Winton Pawprints 

Winton (c.1995-2012) was our beloved shop cat and still has the last word every month in her regular column.

About a Mountain

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Hopefully our reviews and recommendations both in these pages and in the shop are of use in sending you on rewarding reading trails. But this relationship cuts both ways, and the book I’m reading this month was a book we special ordered for a customer that caught my eye. Given the current ‘growing momentum’ for South Australia to build a nuclear waste storage facility for ‘more than 390,000 tonnes of spent rods and nuclear waste currently in temporary storage around the world and looking for a permanent home’, John D’Agata’s 2010 About a Mountain couldn’t be more topical.
After having moved his mother into her new home in Las Vegas, journalist D’Agata started digging into the US government’s plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain—a desert range near LasVegas. If you want to find out about the poison chalice that is ‘a commercial-scale nuclear waste storage facility which would bring $5 billion in revenue annually for the first 30 years’, read this book. No amount of revenue is worth the potential disasters represented by the transportation and storage of nuclear waste. D’Agata’s book really tears the mask off the friendly face of ‘clean nuclear energy’. His tale of bureaucratic pinball when he was bounced from the Yucca Mountain Information Centre (where school students are introduced to cartoon mascot ‘Yucca Mountain Johnny’ and propaganda dressed in rubbish science) to the Department of Energy to the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Academies of Science to the National Research Council to the National Research Council’s Board on Radioactive Waste Management in search of the answer to why 10,000 years had been designated the ‘half life’ for the radioactive waste in Yucca is an eye-opener. Bob Halstead, nuclear waste consultant for the state of Nevada: This is an exercise in planning for a nuclear catastrophe that is fundamentally rhetorical. It’s theatrical security, because the preparations that are being made by the DOE have no real chance of succeeding. They satisfy the public, however, because they’re a symbol of control. 10,000 years sounds like a long time, right? But in terms of actually doing what that mountain needs to do, 10,000 years is useless. This waste is going to be deadly for tens of millions of years. And how do you signpost this deadly mountain so that people in 10,000 years time will understand? A panel of thinkers—philosophers, sociologists, linguists, semioticians—is convened. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is arrived at. Halstead continues: In reality, I’ve come to believe that the greatest threat we face at Yucca Mountain isn’t actually posed by the waste’s half-life. The biggest threat we face is the transportation of this shit. 77 thousand tons of waste would take 108,000 individual shipments—1000 pounds at a time, carried in shipping casks that have never been subjected to full-scale safety tests. That’s 3000 yearly truckloads over 40 years ‘converging with the traffic of Las Vegas at the intersection of Interstates 15 and 80 in an area that is know for exchanges so confusing that commuters simply call it the Las Vegas ‘spaghetti bowl.’ You get the gist. Las Vegas covered in a radioactive cloud. Or South Australia.
There’s a companion book—The Lifespan of a Fact—D’Agata & his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, wrestle over ‘truth’ & ‘accuracy’ in literary nonfiction. It’s next on the reading list. Meanwhile I’m going to be mailing The Scream to ex-SA governor Kevin Scarce in the hope he’ll rethink  the ‘economic benefits’ of nuclear waste storage. Winton

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