Saturday. 10:04 am.
Today, I wish that I had woken-up in a tent beside the green waters of the Colorado…
On Boulder and Nuclear Physics
“After all is said and done,” Rebecca asked. “Where do we get the uranium for the…”
“…fission,” I interrupted without looking up as I picked-free a cashew from the mixture in my hand.
“Yeh, the uranium.”
“Well,” I said. “I’ll tell you a story that I heard somewhere.”
“Alright, there was this grizzly, old guy that drove a rusty old dump truck. One day he picked-up a load of really pure carnotite from a mine…wet, runny and pale yellow stuff,” I said. “They called this stuff ‘yellow cake.’”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m guessing that the…what was it?”
“…that the carnotite has the uranium in it?” she finished.
“Go on,” she said.
“So, they filled this guy’s truck with the yellow cake and off he went to the processing plant. But when he got there, his truck was empty. The stuff had seeped- and oozed-out through the gaps and was sprinkled all over the highway from the mine to the processing mill. That highway is supposedly one of the most radioactive roads in the world.”
“Hey,” she halted. “Wait a minute…”
“If I remember right, his name was Virgil. Virgil Green,” I said. Adding under my breath, “…maybe it was Vern…”
* * *
Vitrification. This treatment alternative uses electricity to heat contaminated soils to their melting points in place, then allows the melted soils to cool as glass. The quantities of wastes treated by vitrification have been small compared with the volume of contaminated tailings and soils at Moab. The Parsons/ETM project treated approximately 3,000 cubic yards of soils and sediment. The estimated volume of the solid material at the Moab site is 8.8 million cubic yards of material.
* * *
“You told me this story…I mean you told…about this before,” she said excitedly. “Didn’t you?”
“Oh, shit!” she exclaimed. I let her think. I caught a glimpse – faintly, from the corner of my eye – of another lightning bolt as our departed thunderstorm lashed-out at the shadowed plains far below and far off in the distance.
“You’re talking about…” she paused. I nodded, begging her memory along. “…that’s the story about…wait…you’re talking about Moab!”
She had it.
“You’re talking about that place…you told me about it when we were there…just a few months ago…that place by the river…right next to Arches!”
“Yep…” I sighed, confronting her excitement with the more ominous connotation of its source. “…that place where the beauty ends. No more Einstein. No more Van Gogh. All that follows…”
“Which is really everything that we’ve been talking about, right?” she concluded for me. Her excitement shifted and became the ghost-white pallor of unavoidable and unfriendly reality. Looking down, she kicked aside a small rock. The black and white mottled fragment of gneiss rolled off the outcrop and fell from sight.
With a gentle nod of understanding and agreement, I finished, “…is just an unwashable stain on the hands of the artist.”
Another distant flash was followed, after some time, by the muted bellow of distant thunder coming from far to the east. Solemn silence let loose its teeth. Its flesh-piercing bite, above all else, held my thoughts hostage at that moment with the exception of one, startlingly simple question: With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?
* * *
[Federal Register: May 23, 2003 (Volume 68, Number 100)]
DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY – Floodplain/Wetlands Statement of Findings for Interim Action at the Moab Project Site
SUMMARY: The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hereby provides this Statement of Findings as required by 10 CFR part 1022 of the effects of interim action on the 100-year and 500-year floodplain of the Colorado River at the Moab Project Site near Moab, Utah.
The interim action involving the floodplain at the Moab site, scheduled for 2003, involves the installation of extraction and monitor wells and a pipeline to pump contaminated ground water from the alluvial aquifer to an evaporation pond.
The groundwater extraction system would operate continuously until a final decision is made for remedial action at the Moab Project Site. This interim action is not intended as a long-term activity.
* * *
It was perhaps one-hundred-five – maybe one-hundred-ten – degrees. We had stopped at a well-known natural desert spring in the breathless hope of escaping the inescapable heat. The spring was shocking in its unorthodoxy – hot stone releasing cool water. Nature’s poetry is always rife with delicious hyperbole.
The groundwater burst forth from the naked rock about a hundred yards from the junction of highways 191 and 128. Sitting down, we suffered from the most common of the desert maladies: sensory overload exacerbated by salted thirst and heat-induced exhaustion. We let our bare toes disturb the flow of the springwater, creating a confluence of tiny wavelets that fought for a brief moment of glory. Sheeting off the flat stone into an ancient, algae-curtained crack, the cascading water again entered the sharp folds of the rock, running away unseen to the safety of the subterranean labyrinth that meandered its way eventually to the cold green waters of the Colorado River.
Leading to Updraft Arch and Shrimp Rock, a roof of towering sandstone – perhaps a thousand feet of in-cut, river-carved curves of cinnamon stone – shaded us from the heat of the high desert’s summer sun. Goose Island, a lush green, river-shrouded oasis in the searing wasteland, worked its life-nurturing magic as it rose out of the Colorado and played as sanctuary to the parched desert community. Across the river, the blazing sun torched the orange and black burnished face of the Milano Tower, the smooth parabolic monolith that stands guard over the southern boundary of Arches National Park.
The same summer sun exerted its power over the whole of the desert lands. The green tamarisk cried its silent tears, languishing on the hot, still riverbank. The gray-black cryptobiotic soils slept their centuries long sleep while dreaming of life-giving monsoonal rains. The ominous silhouette of a vulture – dancing nearly motionless with its courtly suitor, the superheated desert thermal – circled silently overhead. Upriver, Negro Bill and Jackass canyons opened their wide mouths hoping to drink from the waters of the cool Colorado – a fleeting gesture of scorched yearning. Downriver, far off to the south, smoldered Kane Creek and Flat Iron Mesa. And Porcupine Rim and the Fiery Furnace. The stark relief of the vast red horizon shimmered in the noon sun, confusing to the eye and hypnotizing to the soul. Mesa and river. Fin and arch. Canyonlands.
Sitting quietly over my shoulder, perhaps a quarter-mile to the west, rested a startlingly square, perfectly geometric terrace of misplaced earth, a man-made mesa lying seven-hundred-and-fifty feet from the banks of the jade green Colorado River. An icon of our time, it sat as an endowment from civilized men to future generations of sons and daughters. The masterfully built pile sat burning its slow nuclear burn, a fire that will last for millennia. A beacon to the distant future that will very nearly transcend time itself. Boundless polemic. Legacy of a cold, cold war. There sat the uranium mill tailings of the Atlas Mineral Corporation.
Dept. of Energy, U.S. Preliminary Plan for Remediation: Moab Site Project. Grand Junction, CO. October 2001.
Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Bantam/Turner. New York. 1992.