The Troubling Legacy of Atomic Weapons and Nuclear Power
October 30, 2013
Lisbeth Gronlund / The Union of Concerned Scientists & Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, but the US still maintains some 4,500 nuclear weapons -- each able to destroy much of a large city. Hundreds of these weapons are kept on hair-trigger alert. Meanwhile, thanks to America's dependence on nuclear power, some 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel are being temporarily stashed at power plants across the country. Illinois is America's biggest nuclear dump, storing 13 percent of this toxic and potentially deadly radioactive waste.
Our Cold War Leftovers
Lisbeth Gronlund / Catalyst, The Union of Concerned Scientists
(Fall Issue: October 29, 2013) -- Lisbeth Gronlund, senior scientist and co-director of the UCS Global Security Program, discusses the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons and what the organization is doing about it.
UCS states that nuclear weapons are more of a liability to national security than an asset. Why?
LG: The cold war ended more than 20 years ago, but the United States still maintains some 4,500 weapons in its arsenal. Just one of these could destroy much of a large city, while a few hundred would be enough to devastate much of the world.
Many hundreds of these weapons are kept on high alert so they can be launched within minutes of a Russian attack. In turn, this practice encourages Russia to keep its missiles on high alert. This launch-on-warning policy could lead to an accidental or unauthorized launch, or a launch in response to a false alarm.
We are continuing to risk everything by clinging to this cold war policy. And nuclear weapons do nothing to prevent terrorist attacks, which are a significant threat to US security today.
What is the near-term likelihood of any further reductions in the US stockpile of nuclear weapons?
LG: A Pentagon study concluded that the United States could reduce its deployed long-range weapons to roughly 1,000 while maintaining a robust deterrent, and President Obama has stated that he will seek such reductions in conjunction with Russia. But Russia appears hesitant, in part because it is worried about US missile defenses.
The United States doesn't need to wait for Russian action -- it can easily cut its arsenal to a total of 1,000 weapons (deployed and reserve, long-range and short-range) while maintaining an effective deterrent, and UCS is working to gain congressional and administration support for a unilateral reduction. Continuing to maintain more nuclear weapons than necessary is not only unwise, it's a waste of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.
Federal officials argue that the country's nuclear weapons are nearing the end of their "useful lifetime." What does that mean?
LG: As weapons age, some parts degrade and need to be replaced. The administration, however, is seeking to replace the current arsenal by building five new types of weapons, which would undercut the US commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States should instead extend the life of existing weapons without making major modifications.
In our new report, Making Smart Security Choices: The Future of the US Nuclear Weapons Complex [online at www.ucsusa.org/smartnuclearchoices], UCS calls for increased funding to monitor the US arsenal. Gaining a better understanding of how existing weapons are aging would be a wiser investment than building new ones.
Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund focuses on technical issues related to US nuclear weapons policy, and new nuclear weapons, space weapons, and ballistic missile defenses. She has authored numerous articles and reports, lectured on nuclear arms control and missile defense policy issues before lay and expert audiences, and testified before Congress.
Illinois: America's Biggest Nuclear Dump Site
Lindsay Abrams / Salon.com
(October 28, 2013) -- Despite its dependence on nuclear power plants to generate about a fifth of the nation's energy, the United States never decided on a coherent plan for what, exactly, it should do with its radioactive waste.
As a result, Bloomberg reports, some 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel are being temporarily stashed at the plants that produced them.
That makes Illinois, which has more reactors than any other state, America's biggest nuclear dump site. The state is currently storing 13 percent of the country's radioactive waste.
Following closely behind are Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York. Inadvertently and without their consent, experts said, the states "have become de facto major radioactive waste-management operations."
The lack of a long-term solution (as in, long enough to cover the thousands of years radioactive material takes to decay) is both unsafe and expensive, according to Bloomberg:
Since 1998, the US government has been required by law to remove nuclear waste from plants and haul it to a secure disposal site -- though it hasn't because none has been built. Congress in 1987 designated one for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a project that President Barack Obama's administration cut funding for in 2010 at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
In the meantime, utilities and other power providers have sued the US almost 80 times to recover their storage costs, winning $2 billion in judgments and settlements. Taxpayers may be forced to pay as much as $20.8 billion by 2020 as the liability grows, according to a report last year from a commission Obama created to study waste-storage options.
Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email email@example.com.
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