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Nuclear Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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18:17   |   Aug 20, 2017

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Nuclear Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
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  • Nuclear waste.
  • The worst type of garbage for raccoons to get into.
  • Now, it's a substance that we all know is dangerous
  • thanks to movies like this.
  • NARRATOR: They tormented him until he had a horrifying
  • accident and fell into a bag of nuclear waste.
  • Melvin became The Toxic Avenger,
  • the first superhero born out of nuclear waste.
  • -His face is so terrifying... -(SCREAMS)
  • NARRATOR: ...we can't show it to you now.
  • You'll have to see the movie for yourself.
  • Honestly, you really don't need to see the movie, 'cause...
  • his face isn't really that terrifying. This is it.
  • I mean it's bad, but its-- it's so ugly,
  • it's almost cute again.
  • It's like-- it's like someone melted a candle shaped
  • -like a pug. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • But-- but the point here is
  • nuclear waste, the radioactive and toxic byproducts
  • from making nuclear energy and weapons is
  • a serious health hazard, and America has a lot of it.
  • ANCHOR: There are more than 71,000 tons of nuclear waste
  • stranded at the nation's 104 reactors.
  • Put all those spent fuel rods together,
  • and you get a pile as big as a football field
  • and more than 20 feet tall.
  • Or you could put them in a pile as big
  • as two football fields and ten feet tall
  • or half a football field and 40 feet tall.
  • Or 20 football fields, one foot tall.
  • The point is, we have a lot of nuclear waste and it's very fun
  • -to play with. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • And look, that is just the waste from nuclear energy.
  • We also have more than 100 million gallons
  • of hazardous liquid waste from producing weapons.
  • And you may live closer to nuclear waste than you think.
  • One out of three Americas lives within 50 miles
  • of high level nuclear waste.
  • Some of which, like plutonium, is lethally dangerous,
  • and will be-- will be around for an incredibly long time.
  • NARRATOR: Even microscopic amounts of plutonium,
  • if ingested, are deadly.
  • One of the characteristics of it is it has
  • an extremely long half-life.
  • Plutonium 239, for example, has a half life
  • of about 24,000 years.
  • It's true, 24,000 years and that just scratches the surface.
  • It takes ten half-lives for plutonium to become harmless
  • so that's 240,000 years.
  • A unit of time more commonly known as one English patient.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • And as any adult with an American girl doll collection
  • eventually finds out, if you wanna keep something
  • around for a disturbingly long time, you have got to find
  • an appropriate place to put it.
  • "I cannot live with your murder dolls anymore.
  • Felicity stares at me while I sleep!
  • She stares at me!"
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS, CHEERS) -"She stares unblinking!"
  • And look,
  • I'm not the first person to make this point.
  • Look at this news report from 1990.
  • NARRATOR: Almost half a century
  • after nuclear power was harnessed,
  • there still is no agreement on where to store the waste.
  • "We have built the house," said one critic,
  • "and forgotten the toilets."
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -A home...
  • with no toilets. Or as a realtor selling a Brooklyn loft
  • is calling it right now, "artisanal composting."
  • Wait.
  • You're suggesting that I shit in that potted plant
  • while you and I both know that I will do that
  • 'cause this is convenient to public transport,
  • and has both northern and eastern exposures.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • But look, it-- it has been 27 years since that clip
  • and our country still doesn't have a nuclear toilet.
  • And that is our subject tonight.
  • Why do we not have a nuclear toilet?
  • And it's actually easy to understand how we got
  • into this situation. Because during World War Two,
  • we rushed to develop nuclear weapons because we were trying
  • to defeat the Nazis,
  • who, fun fact, pretty much all Americans agreed were bad
  • -at the time. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • Anyway, the-- the thing is,
  • we didn't really have a plan on what to do
  • with all the radioactive byproducts that we produced.
  • And this initially led us
  • to some mind-blowingly stupid solutions.
  • For instance, for years, we actually did this...
  • MAN: They loaded the, uh,
  • radioactive waste and it was in barrels, 55 gallon barrels,
  • of, uh, radioactive waste with concrete poured over it.
  • It's funny, the ocean don't glow out there
  • outside of Red Bank, New Jersey. (CHUCKLES)
  • Really. 'Cause we dumped a lot of barrels out there.
  • -(AUDIENCE GASPS) -That is true.
  • We didn't just dump barrels of radioactive waste
  • in the ocean, we did it off the coast of New Jersey.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • That is so horrifying!
  • I'm surprised that Jersey Shore was the title of a lighthearted
  • MTV series, and not the name of a harrowing documentary.
