Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
In 1942, just below the football stadium at the University of Chicago, scientists were racing to figure out the feasibility of a controlled nuclear reaction. At that moment, it was all about World War II. Within a decade, the world's interest in nuclear energy was not just about war power, it was about power. In 1958, the US began generating electricity from nuclear power, and today there are nuclear power plants in more than half of American states.
Now, the US Department of Energy touts nuclear energy as cleaner and greener, pointing to zero admissions and smaller land footprint, but nuclear power generation does produce hazardous waste products, and that waste has to go somewhere. Finding somewhere for it to go is not just a logistical issue, it's a political one. American nuclear energy policy is still haunted by the Three Mile Island incident of 1979. Here's the incomparable Walter Cronkite reporting for CBS News.
Walter Cronkite: It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare as far as we know at this hour, no worse than that, but a government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably the worst nuclear reactor accident to date.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, this state-of-the-art power facility malfunctioned and public officials were not entirely forthcoming with the public about the radioactive leaks. Heineken sued, and although the facility was eventually secured, the residual distrust has continued for decades. Today, the US remains one of the largest producers and users of nuclear energy, which means we are one of the largest producers of nuclear waste materials. Also near the top of the list is our neighbor to the North, Canada.
The Canadians are proposing a waste storage solution that's not going over well. I had a chat about the dilemma with Joseph Gedeon, reporter at Politico and a former producer right here on The Takeaway. Just before we get into it, what exactly is nuclear waste? What does it look like? What does it smell like? What is it?
Joseph Gedeon: I can't exactly tell you what it smells like, but we don't really have a place to put it, and that's been the case for the last few decades. Right now, we're at 150,000 metric tons and counting, and it looks like it's just going to keep growing from there and we don't really have a long-term place to put it. The thing is, nuclear waste takes thousands of years to decompose, so we have a problem here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Where have we been putting it prior to this?
Joseph Gedeon: Most countries in the world that produce nuclear energy keep it at a surface-level facility, and those are like decommissioned reactors and stuff like that. It's been a safe place "to keep nuclear waste there" but it's not a long-term solution. Right now it just sits on the surface.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are Canada and the US working together on this or are we at odds?
Joseph Gedeon: Ooh, Canada and the US are definitely not working together on this. Of course, Canada and the US are great big allies. They share the largest border. We saw that Biden just went to Ottawa in late March.
President Joe Biden: Good afternoon. [French language] Canada.
Joseph Gedeon: We know that there is a big collaborative effort in general when it comes to the US and Canada, but Canada created this organization in the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, NWMO, back in 2002, and they've been researching potential choices for this possible nuclear waste repository, which would be 500 meters beneath the bedrock. They would bury this nuclear waste in fuel bundles in copper containers.
They would tunnel them through boreholes and seal them with bentonite clay, so this super low-risk, multi-billion-dollar solution, to store nuclear waste. The issue is there are two potential sites remaining, and one of them is South Bruce, Ontario, about 30 miles from Lake Huron. What's right on the other side of Lake Huron? That's Flint, Michigan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, we're going to take a pause right here, but don't go anywhere. We'll be back with more from political reporter Joseph Gedeon here on The Takeaway.
Melissa Hariss-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Before the break, we were talking to Takeaway alum and now reporter at Politico, Joseph Gedeon, about Canada's plan to store their nuclear waste only 30 miles from Flint, Michigan.
Joseph Gedeon: Of course, the residents of Flint, Michigan are very wary when it comes to anything that could cause any risk to their drinking water.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here's Congressional Representative from Flint, Dan Kildee, talking to MLive. It's Michigan's largest local news site.
Dan Kildee: We all, Canadians, Americans, we need to deal with this question of nuclear waste storage. The fact that we have temporary storage, which is dangerous, is not an excuse to say, "Well, temporary storage is already there, so let's go ahead and make a permanent 1,000-year, 10,000-year decision about the storage of nuclear waste." We need to get this right. The fact that we haven't been able to get it right so far is no reason to sort of shortcut the question and just say, "Well, let's just do it here now because people have already accepted it." I just don't think that's the right approach.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about the Great Lakes. You've said a bit here about the Great Lakes being a site that is a source of so much drinking water. Is this the first time that the Great Lakes have been considered and used for nuclear waste storage?
