|Dátum:||July 26, 2000 o 10:44:34|
|Subject:||RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #748|
The Importance of Surprises--Part 2
WASTE MANAGEMENT FOREVER
Here we continue examining the three kinds of surprises that have made nuclear technology one of the world's most difficult and dangerous problems, and one that grows worse each passing year. The three kinds of surprises result from (1) technical ignorance of the chemistry, physics or biology involved, (2) management lapses (failure to anticipate human errors and subsequent inability, or refusal, to confront mistakes and take corrective action), and (3) political winds (shifting political and economic realities that render government controls ineffective, including commercial competition).
Our purpose in examining these nuclear surprises is first to make the point that nuclear technology has apparently exceeded the human capacity for controlling complex machines and processes, and, secondly, to ask whether it makes sense to press ahead with the deployment of new technologies that are more powerful than nuclear, less understandable, and therefore less controllable, namely biotech and nanotech.
Where do we find evidence that nuclear is beyond human control? In the newspapers every week.
All nuclear operations generate radioactive wastes. The U.S. now holds an estimated 42,500 metric tons of intensely radioactive spent reactor fuel, and 100 million gallons of highly radioactive liquids and sludges in temporary storage. These wastes are dangerous by themselves, but some of them could also be used to make terrifying weapons. This week we look briefly at local hazards from radioactive wastes.
** As we saw in REHN #747, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state, DuPont and other private firms manufactured plutonium for weapons from 1943 to 1987 under close government supervision. In the process they created 54 million gallons of radioactive liquids, sludges and salts, about a million gallons of which have already leaked into the ground and are now measurable in the Columbia River -- an event considered impossible until it happened. (Technical surprise.)
In addition to the 54 million gallons held in tanks, substantial additional quantities of radioactive wastes lie buried in shallow pits at Hanford. As a consequence, tumbleweeds (Russian thistles) growing on some parts of the Hanford site absorb radioactivity through their roots. (Technical surprise.) To prevent this mobile vegetation from releasing radioactivity by blowing off-site, or burning up in a fire, the government continually collects them and solves the problem by burying them in the ground. [NY TIMES Sep. 12, 2000, pg. D3.] The "hot tumbleweed" problem will solve itself through natural radioactive decay after 240,000 years have passed. To help get this problem into perspective, Homo sapiens (modern humans) have roamed the earth for about 100,000 years.
** Hanford is not alone. In October, 2000, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that its previous estimate of plutonium buried in shallow pits and trenches had increased ten-fold. (Management surprise.) These are bomb-making residues buried between 1943 and 1987 at Hanford, Washington; Los Alamos, New Mexico; the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho; the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and the Savannah River complex near Aiken, S.C.
Unfortunately little is known about the chemical characteristics, or exact locations, of many of these wastes, which often were mixed with toxic chemicals and explosives at the time of burial. "There is little or no information on volumes of soil potentially contaminated by leaching of buried solid wastes, nor is there information on hazardous waste components known to have been commingled with the radioactive components," said Carolyn Huntoon, assistant secretary for environmental management with the Department of Energy. (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES Oct. 21, 2000, pg. A13.]
In announcing the 10-fold increase in its estimate, the DOE acknowledged that cleanup of buried radioactive wastes is extremely difficult, and that little progress has been made on them. (Technical surprise.)
For example, in 1994 the DOE tried to dig up a 25-year-old one-acre pit at the Idaho laboratory, to demonstrate retrieval. Four years later DOE fired the contractor in a dispute over costs and methods. During the year 2000, DOE spent $6 million in legal costs in the dispute over the Idaho pit, and another $2.5 million on further work, but during the six-year effort no waste was retrieved. [NY TIMES Oct. 21, 2000, pg. A13.] (Technical and management surprises.)
** At West Valley, New York, 30 miles south of Buffalo, the Davison Chemical Company processed spent nuclear fuel from power plants for six years from 1966 to 1972, producing 660,000 gallons of highly radioactive wastes, plus other assorted radioactive debris, which were pumped into an underground storage tank or buried in large shallow pits. In 1976, Davison Chemical decided the nuclear business wasn't sufficiently profitable and walked away from the West Valley site, leaving New York State holding 30 million Curies of radioactivity in the ground and in contaminated buildings and equipment. (Political surprise.) (A Curie is the amount of radioactivity in a gram of radium. For comparison, the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 released about 50 Curies into the air.)
