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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.

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Petition: Close Dresden, Quad Cities nukes

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering an emergency petition from watchdog groups to shut down reactors at Dresden and Quad Cities along with other U.S. reactors with the same design as plants that have melted down in Fukushima, Japan.

It’s rare that the agency decides to investigate such petitions, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service of Chicago, which joined the petition filed by Beyond Nuclear, a national organization. “They couldn’t ignore Fukushima,” he said.

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