Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 4, Episode 22 - Nuclear Waste - full transcript

John Oliver discusses both the imminent and long-term dangers of nuclear waste deposits in the United States, and the unresolved need for governmental solutions to a now decades old problem.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -

Season IV
Episode 22

Welcome to Last Week Tonight.

I'm John Oliver.
Thank you for joining us.

We begin tonight
with the White House:

still a beautiful building despite
what's happening inside it.

It's not the house's fault. Hashtag
it's not the house's fault.

On Friday,
there was some big news.

Another shake-up at the White House.
Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is out.

Steve Bannon is gone,

presumably to spend more time
sucking his own cock.

He leaves behind a legacy defined
by quasi-constitutional xenophobia,

unfulfilled campaign promises
and a definitive answer to:

"What if Martin Sheen
ate sea-salt for a thousand years ?"

While it was shocking,

Bannon is just the latest
in a string of recent departures.

This picture of the president
in oval office with his top advisors

was taken just days
after the inauguration.

National Security Advisor
Michael Flynn, gone.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer, gone.
Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, gone.

And finally today, Steve Bannon.

He's surrounded by four white
nothings and Mike Pence !

Let's make that
five white nothings !

The truly depressing thing
about Bannon's departure

is just how utterly unsatisfying
it actually is.

One panderer to white nationalists
has left the White House.

The problem is, the one he was
working for is still very much there.

Trump doubled down on his
remarks about the group's march

in Charlottesville last weekend.

Not all of those people
were neo-Nazis, believe me.

Not all of those people
were white supremacists.

You had some very bad people
in that group.

But you also had people that were
very fine people on both sides.

No ! They weren't !
And I'll tell you why,

because if you are marching
with white nationalists,

you are, by definition,
not a very nice person.

Let me put it to you this way,

if Malala Yousafzai had taken part
in that rally, you'd have to say:

"I guess Malala sucks now.
I don't know why she's there,"

"but Malala definitely sucks, that's
the only conclusion you can draw."

Condemnation of Trump came fast,
sometimes from unexpected quarters.

A key White House Advisory
Council of powerhouse CEOs

voting to disband.

Many of those leaders, Democrats
and Republicans speaking out,

like the CEO of Campbell's Soup,

"Racism and murder are reprehensible
and are not morally equivalent"

"to anything else that happened
in Charlottesville."

When you become
CEO of Campbell's Soup,

you do not expect to have to start
your public statements with:

"Racism and murder are
unequivocally reprehensible."

You expect to start them by saying:
"Yes we're very sorry but again:"

"you're the one eating
clam chowder from a can."

Commentators who are usually
in Trump's corner

had a tough time
defending his remarks

and none tougher perhaps
than Fox News's Melissa Francis.

He didn't say there were very good
people among neo-Nazi protesters.

There are people that were
opposed to the statues.

I am so uncomfortable
having this conversation.

That's what this woman said before
this, I know what's in my heart.

I don't think anyone
is different, better or worse

based on the color of their skin,
but I feel like there is nothing

any of us can say now
without being judged.

Here's a tip: if you're feeling judged,
for defending Trump

in his "Nazi sympathizer" phase
stop fucking doing it.

It's that simple.
No one's making you do it.

Also, how did you manage
to make this about "you" ?

That's almost impressive !
It was also fascinating to watch

Trump's own party try desperately
not to deal with what he had said.

Mitch McConnell, whose office
initially responded with a statement

that's "he had no new response
to Trump's news conference."

Although a new rumor
had started making the rounds:

Sources close to Senate Majority
Leader Mitch McConnell describe him

as "very concerned and very upset",
McConnell's office denies that.

McConnell had the moral courage
to deny anonymous sources

who had said
he had some moral courage.

"I will not stand idly by while people
drag my name out of the mud !"

"Leave my name in the mud
where it belongs !"

Others tried
to delicately thread the needle,

condemning the Nazis without
mentioning the president.

Take Paul Ryan, a man whose spine
ran away from home ten years ago

and is now living on a spine
commune in northern Vermont.

He tweeted that "white supremacy
is repulsive",

but did not mention "Trump".

Come on. You can mention him.
He is not Voldemort.

