Disposal of Radioactive Nuclear Waste
Contributing Editor Air Marshal (Retd) AYAZ AHMED KHAN researches how to be rid of this dangerous “garbage”.
Disposal of radioactive nuclear waste is a major problem of industrialized countries today. With hundreds of nuclear power plants, nuclear reactors and nuclear laboratories in America, Europe, and Japan, thousands of tons of radioactive waste needs to be safely disposed almost everyday. The United States of America has 113 nuclear power reactors. President George Bush in his new Energy Plan has proposed construction of several more nuclear power plants, to meet the electric power shortage. Besides the 113 nuclear power plants, there are hundreds of nuclear research reactors with defence establishments, universities, and missile and nuclear weapon industry. The environmentalists and the Democrats are up in arms against the construction of more nuclear reactors for producing electricity. The Democrats have taken control of the US Senate, and are determined to scuttle nuclear power production plans, unless arrangements for safe disposal of radioactive nuclear waste are made. Senator Tom Daschle who is the new majority leader in the US Senate recently said that it would be impossible to expand nuclear power now because of the lack of national repository for storing nuclear waste. So far nuclear waste has been dumped into the sea, or into third world countries or is being kept in bulk storage for disposal. This has threatened marine life as well as humans and neighbouring communities.
From the Bay area on the West Coast barges carrying radioactive waste pass under the Golden Gate Bridge for nuclear waste dumping into the Gulf of Farallones. There the bottom of the barges opened to release containers of radioactive waste into the sea. Naval Radiological Defence Laboratories at Hunters Point near San-Francisco is the leading laboratory of the United States military for applied nuclear research. radioactive carcasses of dead animals used in nuclear experiments at this laboratory constituted much of the cargo on some barges. Applied nuclear research is also carried out at the University of California’s Lawrence laboratories. Nuclear waste from here is sent out in 55 gallon drums, that are loaded on to the barges for dumping into the sea. University of California is an acknowledged leader in nuclear research. Radioactive waste from McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento is also dumped in the Farallones. The routine is that radioactive material in containers and barrels is collected on the barges. The barges and tugs leave for the sea after they are full. Atomic energy officials inspecting the barges and tugs some time do report high radiation levels and order cleaning of the ships. Barrels that do not sink immediately, are holed by rifle shooting for immediate sinking. Many of the US Navy’s radioactive waste containers were breached, and waste barrels were holed to facilitate sinking, spreading radioactivity in the sea inside the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site. The Farallon waste site is a triangle shaped piece of sea space at a distance of 30 miles west of San Francisco. It encompasses most of the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a refuge of gorgeous marine and other wildlife. The site includes some of the most fertile commercial fishing waters in the Pacific. These waters are rich with fish and other sea life. The islands themselves are home to the nations largest population of breeding sea birds, and sea lions. But astonishingly this was America’s largest sea dump of nuclear waste till some years back. Why was nuclear trash dumped so close to the densely populated Californian coast, and sea traffic, could only be explained by the Federal and State authorities.
US officials have long acknowledged that this nuclear dump site contains some 47,500 barrels of low level radiation waste produced by nuclear power reactors, and US Navy and University of California’s nuclear laboratories. Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site is officially termed as a “low level”, nuclear waste repository. This claim has been challenged by environmentalists and journalists, who stress that high level and long lived radioactive, and far more dangerous materials are parked and are sitting at the bottom of the sea out there. According to SF Weekly US Navy’s unclassified documents reveal “significant amounts of nuclear bomb component plutonium which has a half life of 24000 years, and similarly long lived ‘mixed fission’ products were used at the US Navy’s laboratory at Hunters point.” The US Navy has asserted that all nuclear materials used at the NRLD were disposd of at the Farallon Nuclear Waste Site. An entire radioactive ship the 10,000 ton, aircraft carrier Independence used as target in the Bikini Atoll’s largest US atomic bomb tests is believed to have been sunk near this waste site.
US Navy has acknowledged that thousands of barrels containing ‘special’ wastes i.e high level long lived radioactive materials were dumped in the Farallon trash site. Scientific studies have shown that radioactive materials dumped into the sea can enter marine food chain through bottom dwelling organisms, such as clams and mussels. That radiation can accumulate in fish and other marine animals that feed on sea bottom dwellers. Fish feeding on radioactive organisms can be dangerous to humans who eat such contaminated fish. Increasing incidence of cancer and other radiation linked diseases are reported to afflict seamen working on nuclear wastage carrying barges and tugs, and eating radioactive fish and sea food. There is growing realization now that the Farallon dump area needs to be monitored for radioactivity. Officials and contractors of the US Environmental Protection Agency have said that radioactive material from this dumping site could be entering the food chain, and even on to beaches and into San Francisco Bay. It is astonishing that despite environmental outcry, since fifty years radio-active waste was dumped at the heart of a major fishery just of the beautiful city of San Francisco.
