Bad Solutions to Radioactive Pollution

by Lorna Salzman

Government plans for disposal of low-level radioactive wastes present an enormous threat to future generations

While the solution to highlevel radioactive waste disposal lies somewhere within a clouded crystal ball, the picture regarding lowlevel wastes and discrete amounts of transuranic wastes is much clearer: dilute it, spread it out in consumer goods and the environment, and give everyone a little piece of the action. A controversy is raging in New York City now over a law that went into effect on January 1, requiring landlords of multiple dwellings to install smoke detectors in all apartments, with tenants paying the full cost. This legislation is a result of a public hearing held by the New York City Council two years ago, and while the intent of the legislation is admirable, the law as written is turning out to be counterproductive.

Two kinds of smoke detectors are on the market: photoelectric and ionization. The former is most suited to detecting slow, smoldering fires, the most likely ones to occur in dwellings. The latter is more suited for rapidly burning fires, and some people install a combination for extra safety. However, in New York City, inasmuch as the ionizing types are about 50 percent of the cost of the photoelectric, landlords, who must pay the upfront cost and installation, are choosing the radioactive type. Unfortunately, the New York City law as written does not require the landlord to offer tenants an option; the most serious drawback, however, is that the law makes no provision for ultimate disposal of the ionizing device, and this is where the public health hazard enters.

The ionizing detector contains 1 microgram of the transuranic element americium-241, a by-product of nuclear fission and military reactors, which arises from plutonium-241. Like other transuranics, it emits gamma radiation, which can penetrate the casing of the detector; since the device requires regular cleaning, this casing must be removed by tenants at home, exposing them to as much as 12 millirems of gamma radiation, which is similar to X-rays. But the americium-241 also emits alpha particles, which are extremely toxic and carcinogenic if inhaled or ingested in miniscule quantities. Once ingested by humans, americium concentrates in the liver, kidney, spleen and in skeletal tissue. Although in theory the americium is "locked" into a metallic and ceramic base, the detector could be damaged or breached if improperly manufactured, handled or disposed of. It is, in fact, the disposal question that has aroused thousands of New York City residents to refuse installation of the ionizing smoke detectors and insist on photoelectrics.

The Disposal Problem

The detector has a ten-year lifetime, after which it must be disposed of. The problem is that no transuranic radioactive waste disposal sites exist in this country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is instructing people (including those who are removing them and replacing them with photoelectrics) to throw them in their garbage or in their incinerator. The result could be severe abrasion of the container and contents, resulting in dispersal of alpha particles from land-fills. Originally, the NRC was going to require that they be returned to the manufacturer after their useful life, but this was unenforceable (and useless since the manufacturer has no disposal or burial site in any case). So this provision was removed. Right now, according to The New York Times, 40 million ionizing smoke detectors are in use across the country, all of which will ultimately be disposed of in landfills or incinerators and thereby pose a distinct hazard of lung cancer to literally millions of Americans. According to one nuclear physicist, the amount of americium-241 in each detector is more than one thousand times the quantity needed to significantly increase the risk of lung cancer to an individual. In New York City alone, 1.5 million tenants could in theory have ionizing detectors installed—and many of those will be removing them as they learn of the dangers and putting them in their garbage or incinerators.

Another way the government deals with radioactive waste is by declassifying or redefining it. In the 1979 Interagency Review Group report on radioactive waste management, the NRC and the Department of Energy proposed to classify transuranic waste out of existence by defining it as all waste containing 100 nanocuries per gram of transuranics instead of the present definition of 10 nanocuries per gram. Under this new arrangement, materials containing up to and including 99 nanocuries per gram would thus no longer be transuranics and could be disposed of with other less hazardous radioactive waste instead of in special transuranic repositories.

Clearly the distribution and dissemination of alpha emitters and other radioactive materials in widely used consumer items and thence into the air represent an unprecedented health hazard. The government has many plans afoot to try and relieve the pressure from growing quantities of radioactive wastes and by-products, all of which will contribute to an increase in the general level of radioactivity in the global environment. This is a deadly business, for the trend since life appeared on earth has been in the direction of decreased radioactivity. Life did not appear until there was a significant ozone layer to block out solar and cosmic radiation; radioactivity creates random havoc in the somatic and genetic material of living things by creating unstable charged ions. Random changes are seldom if ever beneficial. Humans are especially susceptible to radiation, much more than insects or plants, for example, where natural selection can weed out dangerous mutations extremely quickly. Humans, however, because of the advent of drugs, reduction of disease, and better medical care, live to reproduce and perpetuate mutations and defects.

