The Five Thousand Centuries of Nuclear Garbage

by Lorna Salzman

One Saturday last March over 500 residents, farmers, and business people in the Cattaraugus County region of western New York State crowded into a West Valley school to voice their opinions on the future of the defunct Nuclear Fuel Services reprocessing plant that had operated—at great cost to human health and the natural environment—in their town from 1966 to 1972.

At the back of the room, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the sponsor of the meeting, had a table displaying printed information for attendees. At the front of the table rested a small angular piece of black glassy material, looking much like a hybrid between coal and glass. The explanatory material stated that this black lump represented the future and final state of "high-level" (an intense radiation source that requires heavy shielding) wastes from the commercial nuclear power program in this country.

This black lump turns up regularly at DOE traveling shows across the country, but it really contains no actual radioactive substances. It is merely a gimmick designed to calm the public into accepting the DOE myth that a solution to the radioactive waste problem is at hand. And myth it most certainly is—the myth that the long-sought "solution" to the waste problem, that Achilles' heel plaguing the nuclear industry and the government, merely needs some funding and decisive action to be implemented.

The reality is quite different, especially after one reads between the lines of official government proclamations and consults the studies conducted by the U.S. Comptroller General, the California Energy Resources Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and others. While the government persists in claiming that a solution exists, nowhere does it claim that there is a demonstrated solution. One can easily postulate that waste can be solidified, that a relatively impermeable container can be constructed, and that a geological medium can be found to effectively isolate the material from the biosphere and human contact for the requisite geologic time periods—up to perhaps a half-million years. These are, however, only concepts of waste disposal, of which there is a surfeit. The actual state of the art is primitive: no commercial spent fuel or high-level waste has yet been solidified in this country; no impermeable container has been manufactured; and the mad scramble to find a deep-earth repository continues despite multiple failures in the past.

The real goal of these efforts should be successful isolation of the radioactive materials from the biosphere, primarily from water, people, and natural resource deposits that may be useful to future generations. But as things stand now, there are not even any environmental, health, geologic, seismic, or technical criteria for radioactive waste storage and isolation. Briefly, this means that no one even knows all the questions that must be asked and answered in order to find solutions. Without these questions and the range of answers, it is illogical, unreasonable, and possibly insane to go on making more wastes.

If one were to judge the problem strictly on existing studies and evidence, there would be no basis for concluding that a solution will ever be found. There is now no way of predicting the long-term stability of the waste (in its presumably solidified form), of the container, of the geologic medium, or of future social conditions, much less the complex radiological, thermal, chemical, and physical interactions of all these components, because we have not had any experience with these materials and problems. The government has already postponed by three years—from 1985 to 1988, and possibly 1993—the date for opening its first two permanent waste repositories; that the DOE can cite any date at all is amazing, since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admits that not one of the eight favored technological alternatives for waste disposal has been demonstrated. Nevertheless, the government is anxious to find some ostensible solution so that the nuclear industry can move ahead without public strictures or concern. This could result in a premature, insufficiently tested "solution" merely to allay public fears.

That these fears are inhabiting the nuclear industry is quite clear, as evidenced both by a recent Harris Poll in New York State where citizens opposed waste storage in the state by four to one, and by the legislation enacted or being considered by over twenty states to ban waste repositories or to require legislative action before they can be built. Indeed, the entire California reactor program may be at an end now because of a state law prohibiting reactor construction until a waste solution has been demonstrated and certified by the federal government.

Fancy Poison

High-level radioactive wastes include both a liquid residue from reprocessing reactor fuel and irradiated or "spent" fuel rods periodically removed from reactors. In reprocessing, the fuel rods (which contain millions of curies of the products of fission, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137) are chopped up and chemicals are used to leach out the plutonium and unfissioned uranium. What remains behind is a highly corrosive toxic solution containing all the fission products, which have an approximately thirty-year half-life (half of a given quantity decays to other elements in thirty years; half of the remaining quantity decays in another thirty years, and so forth) and must be isolated from people and the biosphere for up to twenty half-lives, or 600 years. In addition, the liquid wastes contain traces of heavier elements, sometimes called actinides, which include plutonium (which has a half-life of 24,400 years), americium, curium, and neptunium. These elements emit radiation less penetrating than that of the fission products but are highly carcinogenic if inhaled or ingested. Some are extremely long-lived and require isolation for up to 500,000 years.

