Want to feel unsettled? A truck containing literally 40 tons of government-sponsored toxic waste recently made a cross-country drive from the mountains of Tennessee to New Mexico.
Tennessee's infamous Oak Ridge National Laboratory was part of the multi-site atomic bomb-building Manhattan Project back in 1942. Nowadays, as Knoxville's WATE reports, it's home to the Transuranic Waste Processing Center that oversaw the shipping of nearly 80,000 pounds of waste from the plant, including items contaminated by plutonium — which is used to build bombs like the Oak Ridge-crafted explosive that the US dropped on Nagasaki, Japan during World War II — and other radioactive elements.
Transuranic waste, as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission explains, is any material that has been contaminated by any element that has a higher atomic number (or the number of positively charged protons in the nucleus of an atom.) than uranium's, which is 92. Given that any element with an atomic number above 83 is considered radioactive, the kind of stuff that is being shipped out of Oak Ridge sounds pretty hazardous.
According to WATE's report, it took TWPC personnel two days to load the waste into three shipping casks that were filled with a total of 35 drums of hazardous waste, including soil, clothes, rags, tools, and other items that had been contaminated with small amounts of radioactive materials.
Two days and 10 staffers later, that toxic trash found its final resting place in an underground nuclear waste repository in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where it was dumped into a government-run "permanent disposal" facility.
As the report notes, most of the transuranic waste created at Oak Ridge comes from the lab's "defense-related activity" — which in regular English means that it was used in the creation of military technology, and although the exact nature of what they're currently making at the lab is above our pay grade, it seems likely that it's still weapons.
At the end of the day, it's probably better that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory dealt with its apparent piles of radioactive waste than just letting it continue to grow, but that doesn't mean it's comforting to know that so much nuclear waste was on America's highways with most of us none the wiser.
Updated to correctly identify the destination of the truck, correct an error in the description of an atomic number, and clarify the role of Oak Ridge in the Manhattan Project.
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