It Ain’t Sustainable – Part 1

When we think of being healthy, most of us understand that we need to eat well and exercise.  We also understand that we need to stop doing things that are unhealthy, like smoking and eating fast food.  It is the same with sustainability; by eliminating things we do that are not sustainable, we can approach a more sustainable life that will ensure a future for our children and the generations that follow.  By definition, things that are not sustainable are things that simply cannot go on much longer.  They do not make sense economically or ecologically.

We constantly do things as Americans that are not sustainable.  When I say as Americans, I mean us, collectively.  Americans use 25% of the world’s resources yet we are only 6% of the population.  We are the equivalent of someone that is obese and still consumes 4 times the amount of food we actually need.   Many of us do things individually to feel more responsible like recycling bottles and cans, or replacing our light bulbs with more efficient ones.  Yet, we are losing the fight to stop pollution and the irresponsible use of fossil fuels that will eventually destroy much of the life on Earth.

My goal here is to raise awareness about major facets of American life that are not sustainable, are directly harmful to the planet, and could be eliminated if we had the political will to tackle the problems.  The space here is far too small to address all these problems.  So, in this column, I want to focus on Nuclear Energy.  “What!?” some of you are exclaiming, but nuclear energy is being touted as an answer to our energy problems, a clean panacea for our climate change woes.  For those of you that have been led to believe that, I have one word, FUKUSHIMA.  You might argue that the ongoing disaster was caused by a huge earthquake and massive tsunami; and you would be right.  Unfortunately, that does not change the fact that we have over 100 nuclear reactors that are built to the similar specifications; and 23 of them are the exact same GE-designed Mark I reactors that have melted down in Japan.  Most of these reactors are outdated and in need of trillions of dollars of work to bring them up to par.  Many of them are built near fault lines and on the ocean like those at Fukushima.

Besides outmoded technology, worn and corroded hardware and bad design flaws, all these reactors have something else that represents a present and growing danger most people are not aware of, spent fuel rods.   According to the Institute for Policy Studies as of May 2011:

“U.S. reactors have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel, of which 75 percent is stored in pools …  Spent fuel rods give off about 1 million rems of radiation per hour at a distance of one foot — enough radiation to kill people in a matter of seconds. There are more than 30 million such rods in U.S. spent fuel pools.  No other nation has generated this much radioactivity from either nuclear power or nuclear weapons production.”

“For nearly 30 years, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) waste-storage requirements have remained contingent on the opening of a permanent waste repository that has yet to materialize. Now that the Obama administration has cancelled plans to build a permanent, deep disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, spent fuel at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors will continue to accumulate and are likely [to]remain onsite for decades to come.”

Many of our reactors contain more spent fuel than the Fukushima complex.  Most of the pools were not designed to be permanent.  Many reactors are storing 3 or 4 times the spent fuel they were designed to hold.  Over 66 incidents of significant loss of spent fuel cooling water has occurred over the last 30 years.  We generate over 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste a year.  A major “accident” or terrorist attack could render large areas of our country uninhabitable.

I hope readers are starting to understand the risks involved with nuclear power and the challenges these power plants are creating for Americans.  Most of what I have presented here addresses the general threats that nuclear power presents to us.  As in most cases, the “devil is in the details.”  I will present more details in “It Aint Sustainable – Part 2”.  Until then, give it some thought.

Doug Bennett is local talk show host on KKRN, 88.5 FM; community organizer; and retired general contractor.

Comment Policy: We welcome your comments, with some caveats: Please keep your comments positive and civilized. If your comment is critical, please make it constructive. If your comment is rude, we will delete it. If you are constantly negative or a general pest, troll, or hater, we will ban you from the site forever. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Comments are disabled on articles older than 90 days. Thank you. Carry on.

14 Responses

  1. Randall R Smith Randall R Smith says:

    Faust would know no better bargain with the Devil than today's nuclear waste. Our policy against the Persians makes us only among the world's most significant hypocrites. Keep telling it like it is even though nothing will be done. It is nice to have a paper trail.

