RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Just Plumb Dumb

Just returned from a celebration honoring my Dad's 85th birthday, where I could ask a smart person a question that's been bothering me for a long time. To an award-winning physicist working at Argonne: "Why can't you guys figure out how to neutralize radioactive waste? Make it so it's not radioactive?"

The physicist, my sister's friend, hemmed and hawed a little, said that they can neutralize one atom of the stuff, but that makes other atoms unstable, so that they'd always end up with more than they started. Or maybe, he said, there's other ways to neutralize it that nobody's thought of yet. Anyway, he assured me, there are people working on this very question. At Argonne. Lots of them.

Here's my idea: Lock all of the smart physicists in a room and tell them they can't come out until they've figured out a way to make nuclear waste safe forever. They're coming up with more and more uses for radioactive material, but we don't know what to do when we finish with it.

This very smart Argonne scientist laughed at the idea that we think we could store waste safely for millions of years. "We can't even provide a stable environment on earth for four years," he said, and that's a direct quote.

I've heard the same self-deprecating laugh from other smart folks in the nuclear-waste-creation industry. A fireman recommending radioactive fire detectors in all homes laughed when a friend asked about disposal. The doctor and dentist thinks it's hilarious that I refuse X-rays. And the meat industry pretends that nuking meat means safer food. They'll nuke and pass the cleanup to someone else rather than take care of their own processing plants.

We learn this as children: We pick up after ourselves. We put the Legos back in the box so grandpa won't trip on them; we put the tools away when we finish cooking a meal, adjusting the carburetor, robbing a bank, or performing brain surgery. We don't leave dirty stuff lying around.

Those examples, you might say, are personal. Nuclear waste is something else. The opposite of personal. Industrial. Commercial. Political. The opposite of personal.

I take this issue personally. I-70 runs a mile behind my house, and 12 miles down the road it runs 150 feet away from trailers and houses in Columbia, Mo. I have a friend in one of the houses, and his two kids play in a yard enclosed by a chain-link fence about 50 feet from the highway.

Missouri's nuclear power plants will be shipping waste along that path on its way to storage, a ridiculous choice among ridiculous choices. And our unofficial Prez gives every indication of hustling more nuclear power plants into existence. Creating more nuclear waste to be hauled through town and country to storage. Storage that nobody really believes can be kept safe for millions of years.

But the million-year-issue doesn't matter, either. The very act of getting the waste to the storage area is unworkable. The interstate is in terrible shape, full of potholes and splits. In the last three months, five people have been killed in accidents in our county. Let me emphasize. In our county, on about 40 miles of I-70, there have been five fatal accidents in three months.

Still, after hearing the birthday-party laughter of the Argonne physicist, I was glad to get on the road toward home. About 20 miles out, it started to rain, then hail. My daughter in the back seat thought about her organic lettuce crop and started a lament: "There's nothing we can do about it. Nothing we can do. Nothing we can do."

We got home late. I slept too long, woke up to rain, fed the livestock and remembered that this column is due in a few days. "Write something fun," my husband said, "Something about pigs, how cute they are." I plan, in the future, to write a hilarious column about pigs.

Delaying me further, my neighbor called, wanting strawberries. It's still raining, too muddy for my daughter to get in her strawberry patch. My neighbor's conversation moved from strawberries to quilts and finally to steers that won't stay fenced. She has one, a big old steer that has torn down one fence after another until her son George, who is supposed to take care of this critter, can't find a pen for him.

"I've fed this old steer for two years," she said, "and George still wants him bigger, fatter." She said this steer climbs over the fences, just running right over. He's gone through board fences, wire panels, barbed wire. He's has a system of going through fences and they can't stop him. For the purpose of this column, let's call him "The Nuclear Waste Industry."

I had a cow a couple of years ago that learned to jump fences. We never figured out how she learned it, but we'd put her in one pasture and the next morning she'd be in another. Big, tall fences, too. I kept hoping I'd see her, maybe get a picture.

Then another cow tried it, hoping to get over a gate. The second cow, not as athletic, mashed the gate almost to the ground. Other cows were beginning to think about this, so we called the trailer right away and had both the first and second cow hauled to the sale barn. Awful good blood lines, but we couldn't risk keeping them. Remember, we're a mile from the interstate, and truckers don't brake for cows.

"You need to get rid of that steer," I told my neighbor, "you'll never get him fat enough to pay for the aggravation."

She said she's told George this very thing. We went on about it at length, and then she looked out the window and saw George trying to fix enough fence to keep the steer in. It was raining hard now. She speculated that George sees the unfenceable steer as a personal challenge. "Maybe he thinks it's funny," she said.

"Maybe he likes a contest," I said.

"Maybe he's just plumb dumb," she concluded.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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