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Can we bear the legacy costs of industrial society's toxic pollution?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stunned the nuclear industry last week by putting power plant licensing decisions on hold while it reconsiders rules on nuclear waste storage struck down by a federal appeals court in June. At issue is the NRC's 2010 ruling that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored on a plant site for 60 years after the closing of the plant. The question is whether that ruling will withstand the scrutiny inherent in a full environmental impact statement that the court says is required by law.

The issue is part of the much larger and troubling question about the legacy costs--economic, social and environmental--of toxic industrial pollution that are mounting with each day. We'd like to think that we can simply take our industrial wastes and throw them away somewhere. But increasingly, in what economist Herman Daly calls our "full world," (PDF) there is no "away." Hazardous wastes that we thought we could safely sequester deep in the Earth via injection wells are already coming back to haunt us.

If wells drilled to date for hazardous waste disposal are already poisoning drinking water, what will be the consequences of drilling hundreds of thousands of additional oil and natural gas wells around the world into newly accessible shale deposits--a process that involves injecting millions of gallons of toxic, chemically-laced water into each well to fracture the shale and thereby gain access to the hydrocarbons? The evidence is not reassuring. And, in any case, the well casings, which are meant to protect seepage into groundwater, will in the long run (hundreds of years) simply deteriorate. Those of us alive today will be long gone when our descendents must deal with widespread groundwater pollution that may render many places around the world uninhabitable.

But even if we believe that our modern technical society will survive the effects of climate change and resource depletion, the legacy costs of cleaning up our drinking water, both in terms of energy and money, are likely to outweigh by far the seeming benefits we are currently getting from drilling deep shale layers for oil and natural gas. The legacy costs associated with storing and guarding nuclear waste may continue for thousands and even tens of thousands of years, a period potentially much longer than the entire span from the beginning of agriculture and settled life to today. In that period, many civilizations have come and gone. Do we really expect ours to maintain its stability for tens of thousands of years?

The answer is that we almost never think in these terms. We are now engaged in a dangerous and morally bankrupt can-kicking exercise, hoping to put off the worst effects our waste-handling practices until we are gone and someone else has to deal with the problems we've created. A friend once related that a scientist she knows said that more than climate change, more than population growth, and more than resource depletion, he fears the toxic wastes we've dumped into the environment and those which are still stored at industrial sites including nuclear power plants. He said these wastes have the potential to do more damage to life on earth than all other hazards combined.

While that assessment may or may not be correct, it does offer a perspective that would be useful for us to ponder. What if we survive as a species far into the future, but lack the means--financial, technical, or organizational--to contain those wastes? Given our record to date, that question by itself should caution against an optimistic assessment of whether we can bear the legacy costs of industrial society's toxic pollution.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.


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