Lives & Half-Lives

I’ve been divorced for 11 years now. My 20-year marriage broke up 15 years ago, at which time I’d spent 14 ½ as a full-time homemaker – wife, mother, active community volunteer, & doing occasional contract jobs. My children were then 14 & 12, & since I’d spent 14 years “at home” with them, with my energies focused primarily on family life, losing not just their father & the marriage but also their full-time presence in my life (due to the new week-on, week-off joint custody arrangement), I came to think of my life as a “half-life.” That’s the way it felt to me then. This wasn’t terribly funny, at the time (I was gobsmacked, as they say), but it was the slightly ironic way I came to view my life, & to describe it to myself, inside my head. I guess it somehow helped me cope with things, thinking of it that way & sort of chuckling about it. (“I know all about half-lives!” I’d say ironically to myself, inside my head…)

Long since “recovered” from those painful, gutwrenching months & years, into my goodness- knows-how manyth re-incarnation (as it were), & with a life now that can fairly be described as full to bursting, the term half-life has taken on an entirely different meaning for me.

I’ve been drawn into nuclear issues of late (quite without really intending to), & as numerous recent blog posts attest(1), I’ve been working recently to help ensure that the plan of Bruce Power (another BP(2),eh?) to ship 16 retired & highly radioactive steam generators from Ontario – across the Great Lakes (source of drinking water for 40 million people) through the St. Lawrence Seaway(source of drinking water for another several million in the Province of Quebec) – & the Atlantic Ocean (source of life & home to a zillion creatures, upon whose life & health we humans rely to a degree that the average person may very well not comprehend), to Sweden for so-called “recycling” is gobsmacked (the way all of our lives are, occasionally, hmmmm??).

Apply the brakes, pulleese!!

Nuclear issues are complex. I myself don’t understand even a small fraction of the guts & internal workings of nuclear technology the way many of my so-awesome fellow activists do.(3)

The nuclear industry, btw, totally counts on all this complexity & all of its obfuscation-inducing fancy terms & jargon to intimidate the “average person” into shutting up & shutting down & (metaphorically) crawling into a corner & saying “Okay, okay, okay – I’m too damn dumb to understand this stuff, so I’ll just let you “experts” be in charge & do what you will.”

I don’t want to get sidetracked here by going into the utter moral bankruptcy of the various agencies involved in the nuclear industry. That would require a whole essay of its own – & maybe it’s been done, & if so, & if I can lay my hands on it, I will return here & provide a link to it. It’s tempting, even, to “go there” – but…not right now, OK? [much later posting called 'How the Nuclear Industry F**ks Us' here]

We all know in our guts that nuclear waste that will remain toxic & dangerous & life-threatening (did I mention DNA-damaging?) for 1000s, 10’s of 1000s & even 100s of 1000s of years isn’t good for us. Right?

Well, duh.

Those retired, radioactive steam generators, for example, contain a very scary list of radioactive contaminants. These include cobalt & cesium & strontium – & also 5 plutonium isotopes & 4 uranium isotopes. (If you go here, you can see the whole list. On that same Web site you can find all kinds of other very interesting information about the steam generators, & about nuclear matters in general.)

The half-lives of these isotopes is a deeply, deeply sobering thing to contemplate.

As Wikipedia explains it, “Half-life is the period of time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half. The name was originally used to describe a characteristic of unstable atoms (radioactive decay), but may apply to any quantity which follows a set-rate decay.The original term, dating to 1907, was “half-life period,” which was later shortened to “half-life” in the early 1950s.”

The half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,000 years; of Plutonium-240, 6,500 years; of Plutonium-242, 380,000 years.

The half-lives of the uranium isotopes found in the steam generators are as follows: Uranium-234, 250,000 years; Uranium-235, 700,000,000 years; Uranium-236, 23,000,000 years; Uranium-238 (wait for it!), 4,500,000,000 (yes, 4.5 billion) years.


Or rather, YIKES!?!?!?!?!

So BP (Bruce Power) head honcho Duncan Hawthorne (who has stated he feels opponents of his grand plan should be “rebuked”) bandies about the image of a tennis ball. The weight of the nuclear isotopes contained in the steam generators, he says, is 64 grams.

He does not explain that these nuclear contaminants have scary half-lives. (Did I just say scary?? I mean terrifying…)

He does not explain that 32-40 grams of the material is Plutonium-239 (1/2 life: 24,000 years) – an amount that could overdose a million people.

Now do you – or anyone you know – including the average 6 or 8 or 10-year old – think we should be messing around with substances this dangerous??

Shipping them around, risking a sinking? (I hate to tell you this, but there have already been lots of dangerous nuclear cargoes sunk in our no-longer-pristine or even vaguely clean oceans. You can look this up – although you may not want to, & I can’t really say I blame you for not wanting to know. I don’t really want to know either…) But since Duncan Hawthorne’s cavalier attitude toward having a 16-radioactive-steam-generator-filled-ship sink on the journey he is proposing for them seems to be more or less “Let ‘em sink!” it seems to me those of more sober mind ought to put the brakes on his plan…

Should we be adding to the already-serious global problem of radioactively-contaminated metal entering consumer goods? (See ‘Radioactive Cutlery, Anyone?’ for more on this.) Does any one of us really want to discover the toaster we have just bought has nuclear waste in it? Does any of us really want to discover that the metal in our child’s braces has a lot more in it than we’d bargained for? Do we all want to have to start carrying a Geiger counter around with us every time we go out shopping???

Or do we think we ought to leave the steam generators where they are? (& where they have been for quite a few years already, btw.) Store them as safely as humanly possible; watch over them very, very, very carefully. Don’t mess with them any more than we absolutely have to, & for sure, Don’t risk the drinking water of 10s of millions of people with some cockamamie plan to ship them all over the darn place.


p.s. Why are we even talking about this?????

p.p.s. 'Quote of the day' with this post:  ”Once you know the difference between right and wrong, you have lots fewer decisions to make.” - Joseph Campbell, quoted in the biography “A Fire in the Mind - The Life of Joseph Campbell” by Stephen & Robin Larsen

p.p.p.s. For a thorough understanding of the growing problem of radioactively-contaminated consumer products, please check out the report ‘Out of Control’ on the NIRS Web site.

p.s. # 4. The half-life of Uranium-238 (4.5 billion years) kinda puts my little whine about my “half-life” into perspective, doesn’t it? Gheesh…

(2) The other BP assured the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2009 that an oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon site was “unlikely.” An environmental impact study was therefore waived. Oops. As in, OOPS! As in, more like massive criminal negligence, since "oops" is a word that totally fails to convey the appropriate seriousness of what we are talking about...

(3) I do however understand that the half-life of depleted uranium (4.5 billion years) means that, given its, shall we say, extreme toxicity to all forms of life, we ought not to be playing around with it so cavalierly, the way militaries now so routinely do. We ought not be playing around with it AT ALL. I do also understand that nuclear waste is also not something we should be treating lightly. Duh…