THE NUCLEAR READER
CHAPTER EIGHT: RADIOACTIVE WASTE
THIS CHAPTER POINTS TO THE CHALLENGE OF THE LONG TERM MANAGEMENT OF RADIAOACTIVE WASTE
It does seem criminal to continue operating nuclear power plants which produce poisonous radioactive waste without any hope of a secure location for long term storage, thus obligating future generations to handle the threat of possible radioactive releases of material that would be deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.
In 1987 Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected as the best possible location for the storage of radioactive waste. There were many problems in going forward with Yucca Mountain. Most worrying is the fact that Yucca Mountain is in an earthquake zone (a seismically active area) with a possibility of future volcanic activity.
After spending $9 billion building this facility, and with no other viable place in line, the plans as of Spring 2011 are to stop the development of Yucca Mountain as a long term storage site for our tons of radioactive waste. The 104 operating nuclear power plants in the USA now have no long term repository for the treatment and storage of their radioactive waste.
*The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository as designated by the NWPA Amendments of 1987, was to be a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other high level radioactive waste. Federal funding ended in 2010. It was to be located on federal land adjacent to theNevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, about 80 mi (130 km) northwest of the Las Vegas Valley. The proposed repository was within Yucca Mountain, a ridge line in the south-central part of Nevada near its border with California.
According to numbers compiled in 2010 by the Nuclear Energy Institute, American nuclear power plants are storing 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods. These are being held in cooling pools on the grounds of the nuclear power plants themselves. The pools were designed for temporary storage, and they are becoming dangerously crowded. More fuel rods are being put into the cooling pools than they were licensed to hold based on what is considered safe.
At this time it is not clear what plans there are to securely manage the poisonous radioactive waste for way over 100,000 years.
There may be other solutions to this challenge. One technology that might offer hope is transmutation. Transmutation is a process which converts long-lived radioactive elements into other radioactive elements with shorter half-lives, or into non-radioactive elements. In the first case, the necessary storage time is reduced. While traditional science says this is not possible, in recent years experiments by certain labs have been replicated and several patents granted.
Nuclear energy plants are not the only source of radioactive waste. The United States military is also a producer.
The first major leak of waste was discovered in 1956 at the government’s 570 square-mile Hanford facility in Washington state. It is estimated that about 450,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste have leaked out of containers since then. The Savannah River Plant, a military facility occupying 300 square miles near Aiken, S.C. Has a terrible record for monitoring radioactive waste. A five year study released in July 1986 by the Environmental Policy Group said that the degree of contamination at the plant is so severe that it is a “national sacrifice area.”
Careless handling of the waste disposal problem has been the norm. There are endless examples. One more:
A commercial spent fuel reprocessing plant opened in 1966 in West Valley, NY. It separated out the plutonium which was to be sold to industry. The facility closed in 1972 having had an alarming record for leaks and worker radiation exposure with doses so high that Science (October 1972, vol. 186) called them “almost without precedent in a major nuclear facility.”
Radioactive strontium-90 is still leaking from West Valley, in one instance seeping into a creek which flows into Lake Erie.
With all this in mind, what can we do?
We can stop producing more radioactive poison: phase out the nuclear power plants, increase efficiency and develop clean, renewable energy. We should be able to clean up and store radioactive waste responsibly. If this is our true intention, it can be done. If not, we are destined for a radioactive Earth.
In response to the March 2011 Japanese nuclear catastrophe, President Angela Merkel of Germany took seven power plants off-line and proposed the following six-point plan (Spiegel Online International 4/15/2011) from which other countries might take inspiration:
• Expanding renewable energy. Investing in more wind, solar, and biomass energies will try to raise the renewable-energy share of Germany’s total energy use — from a baseline of 17 percent in 2010.
• Expanding grids and storage. Building a much larger storage and delivery network for electricity — particularly wind energy, which can be generated in the north but must be carried to the south — will be a main focus.
• Efficiency. The government hopes to improve the heating efficiency of German buildings — and reduce consumption — by 20 percent over the next decade.
• “Flexible power.” The government wants to build more “flexible” power plants that can pick up slack from wind or solar energy when the weather fails to generate enough electricity during peak demand. The obvious source of “flexible power” for now, besides nuclear energy, is natural gas.
• Research and development. The government will increase government support for research into better energy storage and more efficient grids to a total of €500 million between now and 2020.
• Citizen involvement. The government wants to involve its sometimes-recalcitrant citizenry due to ongoing resistance against wind generators and the installation of an efficient new power line grid in some regions.
“After all the shouting is over, the grim silence of facts remains.”
Reprinted with permission from NuclearReader.info
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation located next to 5 miles from the Columbia River in Washington presents what is perhaps the worst slow motion nuclear catastrophe in US history. This nuclear waste dump represents everything that can, and will, go wrong with regard to nuclear waste disposal. The following article describes just a few of the extraordinary unintended consequences occurring daily at this site.