Today, in the absence of commercial reprocessing, spent fuel rods coming out of reactors are stored in pools of water nearby; thus the fuel rods, containing all the fission products plus unfissioned uranium plus the actinides, are, in effect, high-level radioactive wastes, protected only by metal casing and the water. The fuel rods have high beta and gamma radioactivity, which is very penetrating, and they also have high temperatures; these two factors compound the difficulties of containment and isolation.

Most of the existing stocks of waste—about 75 million gallons in liquid form—are from the military plutonium production program; of these, 600,000 gallons are now stored at the Nuclear Fuel Services plant at West Valley, New York. In addition, spent fuel rods are being stored in pools at commercial reactors, many of which will have to close down within five years when the pools are full. Although most of the existing wastes are from the military program, the commercial wastes are far more toxic. Existing commercial wastes and spent fuel rods are perhaps 100 times more toxic in their concentration of fission products than military wastes and probably are equal in total radioactivity to the quantities produced in the military program. It is small comfort to hear the government say that all commercial wastes could be stored in an area the size of a football field, when one realizes that permissible human tolerance of fission products is measured in millionths of a curie and that the commercial waste program will ultimately involve the production, handling, transportation, and storage of billions of curies of fission products. Furthermore, in their present form spent fuel rods and highly radioactive wastes cannot be stored in tightly packed formations because of the heat of radioactive decay. Under ideal conditions, up to 75,000 waste canisters, stored far apart to permit cooling, might be needed by the end of the century.

It has been estimated that a fifty percent release of the strontium-90 in one large light-water reactor could, if evenly dispersed, contaminate the entire annual freshwater runoff of the lower forty eight states to six times the maximum permissible concentration. Moreover, there could be as many as 476,000 fuel rods by the year 2000, but storage is available now for only about 1 percent of these. This, then, is the problem: the technical challenge of finding ways to treat wastes, materials to encapsulate them, and a site insured against future geophysical processes that might rupture the repository or permit leaching of radioactive materials into water. In addition, there is the sociopolitical problem of insuring continuity and stability of institutions to guard the site from future exploration, sabotage, or war.

It is instructive to look at one aspect of the problem: geologic isolation. The U.S. Geological Survey is involved in a program aimed at making two national repositories operative by the 1980s. It is studying various geologic media, such as salt and shale, to determine how problems of groundwater, heat transfer, geopressure, and earthquakes might affect waste isolation. The chief sites being studied are salt formations in New Mexico, New York, and several other states, with the New Mexico site proposed for the initial project. It would include storage for military and commercial wastes and construction of a large depot for at least 1,000 spent fuel rods. Similar plans are being considered for the Nuclear Fuel Services site at West Valley, New York.

The initial plan is to engineer to retrieve the wastes within a fifty-year period and then go for nonretrievable deep burial—two schemes with distinct and unique disadvantages. For example, initial exploration, drilling, and trial emplacement of waste canisters could weaken the substratum and make it too weak for permanent burial; this is especially true for salt formations, which the government seems to be emphasizing despite growing doubts in the scientific community. From the geologist's point of view, the major problems are possible physical changes from erosion and other geological processes that could cause wastes to migrate into groundwater. A recent U.S. Geological Survey paper examines the major gaps in geological knowledge that must be filled before waste burial can even be considered. Addressing the interactions of waste, the host medium, and the mine dug into it, the report states: "Many of the interactions are not well understood, and this lack of understanding contributes considerable uncertainty to evaluations of the risk of geologic disposal of high-level waste." Three barriers are assumed to prevent radioactivity leaching and migrating: the solid physical form of the waste; the container, presumably a metal that will eventually corrode; and the geologic medium itself, which ideally should be totally free of water, stable for long geologic periods, and not in proximity to natural resources, resources that have already been explored, thus weakening the surrounding area, and that might be exploited by future generations, which could accidentally penetrate a repository or waste canister.

