1. Hazards of Low Level Radioactivity
2. Nuclear Power is Bad Business
3. The Petkau Effect
4. Health Damage from Radioactivity
6. Depleted Uranium
7. Photos of Radiation Damage
Chapter 8. Radioactive Waste
9. Toward Clean Energy
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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.
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.”
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.