  • An entire generation of children was born without thumbs,
  • a phenomenon known to locals as...
  • -"The Situation." -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • And, incidentally,
  • not all of those barrels sank. In fact, in 1957,
  • when two barrels were caught floating off the shore,
  • naval aircraft were summoned to strafe them
  • with machine-gun fire until they sank.
  • That's right.
  • They shot barrels full of nuclear waste
  • with machine guns!
  • That's got to be one of the most terrifying sentences ever said
  • out loud, right after,
  • "Donald Trump is the president now,"
  • and, "Wait, wasn't Felicity on a different shelf
  • when we went to bed last night?
  • Oh, my God! Felicity is a waking nightmare!"
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • Oh!
  • Well, the truth is, tossing barrel-fulls of nuclear waste
  • into the ocean and shooting them
  • with machine guns is actually preferable to at least
  • one genuine other idea that was thankfully rejected,
  • and that was blasting it into space.
  • A concept with a pretty clear flaw.
  • WOMAN: Unfortunately,
  • we don't have a great record
  • with getting rockets out into the atmosphere.
  • If any one of them blew up,
  • that would basically contaminate
  • a large portion of the Earth with radioactive material.
  • (STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHING)
  • WOMAN: So that's probably not a great idea.
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -Yeah.
  • You're right. That's probably not a great idea.
  • I mean, a really great idea would be also filling
  • the rockets up with confetti, so at least that way
  • if there's a horrific accident, there's also a party!
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • Now, over the years, we have dumped nuclear waste all over
  • the country and in many places, there've been frightening leaks.
  • Take the Savannah River Site in South Carolina,
  • where waste from poorly-stored material leaked
  • into the ground water.
  • And just watch this alarmingly laid back man explain
  • the consequences of that.
  • MAN: There are radioactive alligators on the site.
  • (STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • MAN: Radioactive materials are in the sediments.
  • -(ALLIGATOR HISSING) -(CLANGING)
  • MAN: It's gonna go up the food chain and...
  • there's gonna be radioactive alligators.
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -Yeah.
  • Radioactive alligators!
  • They even have names,
  • Tritagator and Dioxinator,
  • after two of the wastes that poisoned them.
  • And that's actually very clever,
  • because if I had to give them names,
  • I don't know, I'd probably have gone with something like,
  • (SCREAMS) "Holy Shit! A Fucking Radioactive Alligator!"
  • And, "Oh No, Fuck Me, There's Another One!
  • What Nightmare Hath God Wrought?"
  • And it's not just reptiles who've been impacted
  • by nuclear waste. Researchers are now studying
  • an area in North St. Louis County, Missouri,
  • where tons of waste from the Manhattan project was
  • improperly stored, some near a creek
  • that winds through residential communities,
  • and people who live there have noticed some alarming trends.
  • JENELL WRIGHT: I got on Facebook in order to reconnect
  • with people from high school...
  • And we all immediately started noticing that so many
  • of us were sick. We've discovered that
  • the Department of Veterans Affairs
  • officially recognizes around 21 cancers associated with exposure
  • to ionizing radiation, and compared that list
  • to what we had.
  • We had all of those cancers, every single one.
  • That is an incredibly depressing thing to discover
  • on Facebook and it's-- it's hard to know how to respond.
  • I mean, you definitely don't want to use
  • the "like" button, because...
  • then it looks like you really like the fact
  • they just got cancer.
  • Now, there is that new sad emoji,
  • which would really be perfect
  • if you hadn't already cheapened it by using it to respond
  • to the news that Chris Pratt and Anna Faris were separating.
  • I mean, it is sad. It is sad. But it is not "21-cancer" sad.
  • It's "nine-cancer" sad. Tops.
  • The point is, thankfully, 60 years ago,
  • our government and the scientific consensus
  • came up with a solution.
  • In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report
  • urging the creation of a permanent storage facility
  • deep underground. Basically, a nuclear toilet.
  • And while we did build a repository
  • for lower-level waste in New Mexico,
  • we still haven't built one
  • for the most dangerous, high-level waste.
  • And, as a result, it's essentially been left
  • wherever it was made. Which is not good,
  • because those facilities were not built
  • with the idea that they would be storing waste indefinitely.
  • So, to continue the toilet metaphor,
  • we've basically been shitting in bags,
  • leaving them all over the house,
  • and praying that they don't leak.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • And the most frightening example of this is
  • the Hanford Site in Washington state,
  • which created two third of the plutonium
  • in the US arsenal and is currently storing
  • 56 million gallons of highly toxic
  • and radioactive waste underground.
