Don Gale: Legislative illiteracy drives Utah nuclear waste bill

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this Monday, Oct. 3, 2016 photo, former Utah Congressman Jim Matheson, an advocate for compensation for the downwind population in Utah affected by cancer speaks at the launch event for “Downwinders of Utah Archive” at the J. Willard Marriott Libray at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The new University of Utah archive about the state’s “downwinders” features oral histories, photographs and newspapers clippings documenting the impact of nuclear testing during the 1950s in Nevada.

The Legislature passed a bill to permit more nuclear waste into Utah. The governor allowed the bill to become law. Both are unfortunate decisions by folks who have little understanding of the consequences.

We are told that radiation from the nuclear trash will not become dangerous for “a million years.” Most legislators and the governor believe the human race won’t be around that long, anyway. And, of course, neither today’s leaders nor those of us who are their constituents will be here to witness the damage when the storage casks start leaking.

Or will we?

Some of us remember when the government and respected scientists assured us that testing nuclear bombs in Nevada posed no danger to Utah citizens. Time, truth and reality proved both the government and scientists wrong.

Radioactive elements showed up in Utah milk. Vegetation wilted. Thousands of Utah citizens became ill or died as a result of those tests. And our government — the same government that assured us testing would be safe — was found guilty in court of misleading us. Taxpayers were forced to pay restitution for thousands of survivors. (For more information, see “We Are All Downwinders” by Michael Gale.)

Taxpayers also spent billions of dollars to build a storage space in Nevada in order to safely handle the same nuclear waste Utah lawmakers agreed to accept — storage space deep under ground, storage space infinitely more safe than stacking barrels in the West Desert of Utah.

Nevada citizens, through their Legislature, rejected the plan to bring this dangerous waste into their state. (Ironically, nuclear waste will be much more dangerous to Nevada citizens when it is sitting out in the Utah desert than it would have been in Nevada’s well-planned and well-constructed underground storage facility.)

Once again, Utah citizens were treated as gullible guppies — this time not by the federal government but by our own legislators and our own governor. Apparently, illiteracy about history and science runs rampant on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

No one knows for sure what will happen to that accumulated nuclear waste stored not far from the population centers of Utah. No one. The only way to find out what will happen over the long term is to wait. We won’t be around to verify the results. But our children will be here. Our grandchildren will be here. Our great grandchildren will be here.

Unlike the victims of nuclear weapons testing, it is not the deciders who will be affected; it’s their progeny.

To imagine that nuclear waste materials will sit patiently dormant for a million years before they start producing dangerous isotopes is a fool’s paradigm. And to think that metal storage casks — no matter how well engineered — can survive more than a few decades of desert heat, rain, snow, wind and shifting earth is a utopian dream.

Sadly, there isn’t much we can do about it now. Perhaps a more enlightened Legislature will correct the dangerous mistake before too much waste accumulates. Perhaps. Perhaps a future court will prove to be as perceptive and compassionate as the court that settled downwinders’ claims decades ago. Perhaps wise scientists will find ways to reprocess growing piles of nuclear waste to make it harmless. Perhaps sensible national leaders will restore the nation’s commitment to rational storage of nuclear waste. Perhaps.

In the meantime, those of us who live in Utah should never allow this potential disaster to be forgotten. We are not guinea pigs. And we are not mindless. We must not forget. And we must not forgive.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, a long-time Utah journalist, lived in Utah when the bombs exploded in Nevada. He survived. Some of his friends did not.