Michael KreponCleaning Up Trash

Verse of the week:

Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are
— Walt Whitman, “Long, too long America”

Some people go to church, synagogue or mosque. I commune with higher powers by picking up trash. There’s an abundance of it along country roads, thrown out the window by non-locals in transit.

The land around the country roads where I live is quite beautiful. The trash throwers are too deep in their own thoughts to notice; they’re engaged in mindless behavior patterns — something we humans know quite a bit about. Litterers habitually trash their bodies and then dispose of the detritus out the window. (In case you were wondering, the most littered can of beer around our way, by far, is Bud Light.) Roadside trash is a visible manifestation of lack of ownership, lack of caring. I think better of myself by picking it up. It also helps to clear my mind and to get off my butt.

So what does this have to do with the Bomb, you might well ask? Everything. The worst, most deadly trash there is comes from making nuclear weapons. Especially from taking shortcuts in making nuclear weapons — as all countries that feel the Bomb is absolutely necessary have done.

Think of this, dear readers, when considering the terms that Iran’s leadership was willing to accept in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was intolerable to American, Israeli and Saudi hardliners. The primary reason for doing so, according to their exegesis,  was that Tehran was absolutely hell bent on getting the Bomb, despite agreeing to terms that would delay this for a decade or two, or longer. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran is still not in a hurry to get the Bomb, at least for now.

But I digress. When leaders are in a hurry to make nuclear weapons, they leave big messes behind — messes that take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up, if they are cleaned up at all. Messes that endanger people and their livelihoods, nature, ground water and regional watersheds. Think of the consequences of uranium mining for the Navaho Nation, as my colleague at Stimson, Lovely Umayam does.  Or think of Hanford, along the magnificent Columbia River, where 60 percent of America’s most dangerous radioactive waste resides, some in old tanks underground that are prone to leakage.

The price tag for the Hanford clean up is around $2.5 billion dollars annually, a staggering amount, but not as staggering as the most recent estimate of $141 billion more needed to finish the job. The General Accounting Office estimates the cost to clean up these messes at  $377 billion, an increase of more than $100 billion in the past year. These costs are usually not directly included in the price tag associated with nuclear weapons or nuclear power, for that matter. These messes are somebody else’s problem, like trash along a roadside. We’ll get to them later. If at all. The only way to clean up this problem — or clean it up the best we are able — is to take ownership. Caring doesn’t cost money. Regrettably, the cleanup does.

It’s a strange but essential avocation — cleaning up messes — for some humans to share with turkey vultures. Few in this business, whether human or animal, are accorded the deference they deserve. I’m told you can distinguish a turkey vulture from a condor or hawk circling on high because the turkey vulture wobbles in the wind currents, a lot like we humans.


  1. b. (History)

    Extrapolate: it should be possible to estimate just how much in hurry Iran was – or was not – to get a bomb based on whatever mess they had created in… 2003? Or later, if any mess can be found?

    Because the absence of a mess would imply an absence of haste. Given the forces arrayed against them, and the desperate multinational search for a pretext, about the only way Iran could hope to acquire a nuclear deterrent – as opposed to its conventional, irregular ones – would indeed be… in a hurry.

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