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Bury Our Nuclear Waste — Before It Buries Us

Op-Ed, TIME /

August 15, 2011

Author: Eben Harrell, Former Associate, Project on Managing the Atom April 2013–June 2015; Former Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, July 2011–June 2015

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Managing the Atom


Some 2 billion years ago, a natural-uranium deposit deep underground in what is now the west-central African country of Gabon spontaneously went critical. In the only known case of a nuclear-fission reactor forming naturally on earth, the Gabon deposit fissioned just like a modern-day power plant. As well as generating a substantial amount of heat, the uranium also produced a huge quantity of radioactive waste products, including around four tons of plutonium. Because this naturally occurring nuclear waste was buried deep underground, it remained remarkably well confined as it decayed over the course of millennia.

Unfortunately, nature did a much better job of handling the by-products of nuclear power than we have. Last Friday, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which was set up by President Obama in 2010 to determine how the U.S. should handle nuclear waste, issued a draft report, and the verdict was not good. There are some 65,000 tons of nuclear waste now in temporary storage throughout the U.S., but in 2009, the President halted work on a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, following years of controversy and legal wrangling. Few people in Nevada or elsewhere doubt the need for a safe and enduring place to stash radioactive debris, but no one wants it close to home. As it stands now, the Blue Ribbon Commission's draft report concludes that the nuclear-waste-management program in the U.S. is "all but completely broken down."

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For Academic Citation:

"Bury Our Nuclear Waste — Before It Buries Us." TIME /, August 15, 2011.

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