Who’s Sacrifice?

On May 6, Safe & Green Campaign co-sponsored an event on nuclear waste. Lissa Weinmann wrote an excellent background piece based on interviews and research, Vermont Yankee-Expert says faster reuse unrealistic amid national waste dilemma and VtDigger covered the May 6 eventMaria Dominguez of BCTV filmed the panel for you to watch & share. What follows are the thoughts of Leslie Sullivan Sachs, Safe & Green member and webmistress.

Listening to Rose Gardner of Eunice, New Mexico share her story reminded me of the stories of people whose racism was transformed once they had a real relationship a person of color. If Rose could only speak, one on one, with those of us living outside reactors, of what it is like to live surrounded by nuclear waste dumps and a uranium processing plant, hearts and minds would change.

We had the opportunity to hear Rose on Saturday when she, Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, and Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network spoke. Brattleboro was the final stop of their tour, “Environmental Racism & Nuclear Waste.” They also spoke in towns close by the Seabrook and Pilgrim reactors and in Montpelier and Greenfield, MA.

Rose is a resident of Eunice, a 3,000 person town just across the border from Andrews County, Texas. Over half of the county is Latino. 20% of Eunice residents have no health insurance. In 2015, the income of 17.7% of the population was below the poverty line; for Latinos, it was 22.4%.

Eunice is in New Mexico’s “nuclear corridor.” It hosts the National Enrichment Facility (NEF, owned by URENCO)  processes enriched uranium for nuclear fuel.  Its neighbors include the Waste Control Specialist “low level” nuclear waste dump, five miles away in Andrews, TX, which receives Vermont Yankee’s “low level” radioactive waste; the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a nuclear waste disposal site infamous for its 2014 explosion due to kitty litter and exposed 21 plant workers to plutonium, is 30 miles from Eunice. Holtec, the maker of dry casks used at Vermont Yankee, has applied for a 1,000 acre high level nuclear waste dump permit (LES on the map) and a smaller, interim waste site (ELEA) to the west of Eunice. International Isotopes of Idaho just got an NRC permit to build a uranium deconversion plant in Hobbs, the next town north of Eunice.  

 Rose – a survivor of a lymphoma — says, “Enough! We have taken enough. We don’t want your waste.”

As if all that radioactivity weren’t enough, Eunice and Lea County sit over the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides one-fifth of the drinking and agricultural water in the US. Fracking and traditional oil and gas wells cover Lea County and have taken their toll on the aquifer. The risk of earthquakes is high. Not a good scenario for storing radioactive waste.

And if that all weren’t enough, trains of waste go through Eunice daily. Rose showed us photos of rail cars waiting – sometimes for days – for pick up at a side spur. If WCS revives its application for a high level radioactive waste site 5 miles from her home, 40,000 tons of waste will go through Eunice. There is incredible risk involved in getting all that radioactive waste across the country by rail and truck. To get to her corner of New Mexico, the rail lines go through huge urban areas. Look at this map provided by Waste Control Specialist – railroad map of the US.

Rose closed with a personal slide show of her hometown. She is not only a nuclear activist and Sierra Club member. She is a florist, a mother, and a grandmother. 

We talk about how the legacy of nuclear waste on the Connecticut River shouldn’t be left for our children and grandchildren to deal with. Well, Rose’s children and grandchildren don’t deserve the radioactive burden any more than our children do. In fact, they deserve it less because the radioactive wastes weren’t made in their back yard.

Kevin Kamps is the nuclear waste expert for Beyond Nuclear, and lives near Pallisades, a decrepit reactor owned by Entergy. He spoke about the current administration wanting to start Yucca again, as a national repository, and outlined its weakness as a site. He also spoke about how to strengthen dry casks storage at reactor sites, including HOSS – hardened on-site storage, where berms are built around the pads to protect them from environmental impacts and acts of sabotage or terrorism.

Deb Katz concluded the panel with the story of the Yankee Rowe reactor pouring radiation into the Deerfield River, and the 10-fold increase in Down’s Syndrome, elevated levels of breast cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma in the Deerfield Valley. Rowe was decommissioned, and everyone wanted the waste gone. Everyone, including Deb.

That was before she visited Barnwell, SC, where the deconstructed reactor and its parts was headed. Half African American, 20% of residents live below the poverty line. CAN organized three “Caravan of Conscience Tours” between 1994 and 1998. Activists followed the shipments of radiated reactor vessel parts from Yankee Rowe and Connecticut Yankee to Barnwell. They alerted communities along the way about the shipments and spoke about the environmental racism of the nuclear industry. After being in Barnwell and meeting the people there, Deb realized “it was unethical to ship the same toxic waste that hurt us to another community to hurt them. It became clear to us that all communities impacted by the nuclear fuel chain share the same fate:  we are all sacrifice communities.”

We are all sacrifice communities.

Like Deb, we have envisioned the nuclear waste at Vermont Yankee gone forever from the bank of the Connecticut River, across from the Vernon elementary school. But listening to Rose and Deb brought home the ethical question: what right do we have to dump our wastes on some other small town? I can’t imagine the hearts of Vernon, or our state regulators, having their hearts and minds changed by an intellectual ethical exercise. It is too bad regulators aren’t required to visit the communities where the radiated waste Vermont doesn’t want will go, aren’t made to see their sacrifice, and ask themselves the question: who are we to dump the radioactive waste we created on others?

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