GR Impacts Nuclear

Nuclear Waste Part 1: The elephant (shrew) in the room

This is the first in a four part series on nuclear waste which will run on over the next four days.

Geoff Russell, July 2013

(Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here).

Abstract: The nuclear industry used to dispose of nuclear waste in a safe and environmentally benign way. It’s a trivial technical problem compared to many other much larger waste problems that kill and sicken thousands of people daily. But they stopped. Not because of any problems, but because people who understand reactors and medicine and isotopes and engineering discovered that nuclear waste is far too valuable to simply throw out … it is already being used to kill cancer … and it has many other uses. So the policy changed from disposal to “retrievable storage”: don’t put it anywhere you can’t get it back from.

That abstract will surprise more than a few people who talk about nuclear waste as if its some kind of elephant in the room. “But they can’t even solve the waste problem!” they shout, or “I wouldn’t mind nuclear if only there was a solution to the waste problem”. If it really is an elephant, then it’s incredibly small. Just a little shrew scurrying along hoping to hell somebody doesn’t decide to make its habitat collateral damage underneath tonnes of concrete, steel and mirrors for a solar farm.

The smallest of the elephant shrews weighs 50gm
The smallest of the elephant shrews weighs 50gm

This is a four part series about nuclear waste designed to make the abstract blindingly obvious.

  1. What’s the fuss about?
  2. The nuts and bolts of waste
  3. Case studies, ocean dumping (safe and benign … yes, really) and Finland’s repository
  4. The choice … nuclear “waste” OR renewable wastelands

Part I: What’s the fuss about?

When you compare the nuclear waste problem with other waste problems, it quickly emerges as one of the easiest to solve safely and completely. Globally, another of our waste problems kills 3.5 million people annually. Which one? No, it’s not waste from coal fired power stations. Human sewage would be a good guess; it certainly kills millions. But the one I have in mind is a renewable energy source. Which one? Please read on.

What exactly are the problems relating to nuclear waste?

Here’s a quote from the Greenpeace website:

Most of the current proposals for dealing with highly radioactive nuclear waste involve burying it in deep underground sites. Whether the storage containers, the store itself, or the surrounding rocks will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long term is impossible to predict.

Currently no options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated from the environment over the tens to hundreds of thousands of years. There is no reliable method to warn future generations about the existence of nuclear waste dumps.

The page in question cites no accidents, no injuries, no illnesses, no deaths, no untoward radiation leaks. Not a single relevant adverse incident. The same is true of other anti-nuclear websites (e.g., the Friends of the Earth website).

Back when I was anti-nuclear, these paragraphs would have been persuasive. It’s a simple argument: Nobody’s perfect, therefore stuff will always go wrong and nuclear stuff is dangerous. It’s a no brainer. These days my response is multi-layered.

First, how can radiation “escape”? Even a few metres of water, rock, soil or damn near anything you care to mention can protect against radiation from even the highest of high level waste … by which people mean uranium fuel rods after use. So radiation can’t “escape”. For there to be any risk at all, radioactive material has to move. So how hard is it to keep waste from moving? Scientists have no problem at all in finding, drilling and obtaining cores from areas that have been undisturbed for hundreds of thousands or millions or even billions of years. How hard can it be? Find, drill, dump, fill, forget. How precisely is it going to move if you put it in rock that hasn’t moved for a billion years? It won’t.

Many beautiful rocks are naturally radioactive
Many beautiful rocks are naturally radioactive

Third, the earth’s crust and mantle is a very radioactive place. The amount of energy produced continuously by radioactive decay is equivalent to 44 million large nuclear reactorsGeothermal energy is nothing more than harnessing that radioactive decay energy. Similarly, if you are rich enough to have a polished marble or granite bench top, then that’s also radioactive. So if any nuclear waste does by some sheer miracle move, then the issue isn’t “will it move?”, but “can enough of it move far enough, and fast enough to cause harm?”. For example, can it pick itself up from under a million tonnes of rock and fly through the air to land in your lungs? Can it hitch a lift on a star trek tractor beam to your water catchment and arrive fast enough to be concentrated enough to cause more damage to your DNA than, for example, a glass of vodka … or a burger … or even a glass of milk? All shred your DNA without any help from radiation at all.

In any event, we now have excellent evidence to answer to this question: harm from a repository “leak” is so close to being impossible that calling it anything else is simply pedantic silliness. Furthermore any such accident would be relatively trivial accident compared to the daily disease toll of the world’s most popular renewable energy source. How so? Read on.

