned radioactive waste trench at the US Ecology site 10 miles south of Beatty shows white smoke emanating from the soil before the ground erupts, shooting debris and more white smoke into the air.

The 40-second cellphone video, released Thursday by the Nevada Department of Public Safety two days after the Las Vegas Review-Journal had requested it, was taken from a berm atop Trench No. 11 overlooking the soil cap of Trench No. 14.

Trench No. 14 is where containers of low-level radioactive waste were buried in part of a pit the size of a football stadium in the 1970s.

Authorities shut down a 140-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 95 for nearly 24 hours because of the fire and flash floods during Sunday’s heavy rains in Nye County. Beatty is about 117 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

State Fire Marshal Chief Peter Mulvihill said Tuesday investigators don’t know yet what caused the “energetic burning” in that pit Sunday but whatever caught fire below the surface of the unlined, clay terrain “definitely burned very hot.”

The state’s public safety team decided to allow the fire to burn itself out instead of trying to douse it because they didn’t want to put water on any material that might be reactive to water, fearing that could potentially exacerbate the problem.

It’s been reported that the initial tests did not find elevated levels of radiation. That’s good news, perhaps, although I’ve learned over my legal career that it’s not good practice to automatically trust the government’s test results without outside, truly independent testing as well. More importantly, the fact that this fire — and the uncertainty that led to the closure of such a long stretch if a main highway — took place at all raises new questions about where, if anywhere, society can safely dispose its radioactive garbage.

The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that “nuclear fuel remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years after it is no longer useful in a commercial reactor” yet adds that there’s been no urgency on a solution. The waste that caught fire in Nevada is less dangerous than reactor fuel, but it’s important to understand that any exposure to radiation can be harmful. That mere fact that such a site can explode and catch fire calls for a serious investigation of our radioactive waste disposal practices, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

For more information about the radioactive dump fire in Nevada, please read: http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/fire-rescue/video-shows-blasts-nuclear-waste-dump-site-shut-down-us-95

Learn the story about how I fought Big Oil on its radioactive pollution in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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