He's just a terrifying entity
who viciously attacks his enemies

and judges people based
on their birthright.

I do hear it now.
I take that back.

That is not to say no Republicans
condemned him by name, some did.

Let's look at how many Republican
lawmakers called the president out

over his response to Charlottesville.

This is only a handful of the roughly
300 Republicans in Congress.

Exactly and that's actually generous.
That graphic includes John Kasich,

who isn't a member of Congress,
and Jeb Bush,

who holds no government
position whatsoever.

He's currently running his own frozen
yogurt shop in Orlando.

Apparently, their tropical mango
flavor is... fine. It's fine.

It's not going to change
your life. It's fine.

After the President implied that
good people were marching with Nazis,

the majority of Republicans
opted not to condemn him.

Out of 292 Republican
members of Congress,

only 54 could be bothered to
condemn Trump by name.

That is less than 20 percent !
The problem with not mentioning him

is that that suggests that he is
not a key part of the problem here.

So in the words of the poets
Beyoncé and the other ones:

"say his name, say his name.
Go right on to Fox News."

"Say Donald I condemn you.
If you ain't runnin' game."

Although this week has been
repeatedly called a turning point,

I really don't see it.

Every day has felt
like a turning point.

We're not so much turning
anymore as spinning.

We're on a carousel that will not stop,
we've vomited so much

there's nothing left to throw up
and there's just no way to get off,

because an unstable race-baiting
carny is operating the controls.

We are going to go through a lot more
before Republicans will do anything.

Nothing is really going to change
in the White House

until one more person in that photo
finally gets shown the fucking door.

And now this...

And now local news
tries to answer the question:

should you stare at the sun ?

It's been pretty well established you
should never look directly at the sun.

You'll risk permanent eye damage if
you look at the sun without protection.

Peer through a dark beer bottle ?

Spray paint glass ? Don't do it.

Do not look at the sun like this.

It is always dangerous
to look at the sun.

Cannot look at the sun,
you'll be going to the hospital.

Don't stare at the sun
unless you hate your eyes.

Be warned, you could go blind.

You're not going to go blind,

but it is going to cause
significant damage to your eye.

There is no amount of time that's safe
to look at the sun.

If you look at the sun through
a telescope without a filter,

you lose your eye instantly.

Do not stare at the sun.

Don't stare at the sun.

It's the last time
I'm going to say it.

Do not look at the sun.

Despite everything we've been talking
about about this eclipse,

you're going to look
straight into the sun ?

I'm afraid I am, yes.

Moving on. Our main story
tonight concerns nuclear waste.

The worst type of garbage
for raccoons to get into.

It's a substance we know is dangerous,
thanks to movies like this.

They tormented him until
he had a horrifying accident

and fell into
a vat of nuclear waste.

Melvin became the toxic avenger !

The first superhero born
out of nuclear waste.

His face is so terrifying,
we can't show it to you now.

You'll have to see the movie.

Honestly you really
don't need to see the movie,

his face really
isn't that terrifying.

This is it. I mean it's bad but it's
so ugly, it's almost cute again.

It's like someone melted a candle
shaped like a pug.

Nuclear waste, the radioactive
and toxic byproducts

from making nuclear energy and
weapons, is a serious health hazard.

And America has a lot of it.

There are more than 71 000 tons
of nuclear waste

at the nation's 104 reactors.

Put all those
spent fuel rods together

and you get a pile as big as a football
field and more than twenty feet tall.

Or put them in a pile
as big as two football fields

and ten feet tall, or half a football
field and forty feet tall,

or twenty football fields
one foot tall.

We have a lot of nuclear waste
and it's very fun to play with.

That is just the waste
from nuclear "energy",

we also have more than 100 million
gallons of hazardous liquid waste

from producing weapons.

And you may live closer
to nuclear waste than you think.

One out of three Americans live within
50 miles of high-level nuclear waste.

Some of which, like plutonium,
is lethally dangerous,

and will be around
for an incredibly long time.

Even microscopic amounts
of plutonium, if ingested, are deadly.

One of the characteristics of it
is it has an extremely long half-life.

