“Clean nuclear energy” is giving us a great big dirty problem.
The nuclear power plant is one of the world’s most complicated inventions. We comfort ourselves with the idea that the geniuses who’ve been building and running them – the nuclear physicists, metallurgists, designers, architects, plumbers, electricians – must know what they’re doing. They’ve thought of everything. They’ve got this safe clean nuclear energy stuff all figured out.
This is Part Three in a series on “Safe Clean Nuclear Energy.” Part One looked at why utilities and the nuclear energy industry call it “clean” and “safe,” and why we seldom question the terms. I argued that nuclear energy is not clean and safe. Part Two looked at how “safe” Palisades is, with its seriously embrittled reactor pressure vessel, its history of safety problems, and how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s weakened safety standards let Palisades get a 20-year license renewal. Part Three is what I’ve learned about how clean nuclear energy is.
Nope! There’s a great big dirty problem, and no one has figured it out. It started seven decades ago when the Manhattan Project finished inventing The Bomb. The problem has been getting bigger and dirtier ever since.
Even before we started going full blast creating all this “safe clean nuclear energy” a question came up. “What are we going to do with all this other stuff we’re making?” The answer was, “We’ll figure it out later.”
We still haven’t figured out a permanent solution to our nuclear waste problem.
While we wait for the experts to come up with an answer, what do we do with our radioactive waste?
- We routinely release some of it into our air and water.
- The stuff that will be dangerous far longer than people have lived on the planet gets “temporarily” stored, sometimes in landfills, but usually on the site where it’s mined or enriched or used for fuel. Palisades has been “temporarily” storing its nuclear waste onsite for 45 years.
At every step, the “safe clean nuclear energy” industry adds to its dangerous, dirty radioactive waste problem.
The dirty problem with “clean nuclear energy” starts at the uranium mine
Mining uranium is dangerous, messy work.
- From Rapid City Journal: “Four decades after its first uranium mining boom ended, the Edgemont area remains scarred by unreclaimed mines, buried radioactive waste and health concerns.”
- From The Guardian: “To produce the 25 tonnes or so of uranium fuel needed to keep your average reactor going for a year entails the extraction of half a million tonnes of waste rock and over 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings. These are toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.”
- From Environment America: “Past Disasters Show Dangers of Uranium Mining Near the Grand Canyon.”
- From Black Hills Clean Water Alliance: “No reasonable expectation that confinement remains in drilled areas… Contaminated mining water could easily move into what had been clean ground water… Significant risk of unexpected, serious contamination of the Cheyenne River and its tributaries… Allow mined water to move into clean water… Logs included notations that information should be withheld from maps and from landowners… Uranium company is misleading the public about the safety of its proposed mine…”
- From the Moab Sun News: “Dangerous gases… Unstable structures… Hazardous… High levels of radon emissions… Old mining equipment lying around… Proximity to people hiking, biking and camping… 17 deaths associated with abandoned mines…”
- From Scientific American: “Health Legacy of Uranium Mining Lingers 30 Years Later.”
- From Canadian Family Physician: “Increasingly, physicians are opposing the mining of uranium… Uranium is a heavy metal with the potential to cause a spectrum of adverse health effects ranging from renal failure and diminished bone growth to damage to the DNA… These effects can be delayed for decades or for generations and are not detected in short-term toxicologic studies.”
Enriching uranium creates more nuclear waste.
According to World Nuclear Association: “Every tonne of natural uranium produced and enriched for use in a nuclear reactor gives about 130 kg of enriched fuel.” I looked it up. A tonne is 1000 kg. If enriching 1000 kg of uranium produces 13o kg of nuclear fuel, then 83% of the uranium we mine is a thing called “depleted uranium.” Depleted uranium is still radioactive. It’s nuclear waste. The report lists a few uses for “some” of the waste but, “Every year over 50,000 tonnes of depleted uranium joins already substantial stockpiles in the USA, Europe and Russia. World stock is about 1.5 million tonnes.”
Then the enriched uranium has to get to the nuclear plant.
- From Science Alert (Australia): “…the uranium is packed into drums and transported on road trains. There will be accidents. If one of those trucks jacknifes and turns, the drums would certainly break apart and the uranium could be released and the powder would be spread around… Because of the sheer volume, it’s guaranteed that there will be accidents.”
