A Background Briefing on Radioactive Pollution
SECTION 2 of Internet Edition
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC COMPLEXITIES
Complicating our knowledge of and response to the problems of radioactive contamination and its consequences are political and economic complexities. Nuclear technology was initially developed for its destructive capacity and its terrifying threat. The discoveries were also fueled by the excited curiosity of the scientists themselves. Following the first use of atomic energy as weapons on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a worldwide movement arose in horror or hope to limit its use to peaceful purposes. (As a child in the late 1940s, one of the authors joined in gathering signatures for "Atoms for Peace.")
The nuclear industry has since spent vast amounts of money to make nuclear power acceptable to citizens; propaganda campaigns advertise nuclear power as a source of electricity "too cheap to meter," "green and clean," and a necessity in the face of the increasing demand for power (Hilgartner 1982). At the same time the industry has kept secret the intricate and inexorable labyrinth of problems that unfold at every stage of its operations.
While the promoters of nuclear power itself would argue otherwise, the authors, along with many other observers, assert that there is only one nuclear industry, that commercial nuclear power would not exist if it were not needed to justify military use (Taylor 1996; Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996).
All of the more than 400 nuclear power plants now operating in 32 countries produce large quantities of plutonium that, when chemically separated from spent (used) fuel rods, can be used to make reliable, efficient nuclear weapons of all types. Irradiated fuel rods, when not regarded as waste, are seen as a resource for use in breeder reactors (to produce more plutonium), or for direct conversion into weapons. Until we phase out all nuclear power world-wide, we continue to support "latent proliferation" of nuclear weapons, since any government acquiring nuclear reactors for energy production may change its mind about nuclear weapons (or be replaced by one that does), or may secretly prepare nuclear explosives ready for assembly and use (Feiverson 1977). Moreover, alarmingly large quantities of uranium and plutonium can no longer be legally accounted for, either through record-keeping errors, careless handling, or theft. Only when we stop regarding radioactive material as a resource and more accurately categorize it as the dangerously toxic substance it is, can we hope to limit the escalating contamination.
A legacy of the military roots of nuclear technology is the secrecy that has continued to shroud the nuclear industry. Even non-weapons nuclear research tends to remain classified in the U.S. National Laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore, in part, because any discoveries may have weapons applications, and, in part, because a cultural norm of secrecy has developed over the years. (One of the authors grew up in Los Alamos; when recently touring Livermore Lab, she discovered how conditioned she was against raising challenging issues.) In the press of war, hot and cold, politics overruled and suppressed what scientists knew then of the dangers of radiation (May 1990). Although, since the end of the Cold War, policy shifts in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the former Soviet Union have allowed some increase in access to information, most citizens know little about the extent or the effects of radioactive pollution, and the issue is largely avoided by the press. In much of the nuclear world, governmental censorship continues to keep citizens ignorant of the threat from both military and commercial operations.
With the development of solar, wind, and other clean energy sources, nuclear energy cannot compete in terms of efficiency or economics. According to a British Parliamentary study, nuclear power produces a volume of greenhouse gases second only to coal (Eichelberg 1994) when mining, transportation and fuel reprocessing are included, even before waste contamination and monitoring are factored in. Nevertheless, nuclear technology is being aggressively sold to developing nations without revealing known environmental, economic and political consequences (or viable alternatives).
Because of their huge financial investments, multinational corporations and governments continue efforts to expand the nuclear chain (read: add to the burden of radioactivity). Although no new nuclear power reactors have been ordered in the U.S. since 1973, the same technology that is no longer seen as safe or profitable enough in the U.S. continues to be globalized and promoted by U.S., Canadian, European, and now Asian nuclear industries (Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996). Countries with small or modest energy output, particularly in Asia, are under tremendous pressure to accept the pitch of the multinational corporations marketing nuclear power. Threats have reportedly been made regarding favored trade status and economic failure in the capitalist marketplace to nations reluctant to take the nuclear option (Eichelberg 1994).
WASTE STORAGE AND DUMPING
Millions of tons of lethal radioactive waste have accumulated (D'Arrigo 1986). A number of possibilities have been considered for dealing with what is not already loose in the environment. These possibilities are not necessarily based on a commitment to keep the material from mixing with the biosphere over the time period necessary to render it benign. Ten to 20 half-lives may be required for most radioactive material to reach levels that are indistinguishable from original background, "half-life" referring to the time it takes for a particular radioactive element to give off half its radiation. Twenty half-lives or more generally will apply to highly concentrated wastes such a those from nuclear power plants (Nuclear Information and Research Service 1996). For comparison with historic and geologic time, uranium-239 will remain radioactive into the future for as long as our solar system has been here; technetium-99 and uranium-234 for as long homo erectus has been around; and plutonium-239 for longer than our species has had burial rituals or musical instruments (Nuclear Guardianship Project 1994a).
Referring to the nuclear materials as "waste" products to be "disposed of," when they will remain radioactivity toxic for up into the millions of years, is oxymoronic. These are concepts we deal with every day: we flush our bodily wastes down the toilet and dispose of our garbage in bags and cans that are trucked off to be dumped somewhere out of sight. We can forget about it. Or so we, in the industrialized world, have been lead to believe. No doubt the pernicious, pervasive "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" premise is discussed elsewhere in this issue of International Issues. The "waste" and "disposal" vocabulary create the impression that, being no longer useful, they can be dumped and abandoned. And, in fact, that is precisely what has happened to much of the nuclear industry's leftovers (Caufield 1989).
