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What We Know Now

Unintended consequences. Do we wish we knew then what we know now? I encounter the phrases often while investigating environmental and health impacts of the materials that go into consumer products. News this week reminded me why it’s time to retire these crutches, take a close look at history and consider the big picture as we try to solve our biggest environmental problems.

On the campaign trail yesterday Senator John McCain called for more nuclear power, which he calls a “proven energy source that requires exactly zero emissions.” McCain’s goal: forty-five new reactors by 2030 on the way to his desired goal of one hundred new U.S. reactors. (Senator Barack Obama has said he’s not a proponent of nuclear energy, but that it should remain an option in the mix of national energy sources.) No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. in over thirty years. About two dozen U.S. plants are at some stage of shutdown and decommission. Most still have fuel on site. Current estimates for new nuclear plant construction average about $15 billion per plant. This doesn’t include financial and environmental costs of raw materials extraction, safety, and waste disposal.

On the same day as McCain’s proposal, clean-up of over 50 million gallons of nuclear waste stored at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state resumed for the first time since a spill there last July of about a hundred gallons of radioactive and other hazardous waste. About 80 square miles of groundwater are contaminated there, including a mile-plus long plume near the Columbia River containing carcinogenic hexavalent chromium at levels above federal safety standards for aquatic life. The Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River north of New York City has been leaking radioactive tritium and strontium 90 since at least 2005, and nuclear waste stored at the Idaho National Laboratory is seeping towards the Snake River.

Also this week, both McCain and President Bush called for an to end the federal ban on offshore oil drilling, and the President again advocated for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Meanwhile, data just posted by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center indicates that this year’s summer Arctic sea ice loss may be as great as last year’s, the greatest retreat of the Polar Ice Cap yet recorded. Throughout May, Arctic sea ice melted faster than it did during the same period last year, with thinner ice and more polynyas – leads of water – that will accelerate further melting. Melting permafrost on Alaska’s North Slope is already causing problems for drilling operations, pipelines and supporting infrastructure.

Helicopter view of Beaufort Sea ice.

Everything we does has impacts and choices have to be made. But even in tough times, why make choices with known adverse consequences we’re already living with and that will be with us for decades to come?


Elizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health.