  • And over the years,
  • there have been so many issues at Hanford,
  • that they've achieved a dubious honor,
  • as one local new-station reported,
  • with an almost prideful tone.
  • ANCHOR: The most contaminated place in the entire
  • Western Hemisphere isn't at a polluting factory
  • or an old chemical plant.
  • It's right here in Washington State.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS) Oh!
  • "It's right here! We did it guys!
  • Washington State, home to the most contaminated place
  • in the Western Hemisphere,
  • thousands of acres of apple orchards,
  • and several of Ted Bundy's grizzliest murders. We did it!
  • Right here!"
  • There have been a string of problems at Hanford,
  • from explosions, to toxic vapor releases,
  • to over a million gallons of waste
  • leaking out of their tanks over the years.
  • It has been so bad, the government has had
  • to pay out nearly one and a half billion dollars
  • in compensation to thousands of workers for illnesses
  • stemming from exposure to radiation
  • and toxic chemicals there.
  • A local news station has done a series of reports
  • on Hanford, and after a tunnel collapse this May,
  • they found some of the infrastructure there is
  • almost comically badly put together.
  • ANCHOR: Mistakes during construction are factors
  • in the dangerous state of the tunnels.
  • They're 55 and 60 years old,
  • well beyond their expected life span.
  • In addition, wood beams holding up the tunnels are eroding,
  • and what corrodes timber beams? Radiation.
  • Yeah!
  • You can't build something out of wood and expect it
  • to last forever. You're supposed to have learned that
  • from the second dumbest of the Three Little Pigs.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • Hanford... Hanford is a gigantic problem.
  • And even though it hasn't produced anything for 30 years,
  • the Department of Energy still spends
  • nearly two and a half billion dollars a year
  • on cleaning it up, which is close to ten percent
  • of its annual budget.
  • And it is pretty weird
  • to find out that a place you just heard about
  • is getting that much of the DOE's money.
  • It's like finding out that half the Department of Agriculture
  • budget goes to this moose named Gordon.
  • I mean, I don't know the right amount,
  • -but that seems like a lot. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • And in case you're thinking, "Well I'm definitely glad that
  • I don't live near Hanford,"
  • remember there are nuclear power plants storing waste
  • all over the country, lots of it in so-called
  • "spent fuel pools."
  • That's where nuclear fuel rods are supposed to be
  • temporarily placed to cool down,
  • and then put into dry containers,
  • and then moved
  • to permanent underground storage sites.
  • But remember, we don't have one of those.
  • And in many places those pools are just accumulating
  • more and more rods.
  • And while experts say it's highly unlikely,
  • if a Fukushima-like accident happens at one of those,
  • the results could be catastrophic.
  • ANCHOR: The northeast has a number of nuclear power plants,
  • including the Indian Point plant just outside of New York City.
  • If any one of those were to have
  • a severe spent fuel pool accident,
  • you're taking away a lot of big cities,
  • a lot of farm lands, a lot of the United States,
  • for decades, perhaps centuries.
  • That's right, lots of big cities.
  • New York, Hartford, Boston.
  • And that last one is a real shame,
  • 'cause as I understand it, they only just got
  • un-racist yesterday.
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -So...
  • I mean, at least they could get to enjoy their new life.
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -So...
  • So, look, it is pretty clear we need to find
  • a permanent facility to store our most dangerous waste.
  • And 30 years ago, we actually settled on a site,
  • Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
  • Congress passed a law designating it
  • as our sole candidate for waste storage.
  • Now since then, we've spent 15 billion dollars
  • prepping the site,
  • as you can see from this rather upbeat video.
  • NARRATOR: Located about 100 miles
  • northwest of Las Vegas,
  • Yucca mountain is the most thoroughly researched site
  • of its kind in the world.
  • Experts throughout the world agree that the most
  • feasible and safe method
  • for disposing of highly radioactive materials
  • is to store them deep underground.
  • That's right. The best place
  • to put nuclear waste is in a hole deep underground.
  • Much like Felicity.
  • Wait. Wait, if she's not there, where is she?
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -Ah, Jesus fucking Christ!
  • Fuck me!
  • Jesus! Fucking-- Get the fuck away!
  • (PANTING)
  • (AUDIENCE APPLAUDING)
  • (PANTING)
  • -(AUDIENCE CHEERS) -It's alright. It's okay.
  • I'm fine.
  • It's fine.
  • The point is...
  • So, Yucca mountain is our permanent storage site.
  • So the problem is solved, right? Well, no!
