GEO: How has intensive human activity marked, transmuted, destabilized and harmed this setting? What levels of lead and other metals are in the soil? Where are hazardous waste stored?

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James Adams's picture
April 23, 2019

Climbing this "disposal" cell was the main event of our guided tour of the Weldon Spring's Interpretive Center. It represents the "finished product" of the toxic waste clean up project and Legacy Management site. Engineered and constructed with 8 layers of strategically chosen materials, the cell is expected to "deter the migration of [its] contaminants" for up to 1000 years. Thus, it is really more of a storage cell than a disposal cell...

Some of the questions coming from our group concerned the criteria of assessment used to determine the cell's long term durability and functionality. For instance, the cell was designed to control and treat leachate--water that has become contaminated from seeping through the cell--but this capacity has its limits. Though the cell has been designed to handle well-over the historical record of rainfall in the area, climate change has rendered history an ineffective means of predicting the severity of weather in the future.

Another concern is the transfer of knowledge about the cell and its toxic contents. How do we make sure no one opens it up (or blows it up) over the course of 1000 years? The strategy of the DOE is to monitor the cell by testing the local area for contaminants, maintaining strict military surveillance over the area, and by using the interpretive center to educate tourists and the local community about the cell, i.e. Legacy Management. But the US federal government's (or any institution's) ability to keep this up for 1000 years is obviously questionable, at the very best. What is certain here is that, by managing nuclear waste, with its inhuman time scales and the correlate amplification of complexity, we are venturing into uncharted waters. The DOE wants to create the impression that everything is under control and it may be, for the time being. It is also reasonable to take pains not to incite widespread fear and panic. But it is similarly important to recognize that we, in this moment, simply cannot be in control over 1000 years of possibility.