The Problem Of Atomic Waste (Part II)

Currently proposed solutions for reprocessing or storing atomic waste are either inadequate or nowhere near ready for deployment.
By Anne and Paul Ehrlich
January/February 1979
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Anne and Paul Ehrlich warn that long-term atomic waste disposal remains an unsolved problem.

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In part one of this series ("The Problem of Atomic Waste,") we left the reactor-produced radioactive wastes "cooling" at the power plant while those isotopes with short half-lives decayed away. The question now is: What can be done with the remaining long-lived wastes, those that will continue to be deadly for 1,000 to 500,000 years?

In theory, these reactor by-products can be shipped to a "reprocessing plant." If the wastes have been held at the power plant for 150 days, they will only contain about three percent of the radioactivity that they had when they were removed from the reactor. But, though this figure may sound small, these elements are still emitting an abundance of lethal radiation.

Furthermore, the heat generated by continuing radioactive decay is so intense that the used fuel rods would melt if they weren't constantly cooled during shipment. Therefore, any shipment must take place in heavily shielded, cooled casks which can weigh from 35 to 100 metric tons depending upon whether they're to be shipped by road or rail.

Needless to say, one of the first problems of nuclear waste management has been to design these containers so that they can stand up to possible accidents in transit—such as a speeding train hitting a cask-bearing truck at a grade crossing. Considerable engineering effort has no doubt gone into these containers. We are, at any rate, constantly assured by the nuclear industry that an accident involving cask rupture is virtually impossible. (And, If the industry has its way, we'll get to test the reliability of these containers. Because by the end of the century, thousands of cask trips will be made every year.)

But let's assume the journey from power plant to reprocessing plant is safely completed. What happens then? Well, first of all, the fuel rods are chopped up by automated equipment and dissolved in acid so that the various elements can be separated chemically.

Now unfortunately, current reprocessing-plant design allows some gaseous radioactive isotopes to be routinely released from the plants into the atmosphere. In fact, it is here that the largest routine releases designed into the nuclear fuel cycle occur, and these add a small fraction of natural radiation to the burden of ionizing radiation that humanity must already bear.

But all is not pure waste. Plutonium 239 and uranium 235—both fissile and thus usable as reactor fuel—can be recovered at the reprocessing plant and shipped back to be recycled through the power plant. The rest of the high-level wastes become concentrated into a highly radioactive liquid—about 10,000 gallons of it per power reactor per year.

You will note that we said above that "in theory" this reprocessing could occur. But there are, at present, no reprocessing plants in service in the United States! One such installation (a small capacity plant owned by Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc.) did operate from 1966 until 1971, when it was shut down for repairs and expansion.

While the Nuclear Fuel Services plant was in operation, its routine emissions were sometimes very close to the AEC's permissible limits. Today, however, that installation couldn't even come close to our newer, more stringent emissions limitations.

Though the plant was scheduled to go back into operation this year at three times its previous capacity, it was recently announced that the reopening would not take place because of the huge expenditures that would be necessary to enable the installation to comply with current safety standards. So, this highly radioactive structure—with the wastes that it still contains—is currently a ward of the New York State Energy and Research Development Administration, a monument to the "power of the peaceful atom".

Another reprocessing plant was built near Morris, Illinois by General Electric at a cost of some $65 million. Unfortunately, it didn't work, and was abandoned without ever reprocessing any fuel at all! And yet another plant was scheduled to go into service near Barnwell, South Carolina in 1977 or 1978, but it hasn't done so yet.

In many ways, this so-called "back end" of the nuclear fuel cycle is actually the soft underbelly of the whole atomic power establishment. The shipment and especially the reprocessing of spent fuel are hazardous and technically difficult enterprises. They must be accomplished almost entirely by automation, and the barriers between the radioactive materials and the environment tend to be much thinner during these processes than at the power plants themselves. Obviously—as dramatized by General Electric's $65 million flasco—less is known about how to operate a reprocessing plant than about how to run a power reactor. At this point, in fact, we don't even know if reprocessing plants can be designed with adequate safeguards against catastrophic accidents, tornadoes, earthquakes, and sabotage. In the meantime, spent fuel elements are constantly accumulated at power plant sites, while we wait for someone to solve the problems.

But let's suppose for a moment that this "back end" of the nuclear cycle does become successfully hooked up and large amounts of spent fuel are reprocessed. What then would become of the millions of gallons of highly radioactive, long-lived liquid wastes that would be generated annually?

This particular question has vexed the nuclear establishment from the start. The original solution for high-level wastes from the American nuclear weapons program was simply to store them in tanks above the ground.

Such a naive solution has been envisioned for reactor wastes, too. Indeed, one official of the AEC actually testified that this agency would guard the wastes for the required 500,000 years (that is, for half a million years after the last nuclear power plant closes down). One would have to look a long way to find a better example of bureaucratic chutzpah! Imagine a government agency (or a government, for that matter) lasting for 100 times the length of recorded history, let alone carrying out an assigned task for that period of time! Consider, also, that during the 500,000 years that the AEC would be "on guard," several ice ages could be expected to come and go.

