On August 9, 1945, a nuclear bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Within a radius of one mile, destruction was total. People were vaporized so that the only shadows on concrete pavements were left to show where they had been. Many people outside the radius of total destruction were trapped in their collapsed houses, and were burned alive by the fire that followed. By the end of 1945, an estimated 80,000 men, women, young children, babies and old people had died as a result of the bombing. As the years passed more people continued to die from radiation sickness.

Plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had been made at an enormous nuclear reactor station located at Hanford in the state of Washington. During the Cold War, the reactors at Hanford produced enough weapons-usable plutonium for 60,000 nuclear weapons. The continued existence of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium-235 in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons states hangs like a dark cloud over the future of humanity. A full scale thermonulcear war would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe, threatening to make the world permanently uninhabitable.

Besides playing a large role in the tragedy of Nagasaki, the reactor complex at Hanford has damaged the health of many thousands of Americans. The prospects for the future are even worse. Many millions of gallons of radioactive waste are held in Hanford’s aging storage tanks, the majority of which have exceeded their planned lifetimes. The following quotations are taken from a Wikipedia article on Hanford, especially the section devoted to ecoloogical concerns:

“A huge volume of water from the Columbia River was required to dissipate the heat produced by Hanford’s nuclear reactors. From 1944 to 1971, pump systems drew cooling water from the river and, after treating this water for use by the reactors, returned it to the river. Before being released back into the river, the used water was held in large tanks known as retention basins for up to six hours. Longer-lived isotopes were not affected  by this retention, and several tetrabecquerels  entered the river every day. These releases were kept secret by the federal government. Radiation was later measured downstream as far west as the Washington and Oregon coasts.”

“The plutonium separation process also resulted in the release of radioactive isotopes into the air, which were carried by the wind throughout southeastern Washington and into parts of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and British Colombia. Downwinders were exposed to radionuclide’s, particularly  iodine-131…  These radionuclide’s filtered into the food chain via contaminated fields where dairy cows grazed; hazardous fallout was ingested by communities who consumed the radioactive food and drank the milk. Most of these airborne releases were a part of Hanford’s routine operations, while a few of the larger releases occurred in isolated incidents.”

“In response to an article in the Spokane Spokesman Review in September 1985, the Department of Energy announced its intent to declassify environmental records and in February, 1986 released to the public 19,000 pages of previously unavailable historical documents about Hanford’s operations. The Washington State Department of Health collaborated with the citizen-led Hanford Health Information Network (HHIN) to publicize data about the health effects of Hanford’s operations. HHIN reports concluded that residents who lived downwind from Hanford or who used the Columbia River downstream were exposed to elevated doses of radiation that placed them at increased risk for various cancers and other diseases.”

“The most significant challenge at Hanford is stabilizing the 53 million U.S. Gallons (204,000 m3) of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. About a third of these tanks have leaked waste into the soil and groundwater. As of 2008, most of the liquid waste has been transferred to more secure double-shelled tanks; however, 2.8 million U.S. Gallons (10,600 m3) of liquid waste, together with 27 million U.S. gallons (100,000 m3) of salt cake and sludge, remains in the single-shelled tanks.That waste was originally scheduled to be removed by 2018. The revised deadline is 2040. Nearby aquifers contain an estimated 270 billion U.S. Gallons (1 billion m3) of contaminated groundwater as a result of the leaks. As of 2008, 1 million U.S. Gallons (4,000 m3) of highly radioactive waste is traveling through the groundwater toward the Columbia River.”

The documents made public in 1986 revealed that radiation was intentionally and secretly released by the plant and that people living near to it acted as unknowing guinea pigs in experiments testing radiation dangers. Thousands of people who live in the vicinity of the Hanford Site have suffered an array of health problems including thyroid cancers, autoimmune diseases and reproductive disorders that they feel are the direct result of these releases and experiments.

In thinking about the dangers posed by leakage of radioactive waste, we should remember that many of the dangerous radioisotopes involved have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years.  Thus, it is not sufficient to seal them into containers that will last for a century or even a millennium. We must find containers that will last for a hundred thousand years or more, longer than any human structure has ever lasted. This logic has lead Finland to deposit its radioactive waste in a complex of underground tunnels carved out of solid rock. But looking ahead for a hundred thousand years involves other problems: If humans survive for that long, what language will they speak? Certainly not the languages of today. How can we warn them that the complex of tunnels containing radioactive waste is a death trap? The reader is urged to see a film exploring these problems, “Into Eternity”,  by the young Danish film-maker Michael Madsen.

We have already gone a long way towards turning our beautiful planet earth into a nuclear wasteland. In the future, let us be more careful, as guardians of a precious heritage, the natural world and the lives of all future generations.

John Avery is a leader in the Pugwash movement in Denmark.