Plutonium 239 for example
has a half-life of about 24 000 years.

It's true.
And that just scratches the surface,

it takes ten half-lives for plutonium
to become harmless.

So that's 240 000 years.

A unit of time more commonly known
as one "English Patient".

As any adult with an American Girl
doll collection eventually finds out,

if you want to keep something
for a disturbingly long time,

you have got to find an appropriate
place to put it.

I cannot live with your murder
dolls anymore !

Felicity stares at me while I sleep !
She stares at me !

She stares unblinking !

I am not the first to make this point.
Look at this news report from 1990.

Almost half a century after
nuclear power was harnessed,

there still is no agreement
on where to store the waste.

We have built the house, said
one critic, and forgotten the toilets.

A home with no toilets,

or as a realtor selling a Brooklyn loft
is calling it: "artisanal composting".

You're suggesting
I shit in that potted plant,

we know that I will do that,
this is convenient to public transport

and it has both northern
and eastern exposures.

It has been 27 years since that clip

and our country still
doesn't have a nuclear toilet.

And that is our subject tonight:
why do we not have a nuclear toilet ?

It's easy to understand
how we got into this situation.

During World War II, we rushed
to develop nuclear weapons,

because we were trying
to defeat the Nazis,

who pretty much all Americans
agreed were bad at the time.

We didn't really have a plan
for what to do

with all the radioactive
byproducts that we produced.

And this initially led us to some
mind-blowingly stupid solutions.

For instance, for years,
we did this.

They loaded the radioactive waste
and it was in barrels,

55 gallon barrels of radioactive waste
with concrete poured over it.

It's funny the ocean don't glow out
there outside of Red Bank, New Jersey.

We dumped
a lot of barrels out there.

We didn't just dump barrels of
radioactive waste in the ocean,

we did it off the coast
of New Jersey.

That is so horrifying, I'm surprised
that "Jersey Shore" was the title

of a lighthearted MTV series and not
the name of a harrowing documentary.

An entire generation of children
was born without thumbs,

a phenomenon known
to locals as... the situation.

Not all of those barrels sank.
In fact, in 1957,

when two barrels were caught
floating off the shore,

naval aircraft were summoned to strafe
them with machine-gun fire.

They shot barrels full of nuclear
waste with machine guns.

That has got to be one of the
most terrifying sentences ever said,

right after "Donald Trump
is the president now"

and "wasn't Felicity on a different
shelf when we went to bed ?"

My God !
Felicity is a waking nightmare.

Although, tossing barrelfuls
of nuclear waste into the ocean

and shooting them with machine guns
is actually preferable

to at least one genuine other idea
that was thankfully rejected,

and that was blasting it into space,
a concept with a pretty clear flaw.

Unfortunately, we don't have
a great record

with getting rockets
out into the atmosphere.

If any one of them blew up,
that would basically contaminate

a large portion of the Earth
with radioactive material.

So that's probably not a great idea.

Yeah, you're right.
That's probably not a great idea.

A great idea would be also filling
the rockets up with confetti,

so if there's a horrific accident,
there's also a party.

Over the years, we dumped nuclear
waste all over the country

and in many places, there
have been frightening leaks.

In the Savannah River site,

waste from poorly-stored material
leaked into the groundwater.

Watch this alarmingly laid-back man
explain the consequences of that.

There are radioactive
alligators on the site.

Radioactive materials
are in the sediments.

It's gonna go up the food chain

and there's going to be
radioactive alligators.

Yeah !
Radioactive alligators !

They even have names:
Tritagator and Dioxinator,

after two of the wastes
that poisoned them.

Because if I had
to give them names,

I'd have probably
gone with something like:

"holy shit a fucking
radioactive alligator"

and "no, fuck me,
there's another one !"

"What nightmare
hath God wrought ?"

It's not just reptiles who've been
impacted by nuclear waste.

Researchers are now studying
an area in North St. Louis County,

where waste from the Manhattan
Project was improperly stored,

some near a creek that winds
through residential communities.

People there noticed
some alarming trends.

I got on Facebook in order to reconnect
with people from high school

and we all started noticing
that so many of us were sick.

