John Oliver Discusses the Catastrophic Dangers of Putting Off Our Nuclear Waste Problem on Last Week Tonight

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In fiction, nuclear accidents are the origin story for our favorite superheroes and villains. Yesterday’s Last Week Tonight leads with a B-movie version of one of these characters, but in this segment on nuclear waste the host dives into how the truth is less fun superpowers and more terrible catastrophe waiting to happen.

John Oliver starts with the startling fact that more than 71,000 tons of nuclear waste is currently stranded at the nation’s 104 reactors, and points out that there’s also more than 100 million gallons of hazardous liquid waste from producing weapons in the United States. If that’s not dire enough, he also adds that 1 out of three Americans live within 50 miles of nuclear waste, much of which is dangerous and will outlive us.

“During World War II we rushed to develop nuclear weapons to defeat the Nazis,” Oliver points out, “which, fun fact: all Americans agreed were bad at the time.” The segment goes into the many ways these facilities were unprepared for the ensuing waste, even turning to ridiculous solutions like just dumping barrels into the New Jersey coast and even considering blasting it into space. Many of the solutions, and the delay of a true long-term solution, naturally, had disastrous consequences—cancer, radioactive alligators, etc.

Oliver finds an extended metaphor in a 1990 CBS video describes the problem of nuclear waste storages as, “We have build the house and forgotten the toilets.” After going through the unsustainable old factories, the attempt at building a permanent storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and the existence of Hanford, the most contaminated place in the western hemisphere that takes up 10% of the Department’s annual budget, he sums it up as so: “We’ve basically been shitting in bags, leaving them around the house, and praying they don’t leak.”

And that’s the terrifying part about this Last Week Tonight segment that Oliver continually highlights. Not only that any small accident could be catastrophic, but also the fact that it’s been possible and getting worse for decades with little to no progress. The statistics and consequences we have seen have been disastrous, but with a TV special from 1977, Oliver notes, “We chillingly realized by coincidence that it hits every beat of the story that we just told you. (If you just swapped out the radioactive cows for alligators).”

This issue is one we have known about for a long time, and willfully ignoring it as we see Sen. Harry Reid do with his “leave it where it is” non-solution means that by the time things do go wrong, it’ll be too late. It’s time to stop shitting in the house.

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