- From The Canadian Press, January 11, 2016: “A stretch of highway in southwest Saskatchewan has been cordoned off until morning after a tractor-trailer carrying 63 drums of uranium concentrate bound for a refinery rolled, spilling a small part of its load.”
The big dirty problem with “clean nuclear energy” continues as the nuclear reactor generates electricity.
The nuclear power industry gets away with calling it “clean nuclear energy” because the operation doesn’t look dirty.
No grimy sludge in the water. No tall stacks belching fire and black smoke. No black soot all over everything. That white stuff drifting into the air in the photo on the right is just clean, harmless water vapor. They say. It evaporates quickly. No harm done. But Ecowatch reported in Nuclear Cover-Up Threatens Great Lakes Region:
Palisades’ operator Entergy is also in the habit of periodically releasing radioactive steam into the area due to reoccurring electrical accidents most recently in September of 2011. This steam may be a contributing factor to the fact that the area around South Haven is considered a cancer cluster by medical researchers from the state of Michigan Health department.
Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) explained about radioactive releases 20 years ago.
- Federal regulations permit radioactive releases as part of a plant’s “everyday routine operation.”
- Contaminated water from the reactor vessel gets filtered and then “either recycled back into the cooling system or released into the environment.”
- Nuclear plants let their radioactive gases decay for a while and then release them into the atmosphere. You can’t see these gases.
- Gases can leak into the power plant’s interiors. They’re periodically released, contaminating air, soil, and water.
- Routine radioactive releases are often undetected and unreported.
Palisades routinely releases its contaminated radioactive water into Lake Michigan very close to:
- South Haven’s beaches.
- Covert Township Park.
- Van Buren State Park.
- Palisades Park Country Club (not a golf course but a residential community that’s worried about Palisades).
- Lake Michigan Beach.
Kevin Kamps, Nuclear Waste Watchdog for Beyond Nuclear, told me that he once asked Palisades officials if they could guarantee that a routine release would not happen on a hot August Saturday when people jam the local beaches. The answer was no. They could not make that guarantee. There’s no rule against it.
Many “clean nuclear energy” facilities routinely release radioactive wastewater into the Great Lakes.
Nuclear plants are always built next to large water supplies. The Great Lakes, for instance. Our seashores. The Hudson River.
Nuclear plants need a lot of water and a large toilet. They take in as much as a billion gallons of clean water a day per plant. Some of the water they put back is radioactive. It’s about 30° warmer than the water they take out. David Kraft of Nuclear Energy Information Service says the Great Lakes region has 33 nuclear hot spots on or near the shores of the main water source for about 40 million people. This includes nuclear reactors, “temporary” storage for radioactive waste, and uranium mining and processing sites.
On February 6, 2016, we learned that Indian Point nuclear plant, about 25 miles north of New York City, is leaking tritium – a reported “65,000% spike” in radioactivity. Tritium, a nuclear reaction byproduct, is a radioactive water contaminant. Four days after the initial report, an update said, “Indian Point tritium leak 80% worse than originally reported.”
Entergy, owner-operator of Indian Point and several other nuclear plants – including Palisades – said, “There is no impact to public health or safety.”
About 10 years ago, Nuclear Information and Resource Service said:
[N]uclear power reactors have been releasing dangerous levels of tritium into our air and water for decades…
[T]ritium in living creatures can produce typical radiogenic effects including cancer, genetic effects, developmental abnormalities and reproductive effects. Tritium can cause mutations, tumors and cell death. Tritiated water is associated with significantly decreased weight of brain and genital tract organs in mice and can cause irreversible loss of female germ cells in both mice and monkeys even at low concentrations.
Studies indicate that lower doses of tritium can cause more cell death, mutation and chromosome damage per dose than higher tritium doses. Tritium can impart damage which is two or more times greater per dose than either x-rays or gamma rays.
There is no evidence of a threshold for damage from 3H exposure; even the smallest amount of tritium can have negative health impacts. Organically bound tritium (tritium bound in animal or plant tissue) can stay in the body for 10 years or more. While tritiated water may be cleared from the human body in about 10 days, if a person lives in an area where tritium contamination continues, he or she can experience chronic exposure to tritium. Tritium from tritiated water can become incorporated into DNA, the molecular basis of heredity for living organisms. DNA is especially sensitive to radiation. A cell’s exposure to tritium bound in DNA can be even more toxic than its exposure to tritium in water.
