Anyone who has ever driven much through the desert has likely encountered a tumbleweed. Actually living in the desert as I used to do meant they were a constant hazard. But the desert where I lived, “hazard” didn’t just mean potentially running into them while driving on the highway. I mean they were a legit threat to give me radiation poisoning.
When I tell people I used to live in Washington State, their first reaction is almost predictably “It’s beautiful there, but man it rains a lot”. Sure does…on the west side of the mountains. I, however, lived in the Tri-Cities, a community of four cities (yes, four) east of the mountains whose climate is considered “high desert”. We had most of the usual desert-related bonuses: 300 plus days of sunshine, beautiful weather most of the year with very little snow in the winter, etc. We also had a lot of the usual hazards: dust storms, rattlesnakes (I saw one while walking during my lunch break…I named him ‘Bitey’), debilitating temperature fluctuations. And the aforementioned tumbleweeds. Our dangers were accentuated by the fact that any of the above hazards could be amplified by living near Hanford, one of the largest nuclear cleanup sites in the world.
I did not work every day at Hanford. I did, however, have a job that regularly required me to visit there. I was tasked with surprise audit visits to people who would often be dressed like Marty McFly in his radiation suit from Back to the Future. Just driving around the place gives you a sense of the history. It was like a Cold War time capsule in building form. Many of the buildings used in the production of the nuclear weapons arsenal are still standing, although that is quickly changing as the cleanup continues. The unfortunate part is that the legacy will remain for years to come because of the extreme volume of waste generated at the site.
Much of that waste, some of the most dangerously radioactive material on Earth, was (and unfortunately still is) stored in underground drums that have long since surpassed their life expectancy, and…shockingly…have begun to leak. This is bad for many reasons that go beyond potentially turning the desert lizards into Godzilla. First, the site is situated along the Columbia River, one of the most important waterways in the Pacific Northwest. Think how appetizing your salmon would be if it looked like Blinkey the three-eyed fish from the Simpsons. Second, while there are no confirmed sightings of giant mutated lizards, there are in fact confirmed cases of many local plants and animals that have absorbed the radiation and have carried it elsewhere. Sixty years ago, a badger broke into a radioactive salt pit, letting in rabbits, which both proceeded to eat the radioactive salt and subsequently deliver radioactive poop over a 2,000 acre site. Bats, birds, mosquitos, fruit flies (as alerted to us by Dave Barry, who later apologized…which I guess means I am now covering Dave Barry, covering the Seattle Times, covering the Tri-City Herald…), and mice come to mind. And tumbleweeds.
Tumbleweeds are formed from stray Russian thistle plants. Russian thistle, like most plants, absorb minerals and other material from the soil. The thistle plants have an unusually long taproot, allowing them to reach closer to the underground tanks than most other plants. Those growing at Hanford had a notorious habit of absorbing stray radiation. You know, the stray radiation that officials tell us does not exist at Hanford. I met a man whose sole job at Hanford was to collect these tumbleweeds before they left the property. He called himself a “tumbleweed wrangler”. I thought of him as I would pull the tumbleweeds that often got stuck under my car as it was parked in the lot at work. I kept a pair of leather gloves in my car to fish them out because a) they were covered in thorns (thistle…duh), and b) I preferred to not become “Tumbleweed Man” with some bizarre superpowers to terrify children. If Spiderman can shoot webs out of his arms after being bitten by a radioactive spider, I did not wish to find out what would happen after being stabbed by a radioactive tumbleweed thorn. I can only imagine what would have happened had I been bitten by Bitey.
So with all that said, having witnessed firsthand what nuclear waste can do to a piece of land, I cannot be counted among the proponents of nuclear energy. While Hanford was a weapons production site and not necessarily focused on safety of the environment and its workers, nuclear plants create a number of the same inherent problems. Even the safest plants in the world have a potential to turn into Fukushima. Recent news from there has scientists sending robots into the facility to detect the levels of radiation, and returning readings never before seen until the robots themselves melted, T-1000 Terminator style. I suspect that those that do make it back are isolated in case they become Transformers chanting “crush, kill, destroy”. Still, I would say that Radioactive Death Robots would be a cool name for a rock band.
Radiation is actually all around us. Those in construction may be familiar with warning labels on exit signs. You know, those signs that glow even when they aren’t connected to power? Yep, radioactive. That glowing is a radioactive gas called tritium. They must be disposed of in a certain way, and if one breaks, experts must be called in to mitigate it. Smoke detectors? Same deal, but with americium.
Many modern proponents of nuclear fuels point to thorium as the wonder fuel of the future for nuclear power. This is extremely unlikely, at least here in the US. Just type “thorium nuclear” into Google and look at the competing information, even from true scientific journals. The US government through labs at Oak Ridge has been testing thorium as a fuel for years and has spent billions with no feasible outcome. Breakthroughs may continue, but funding has largely stopped (in the US at least). While thorium does produce less waste, it is waste that is considerably more dangerous than that of current uranium reactors, and being U-233, could potentially be turned into weapons. But most importantly, regardless of the inherent safety, you cannot eliminate human error. Human error in the nuclear industry can be disastrous.
As Jeff Goldblum eloquently pointed out, life…uh…finds a way. As does nuclear radiation. No matter how safe you design a reactor, a disaster, whether manmade or natural, can wipe out and deem uninhabitable huge swaths of the Earth. Let Hanford be an example of the dangers we must thoroughly mitigate before we can even consider nuclear energy as an option on a wide scale. No rabbits ever started glowing after exposure to a solar panel.