Eight Potential Turkeys

A report published in 1976 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives a remarkably honest appraisal of the eight major alternatives for waste disposal. The report bluntly states that 'technology has not been demonstrated" for any except the present method, i.e., storing liquid wastes in steel tanks. Some solidification has been done on a laboratory scale, but none of this involved acidic commercial highly radioactive wastes or spent fuel. The most recent plans for treating high-level commercial wastes merely call for simulated solidification, and/or conversion into glass; however, no actual solidification of commercial wastes has yet taken place in this country. Solidification plans are pure theory, and there is no reason to accept assurances that effective solidification will be achieved.

The acidic wastes at West Valley and at Hanford, Washington, were neutralized in order to slow down corrosion of the tanks. This was done after more than 100,000 gallons leaked out at Hanford four years ago. But neutralization creates new problems. It creates a thick sludge of fission products at the bottom of the tanks. No one knows how to get the stuff out, and there has even been talk of chopping up the tanks, sludge and all, and disposing of it in one mass. As for the small amounts of partially treated military wastes at Hanford, there appear to be difficulties with converting this ultimately to a glass form. In short, there has been some ad hoc treatment of wastes to deal with emergencies such as tank corrosion and leakage, but there still is no demonstrated technology for waste treatment and solidification. Nor is there any existing container that can guarantee nonleaching and noncorrosion for at least the requisite 600 years needed for the fission products, let alone the hundreds of thousands of years needed for the heavier radioactive elements.

Thus, we must place our faith in the geology of the final repository, whether it be in salt, granite, shale, or the sea bottom. Here lies the greatest challenge—to find that location which has been seismically and geologically stable for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years; which offers sufficient proof, if such is possible, that it will remain equally stable in the future; and which satisfactorily demonstrates that it can contain the wastes after the canisters erode in about a hundred years. This is indeed a tall order to fill. In fact, the parameters of successful waste isolation for geologic time periods are not yet known. No one even knows if all the relevant questions have been asked.

The U.S. Geological Survey report says that the act of creating a repository and placing waste therein will "initiate complex processes that cannot, at present, be predicted with certainty." It is assumed that computer models will be used to estimate the repository stability, but the Geological Survey comments that some components of the models are inherently unpredictable at present and are likely to change at different times. Because of these uncertainties, there will be not a single answer but rather "a spectrum of alternative outcomes, each based on a set of uncertain assumptions about the future," which will have to be assessed in the context of social and economic needs and human expectations.

Some of the specific technical concerns cited by the Geologic Survey are: permeability of the surrounding medium; adsorption qualities of the salt or rock; characteristics of subsurface geology and possible groundwater, shear zones, faults, abandoned excavations, and small undetectable faults or fracture systems; disturbances created by digging the repository; chemical disturbances caused by introduction of wastes; thermal stresses from the wastes which, in turn, create greater mechanical and chemical stresses; effective resealing of the repository opening after the waste is in place; migration of groundwater to the repository because of heat; effects of salt water on waste components; creation of new waste forms through radioactive decay and chemical changes; mechanical and chemical changes in the rock or salt that could reduce thc strength of the repository; thermal expansion and contraction that could fracture brittle rock; breakdown of wastebearing minerals and subsequent release of water or gases; interaction of minerals, gases, and the waste because of elevated temperatures; changes in permeability caused by the movement of hot liquids, leading to changes in volume and stress underground; etc.

The federal government has mainly been researching the use of thick salt formations, primarily in New Mexico and New York, not because salt is necessarily the best medium (it may well be the worst because of corrosiveness, nearby uncharted gas and oil drill holes, and the association with potentially valuable minerals like potash), but because more is known about salt than other formations. The site in New Mexico was chosen because of its low population, aridity, large open areas, and, not coincidentally, because a good proportion of jobs in the state are provided by the government weapons center at Los Alamos or at the government funded Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque. This led the Department of Energy to expect a warm welcome for the waste project, but the DOE was wrong. For the Department did not tell anyone in advance that the site would include intermediate and high-level commercial wastes, as well as one thousand spent fuel rods from reactors in other parts of the country. This deception provoked an angry response from citizens and local legislators alike, and it sparked the introduction of a bill in the state legislature to give the state a veto over any repository siting. A citizens' information project on the implications of the project has been organized by the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, and out of it have come some important technical findings.

