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Nuclear waste on the loose

Department of Energy estimates for the total amount of nonretrievable radioactive waste in the United States may be off by as much as 10 percent, according to data released by the department in May. This revision may force the agency to develop a national policy for the first time to deal with this type of radioactive material.

Most of the waste is located at sites in Idaho and Nevada, where it was dumped years ago, in cardboard boxes and steel drums. According to Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who has needled the Department of Energy for three years to review its data, the agency's original position was based on two premises: that the amount of nonretrievable waste was not large and that if radiation leaked, it would not travel far.

"Both premises are wrong," Dr. Makhijani says. "That's why, after three years of pressure, the DOE has agreed to convene a National Academy of Science panel to review its policy." Makhijani hopes the agency works quickly. His data suggest plutonium from one site has already migrated dangerously close to the Snake River plain aquifer, Idaho's primary water table.

Fuel for the fire

Rising levels of CO2 could lead to more fires in the deserts of Western North America. Stanley Smith of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and colleagues reported last week that increased CO2 can, in the long term, change the balance of grasses in desert areas. This may accelerate the fire cycle, reduce biodiversity, and alter ecosystems, they say.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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