Plastic Bags, Nuclear Waste and a Toxic Planet

Last week we saw California move a step closer to banning one-time-use plastic bags and the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission legalize above-ground storage of nuclear waste. What's the connection? Every once in a while I think it is useful to turn aside from the deeply rooted, but relatively straightforward problem of climate change, to the growing use of uncontrolled toxic substances in our daily economic life. The toxicity of our environment may well be more difficult to address than the problem of climate change. The use of toxics in the goods we consume is so widespread that when firefighters enter a modern home that is burning, they must wear breathing devices for protection from the toxicity of the fumes that emanate from our burning floors, appliances, and walls. Household toxics are dangerous, but nothing compared to nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is one of the most toxic substances we have ever fabricated, always bringing to mind the late Barry Commoner's common sense statement that nuclear power was a "hell of a complicated way to boil water."

Starting with the positive, let's look to California, where sustainability is hardwired into the political culture. While many localities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have already banned one-time use plastic bags, this new law would be the first statewide regulation of these packages. The bill phases in the ban, allows stores to charge ten cents for paper or reusable plastic bags, and provides state funding for bag manufacturers to retool to make the heavier-duty reusable bags. According to Californians Against Waste, the environmental group promoting the ban: "In California, 13 billion plastic bags are distributed annually, and only 3% are recycled."

These bags are an integral component of our throwaway lifestyle, and create major waste management and litter problems throughout the nation. Lightweight plastic bags can be found in the ocean, in trees, and just about everywhere. They are filling up landfills at a rapid rate. We managed to live without them before they were introduced in the 1970s and we'll probably survive after they are gone; assuming California Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill and California begins yet another national environmental trend.

While we see progress on the coast, we remain mired in toxic waste back in the nation's capital. The problem is that our broken political process is incapable of dealing with the nuclear waste that is accumulating at the nation's civilian nuclear power plants. Over three decades and many billions of dollars ago, we enacted the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Taxes have been collected for years on all the nuclear energy generated for civilian use, and a multi-billion dollar underground repository was built at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Once Yucca Mountain's repository was completed, every Senator ever elected to office in Nevada has opposed opening it. Why? Because the sudden image of half a century's worth of nuclear waste, all heading to the same spot in Nevada scared the living daylights out of anyone living anywhere near the repository. It was the Not In My Backyard Syndrome (NIMBY) on steroids.

The problem with not opening the waste repository is that for decades, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assumed that some day the repository would open. As reported by Matthew Wald in the New York Times:

For decades the commission has allowed nuclear plants to operate under what it called its waste confidence rule, which said that although there was no repository, there would most likely be one by the time it was needed, and in the interim, the storage of the highly radioactive waste in spent fuel pools or in dry casks would suffice. But in June 2012, a court ruled that the commission had not done its homework in studying whether the waste could be stored on an interim basis. As a result, the commission froze much of its licensing activity two years ago.

In order to allow plants to be licensed again, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided that nuclear waste could now be stored indefinitely in well-guarded and well-maintained above ground storage facilities. Scientists estimate that some nuclear waste will remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, one of the reasons for below ground storage was the likelihood that the repository would last longer than our current civilization.

Many of my climate change-oriented colleagues argue that nuclear power is a realistic and desirable replacement for fossil fuels. But any close look at the technical and political problems of nuclear waste should provide ample reason to look elsewhere for a solution to our energy needs.

As our experience with everything from plastic bags to nuclear waste should indicate, we are much better at developing and utilizing new technologies than in managing their adverse impacts. The massive and growing problem of electronic waste provides another example of this issue. Every year a new smart phone comes out with new features we are all convinced we cannot live without: "How did I ever find a place we were visiting before the invention of GPS?" "How did I ever make a social appointment before text messaging?" The problem is every year or two the old phone is decreed obsolete and ready for the scrap heap. Unfortunately, when we toss the phone in the landfill or burn it in the waste-to-energy plant, we expose our ecosystems to the toxics inside the phone. We could develop a management system to recycle and manage the waste stream. We could also develop personal electronics that are less toxic. In fact we are starting to reduce and better manage our electronic waste, but enormous quantities of toxics have already been released into the environment.

Our economy is filled with a range of substances and products that have been engineered without much thought given to long term environmental impacts. Our houses and fences were once made of wood, a fairly traditional and very biodegradable material that literally grows on trees. Today vinyl and other plastics that last longer and are easier to maintain have replaced wood in homes all over America. Many of our consumer products are far from biodegradable; some include toxics and many are designed for planned obsolescence. These ordinary, mundane products are entering our waste stream and finding their way into fragile, interconnected ecosystems all over the planet. Sometimes the impact is minor, sometimes it is significant, but generally it is unexamined, careless and casual.

From ordinary plastic bags to extraordinary pools of nuclear waste, we have unleashed a staggering array of poisons into the same ecosystems that feed us and provide us with other biological necessities such as air and water. In some cases, such as nuclear waste, we have heard decades of discussion and debate about risks, costs and benefits. However in most cases, we are either ignorant or barely aware of the impacts and potential risks. In America today many consider it wrong to question the safety of a product. Regulation is somehow unpatriotic and anti-business. Medical technology is keeping us healthier and keeping us alive longer; so what's the problem? The problem is that the impact of some toxics can be irreversible and the last time I looked, we still only have one planet and we should try to keep it alive. We need to do a better job of reducing our use of dangerous materials and technologies and if we choose to use this stuff, we need to regulate it fully from cradle to grave. Let's see what we can do to prevent billions of plastic bags from floating in the breeze and even one nuclear waste site from leaking radioactive materials into our water supply.