New York state and the federal government now employ nearly 1000 scientists and engineers working full-time to clean up the West Valley site. So far they have spent more than $1.5 billion and the end is nowhere in sight. At some point a couple of decades ago, acid ate through a concrete and steel foundation, releasing about 200 Curies of highly-radioactive Strontium-90 into the groundwater beneath the West Valley site. (Technical surprise.) The plume of strontium-90 flowed beneath the site for more than a decade before it was discovered in 1993 (management surprise); since then the plume has continued to spread out and move toward Lake Erie and has even shown up on the surface of the land downhill from the old factory. (Technical surprise, management
Several years ago a government contractor began drilling wells and pumping groundwater through filters to try to retrieve the plume of strontium-90, but the filters themselves became a new source of radioactive waste and were expensive ($400,000 per year). Now the contractor has buried a large quantity of kitty litter (zeolite) in the ground, trying to create one huge filter to capture the deadly strontium. Even if this works, eventually someone will have to re-bury the radioactive zeolite in the ground somewhere else. [NY TIMES Feb. 24, 2000, pg. A23.]
** At the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut, corporate managers can't locate two highly-radioactive spent fuel rods that are supposed to reside in a 40-foot deep pool of special boron-treated water to shield their intense radioactivity and prevent them from overheating. The company lost track of the two 12-foot-long rods in 1980 and, prodded by alert federal overseers, began searching for them 21 years later. The fuel rods are not in the spent fuel pool where they were last seen in 1980, and no one knows what happened to them. Company officials speculate that the fuel rods were mistakenly broken up, shipped to a "low level" radioactive waste dump, and buried in a shallow pit in the ground. (Management
surprise.) [NY TIMES Jan. 8, 2001, pg. A17.] \tab
Coincidentally, Millstone officials admitted that they had falsified environmental records and had deliberately promoted unqualified plant operators during the period 1994 to 1996. Six Millstone control-room operators flunked the licensing exam but still received federal operators' licenses because Millstone managers falsified their exam scores. (Management surprise.)
Millstone's owner, Northeast Nuclear Energy Company, pleaded guilty to 23 federal felonies and was fined $10 million. Federal officials said "economic pressure brought on by the deregulation of the nuclear industry had contributed to the violations." In other words, the Millstone managers were driven to crime by competitive pressure: "The shortcut was taken so there was some economic saving," said assistant U.S. attorney Joseph C. Hutchison. (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES Sep. 28, 1999, pg. A23.]
** At the Nevada Test Site, covering 1593 square miles in south-central Nevada, the government exploded 828 nuclear bombs underground between 1956 and 1992. Government scientists always assumed the resulting radioactivity would be sealed into cavities by the blasts, or else absorbed by soil and rocks. They also believed the groundwater beneath the site moved very slowly.
Unfortunately, they were wrong on all counts. Now new scientific studies have shown that some radioactive metals, particularly plutonium, can move readily with groundwater. (Technical
surprise.) Furthermore, the groundwater beneath the site is now known to be moving much more rapidly than previously assumed. (Technical surprise.)
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey now say that a dangerous brew of radioactive wastes could take as little as 10 years to reach water wells in the town of Beatty, Nevada in the Oasis Valley. Eventually groundwater flowing beneath the bomb test site is expected to reach Death Valley National Park. A University of Nevada physicist and groundwater researcher, Dr. Dennis Weber, said there were other problems besides plutonium at the site. Huge quantities of tritium -- which is radioactive hydrogen that can be incorporated directly into any water that it contacts -- lie buried at the site.
Dr. Weber criticized the government's attempt to understand the exact nature of the contaminated groundwater problem beneath the site, which is larger than Rhode Island. "They haven't drilled wells with the intention of finding the plumes," he said. "They didn't want to know." (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES March 21, 2000, pg. D2.]
** In 1997, the Department of Energy announced plans to privatize 6000 tons of surplus radioactive nickel from a stockpile at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee weapons factory, by selling it to scrap dealers. Another 10,000 tons would be sold later. The government has set no standards for radioactive metals, so the proposed sale was legal. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to regulate the radioactive nickel because the radioactivity had not been intentionally added for "beneficial effect." This left the decision up to the Tennessee Division of Radiological Health, which approved the sale. (Management surprises.)
Congressional critics pointed out that the radioactive metal could end up in stainless steel tableware or in braces on children's teeth. The propose sale "horrified scrap dealers and steel industry leaders, who feared having to explain to their customers that their product was even mildly radioactive." (Political surprise.) They opposed the sale, and so it was postponed. [NY TIMES Jan. 12, 2000, pg. A17.]
** In 1996, a truck carrying nuclear warheads skidded off an icy road and crashed in Nebraska. For half a day no one in government
-- including the President and his cabinet -- knew the level of danger or whether any radioactivity had escaped from the truck because radiation monitors on the government's fleet of weapons trucks had been removed after drivers complained that the monitors showed they were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. (Management surprise.)
Robert Alvarez, who was a senior policy advisor within the Department of Energy from 1993 to 1999, reported these facts in April, 2000, saying they were "emblematic of the [Department of Energy's] inept and often arrogant management culture." He went on, "The mind-set has become so backward, that the [U.S. weapons] complex is now basically a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in a serious accident or an inadvertent nuclear blast." [NY TIMES April 30, 2000, pg. 23.]
To be continued.