First appeared in Nuclear Guardianship Forum, #1, Spring 1992.
What will we do with our nuclear waste? For fifty years we have been producing it in the millions of metric tons, from uranium tailings at one end of the fuel cycle to irradiated fuel rods at the other, and we are still looking for ways to get rid of the stuff. We want to get rid of it because we know how lethal and long-lasting it is, with radioactivity that can cripple and kill for thousands of generations.
Naturally enough, we would like to make it disappear - for our own sakes and for the sake of future life on Earth. As a protester's sign outside the German waste repository demanded: "No nuclear waste here - or anywhere!"
NO FINAL SOLUTION
The desire to wish the stuff away seems equally evident in government policies. Since the seriously considered notions of injecting it into the seabed or firing it off into the sun are not yet technically or economically feasible, official plans center on burying it deep within the Earth or, in the case of so-called low-level waste, dumping it in remote, desert places. The trouble is, we are learning, the radioactivity will not stay put. Corroding its containers, it leaks and spreads its contamination through fissures and water, through soil, wind, and migrating animals.
Still we want to be able to dispose of the stuff, to get it off our hands once and for all. We seek a final solution that will allow us to walk away and forget about it, just as we have done with all our garbage for generations. Such a final solution would encourage us to go on producing and using radioactive materials. Without such a solution, our whole nuclear endeavor is called into question.
To pursue the dream of final disposal is to chase after fantasy, for no container humans have contrived can outlast its radioactive contents. As we face that fact, we begin to recognize the almost mythic character of our nuclear legacy: no technology by itself can banish it, and when we attempt to hide it (or hide from it), the radioactivity spreads beyond our control. There is a familiar ring to this, for in our personal lives it is also the case that any aspect of ourselves which we disown and seek to hide can contaminate our whole inner landscape, and our relationships with others and the world. We can find an appropriate response, however, when we acknowledge our predicament with a measure of humility.
We can contain the radioactivity if we pay attention to it. That act of attention may be the last thing we want to do, but it is the one act that is required. And increasing numbers of citizens and scientists are recognizing today that the only realistic, viable response to nuclear waste is ongoing, on-site monitored storage - keeping waste containment visible and accessible for monitoring and repair by present and future generations.
While they will surely improve through time, our current technologies are adequate for such attentive containment. We can do it: we can learn now to guard our radioactive legacy, and pass on to our progeny the skills and tools for continuing guardianship. The only thing we cannot do is create a technology that will substitute for human will and human caring.
Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of general systems theory, Buddhism and environmental ethics, teaching at the Graduate Theological Union and the California Institute of Integral Studies. Her books include Despair and personal power in the nuclear Age, and World as Lover, World as Self. She is a founding member of the Nuclear Guardianship Project.
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