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If sinkholes open under nuclear plants or waste storage sites, what then?

Nuclear waste storage sites in US
Nuclear waste storage sites in USUSA map

Nuclear plants, nuclear waste storage sites, and underground bunkers proliferate around the world. So do sinkholes. If a sinkhole opens under a nuclear plant, nuclear waste storage site, or even an underground missile bunker, what happens then?

Nuclear power plants in the USA
Nuclear power plants in the USAVarious Sources

Can spent fuel rods and nuclear missiles be pulled out of a sinkhole as easily as the Corvettes are lifted from the sinkhole at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky? Probably not.

Calamities like sinkholes, land cracks, and slipping and sliding land happen every day now under cities and towns all over the world. So far, we have been very lucky. To date, they have only opened under houses, streets, cars, animals, and people. But, what happens when a sinkhole, massive or otherwise, opens under a nuclear plant, nuclear waste storage site, or missile bunker?

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What then? How do we evacuate entire cities and towns with only a moment’s notice?

The nuclear accident at Fukushima raised concerns about the safety of spent fuel storage pools in nuclear reactors. Nuclear waste is dangerous for a long, long, long time. Now, with this worldwide sinkhole epidemic, just how vulnerable are nuclear reactors, nuclear waste storage pools, and underground missile sites around the world?

As the maps in the slideshow indicate, just about every state in the US contains a nuclear waste storage site, some a lot more than others. Add to this nuclear plants and underground missile sites, and we’re looking at a catastrophe long overdue to happen.

For example, a 98-foot-wide, two-mile-long ditch with steep walls 33 feet deep bristling with magnets and radar reflectors will stand for millennia as a warning to future humans not to trifle with what is hidden inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) outside Carlsbad, New Mexico. Paired with 48 stone or concrete 105-ton markers, etched with warnings in seven languages ranging from English to Navajo, as well as human faces contorted into expressions of horror, the massive installation is meant to stand for at least 10,000 years—twice as long as the Egyptian pyramids have survived. But the plutonium ensconced in the salt mine at the center of this installation will be lethal to humans for at least 25 times that long—even once the salt walls ooze inward to entomb the legacy of American atomic weapons.

Sinkholes have no respect for warning markers and they give little or no warning when they are about to make an appearance – not there one moment, there the next.

According to UCS Global Security Program Co-Director David Wright, Ph.D, because there is no permanent storage site in the United States for the spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants, spent fuel is kept at the reactor sites, with the vast majority of it stored in spent fuel pools (see map in slideshow for US locations).

Spent fuel pools even without the threat of sinkholes are a big concern. The highly radioactive fuel rods in nuclear power plants are moved from the reactor core to cooling pools when they are “spent” and are replaced by fresh fuel to drive the nuclear chain reaction that generates electricity. A sinkhole opening under a spent fuel pool could cause a sudden loss of water from the pool. The result would be a self-sustaining fire that would damage the fuel and could cause a massive radiological release.

And then there are the underground tanks at Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation that hold a stew of toxic, radioactive waste at "America's most contaminated nuclear site." Officials say, they pose a possible risk of explosion, even without a sinkhole. The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. It spends billions to clean up the 1500 sq. km site neighboring the Columbia River (the southern border between Washington and Oregon and the Pacific Northwest's largest waterway).

Federal officials have said six underground tanks at the site have been and are still leaking into the soil, threatening the groundwater. Central to the cleanup is the removal of 212 million liters of highly radioactive, toxic waste left from plutonium production from underground tanks. Many of the site's single-shell tanks, which have just one wall, have leaked in the past, and state and federal officials announced in February 2013 that six such tanks were leaking anew.

Should we be concerned about Washington State? You bet!

What major earth changes are happening there? Plenty to indicate that tectonic plates are on the move. They've had loud booms, sinkholes, cliff slides, landslides, and more. In February, loud booms and rumbling were heard. Rumbling has been heard up and down the Strait of Juan de Fuca for months, if not longer. On Feb 17, there were three landslides.

And, on Feb 25, a lopsided bowing of the mile-long Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River was noticed near a section of a spill gate pier. When divers examined the area, they discovered a massive 2-inch wide horizontal crack about 75 ft. below the water’s surface. The massive crack runs the entire width of the 65-ft. wide pier causing a misalignment in the dam.

About a year ago, a huge landslide hit Whidbey Island in Washington State. Residents noticed a slight erosion in their back yards, but they certainly were not prepared for what happened next. A huge landslide sent the equivalent of 40,000 dump-truck loads of earth — about 200,000 cubic yards — heaving toward Puget Sound.

Then there was the case of Roy Ballinger and his wife, Rosalee, who also live on Whidbey Island. They watched their front lawn falling in chunks to create a massive sinkhole more than 50 feet wide and 200 feet deep.

Question: What happens when a sinkhole, massive or otherwise, opens under a nuclear plant, nuclear waste storage site, or underground missile site? Answer: Evacuation . . . sudden and forever!