Nuclear Garbage

by Lorna Salzman

A Review of Radwaste by Fred C. Shapiro (New York. Random House. $14.50)

Writer Fred Shapiro (New Yorker) has written the most comprehensive and factually accurate description to date of the multifaceted problem called, oversimply, "radioactive waste." Because radioactivity is invisible and cannot be visualized, radioactive waste–"radwaste" for short–is thought of in its most visible form: commercial spent fuel rods encased in massive steel casks, or glowing in their private Jacuzzi-like pool of water near their progenitor, the nuclear reactor. But radwaste forms, like those of the devil, are various and deceptive. Westerners see it in its most deceptive form as vast (150 million tons and growing daily) mountains of powdery gray uranium mill tailings that blow up their noses and into their lungs, get incorporated into the foundations of their homes and roads, and are routinely washed into their rivers to create a peculiarly toxic mineral water. The plutonium inhaled by a worker at a fuel fabrication plant lives on after the worker dies from lung cancer, leaching into the soil and being absorbed by living plants later harvested for human food. The americium incorporated in 40 million American smoke detectors hanging in our hallways will eventually get bulldozed into, and later out of, landfills to infect lungs and genes for hundreds of years. The nickel in nuclear reactors will make these infernal machines into eternal radiation monuments. Fred Shapiro has visited, interviewed, questioned, analyzed, notated, and absorbed just about all the information concerning nuclear waste sites, projects, studies, experts, and accidents relating to nuclear waste production, handling and storage in this country. Every stranger-than-fiction fact and event is recounted: how and where it is produced; how it is handled (badly) and stored (worse); where and how it is transported; what kinds and quantities of leakage have occurred; what happens to reprocessed waste, to soil, air, and water, and to people working in the industry, as well as the sociopolitical controversy that inevitably accompanies these activities. For a reader like myself who has also written on the subject, his accounts of the radwaste industry (for it is by its nature a beast unto itself) still jolt. Shapiro does not conjure up grisly scenarios and fantasies of what if; he merely recounts the facts.

All the real-life horror stories of radwaste leakage are in the book: the plutonium fire at the Rocky Flats weapons plant, the low-level and transuranic waste leakage from the West Valley, New York trenches and eventually into Lakes Erie and Ontario, the half-million-gallon, high-level waste leak from the Hanford, Washington storage tanks that went undetected for a month, the uranium mill tailings piled up all over the western states, the ocean disposal of plutonium and other radionuclides off California and the Atlantic coast, plutonium migration in Maxey Flats, Kentucky from a dump site; accidental dropping of nuclear warheads in Greenland and Spain followed by excavation of several feet of topsoil later shipped back to the United States for disposal–and the list goes on.

The only hypothetical accident scenario comes in Chapter 9 regarding the volatile (literally and figuratively) issue of radwaste transportation. Until early 1976, commercial spent fuel was trucked through the streets of New York City and other urban areas (and plutonium oxide in powdered form was also routinely shipped by air). Alarmed by the possibility of an accident that would render the city a radioactive wasteland, Dr. Leonard Solon, director of the city's Bureau for Radiation Control, convinced the New York City Board of Health to enact a regulation prohibiting such transport, and other cities enacted similar bans. With good reason, Solon and others believe that spent fuel transport is the weakest link in the nuclear fuel cycle (direct bombing of reactors and spent fuel pools excepted). After removal from the reactor, spent fuel is normally placed in giant swimming pools, encased not only in its original cladding but in large casks. But spent fuel casks in transport no longer have the water to cool them and are exposed and vulnerable as they sit on the back of flatbed trucks. The casks now in use have been shown to be faulty in design and construction and unable to withstand serious fires or collisions, not to mention bombing; should an accident occur, part or all of the lethal gaseous and particulate fission products could contaminate buildings, streets, food, people, soil and water, rendering huge areas of the country uninhabitable essentially forever.

Waste Disposal

What technologies are available to "dispose of" (e.g., isolate) radioactive wastes and what will they cost? None is actually available or in use, but Shapiro lists some methods under consideration–and mostly discarded, such as rocketing into space, burial under the Antarctic, transmutation, seabed disposal, and very deep holes in rocks or the ground, a highly original idea. Since the actual burial site represents only the final layer of protection (except for guards being stationed at the site for the requisite thousands of years), the real challenge is to find a waste matrix or form in which to incorporate the radionuclides without decomposing, corroding, shattering, dissolving, or otherwise dissipating. The choice now appears to be a borosilicate glass, though other forms such as calcines, cements, ceramics, metals and synthetic rocks are also being studied (someone in Sweden suggested gold).

The problem is that neither geology nor radiation chemistry is a predictive science. Because neither humans nor nature has had experience with artificial radionuclides, not even sophisticated computers can predict the potential interactions of radwaste with its matrix, container, rock or geological medium, nor can they predict future geohydrological (or political) conditions. New chemical and physical conditions will undoubtedly be created–who knows when?–for which science has no way of being prepared. Right now the time period being considered for containment of high-level wastes is 1,000 years, assuming a one part in 100,000 annual controlled release. After that time, the radionuclides will be released at an annual rate that is "as low as reasonably achievable," and, it is hoped, no greater than that one in 100,000 annual release. For the ultra-long-lived fission products and actinides such as plutonium-239 (24,000-year half-life, requiring isolation for 500,000 years), even the release of one part in 100,000 is significant and potentially dangerous, in light of the fact that the "permissible" ingestion limits for alpha-particle emitters are measured in the billionths and trillionths of a curie.

The problem of radwaste boils down to two things. First, all proposed solutions are still only speculative, not demonstrated. The assertion that radwaste can be stored and isolated successfully for thousands of years or more cannot be tested scientifically, and none of us will be alive to know if that assertion is true. Second, and this is perhaps the most important point, the waste problem is a production problem. The more you operate nuclear reactors or produce weapons, the more waste you produce, and the more you permit inevitable dispersal, contamination and ingestion. Eventually, all the stuff will get out, somewhere, somehow, at some time. To assume the opposite is to assume disaster.

Furthermore, given the difficulties encountered to date in finding a chemical form and a suitable geological repository site, it is clear that the continued production of radioactive waste in whatever form (in terms of public health risk, the distinction between high- and low-level waste is meaningless since the health risk is essentially proportionate to dose) can only compound the ultimate disposal method. In exactly the same manner that toxic chemicals disposed of for the past thirty years have gotten out–and into people–at Love Canal, Middlesex, New Jersey, Long Island, Michigan and all over the country, radioactive wastes will ultimately get out, and those who assert otherwise must be forced to demonstrate the converse. And the results will be the same: leukemia, cancers, miscarriages, premature deaths, somatic dysfunctions and disorders, and general ill health. The more radwaste produced, the more people die; stop producing it and you save lives.

How does Shapiro view the likelihood of a "solution" He says: "[I]t appears that the nuclear camel got his nose into mankind's tent in 1942, when Enrico Fermi and Manhattan Project scientists initiated the chain reaction . . . and created the first radwastes. In the forty years since then, some Americans have been engaged in welcoming the camel and making him as comfortable as possible while others have been trying to drive him out. Me, I think it's time to housebreak the beast before he takes over the tent." The only problem with the camel of radioactivity is that if you housebreak it, it will only go elsewhere to dispose of its non-biodegradable excrement. The only way to stop the nuclear camel from defecating is to stop feeding it. The question is: how much more of this gamma-infested garbage can the earth and its inhabitants support? And who wants to be around to find out?

Source: Business and Society Review, Summer 1982, Number 42, pgs. 76-78.

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