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Conservation in Mind – Ending the dangers of the atomic age

By Frances Lamberts

This month 75 years ago, the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed almost 200,000, “either instantaneously or over the following weeks and months from injuries or acute radiation sickness,” as the Science journal stated, and “many others developed cancer later.”

Almost as if to remind us of the deadly legacy of the atomic age – from its weapons of mass destruction and its energy sector – early August saw the deadline for public comment, on ongoing work by the Department of Energy at a deep-geologic nuclear-waste repository in New Mexico. At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant there, as the Los Alamos Reporter indicated, it is building a new shaft and expanding the underground-tunnel system, for deposition of more of the long-lived dangerous waste, even before the state’s permit analyses are completed and a new permit issued.

In Onkalo, the State of Finland is building a system in its geologic bedrock to hold the radioactive waste from that country’s nuclear power plants. Completion and sealing of the underground structure is expected to take 120 years. It is to quarantine the highly dangerous materials “in a foolproof manner for 100,000 years,” or as long into the future as the human prehistory of the past, when homo sapiens first left the grasslands of Africa.

In February, an article in the Cancer Investigation journal documented “High cancer risk in US naval personnel serving in nuclear powered ships.” Data from the U.S. Navy and National Cancer Institute, for 2011-2013 and 2011-2016, respectively, revealed a large excess of cancers there, namely nine times higher among the sailors of nuclear-powered navy vessels than in a control group of men with cancer in the total U.S. population.

Many previous studies have documented high cancer rates from exposure to nuclear radiation, such as in workers from nuclear-ship-overhaul shipyards, or in genetic birth defects and childhood leukemia following the Chernobyl disaster. Yet the workers reviewed in the Cancer Institute study, the authors conclude, since being “necessarily closer to the reactors and mostly constrained in a metal ship” are potentially at greater risk.

One might well agree with the sentiment by Admiral Hyman Rickover, in Congressional testimony in 1982, that “the human race is going to wreck itself” in the continuing nuclear arms race, or through radiation effects from nuclear power. As he would “end the evil of nuclear powered ships and sink them all,” so should we adopt benign, non-nuclear energy sources and join the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.