Metals and Isotopes

What are the government's other plans? First, a decision is expected shortly from the NRC on its proposal to lift the licensing requirements for smelting of radioactive metals like technetium-99 and low-enriched uranium. Should this be permitted, such metals could then be alloyed with non-radioactive ones and made into consumer items like toys, coins, toasters, and other items of household commerce. (If you get enough of these in your kitchen, maybe you could save on electricity by shutting off your lights.) What will the industry and government get out of this? Well, otherwise, huge amounts of metallic scrap from uranium enrichment plants—over 40,000 metric tons—would have to be regarded as radioactive waste and buried; if allowed to be smelted and alloyed, however, it can be sold by the industry for tens of millions of dollars. The next obvious question, health problems aside, is what the industry will propose when it comes to decommissioning reactors. Will they recycle those and make new reactor vessels? It all sounds like a sinister King Midas story, where everything the nuclear industry touches turns not to gold but becomes radioactive; it is no wonder they want to get it off their hands and give us all a little piece.

Another recent regulation enacted by the NRC was the deregulation of certain amounts of radioisotopes used in laboratories and research, like carbon-14 and tritium (H3), which are used as tracers mixed with solvents like toluene, in quantities up to nearly half a million gallons each year. Until now, such materials were (in theory) supposed to be stored in closed containers and disposed of in low-level waste repositories. However, the new rule will permit these materials to be flushed down toilets or put in ordinary landfills with normal household garbage, where they will be free to leach out with liquids and chemicals down into the soil, and where they will eventually contaminate drinking water as has already happened all over the country. The reason for this is economics pure and simple. Disposal of these wastes requires 400,000 cubic yards of space, at a cost of over $13 million annually. By permitting small quantities, up to .05 microcuries at a time, to be disposed of in local landfills and sewage systems, the government and the nuclear industry will be saving vast quantities of money and land.

Poisoning the Environment

Having covered nearly all their bases on radioactive waste disposal, the government's next plan is to incinerate it, in company with other toxic chemical and biological wastes. One upstate New York utility, Niagara-Mohawk, has applied for permission to build such an incinerator, and another is planned for the University of Connecticut campus at Storrs, Connecticut, and two more reportedly exist in Massachusetts. While incineration reduces volume, it in no way reduces radioactivity. On the contrary, it can contribute to more rapid dispersal of radioactive materials, accompanied by other lethal materials—a kind of domestic chemical warfare where we, not our enemies, are the victims.

Put in the context of renewed interest in direct ocean dumping of radioactive wastes, this becomes a grisly scenario for the future. The "frog in hot water" metaphor is appropriate here. It has been observed that a frog dropped in boiling water immediately leaps out of the pot, but one placed in a pot of cold water which is slowly brought to the boil cooks to death. In a sense, a nuclear war could be compared to the boiling water: a sudden conflagration and it's all over. But the incremental poisoning of the biosphere by increasing radioactivity, produced in commercial fuel cycles, in laboratories and hospitals for medical purposes and research, and in the weapons program, is at least as deadly and far more insidious.

For a long time, the government and the nuclear industry tried to pretend that they were going to contain radioactive wastes and materials, and that only a small proportion would actually be released. Aside from the very real health hazard that even small continual releases represent, this pretense has now been abandoned in favor of the theory that "the solution to pollution is dilution." Unfortunately, dilution of radioactivity in no way reduces its danger, due to the long half-lives of many radioisotopes, its persistence and accumulation in biological and physical systems, and the fact that its effects are cumulative and irreversible. What dilution and dispersal mean, quite simply, is that they will disguise for all practical purposes for the statistically certain cancers and genetic defects in the population at large by making the sources of such matters untraceable.

There is little difference between the releases— intentional or not—of toxic chemical wastes into landfills, air and water, and those of radioactivity. The medical problems we are seeing now from toxic wastes are the result of improper disposal of synthetic organics and other poisons over the past three to four decades. There is no doubt that from now on we will start to see the delayed effects of radioactive waste disposal and nuclear fuel cycle operation, in the form of increased cancer, birth defects, and genetic disorders. The radioactive time bomb is exploding slowly but surely, and the prevention of global nuclear war, while important in itself, may do little to avert long-term radiological poisoning of the biosphere.

Cancer Risks From Smoke Detectors

  • Average americium-241 per smoke detector: 1 microcurie
  • Maximum number of lung cancer doses per microcurie: 78
  • Number of ionizing smoke detectors in the United States: 40,000,000
  • Number of potential lung cancers: 3,120,000,000
  • Cancers (assuming only 1 part in 1,000 actually inhaled): 3,120,000
  • Cancers (assuming only 1 part in 1,000,000 actually inhaled): 3,120

Source: Business and Society Review, 1978.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.