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America's Nuclear Waste
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Nuclear Waste Sites

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By Michael E. LongPhotographs by Peter Essick

The search for permanent solutions heats up as tons of highly radioactive sludge, spent fuel, and contaminated soil pile up around the nation.

Read or print the full story.

World War II was still being fought in the Pacific during the first week of August 1945, a time when my father and I were vacationing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, eating soft-shell crabs and lazing by the ocean. In a games arcade I fed nickels to a toy machine gun and fired at Japanese Zero fighters flitting across a screen. On the boardwalk, rifles shouldered, platoons of United States soldiers marched and sang: The Stars and Stripes will fly over Tokyo, Fly over Tokyo, fly over Tokyo, The Stars and Stripes will fly over Tokyo, When the 991st gets there. . . .
One morning my dad showed me a newspaper with red headlines that said a huge bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. The bombs were so big that the boys of the 991st wouldn't have to go to Tokyo after all.
The strong nuclear force, the binding energy that makes atomic nuclei the most tightfisted entities in all creation, had been sundered, unleashing enormous power—the equivalent of 15,000 tons (13,600 metric tons) of TNT in the Hiroshima bomb—as well as a race to create bigger weapons. Seven years later our first hydrogen device, code-named Mike, yielded a blast equal to 10.4 million tons (9.4 million metric tons) of TNT. Mike would have leveled all five boroughs of New York City.
By the mid-1960s, the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had stockpiled around 32,000 nuclear warheads, as well as mountains of radioactive garbage from the production of plutonium for these weapons. Just one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of plutonium required around a thousand tons of uranium ore. Generated from uranium bombarded by neutrons in a nuclear reactor, the plutonium was later separated from the uranium in hellish baths of acids and solvents still awaiting disposal.
A long deferred cleanup is now under way at 114 of the nation's nuclear facilities, which encompass an acreage equivalent to Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Many smaller sites, the easy ones, have been cleansed, but the big challenges remain. What's to be done with 52,000 tons (47,000 metric tons) of dangerously radioactive spent fuel from commercial and defense nuclear reactors? With 91 million gallons (345 million liters) of high-level waste left over from plutonium processing, scores of tons of plutonium, more than half a million tons of depleted uranium, millions of cubic feet of contaminated tools, metal scraps, clothing, oils, solvents, and other waste? And with some 265 million tons (240 million metric tons) of tailings from milling uranium ore—less than half stabilized—littering landscapes?

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Until the early 1970s there was little reason to think that nuclear fission had ever occurred naturally on Earth. In 1972, however, French scientists found something odd in a group of uranium ore samples from a mine in Gabon, Africa. In uranium ore the ratio of two particular isotopes, U 235 and U 238, is consistent. What the French scientists found in the ore from the Oklo uranium mine was less uranium 235 than expected—a very small, but important discrepancy that had to be investigated. Eventually they concluded that what had been found was a cluster of natural nuclear fission reactors, now known collectively as the Oklo Fossil Reactors.

To find out how the reactors worked and why scientists are sure that none are in operation today, take a look at the URLs below, one from the Department of Energy and the other from the American Nuclear Society.

—Jennifer Fox and Patricia Kellogg

Did You Know?

Related Links
Yucca Mountain Project
The Department of Energy's website for Yucca Mountain presents the final environmental impact statement, a timeline for opening the repository, and a breakdown of how much money has been spent so far investigating the site.

U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board
Read more from the presidentially appointed watchdog group: who their members are and what their opinions are regarding Yucca Mountain.

State of Nevada
Get the latest on what Nevada officials have said about the U.S. government's plans to store nuclear waste in their state. This site also includes maps of the transportation corridors that Yucca-bound waste will follow as well as numerous links to opposition organizations. The site also includes maps of the transportation corridors that Yucca-bound waste will follow as well as numerous links to opposition organizations.

Nuclear Energy Institute
Find out how nuclear power works from an organization that advocates its use.

Natural Resources Defense Council
This site is a useful source for finding facts and figures on the number of warheads in various nations. It also includes a detailed history of the organization's efforts to eliminate nuclear energy.

For further information on specific DOE sites mentioned in the story see:

Rocky Flats

Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Hanford Site

Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Savannah River Site

Nevada Test Site


Ackland, Len. Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Final Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. February 2002. Available online at

Gerber, Michele Stenehjem. On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Yucca Mountain Science and Engineering Report: Technical Information Supporting Site Recommendation Consideration. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. February 2002. Available online at


NGS Resources
Gup, Ted. "Up From Ground Zero: Hiroshima," National Geographic (August 1995), 78-101.

Edwards, Mike. "Living With the Monster—Chornobyl," National Geographic (August 1994), 100-115.

Eliot, John L. "In Bikini Lagoon Life Thrives in a Nuclear Graveyard," National Geographic (June 1992), 70-83.

Miller, Peter. "A Comeback for Nuclear Power? Our Electric Future," National Geographic (August 1991), 60-89.

Cobb, Charles E., Jr. "Living With Radiation," National Geographic (April 1989), 402-437.

Edwards, Mike W. "Chernobyl—One Year After," National Geographic (May 1987), 632-653.

Weaver, Kenneth F. "The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Energy," National Geographic (April 1979), 458-493.

Freidel, Frank B., Jr. "The Atomic Age: Its Problems and Promises," National Geographic (January 1966), 66-119.


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