Dear EarthTalk: Some time ago there were issues with Native American tribes storing nuclear waste on their land, something that was both unhealthy to the communities and caused considerable controversy among tribal leaders. Where is this issue today?
—M. Spenser, via e-mail
Native tribes across the American West have been and continue to be subjected to significant amounts of radioactive and otherwise hazardous waste as a result of living near nuclear test sites, uranium mines, power plants and toxic waste dumps.
And in some cases tribes are actually hosting hazardous waste on their sovereign reservations—which are not subject to the same environmental and health standards as U.S. land—in order to generate revenues. Native American advocates argue that siting such waste on or near reservations is an "environmental justice" problem, given that twice as many Native families live below the poverty line than other sectors of U.S. society and often have few if any options for generating income.
"In the quest to dispose of nuclear waste, the government and private companies have disregarded and broken treaties, blurred the definition of Native American sovereignty, and directly engaged in a form of economic racism akin to bribery," says Bayley Lopez of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He cites example after example of the government and private companies taking advantage of the "overwhelming poverty on native reservations by offering them millions of dollars to host nuclear waste storage sites."
The issue came to a head—and Native advocates hope a turning point—in 2007 when public pressure forced the Skull Valley band of Utah's Goshute tribe to forego plans to offer their land, which is already tucked between a military test site, a chemical weapons depot and a toxic magnesium production facility, for storing spent nuclear fuel above ground. The facility would have been a key link in the chain of getting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, the U.S. government's proposed permanent storage facility.
In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced intentions to scale back efforts to make Yucca Mountain the nation's sole repository of radioactive nuclear waste and to look into alternative long-term strategies for dealing with its spent nuclear fuel. The National Congress of American Indians, in representing the various tribes around the region, no doubt breathed a sigh of relief.
The issue essentially goes much deeper: As long as we continue to make use of nuclear energy—and many in Congress are looking to expand its role to get away from fossil fuels—the waste and spent nuclear fuel will keep coming and need to be stored somewhere. Groups like Honor the Earth, founded by author and activist Winona LaDuke to promote cooperation between Native Americans and environmentalists, are trying to persuade tribes that availing their land to nuclear power and other toxic industries isn't worth the potential long-term damage to the health of their citizens. Honor the Earth helped convince the Goshutes to turn down a lucrative deal to store waste on their land, and is working with dozens of other tribes to try to do the same.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the potential for carbon "nanotubes" in battery technology? I heard them referred to as the biggest battery breakthrough to come along in years. And what else can we expect to see in terms of new battery technology in coming years?
—R.M. Koncan, via e-mail
The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries now so common in everything from iPods to hybrid cars can store twice the energy of similarly sized nickel-metal hydride batteries and up to six times as much as their lead-acid progenitors. But these advances are only a small evolutionary step from the world's first battery designed by Alessandro Volta in 1800 using layers of metal and blotting paper soaked in salt water.
With battery technology advances long overdue, researchers are racing to develop more efficient ways to store power. One hopeful option is in the use of carbon nanotubes, which can store much more electricity by weight than lithium-ion batteries while keeping their charge and remain durable for far longer.
But what are carbon nanotubes, and how can they be used to store energy? Technicians skilled in working with matter at the molecular (nano) level can arrange pure carbon molecules in cylindrical structures that are both strong and flexible. They have significantly higher energy density and can store more electricity than any currently available technology. These tubes, each only billionths of a meter wide, essentially become highly efficient, electrically conductive pipes for storing and providing power.
Electrical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have formed carbon molecules into tiny springs that store as much electricity as same sized lithium-ion batteries but can maintain a charge while dormant for years and work well in temperature extremes. Stanford University researchers have created ink made from carbon nanotubes that can be drawn onto paper where it serves as a high-capacity rechargeable energy storage medium. And University of Maryland scientists have created nanostructures able to store and transport power at 10 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries.
Other technologies in development include batteries using zinc-air, lithium-air and other combinations of elements to provide longer run-times between recharges. Others still are working on prototype nuclear batteries, the trick being to make them small enough to be practical, let alone safe.
Of course, the accelerating growth of nanotechnology itself, which has not yet been thoroughly tested to evaluate potential down sides, has some health advocates worried. Animal studies have shown that some nanoparticles, if inhaled or ingested, can harm the lungs and also cross the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream.
And then there are fuel cells, created in 1839 but only recently commercialized. Not batteries per se, fuel cells generate, store and dispense power by forcing a reaction between a fuel (hydrogen from water, methanol) and oxygen, creating usable non-polluting electricity. One major hurdle for fuel cell makers is making them small enough to be able to work in laptops and other small personal electronics.
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