Nuclear waste cannot cause a long term catastrophe

Imagine some plausible nuclear waste accident. Perhaps during transport. If there’s ever been one, I can’t find a record of it, but let’s assume it’s possible. It’s pretty obviously going to be worse than a repository accident. Now add in an explosion and fire to spread the waste around. Is that as bad as it can get? That would be the mother of all waste accidents.

Wildlife is thriving in Chernobyl
Wildlife is thriving in Chernobyl

How bad could that be? We’ve already had something much, much worse. The 1986 steam explosion and fire at Chernobyl was pretty much this accident, but with waste far less contained than in any transport accident. But the result after 27 years hasn’t been long term global or even local catastrophe. Even the most heavily contaminated region, the 30 kilometer radius around the reactor, is demonstrably not a disaster area. It’s a thriving wildlife reserve with the biggest current risk being a loosening of restrictions which could see wildlife once more the subject of human predation and displacement.

The people who used to live around Chernobyl may rightly regard the accident as a catastrophe, but all kinds of events, both natural and human initiated, require evacuations and we don’t demonise other technologies on such grounds. Consider salt effected land in Australia. Much of this has been turned into wasteland by traditional farming practices. There is no likely dose of radiation from any plausible waste leak that could wreak such devastation. Not around Chernobyl, not around any waste repository. Nowhere. Vast areas of Pakistan were inundated with salt in the 2010 floods. They won’t be farmed again for many years.

Radiation can’t compete with salt in the wasteland stakes, not even after the mother of all leaks.

The Chernobyl accident raised radiation levels over a large area in three countries. So for over 25 years, many of the people in the areas have been eating food with higher than normal radiation levels. What has been the health impact? Happily, we don’t need to consult hundreds of studies and compensate for differential age structures, unemployment rates, dietary shifts, population movements and other factors that make epidemiology such a difficult science, we can instead look at stuff that is easily measured and the results are clear. In the countries most affected by the Chernobyl fallout, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, there have been some 14 million cancer cases since the accident. World cancer rates are collated on the GLOBOCAN data base. No fancy statistics, no studies, just a simple count of cases. How many of the 14 million were due to Chernobyl? In a very real sense the number doesn’t matter because the cancer registries also tell us that if three countries had had Australian (or US) cancer rates, they’d have had 20 million cancers during this period. That’s 6 million additional cancers from things that neither the German nor the Australian Greens are lobbying against. One more comparison should nail home the point. The rate of malignant melanoma is about 67 per 100,000 per year in Queensland and just 0.5 per 100,000 per year in Japan. This means anybody in Queensland could reduce their cancer risk by moving to Japan and living next door to the stricken Fukushima reactors. Conversely, evacuating people from around Fukushima to Queensland would raise their cancer risk considerably.

The impact of salinity on landscapes is not great.
The impact of salinity on landscapes is not great.

The implications of such comparisons for the so-called waste problem are clear. Even if nuclear waste storage goes wrong in the worst most unimaginable way. It’s going to be relatively trivial. There will always be cock-ups and people should assiduously try to avoid them, but nuclear cock-ups aren’t special.

The real issue is to ask whether nuclear power can help us slow and reverse worsening climate destabilisation and if the answer is yes, then the only question is whether we will gamble the planet by disallowing nuclear power because of trivial concerns about nuclear waste?

The real catastrophe associated with Chernobyl wasn’t the accident or the evacuation but the strengthening of the anti-nuclear movement. This allowed coal based electricity to proliferate without competition or obstruction over the period. So while France and Sweden, for example, have been producing clean nuclear electricity for over 20 years, most everybody else will take decades to catch up.

Germany is predicting that it will be 2050 before they get to the same level of clean electricity from renewables that France got to with nuclear in 1990. That’ll be 60 years of massive CO2 emissions that the anti-nuclear movement has cost the planet.

Part II of this series will explain just why nuclear waste is such an easy problem to solve compared to other problems and we’ll identify that renewable energy source killing 3.5 million people annually.


Got a Comment?

To leave your comment and read other reactions, please go to the dedicated Discussion Thread on the BNC Forums:

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

2 replies on “Nuclear Waste Part 1: The elephant (shrew) in the room”

Leave a Reply (Markdown is enabled)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s