Joseph Gedeon: Well, the interesting thing is, I was telling you about the surface-level facilities and there're already dozens near the Great Lakes on both sides of the border. Back in the 1980s, the United States was thinking about having their own permanent repository to hold nuclear waste, and where did they want to put it? Of course, they wanted to put it right next to the Great Lakes. What happened in that case, the Canadians, the Canadian government, federal and provincial governments, opposed it through the Boundary Waters Act of 1909.
Again, back about 40 years ago, the Americans wanted to do the same thing as the Canadians but on their side of the Great Lakes. Because the Canadians opposed it, they attempted to move it somewhere else. They were looking at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and because of other political opposition, that never happened. It's just interesting to see what would happen this time around because, at the same time, nuclear waste hasn't really received any political attention. I think the last time there was funding for nuclear proposals was back in 2010, and we've only begun to ramp up since then.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is this a NIMBY problem, NIMBY here, not in my backyard, where look, if we need energy and if it is a relatively clean and safe source of energy, is this just about those who are closest to it, obviously not wanting the by-products in their own backyard, or is this an indication that we shouldn't be using nuclear energy at all?
Joseph Gedeon: Yes. I don't think we're at the place yet to fully find out if we can switch off nuclear energy. The United States is the largest user of nuclear energy in the world. The other thing is, it's now these two sites in Canada, which are going to-- one of those two are going to be selected within the next year. It's not like they exactly want it either. They haven't even voted on it yet. South Bruce, Ontario is looking at having a referendum on it, I believe, this year, and there's a lot of opposition over there too. It's not just the Americans.
There's been petitions and protests in Ontario, in South Bruce, and we don't know if it's going to happen there. The other one is in Ignace, Ontario. That's closer to the Manitoba border. There's been protests there too. Is it NIMBY? Yes, it is probably, but at the same time, who knows what can happen if there is a nuclear spill, even if it is low risk in anyone's community. At the same time, it took the NWMO about 20 years of research to come up with these choices. At the same time, Finland already began constructing their permanent nuclear repository.
We have Sweden and France that also chose their sites. It's not like this is this unprecedented movement. We have countries across the world that are trying to address this. This would be the first one in North America, but it's not outlandish to build something like this. Where else would you store nuclear waste that could last for another 10,000 years?
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, pause for a second. Let's listen to this clip from Saginaw, Michigan's WNEM, the reporting here on the opposition to the proposed site.
WNEM Reporter: Congressman Dan Kildee announcing a bipartisan resolution opposing Canada's new plan to build a permanent nuclear waste storage site in the Great Lakes Basin. Kildee's resolution is asking President Joe Biden to work with the Canadian government to ensure nuclear waste is not permanently stored in the Great Lakes Basin. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe joined the movement saying they don't want the threat of nuclear waste being deposited so close to the largest freshwater repository on Earth.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joseph, do you see a permanent solution being possible in the context of basically American politics being what it is around these questions?
Joseph Gedeon: I was talking to Representative Dan Kildee, and he represents Flint, Michigan, where we were talking about the poisoned water of Flint. What he was telling me was, it's not like he's opposed to a permanent facility. He's actually for it. He's interested in that. I believe other Congress people that are against this specific one may also be for it, but in the end, it's an environmental issue. It's a human issue.
When you talk about nuclear waste, it's something that we use every day, like I said, with our electricity, and there's medical devices, and so on. Will it ever be addressed? Who knows. Just what I can tell is, it's not like the Americans are exactly opposed to it either, they just are opposed to it being next to a water source.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joseph Gedeon is reporter at Politico, and again, he's an alum of The Takeaway. Joseph, as always, thanks for being here.
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