The weapons branch of the worldwide industry has repeatedly disregarded the environmental consequences of dumping. Radioactive liquids have been dumped into the ground and waters at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, contaminating the ground water and the Columbia River. Lake Karachi, in Russia, by the Chelyabinsk complex is so toxic with abandoned radiation that to stand next to it only a few minutes would provide a lethal human dose of radiation, and the water level is dropping, reaching toward the ground water. Sellafield, in England, now and in its former life as Windsacale, pipes radioactive waste a mile into the Irish Sea. This is the state of radioactive waste disposal in the 20th century.
Regarding the stuff not yet abandoned, official policies vary around the world in part because the materials have been classified more in the interest of those who bear liability than in the interest of future generations. In the U.S. this has resulted in categories primarily determined by one regulating commission for so-called commercial waste, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and another, the DOE, for that of the military (Young 1994).
"High level" wastes, which include the euphemistically named spent fuel from commercial reactors, "need to be set aside not because their vigor is drained or their fever cooled but because these poisonous materials have become too irradiated for further use" (Erikson 1994). Deep underground burial is the disposal method currently proposed. The problems with putting the waste underground include that changing water tables, earthquakes, and other geological factors will eventually disturb the buried waste and lead to contamination of soil, water, and air (Thomas, Greensfelder, and Akino 1996). No scientist or engineer can give an absolute guarantee that radioactive waste will not someday leak in dangerous quantities from even the best repositories. Nor can we be confident that our descendants will not dig into the burial sites hundreds or thousands of years from now, out of curiosity (Peaslee 1993) or lack of information.
Military reprocessing wastes are also called high level. They are currently destined for deep geological burial inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This is tantamount to abandonment. Material which will continue to emit radioactivity for as long as 240,000 to half a million years will be sealed in underground caves that have demonstrated salt water seepage in their first five years. We simply do not know how to make containment materials that will outlast the radioactivity (Hamilton 1996).
Commercial producers of nuclear materials in the U.S. were initially held responsible for their unusable leftovers. Creation and management of dumps were contracted out by the utilities and military producers to waste management companies, who proceeded to put the stuff in unlined shallow trenches from where it has leaked into the soil and water. Suits for damages followed because of mismanagement and leakage. Five of the six commercial nuclear waste landfills are currently leaking. Four of those leaking have been managed by U.S. Ecology, the only company still being considered to manage the dump planned in the California desert at Ward Valley. All other firms have withdrawn their bidding due to insoluble liability issues. No other low-level dumps are proposed at this time. The NRC's unilateral emergency-access power to direct waste from any state to the Ward Valley site would make this site a national repository. The Ward Valley plan includes shifting financial liability from the producers to the tax payers (Goitein, Klasky, and Young 1996).
The siting of new waste dumps, long opposed by local public interest groups, has been identified by the American Nuclear Society as a necessary precondition for any new construction of nuclear power plants (Eichelberg 1994).
The "low-level" waste stream from nuclear utilities, (including the extremely long-lived plutonium leached from the irradiated fuel rods) accounts for 99% of the radioactivity, measured in curies, shipped to burial grounds (Hamilton 1994). An argument put forth to justify the need for these shallow dumps is the disposition of radioactive isotopes used in medical diagnosis and treatment. The short half-lives of most medical radionuclides (hours, days, weeks) enable them to be stored on site until the material has decayed to undetectable levels (and, in fact, most are) (Hamilton 1994). Only 1% of the "low-level" radioactive waste stream is generated by research and medical wastes.
Also perplexing is the argument of military, or security, necessity for geological burial of radioactive wastes. To those who conclude that serviceable storage sites could be targeted in war, there is less "risk" involved in choosing deep burial. "The objection that accessible storage sites would be vulnerable to terrorist attack is one I frequently encounter, especially among advocates of nuclear power," comments Joanna Macy (1994a). "I suspect that it is a 'red herring,' because if this concern were sincere, it would be seen to apply right now to every nuclear establishment, from fuel assembly plants to operating reactors, since any one of them would cause widespread disaster if bombed." Every nation that has nuclear power is a potential nuclear weapons state (Nuclear Information and Resource Service 1995). Any nuclear materials, including those unaccounted for, could be the basis of terroristic threat or activity. The nuclear industry is silent about this.
Along with generating waste, nuclear industry seems also to generate large amounts of muddled thinking. Japan, the nation that suffered 200,000 killed immediately by the use of atomic weapons, has begun a "breeder" (of plutonium) reactor program which, if fully carried out, will result in the largest stockpiling of plutonium in the world. And the U. S., the only nation to have used nuclear power as weapons, has told the world that it is the most trustworthy nation to protect the world's stockpile of plutonium (Tanahashi 1996).
Guardianship Ethic In Response to Radioactive Pollution:
World Leaders International Issues
World Wide Web reference information:
document is part of the The Nuclear Guardianship Library.