  • Because while the site has been deemed safe,
  • and the people in the immediate area,
  • Nye County, actually support the project,
  • many Nevadans elsewhere in the state
  • really don't want it.
  • And their former senator, Harry Reed, lobbied hard,
  • eventually managing to get Yucca shot down.
  • Now, to be fair, he did have an alternative plan
  • for all the states sitting on their nuclear waste,
  • but to put it mildly,
  • it was not exactly scientifically-sound.
  • Leave it on site, where it is.
  • Leave it where it is, and dry cast storage containers.
  • If you were smart, what you would do is, uh...
  • leave this...
  • leave it where it is.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • "If you're smart, what you would do is leave
  • the thing where it is" is terrible advice
  • for dealing with nuclear waste.
  • Although, it is coincidentally
  • the title of Britain's bestselling book on parenting.
  • -But... But... -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • Here... Here is the truth.
  • the scientific consensus for decades
  • has been that leaving it where it is is a really bad idea.
  • The shutted power plant at San Onofre, in California,
  • is storing nuclear waste, and it's on a fault line
  • right next to the ocean.
  • And that sounds like something you learn
  • in the first scene of a movie starring The Rock
  • that you watch on a plane.
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -And look,
  • maybe Yucca is the best place
  • to store our growing supply of radioactive garbage.
  • Maybe it's not.
  • I am not a nuclear scientist. I just have the face of one.
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -And... And our--
  • Our new energy secretary, Rick Perry...
  • yes, Rick Perry...
  • has said that he is optimistic about fixing
  • the whole problem, which does sound great.
  • Although, he didn't exactly do a great job
  • at dealing with this disaster.
  • ♪ (UPBEAT MUSIC PLAYING) ♪
  • (STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • Yeah, that was him on Dancing with the Stars,
  • and on the basis of that, managing volatile energy
  • is not really his forte.
  • But here's the thing. We've been saying
  • that we are going to fix this for decades now,
  • and we seem to be no closer to a solution.
  • And let me show you something
  • that really drove that fact home to us,
  • because we've been researching this story
  • for a couple of weeks now, and just yesterday afternoon,
  • we stumbled on a TV special from 1977,
  • the year that I was born.
  • ♪ (MUSIC PLAYING) ♪
  • NARRATOR: NBC News presents...
  • Danger! Radioactive Waste.
  • Yeah, this problem is so old
  • they reported on it back when the news was kept
  • in an America-shaped vault that you had to open
  • with a crank.
  • As we watched that yesterday, we gradually
  • and chillingly realized that by pure coincidence
  • it hits every beat of the story that we just told you.
  • It opens with footage of sailors throwing barrels
  • into the ocean.
  • It looks at the facilities at Hanford.
  • It talks about radiation's impact on workers
  • and on families who live nearby.
  • And while it doesn't have a radioactive alligator,
  • it does have radioactive cows.
  • Which is-- which is still good. Although,
  • I did prefer our alligator.
  • I liked it when he went... (HISSES)
  • -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS) -But--
  • But the most chilling moment
  • in that documentary might be the one where they sit down
  • with someone in authority, and demand to know
  • exactly when this will be fixed.
  • NARRATOR: When you ask when the problem will be solved,
  • you get answers like this.
  • WOMAN: What's the realistic time table?
  • Realistic time table is scheduled to have
  • a repository in operation by 1985,
  • with the selection of the sites by the end of 1978
  • for detailed work.
  • Exactly.
  • Nuclear waste is a problem we were supposed to have dealt
  • with in the 1980's and still cannot solve,
  • much like this Rubik's Cube that I always carry with me.
  • You are my Jean Valjean, cube, and, one day,
  • -I shall defeat you. -(AUDIENCE LAUGHS)
  • And at the end of that special, remember,
  • 40 years ago, the correspondent delivers this special message.
  • The waste increases every minute.
  • The solution of where to put it is years away.
  • And none of the previous solutions has worked.
  • We are accustomed in this country to act
  • only in times of crisis.
  • But with nuclear waste,
  • when the crisis comes, it will be too late.
  • And that was from four decades ago.
  • We have already waited way too long to resolve this issue.
  • And we are dancing with trouble here.
  • So if any one says the government
  • can just continue to wait,
  • they are much like a house with no toilet.
  • Absolutely full of shit.
  • (AUDIENCE LAUGHS, APPLAUDS)

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Description

Nuclear waste poses a serious threat to public health if it's not stored in a safe place. John Oliver explains why the United States desperately needs to build a metaphorical toilet for all that waste.

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