On March 26, 1999, a convoy of trucks carrying waste from the Los Alamos nuclear weapons development facility in Albuquerque, arrived at a cluster of warehouses in the New Mexico desert south of Carlsbad. The truck drivers handed their paperwork to the security guard at the gate, who gave a nod and waved them through. The trucks rolled to a halt beneath a gantry where their cargo was hoist to the ground; these ‘casks’ were then lowered down a colossal mineshaft into the belly of an ancient 900m deep salt basin to waiting flatbed trucks which transported them into the first of 56 repositories, each 100m long. Once filled, these caverns would be individually sealed in 13 layers of soil and concrete with primeval salt left to ‘seep’ into any cracks, thereby entombing the toxic waste for the next 10,000 years. It was the culmination of a scheme hatched in 1957 that had troubled the conscience of an entire politico-scientific generation. To assuage their fears, twenty five years of continuous, exhaustive safety testing preceded this auspicious day, and by 2010 the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico was in full operation, having interred more than 9,200 casks of nuclear filth.
Fifteen years later, on February 5, 2014, there was an ‘incident’ at the facility. A truck caught fire, and the underground facility was evacuated, but management kept all the aboveground workers on site, sure they were safe, but air monitors on the surface detected airborne radiation half a mile away. At least 21 workers were exposed, and eleven days later authorities confirmed that 11 of the workers tested positive for radiation exposure, a number they later officially amended to 17. They sacked the manager and issued a press release. A Department of Energy spokesperson said he was disappointed at the lack of a ‘safety culture’ at the facility, and pointed the finger at contracted labor. An investigation revealed that workers at the Los Alamos facility packed one of the casks with organic kitty litter instead of clay kitty litter, causing a small explosion, radiation escaping to the surface via ventilation shafts. Crisis resolved, the facility will continues to accept waste for another 25 years and then close forever (or at least for the next 10,000 years). So, how to warn people in the future not to plant their shovels into this particular patch of dirt?
Here’s where this got interesting for me. For the last thirty-five years, the US government has been working with (and I quote) “linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, materials scientists, science fiction writers and futurists” to devise a foolproof warning system for ‘future humans’ which would include a physical barrier comprised of a 6km square structure of granite pillars and earthen walls that is likely to rival the pyramids of Egypt. Etched into the 8m tall granite pillars will be warnings in seven languages and, in case something really bad happens, pictograms thought to capture the essence of human horror. For that, from all of the annals of recorded human history, they picked Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’. How apt. I wonder how many of the irradiated workers felt like screaming.
But one day WIPP will be full to capacity, and all of the other (hundreds) of 60’s era dumping grounds across continental North America will begin to leak. They’ll need a fresh dumping ground, far away from American voters. And where (dear reader) do you think that might be?
Barndioota Station in the arid north of South Australia has as much going for it as the deserts south of Carlsbad, New Mexico. That is to say, a lot, if you’re looking for a geologically stable place to dig a very deep hole. Except that on this occasion they want to dig the hole in a nation without a nuclear footprint of its own. No nuclear weapons, only one tiny reactor, virtually no scientific radiological spoor at all. Yet this nation of gullible asshats is being asked to warehouse all of the intermediate and high-level radioactive waste produced by THE ENTIRE WORLD.
Just fuc*ing think about that.
The carrot at the end of the stick for cash-strapped South Oz is something like $120-billion dollars. In what would have to be the most lucrative babysitting gig ever, Oz gets stuck with toxic brats from every hut of the global village from here until eternity. But hey, it’s only South Australia, right? Out of global sight, out of global mind. The British shipped their nuclear test-weapons to South Australia and blew the shit out of Maralinga, so why not NOT learn from our mistakes, and keep it coming. Sometimes we croweaters would experience the aurora australis if conditions were just right, but soon enough the southern sky will glow permanently green, and all of my relatives in Adelaide will start growing an extra head. It’s enough to make even the Silver Surfer weep, and he has witnessed the deaths of stars.