Pearl Harbor’s Nuclear Waste

By: Trustee Rowena Akana

Source: Star Bulletin Viewpoint, October 15, 1993

And Pearl Harbor joins the undistinguished list of sites where the U.S. government will be “temporarily storing” radioactive nuclear waste.

Apparently the government and ecology of Idaho have tired from almost half a century of temporary storage duties.

No wonder.

This spent nuclear fuel–from Navy vessels, Energy Department reactors and assorted private power plants–has a half-life of perhaps 25,000 years.

For the past 40 years, spent nuclear fuel generated by Navy warships has been shipped by rail to a sprawling Department of Energy (DOE) complex in eastern Idaho. The complex reprocessed the spent fuel into a solid form so it could be stored permanently.

The problem is the DOE has no plan in place for the removal or disposal of the solidified waste. Idaho became the Navyís de facto dumping ground, until Idaho sued the DOE.

Now the DOE must find alternatives. It thinks Pear Harbor could be one of them.

Unless you say otherwise.

Pearl Harbor is the least suitable shipyard to receive and process spent nuclear fuel. The harbor spills into the waters surrounding the islandís most popular tourist destination, Waikiki. The waters sustain a fragile ecosystem that sustains the diets of most Hawaiians. The harbor itself abuts the eleventh largest population center in the U.S.

The Pearl Harbor shipyard already holds two large casks of high-level radioactive waste in a fenced area between dry-docks 2 and 3, according to a monthly environmental newsletter.

Pearl Harbor’s share of unclassified radioactive solid waste, not counting this reactor waste, came to 2,792 cubic feet. Before 1970, these wastes were dumped at sea. Now the waste is not dumped, intentionally.

“In 1983, an ‘inadvertent release’ of radioactive water occurred at Pearl Harbor, apparently while the submarine USS Sargo was being serviced at the shipyard,” according to Environment Hawai’i.

As of 1991, about 18 submarines have been based at Pearl Harbor. When the Navy stopped dumping their waste, the waste didn’t go away. It just piled up.

This is why the government is looking for a permanent site to store it.

Under the agreement with the state of Idaho and the Department of Energy, the Navy will prepare an environmental assessment–to be released in June 1994–for its storage of high-level radioactive waste at Pearl Harbor.

We should consider whether the price of national security is worth the costs of accepting nuclear waste. Protection by a nuclear propelled fleet now seems less important than protection from that fleet. Defunct Russian submarine vessels now imperil the health of shipyard communities with ill-maintained reactor cores and storage facilities.

The U.S. Navy maintains its safety record is the best in the world; that if Hawai’i doesn’t want high-paying jobs, some other state would be more than happy to take the work; that national security permits no alternatives. While these claims hold merit, close scrutiny strips them of their reassuring tones.

The U.S. Navy maintains U.S. and Hawaiian soil is relatively safe from Russian-sized ecological disasters. But they are happening, if on a more limited, less visible scale. In all likelihood, the vast desert plains near Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Hanford, Washington, will never be available for human use. The aquifer underlying the Idaho facility is already tainted with radioactivity. Communities miles away from Hanford learned from local newspapers how levels of several radioactive elements skyrocketed in their aquifer stores.

Efforts to clean up these and a score of other nuclear waste dumps across America will siphon billions of dollars from the federal budget for decades.

“My state knows better than any other what a folly the federal government has perpetrated with its failure to comply with environmental laws and properly handle nuclear waste,î Idaho gov. Cecil Andrus told a U.S. Senate committee recently. ìIdahoans have always been told that the storage of millions of cubic yards of nuclear waste at the INEL would be ëtemporary storage,í it means a nuclear half-life of perhaps 25,000 years.î

With all of Hawaiiís economic woes, the last thing our economy needs is an accident waiting to happen.

A permanent or even temporary storage site for spent nuclear fuel is just that sort of accident.

Tell the government how you feel about storing spent nuclear fuel here. Write Rob S. Rothman, ER & WM EIS Project Manager, U.S. Department of Energy, Idaho Operations Office, P.O. Box 1625, Idaho Falls, Idaho 83415-1570.