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70 years of nuclear waste

Seventy years after the first sustained nuclear chain reaction took place at the University of Chicago, the nuclear industry has produced up to 200,000 tons of highly toxic radioactive waste — but made no progress toward finding a way of disposing of it.

It’s a huge problem, and it’s the subject of an international conference taking place at the U. of C.’s International House, 1414 E. 59th Street, on Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2 (here’s a schedule).

Speakers from Japan, including survivors of Hiroshima and Fukushima, and from native lands here will provide a ground-level view of living with radioactive contamination, and experts will explore a range of concerns, including possibilities for a nuclear- and carbon-free energy future.

Dr. Norma Field, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, will give a keynote address at 7 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the Chicago premier of “The Atomic States of America,” a new film that features a segment on the tritium leak at the Braidwood nuclear plant in Will County that was revealed in 2005.

On Sunday at 3:30 p.m., a commemoration of the first reaction will be held at Henry Moore’s “Atomic Energy” sculpture at 56th and Ellis.  That’s the site of the lab under the university’s football stadium where the Manhattan Project build the world’s first nuclear reactor, which went critical on December 2, 1942.

Red Gate Woods

On Monday, a caravan will visit the site of the first Argonne National Lab in Red Gate Woods in the Cook County Forest Preserve near Willow Springs.  After initial tests, the first Chicago reactor was reassembled there, and ultimately dismantled and buried in a huge hole, along with highly radioactive waste generated between 1944 and 1946.  In the late 1940s Argonne was moved to DuPage County.

In the 1990s, radioactive contamination was found in ground water around Red Gate, and after residents organized and protested, the Department of Energy cleaned up one radioactive dump on the site, though a second was too dangerous to disturb.

Along with this long history, the issue of nuclear waste is playing out in a number of ways in the Chicago area today, said David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, the main sponsor of the conference.

Radioactive Illinois

With eleven Exelon nuclear plants, Illinois has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of radioactive waste, totalling 8,000 tons, Kraft said.   According to a recent study, Exelon reactors in Illinois have some of the highest concentrations nationally: reactors at Dresden, Byron, Braidwood, and Quad Cities have spent fuel inventories containing more than 200 million curies of radioactivity each.

And as Exelon has intensified production, stresses on waste pools have increased (more here).

Fukushima and Exelon

Problems with radiactive waste storage were central in the Fukushima disaster last year — and are a concern in four Exelon plants of the same design and age in Illinois.

At Fukushima, reactors exploded, caught on fire, and melted down, forcing 160,000 people to evacuate their homes and releasing massive amounts of radiation to the air and water.  The cleanup will take many years and tens of billions of dollars.

The NRC is currently investigating a petition by NEIS and others arguing that the Fukushima disaster revealed fundamental flaws in the design of the GE Mark 1 reactor used by Exelon, including vulnerable elevated waste pools and weak containment structures.

The agency is also looking into issues raised by Exelon’s siting of nuclear plants in flood plains along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.


Meanwhile at Exelon’s nuclear plant in Zion, Illinois, the largest decommissioning effort in U.S. history is now underway. NEIS has been pressing for more secure storage structures than are currently planned.

The dry casks now used for storing the most radioactive waste are “lined up like a bowling alley” on a site in the flight path of hundreds of planes every day, a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan – and planes do crash, Kraft said.

NEIS is also pressing the Illinois attorney general for independent oversight of the state’s decommissioning fund, generated by charges to ratepayers over the years – especially with the company charged with decommissioning Zion, Energy Solutions, undergoing “extreme financial difficulties” in the past year, Kraft said.

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Category: energy

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2 Responses

  1. I was asked by the United States Department of Energy, to come before their newly set up Blue Ribbon Commission, on America’s nuclear future, I told them of my idea, yet they said it is ours, as it is for our national security, being a Canadian that did not happen, they then asked me to view a pod cast put on by this sub committee, at the end of the podcast a Dr. Parker spoke of what is needed, he was describing my idea without knowing it, I wrote to my go between DoE Director Tim Frazier, and told him my nuclear waste(s) safer storage solution answers all of the related problems, and offers over one million years of storage. I have never heard from them again, as President Obama is using Nuclear Waste as a vote getter. This problem has been solved, and not just the SNF, minning waste, and bomb making waste, as well the idea is for hazardous chemical wastes.

  2. You present very few numbers in your article, and show little awareness of how common radioactivity is in the natural environment.
    Numbers matter – Truth matters

    The contribution of nuclear power plants, and even the consequences of atomic accidents that have occurred since the dawn of the nuclear age, are dwarfed by levels of natural radiation (radioactive background) that surrounds us every day.

    A graph of natural versus man made radiation and effective dose

    It is easy to spread unwarranted fear,
    It is harder, and requires more effort, to be accurate and provide honest evidence.

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