The fact of the matter is, we don't need a crystal ball to evaluate the AEC's performance when it comes to containing radioactive wastes. At the AEC's Hanford Facility in Washington state, for example, wastes have leaked out for years. Some 150,000 gallons escaped into the soil in 1973 alone! We can only hope that those radioactive liquids don't migrate through ground-water channels into the Columbia River with unhappy consequences for the citizens of Portland downstream. And we're sorry to say that the record of the AEC (now known as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—NRC) at its Savannah River, Georgia site (and elsewhere) is hardly more encouraging.

It's abundantly clear to anyone who has seriously considered the problem that surface storage facilities—no matter how cleverly engineered—are, at best, temporary expedients for the treatment of high-level wastes. This, of course, has led to an extraordinary diversity of suggestions for the permanent disposal of these deadly materials.

The solution that we admire most was suggested in the 1950's by our friend Prof. Joseph H. Camin of the University of Kansas. He recommended that the wastes be dumped in active volcanoes, so that they could then be lofted into the atmosphere and come down as fallout. (In those days, the AEC had a big propaganda campaign designed to persuade Americans that fallout was actually good for them!)

Camin's tongue-in-cheek solution, however, has been almost matched by some seriously proposed ones. It's been suggested, for instance, that radioactive wastes be loaded on rockets and blasted off the earth to pollute the solar system. Of course, the record of the technological boondogglers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration makes it perfectly clear that we wouldn't have to wait very long for a rocket to blow up on the pad or in the atmosphere and create a large-scale radiation catastrophe.

Like space disposal, another alternative—ocean disposal— presents known hazards, because a great deal of low-level radioactive waste—encapsulated in steel drums—has already been dumped in the oceans close to our shores. The result? Many of the containers are now leaking, and the degree to which radioactivity will be concentrated in oceanic food chains (thereby threatening humanity) is not yet known.

A suggestion that we bury the wastes in deep trenches dug in the ocean floor is also plagued with uncertainty. The science fiction notion that these materials be placed beneath the seas (where the great tectonic plates of earth collide) so that the deadly materials will be drawn into our planet's molten core seems an unlikely solution. You see, the ocean floor's rate of subduction (drawing in) is only an inch or so a year, and the likely fate of containers deposited in these geologically active areas is completely unknown.

Actually, the most sensible plan seems to be to solidify the wastes, and then inter them in impermeable geological formations such as deep salt beds. Early in the 1970's, the Atomic Energy Commission actually announced that salt beds were the solution and selected a salt mine near Lyons, Kansas as its first repository.

Again, the AEC demonstrated the broad-gauge incompetence for which it and its successor, the NRC, are world famous. The experts managed to pick a mine that was as full of holes as a Swiss cheese (the result of early drilling for oil and gas). After the Kansas Geological Survey pointed out this little oversight to them, the AEC was forced to abandon its plans for a "national repository."

Since then, the NRC has looked at other sites, notably salt beds in the Finger Lakes region of New York and near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It has met stiff public resistance. People sense that our knowledge of geology makes it difficult to guarantee the integrity of burial sites for the requisite hundreds of thousands of years, and they are rightly nervous about the possibility of accidents that may occur in the process of transport and burial. After all, New Yorkers have the spectacle of the Nuclear Fuel Services' failed plant as a constant reminder of the capabilities of the nuclear establishment.

So, does all this mean that the nuclear waste problem is insoluble? Our guess is that it can be solved, but only with great difficulty. Burial of solidified wastes in appropriate geological formations may well be the answer, but much more research is required before we know for sure.

In the meantime, something must be done to tighten up the much-too-cavalier treatment of low-level wastes, which—even in the late 1960's—the National Academy of Science declared was "barely tolerable ... on the present scale of operations" and "would become intolerable with much increase in the use of nuclear power".

Finally, techniques must be devised to dispose of the highly radioactive remains of nuclear power plants when their 20- to 40-year service lives are over ... to say nothing of the carcasses of failed reprocessing plants.

We think that this research should go on. While nuclear fission technology is immature and incompetent today, it is not yet clear that it has no role to play in humanity's future energy plan. This is a subject that we'll return to in future columns.

What is clear is that there will be no future for nuclear power unless the NRC (and the rest of the nuclear establishment) changes its ways and restores a credible image, for no sane person today can accept the standard fallback position: that wastes be stored in concrete bunkers on the surface until a suitable permanent solution can be found.

After all, who in his right mind would grab an immortal tiger by the tail, especially on the word of an incompetent liar who says that someday a way will be found to let go safely?

Details on the nuclear waste problem, radioactivity, and related subjects may be found in Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment by Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and John P. Holdren ($19.95 postpaid from W.H. Freeman and Co), especially Chapter 8 and references cited there. 

Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who—through their writing and research—gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources," and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term coevolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present these semi-technical columns by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.

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