Simultaneously, federal studies of the salt beds in New York (as well as in Ohio and Michigan) are moving ahead with the tacit blessing of New York's Governor Hugh Carey, who professes opposition to a repository but refuses to sponsor corresponding legislation. Union Carbide has done a preliminary survey of what a New York repository would entail, and exploratory drilling in the Finger Lakes region may take place soon. The special attraction of central New York State is not its scenery, however, but its proximity to the closed Nuclear Fuel Services plant at West Valley. The Department of Energy is seriously considering use of the site as a demonstration facility and "interim" storage site for spent fuel. The former owner and operator of Nuclear Fuel Services, which is a subsidiary of Getty Oil, has told DOE that it could easily expand its spent fuel storage capacity threefold. Finally, since a permanent repository for high-level wastes is many decades in the future, the accumulation of spent fuel rods is currently a serious problem which could conceivably lead to reactor shutdowns by 1983. As a result, the DOE is now proposing to construct above ground spent fuel pools for the rods, at new sites called Away-From-Reactor facilities, of which West Valley may be one.

Such fuel pools, instead of containing solidified, contained, and geologically isolated wastes, would consist of high-level fuel rods containing millions of curies of extremely hazardous fission products. These would be protected only by thin metallic cladding and would be stored above ground in pools of water. Getting these rods from all the reactors in the Northeast to the new sites will involve dozens of shipments each year on crowded highways and through towns and cities, with constant risk of accident, collision, fire, or sabotage; one accident could expose thousands, even millions of people, to lethal doses of radiation.

The truth is that there is a total lack of experience in dealing with waste disposal. What little experience the government has had has been uniformly disastrous: experimental drilling in salt formations in Kansas revealed many oil and gas drill holes; similar discoveries in New Mexico led to early relocation of the proposed facility there; in Hanford, Washington, leakage of up to 150,000 gallons of liquid wastes took place on several occasions, and plutonium-239 in trenches there had to be dispersed to prevent initiation of a chain reaction and explosion; at Maxey Flats, Kentucky, plutonium migrated several miles in the subsoil in less than two years; as mentioned before, neutralization of Hanford and West Valley wastes has created an unmanageable radioactive slurry that may be impossible to solidify.

Because of the unanswered questions, no realistic estimate of waste disposal costs can be made. The government talks of $13 billion to deal with all the wastes through the year 2000, but ultimately costs will have to reflect societal decisions on engineering standards and environmental criteria for waste. These could mean openended cost escalation. Now the DOE hopes to institute a one-time user fee, wherein utilities pay the government an initial fee and then are absolved of responsibility and financial liability.

The legal obstacles to a waste repository are formidable. The U.S. government and New York State are haggling over what to do with West Valley and who will pay; state residents who wish to see the site decommissioned and dismantled are facing a juggernaut of state officials, federal legislators, nuclear industry executives, and the DOE, all of whom are determined to continue the site as a major nuclear facility. Illinois is suing the federal government to prevent storage of any more waste at the Sheffield site. California has legislated a nuclear moratorium to be in effect until a waste disposal technology has been demonstrated, and citizen movements in other states are heading in the same direction. In New York State, the Citizens' Project on Radioactive Waste, which opposes all forms of waste storage in the state, now has over thirty-five member groups representing nearly 130,000 people. The organization recently presented petitions to the governor to ban interim and permanent waste storage in the state. Also, several bills banning out-of-state waste storage, requiring legislative approval for any repository and halting nuclear licensing until a waste solution is found, are pending in New York.

In the face of glaring gaps in technical knowledge, it seems eminently reasonable to urge that U.S. reactors be phased out until an effective solution to the waste problem has been demonstrated. Recommendations to this effect have already been made by the President's Council on Environmental Quality, a House subcommittee, and by the director of Ontario Hydro in Canada. The use of nuclear power requires demonstrable proof that the problem of waste has in fact been solved. It is only a matter of time until this policy is adopted nationally; whether it will be done peacefully, utilizing existing public forums and institutions, is another question.

Source: Business & Society Review, # 26, summer 1978.

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