The Department of Veterans Affairs
recognizes around 21 cancers

associated with exposure
to ionizing radiation

and compared that list
to what we had.

We had all of those cancers.
Every single one.

That is an incredibly depressing
thing to discover on Facebook.

It's hard to know how to respond,
don't want to use the 'Like' button,

because then it looks like you
like the fact they just got cancer.

There is that new 'sad' emoji,
which would really be perfect,

if you hadn't already cheapened it
by using to respond to the news

that Chris Pratt and Anna Faris
were separating.

It is sad. But it's not "21 cancer"
sad. It's "nine cancer" sad, tops.

Sixty years ago, our government
and the scientific consensus

came up with a solution.

In 1957, the National Academy
of Sciences issued a report

urging the creation of a permanent
storage facility deep underground.

While we did build a repository for
lower-level waste in New Mexico,

we still haven't built one for the most
dangerous, high-level waste.

It's been left wherever it was made.
Those facilities were not built

with the idea that they would be
storing waste indefinitely.

So to continue the toilet metaphor,
we've been shitting in bags,

leaving them all over the house
and praying that they don't leak.

And the most frightening example of
this is the Hanford site in Washington,

which created two-thirds of
the plutonium in the US arsenal

and is storing 56 million gallons
of highly toxic and radioactive waste.

There have been
so many issues at Hanford

that they've achieved
a dubious honor,

as one local news station reported
with an almost prideful tone.

The most contaminated place
in the entire western hemisphere

isn't at a polluting factory
or an old chemical plant,

it's here in Washington state.

It's right here !
We did it, guys !

Home to the most contaminated
place in the western hemisphere,

thousands of acres of apple orchards
and several of Ted Bundy's murders.

We did it ! Right here.

There have been problems at Hanford,
from explosions to toxic vapor releases

to a million gallons of waste
leaking out of their tanks.

The government has had to pay out
nearly one and a half billion dollars

in compensation to workers
for illnesses

stemming from exposure to radiation
and toxic chemicals.

A local news station
has done a series of reports,

and they found the infrastructure
there is comically badly put together.

Mistakes in construction are factors
in the dangerous state of the tunnels.

They're 55 and 60 years old, well
beyond their expected lifespan.

Wood beams holding up
the tunnels are eroding.

And what corrodes
timber beams ? Radiation.

You can't build something out of wood
and expect it to last forever.

You learn that from the second
dumbest of the three little pigs.

Hanford is a gigantic problem

and even though it hasn't produce
anything for 30 years,

Department of Energy spends
two and a half billion dollars a year

on cleaning it up,
10 percent of its annual budget.

It is pretty weird to find out
that a place you just heard about

is getting that much
of the DOE's money.

It's like finding out that half
the Department of Agriculture budget

goes to this moose named Gordon.

I don't know the right amount.
But that seems like a lot.

If you're thinking: "I'm glad
I don't live near Hanford",

there are nuclear power plants storing
waste all over the country,

lots of it in so-called
"spent fuel pools",

and that's where nuclear fuel rods
are supposed to cool down,

and then moved to permanent
underground storage sites.

We don't have one of those.
And in many places,

those pools are accumulating
more and more rods.

If a Fukushima-like accident happens,
the results could be catastrophic.

The Northeast has a number
of nuclear power plants,

including the Indian Point Plant
outside of New York City.

If any one of those were to have
a severe spent fuel pool accident,

you're taking away a lot
of big cities, a lot of farmlands,

a lot of the United States
for decades, perhaps centuries.

That's right, lots of big cities.
New York, Hartford, Boston.

And that last one is a real shame
because as I understand it,

they only just got unracist yesterday.

I mean at least they could get
to enjoy their new life.

We need to find a permanent facility
to store our dangerous waste.

30 years ago, we settled on a site:
Yucca Mountain, in Nevada.

Congress passed a law designating it
as our sole candidate for storage.

Since then, we've spent
$15 billion prepping the site,

as you can see
from this rather upbeat video.

Located about 100 miles
northwest of Las Vegas,

Yucca Mountain is the most thoroughly
researched site of its kind.

Experts agree that the most feasible
and safe method for disposing

of highly radioactive materials
is to store them deep underground.