It is estimated that thousands of tons of radioactive trash needs safe dumping every year. The exact amount of nuclear waste that requires dumping nationwise has not been made public. The US government avoids disclosing such facts, especially the extent of uranium, plutonium, thorium, cesium, strontium or tritium contents in the nuclear waste. The radioactive trash from nuclear installations including nuclear electricity plants in the United States, however, far exceeds the nuclear radioactive waste from rest of the world. Taking advantage of the serious problem of nuclear waste disposal, Russia is forging ahead with a plan to import 22000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from abroad for reprocessing and storage. Russia sees huge profit in spent nuclear fuel reprocessing business. On May 25, 2001, Anna Badkhen of the San Francisco Chronicle reported from Muslyumovo that Russia may soon become world’s nuclear dump. The lower house of Russian parliament the State Duma has tentatively approved a bill that will allow Russia to accept highly radioactive toxic spent nuclear fuel from fourteen countries in Europe and Asia including Japan, South Korea, Germany and Switzerland. The final vote in The Duma in June- 2001, is expected to approve government plan to process highly toxic nuclear waste from Europe and Asia. The deal, Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry claims will bring in a profit of US dollars twenty (20) billion. The Russian scheme will help cleaning up the sites of nuclear waste dumping and nuclear power accidents. Thousands of tons of nuclear waste, held in temporary storage at power plants and nuclear installations worldwide would be shipped to a plant under construction in Krasnoyarsk-26, a closed nuclear city in Siberia. This will be the second big nuclear waste reprocessing plant; the first plant at Mayak in the Urals is of 1950 vintage. Large quantities of nuclear waste will be stored there, and later plutonium would be extracted from the used fuel rods, to turn into new nuclear fuel, which will be sold worldwide.
The economically beneficially plan for cash strapped Russian government, faces resistance from the United States. The Bush Administration is opposed to the Russian scheme, because of fears that Russia would create new stockpiles of weapon grade plutonium and uranium, and may sell it to India, Iran, North Korea, Brazil, Argentina and Iraq. Some of these states are labelled as rogue states by Washington. Washington claims that the government of the United States holds licensing agreements that gives it control over the movement of spent nuclear movement and nuclear radioactive waste worldwide. But the Russian government says that it will import nuclear waste from plants that are outside the US agreements. The legislation by the Putin government faces some resistance from US environmentalists who say that Russia’s record of handling nuclear waste is deplorable. The Chernobyl disaster had proved Russian failure of proper maintenance and management of nuclear power reactors and nuclear facilities. Russian scientists have not been able to ensure minimum radioactive safety measures at Mayak, the only one Russian nuclear reprocessing in the Urals. Located in the Chelyabinsk region in the Urals with its fields, lakes and rivers contaminated by radioactivity , Russian ability to reprocess nuclear waste commercially is seriously doubted. According to a recent report compiled by Russian and Norwegian scientists, the radioactive material released by the Mayak plant since it was opened in 1948, is five times greater than the sum of all other nuclear accidents including the Chernobyl catastrope in 1986, and all the nuclear tests ever conducted. Russians in the Chelyabinsk region are 40 percent more likely to get Leukemia than residents elsewhere. This was confirmed by Professor Dr Alexander Akleyev, head of the Chelyabinsk based Ural Research Centre for Radiation Medicine. Since long the rulers in Moscow have treated the Russian people as disposable waste. The new nuclear trash scheme says nothing about environmental degradation from the reprocessing of thousands of tons of radioactive trash in Russia. The 4,500 people of Muslimovo village near the Mayak plant have protested since long, but their petitions and protests were ignored. Nurzhigan Galipova, mother of three dead children is angry. She said that Techa river which runs past the Mayak plant is dangerously polluted by radioactivity. Three of her children died, two from Leukemia and one from heart failure. She says that the radiation from Techa river killed them. The river and the grass the village cows feed on, and everything in the town, emits up to 250 microrem radiation per hour, more than four times the radiation scientists consider acceptable. An official Russian study in 1998 showed that children in the area were three times less healthy than children in other parts of Russia. Only 18% of the village children are healthy according to Russian statistics, 82% of the children of this village suffer from acute memory loss and exhaustion.