  2. Avatar Pamela says:

    Thank you Doug for speaking out about this issue, and I will look forward to your next Part in the series. I just read about Hanford Nuclear Power site in Washington state leaking, again, still. We forget the Nuclear Power is NOT clean energy, especially when you analyze the whole process–the toxic, radioactive waste is huge. What do we do with something we can't get rid of? Do we just continue to manufacture it? That is madness.

  3. Avatar Robb says:

    Outstanding and sobering. The only problem with this article is that it may not be read and taken seriously by the people who most need to see it. I'm sharing this link right now.

    • Good point. That's the beauty of online. Link, link, link.

    • Avatar Doug Bennett says:

      That's is the beauty and democracy of the Internet at work. As Doni points out, "Link, Link, Link." The Fukushima story was forgotten when Obama decided to support regime change in Libya. Our news attention spans are very short, and we, as Americans seem easily distracted by military actions. So, thanks for helping disseminate important information.

  4. Avatar Terry says:

    It sounds so much better to call it "spent fuel" than radioactive waste, doesn't it? (It's one way to confuse the issue without technically lying to us.)

    Thank you for a powerful discussion of a terrifying issue. I think Chernobyl should have taught us…but no. We need truly clean energy, not something that could make large areas of our country uninhabitable!

  5. Avatar Jim says:

    This is one of those really serious issues that is not on most people's radar. Thanks for bringing it into the spotlight.

    It is a sad commentary on collective mental illness that we even consider, much less use, a method of energy production wherein 1. we have no idea how to safely dispose of the the waste product and 2. wherein an "accident" does (inevitably) happen, its a disaster.

    And our attention spans are not only alarmingly brief, but negative hallucination is also common when convenient… What nuclear fall-out?

    Keep telling the truth, brother!

  6. Avatar Divan Fard says:

    Excellent article, I really enjoyed reading it.

    I would like to add the following:

    Analysis of the spent nuclear fuel has indicated that, there are highly radioactive wastes such as plutonium, neptunium, americium, curium and several radioactive fission products. The half-life of plutonium (Pu-239) is 24000 years. General rule of thumb is that it takes 10 half-lives for a radioactive material to decay to its daughter material. Many of the daughter material are still radioactive and they will go through their own decay cycle. Even if we assume that all daughter materials resulting from decay of plutonium is non-radioactive. It takes 240,000 years for plutonium to completely decay. This simply means that during the last 70 years we have produced a mess that our future generations, and other forms of life on earth, have to worry and suffer at least 240,000 years.

    This is of course extreme simplifications, in reality, calculations show that the Highly Reactive Nuclear Waste we have generated is going to last for millions of years. Should we ask ourselves what give us the right to ruin the life of future generations and other forms of life on earth, for such a long time ?

    Chemistry Instructor

    Shasta College

    Former scientist, Hanford Nuclear Reservation ( 1997-2000)

  7. Avatar Randy says:

    "what give us the right to ruin the life of future generations and other forms of life on earth,"

    A question every voting American should be forced to address.

  8. Avatar rockney compton says:


    Great article full of facts.

    The popular noun of the 60's, in reference to over-zealous cops comes to mind in describing the US consumer society.

    For those of us familiar with the nature of pigs when it's feeding time, the similarities between the culture of consumerism and 'hogs at the trough' are remarkable.

    In the pig kingdom, typically the biggest fattest pig will control a good portion of the trough, ramming, rooting, and squealing, to control as much territory as physically possible. In the feeding frenzy it is typical for hogs to place their feces covered feet in the feeding trough to get closer to the food. Often much of the food is scattered and trampled into the dirt before being consumed, so the frantic scramble for food is also wasteful.

    It's not uncommon for a sow, shortly after giving birth, to systematically eat her young. Which begs the question, how many soldiers and civilians have been sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan? and how many politicians have financial ties to the 'defense' industry?

  9. Avatar D. Nethery says:

    Powerful article. I was in Newport, Oregon last year, and saw the dock and other items, washed over from Japan. I don't care how many "scientists" tell me that seafood is still

    safe to eat….I do not eat it anymore. We have been lied to, too many times.

  10. Avatar Annie says:

    Thank you for this new series and for educating us!