The best place to put nuclear waste
is in a hole deep underground,

much like Felicity.

Wait, if she's not there,
where is she ?

Jesus Fucking Christ ! Fuck me !
Get it the fuck out of here !

It's all right. I'm fine.
It's fine.

The point is... So: Yucca Mountain
is our permanent storage site,

so the problem is solved, right ?

No. Because while the site
has been deemed safe

and the people in the immediate area
actually support the project,

many Nevadans elsewhere
in the state don't want it.

And their former senator,
Harry Reid, lobbied hard,

managing to get Yucca shut down.

He had an alternative plan for states
sitting on their nuclear waste,

but to put it mildly, it was not
exactly scientifically sound.

Leave it on site, where it is.

Leave it where it is
in dry cask storage containers.

If you were smart, what you would do
is leave the thing where it is.

"If you're smart, what you would do
is leave the thing where it is"

is terrible advice
for dealing with nuclear waste

although, it is the title of Britain's
best-selling book on parenting.

Here is the truth: the scientific
consensus for decades

has been that leaving it where it is,
is a really bad idea.

The shuttered power plant
at San Onofre is storing nuclear waste

and it's on a fault line,
right next to the ocean.

Sounds like something you learn
in the first scene of a movie

starring The Rock
that you watch on a plane.

Maybe Yucca is the best place to store
our garbage, maybe it's not.

I am not a nuclear scientist.
I just have the face of one.

And our new Energy Secretary,
Rick Perry,

said that he is optimistic
about fixing the whole problem.

Although he didn't do exactly do
a great job dealing with this disaster.

Yeah, that was him
on "Dancing with the Stars",

and on the basis of that, managing
volatile energy is not his forte.

We've been saying that we are going
to fix this for decades

and we seem to be no closer
to a solution.

We've been researching this story
for a couple of weeks now.

Yesterday, we stumbled on a TV special
from 1977, the year that I was born.

NBC News presents:

Danger ! Radioactive Waste.

This problem is so old they reported
on it back when the news was kept

in an America-shaped vault
you had to open with a crank.

We gradually realized
that by pure coincidence,

it hits every beat of the story
we told you.

It opens with footage of sailors
throwing barrels into the ocean,

it looks at the facilities at Hanford,

talks about radiation's impact on
workers and on families nearby.

While it doesn't have
a radioactive alligator,

it does have radioactive cows.

Which is still good, although I did
prefer our alligator,

I liked it when he went...

But the most chilling moment
might be the one where they sit down

with someone in authority and demand
to know when this will be fixed.

When you ask when the problem will be
solved, you get answers like this.

What's the realistic timetable ?

Timetable is scheduled to have
a repository in operation by 1985,

with a selection of the sites
by the end 1978 for detailed work.

Nuclear waste is a problem we were
supposed to have dealt with

in the 1980's
and still cannot solve,

much like this Rubik's cube
that I always carry with me.

You are my Jean Valjean, cube,
and one day I shall defeat you.

At the end of that special,
remember, forty years ago,

the correspondent delivers
this message.

The waste increases every minute.
The solution is years away

and none of the previous
solutions has worked.

We are accustomed in this country
to act only in times of crisis.

With nuclear waste, when
the crisis comes, it will be too late.

That was from 4 decades ago !
We have already waited way too long

and we are dancing
with trouble here.

So if anyone says the government
can just continue to wait,

they are, much like a house with
no toilet, absolutely full of shit.

And now, this.

Some of the actual responses
from potential jurors

excused from
the Martin Shkreli trial.

I'm aware of the defendant
and I hate him.


By the time I came in and sat down
and he turned around,

I felt immediately I was biased.

He kind of looks like a dick.

When I walked in here today,
I looked at him,

and in my head,
that's a snake.

Not knowing who he was.

I just walked in and looked
right at him and that's a snake.

I think he's a greedy little man.

You'd have to convince me he
was innocent rather than guilty.

The only thing I'd be impartial about
is what prison this guy goes to.

Is he stupid or greedy ?
I can't understand.

He disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.

That's our show. Back September 10th.
Thanks for watching. Good night !