During the Soviet era 40% of world’s weapon grade plutonium was processed at Mayak. Later when the Mayak nuclear facility was converted into a reprocessing plant, the Soviets considered everything related to its activities a state secret. It is now revealed that from 1949 to 51, the Mayak plant dumped 228 million cubic feet of highly toxic nuclear waste into the Techa river, irradiating 31,000 Russian men, women and children. This has been confirmed by Dr Akleyev. Plant officials were hoping that deadly strontiom-90 and Cesium-137 which have half life of about 30 years would dissolve in the river. In 1957 radioactive containers at the plant exploded. Twenty million curies of deadly strontium and cesium was released into the air — this was about 40 percent released by the Chernobyl disaster. A deadly toxic cloud crept across hundreds of miles of farmland. Two hundred towns and villages with a Muslim population of 270,000 were exposed to lethal doses of deadly radiation. 10,700 people from 23 highly polluted villages were uprooted and relocated. Their farmhouses were destroyed and burnt. Soviet authorities did not reveal the avoidable accident till 1989. People , mostly Muslims ordered to plow land have suffered radiation illness including stomach cancer and heart diseases. The Soviets were ruthless and reprocessing plants like Mayak were a disaster for the Russian people. Regardless of the dangers Mayak today continues to reprocess and reactivate fuel for nuclear plants, nuclear submarines and nuclear icebreakers. Now its mediuam active waste is being discharged into lake Karachai, which is located on the plants property. According to Yevgeni Ryzhkov Mayak plant spokesman the lake now contains 120 million curies of radioactive nuclides.
Inspite of these serious hazards the Putin government is determined to accept for reprocessing, using and selling radioactive trash, nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. The Mayak plant and the new Krasnoyarsk-26 plant could reprocess much more spent nuclear fuel than Russia can provide. There is wisdom in using the massive capacity at these plants to reprocess and make usable the 22000 tons nuclear waste that Russia plans to acquire from abroad. Russia could derive immense economic benefits by importing low cost nuclear trash and spent nuclear waste, and using and selling usable nuclear fuel.
The United States is the biggest repository of nuclear waste in the world. But US is unlikely to sell nuclear waste to Russia without close inspection and guaranteed safety at the Mayak and other reprocessing plants in Russia. Besides the United States will not allow Russia to sell or export enriched uranium or plutonium to India or other countries under UN-US sanctions or to countries that Washington labels as rogue states. The Putin government plans to trade in nuclear waste on a large scale, to make big money. But Washington is unlikely to accept any such Russian law or plan, without iron clad safety measures against radiation, pollution and nuclear proliferation. US will insist on joint inspection of facilities and plants and full guarantees of no sales to suspect states. Washington will also insist that Moscow keeps it informed about the end users of what is produced at the Mayak and Krasnoyarsk-26 nuclear reprocessing plants.
On Tuesday June 05, 2001 the Bush Administration unveiled a plan for the construction of a massive nuclear waste dumping facility in the Nevada desert. The aim is to upgrade nationwide health and safety standards by ensuring proper dumping of radioactive waste. This has become essential to rejuvenate the nuclear power industry, especially to meet opposition demands for a national waste repository before the construction of thirteen more nuclear power plants. The underground nuclear waste storage facility will be sited at Yucca mountain, 90 miles north -west of Las Vegas. Tough standards are planned for eliminating all potential sources of radiation ie nuclear waste, radiation exposure from ground water, soil and air at the proposed underground site. This storage site was first proposed in 1999 by the Clinton Administration, but the standards drew sharp criticism from Scientific groups, and GOP politicians, who camplained that they were too stringent. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham insists that the new safety standards would be met. He is determined to launch the big nuclear waste dumping project by the end of this year.
Christie Whitman, administrator of the powerful Environmental Protection Agency has assured the Americans that, “As a nation we must address our nuclear waste disposal problem, but we must do so in a way that we protect public health and the environment.” Construction of the storage site for 78,000 tons of radioactive waste would be vital to President Bush’s plan to address the nation energy needs by expanding the existing 113 nuclear power plants, and by constructing on a priority basis several more nuclear power reactors. Nevada state officials argue that the nuclear waste repository at the Yucca mountain site would pose serious threats to the region in the event of accident or earthquake. Besides the waste would have to be hauled by truck or rail through more than forty states, and that would create risk of spills, and nuclear pollution. The big hurdle is Senator Tom Daschle, the new majority leader in the US Senate. He is out to kill the Bush nuclear waste repository plan. During a fund raising in Las Vegas he said that, “the Yucca Mountain Project was dead as long as the Democrats retain control of the Senate”. Political observers say that it would be difficult to block the project indefinitely, though the Democrats could slow its construction by holding down its budget.