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  Field Notes From
Michael E. Long

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Michael E. Long

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Peter Essick

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Cade Nagy (top), and Peter Essick

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America’s Nuclear Waste

Field Notes From Author
Michael E. Long
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The story is about cleaning up some of the deadliest materials known. Except for uranium, they don’t exist in nature. We created them in nuclear reactors, and some of them won’t stop their radioactive hissing for more than a million years. However, I was impressed with the dedication of the cleanup crews, from the Department of Energy site managers to the scientists and the engineers, to the people moving the plutonium, the spent fuel, the tank waste, and all the billions of cubic feet of contaminated stuff. It’s a thankless task for which they get little approval and a lot of criticism, and they’re all working themselves out of a job. When they’re finished many years from now, the country will be better for it. Cheers and gratitude to all of them.

After a visit to the Paducah, Kentucky, plant where they enrich uranium for nuclear fuel, I checked in at US Airways in Nashville for a flight to Pittsburgh. It was the height of the anthrax scare, and for the fourth time since leaving Denver I was selected for a full baggage check.
The ticket agent bent to the task, opening all the luggage, including my giant catchall bag. But in my pocket, I fingered a weapon no airport screening will ever detect—a thick, not-quite-slingshot-sized rubber band. If the situation required, I intended to use it at short range on a hijacking terrorist. I knew if I hit him in the face or the eyes, it would hurt him pretty bad. If I missed, well….
Finally, the poor agent reached a plastic jar containing a powdered nutritional supplement. She shook the jar, and before I could say anything, opened it, and a great cloud of white powder emanated. She shrieked. I felt like saying, “Oh, don’t worry! It’s not weapons grade,” but thought better of it.

Photographer Peter Essick and I visited Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant north of Denver, Colorado, where technicians fashioned hunks of plutonium into spheres to trigger thermonuclear bombs. We wanted to see Building 371, where the government once admitted to storing 14.4 tons (13 metric tons) of plutonium. But everyone is mum now about how much remains.
The security is intense. We proceeded through x-rays, radiometric scans, and a triple fence of sharp concertina wire before we finally entered Building 371. There we viewed a gray chunk of plutonium the size of a hockey puck, stored in a steel box with windows.
DOE regulations required that two security people remain with Peter and me at all times. Preparing to photograph the plutonium, Peter installed his camera on one side of the box and his lights on the other. He trotted around adjusting the camera and lights, comically pursued by the guards, again and again. Everyone smiled. A moment of humor in Plutonium Central.

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