But Entergy assures us that there’s “no impact to public health or safety” from the tritium leak that’s “80% worse” than a “65,000% spike” in radioactivity. Governor Andrew Cuomo, however, has called on Entergy to shut the plant down. New Yorkers have been calling the place “Chernobyl on the Hudson” since about 2011.
Here’s another item on that NIRS list of what you’re not supposed to know:
Accurate accounting of all radioactive wastes released to the air, water and soil from the entire reactor fuel production system is simply not available. The system includes uranium mines and mills, chemical conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication plants, nuclear power reactors, and radioactive waste storage pools, casks, and trenches.
These “pools, casks, and trenches” are the onsite storage methods for the stuff that the “clean nuclear energy” people can’t release into the environment.
What is this stuff that’s so dirty that our “clean nuclear energy” plants can’t release it?
Nuclear waste, says Cambridge Online Dictionary, is “unwanted, dangerously radioactive material that is made when producing nuclear power.” That’s a rather limited definition. Mining and processing uranium also produces nuclear waste. So does building nuclear weapons. A nuclear plant’s equipment can become nuclear waste. The two 450-ton steam generators that Palisades replaced in 1991 were so radioactive that Palisades has been “temporarily” storing them onsite in a huge sealed-up mausoleum-type container for the past quarter century, according to an Entergy representative I spoke with at a recent Palisades open house.
Nuclear waste, says Business Dictionary, is
Radioactive and extremely toxic byproducts of nuclear fuel processing plants, and nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons industries. Nuclear wastes remain radioactive for thousands of years and have to be buried deep on land or at sea in thick concrete or metal (lead and stainless steel) containers.
How many “thousands of years” does nuclear waste remain radioactive? Some say tens of thousands. Some say hundreds of thousands. Some say millions of years. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research says:
One of the major problems associated with radioactive waste is the fact that much of it will be radioactive – and thus will require isolation from the human environment – for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Since this is a time period far longer than all of recorded history, the problem of waste disposal presents an enormous challenge.
You could make a case that “far longer than all of recorded history” basically means forever.
Where are these land or sea burial places? NOWHERE!
Since the 1940s, we have been creating nuclear waste and storing it “temporarily” until we figure out something permanent. NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative) reported two years ago that the Department of Energy has set a goal to establish a “permanent nuclear waste repository” by 2048. I did the arithmetic. That’s 32 years from now. More than a century after we started making nuclear waste, we hope to have a plan for dealing with it.
In 2012 Palisades filed a $100,000,000 suit against the U.S. government for not abiding by its promise to figure out the nuclear waste problem. Last July, Palisades won a $20.6M partial judgement. The rest is still in litigation. The Palisades case as reported by Law 360:
Under the terms of the plants’ contract with the government, the U.S. agreed to begin picking up the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste no later than January 1998, according to the complaint. But it has not done so, in part because political battles have scuttled every plan to build a long-term disposal site, the complaint says.
A long and detailed history by Matt Stroud of The Verge explains the problem. We can’t “find the one place in America that no one cares about.”
About 30 years ago, we thought that “one place” was going to be Yucca Mountain. In 2011 we gave up on that idea. We’re still looking. The Department of Energy is asking around. They’ve got a project called “Consent Based Citing.” They’re holding meetings all over the U.S. They’re asking – but not in so many words – “What would it take to get you to consent to having a permanent nuclear waste repository in your neighborhood?” They’re holding public meetings in eight cities. They’ve set up a site to tell you how to submit comments if you can’t be at one of the meetings. This seems very close to an explicit admission that calling it “safe clean nuclear energy” is not exactly correct.
Then, if we do find that “one place in America that no one cares about” we still have to collect the nuclear waste and ship it there.
The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, CO, points out that “shipments of spent nuclear fuel would be subject to accidents and sabotage and the casks containing the spent fuel encased in concrete could be pierced by advanced weaponry or by aircraft.” To make this huge logistical problem worse, says Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the dangers posed by an accident involving spent fuel are something “first responders are completely unprepared for.” About 9,500, of the approximately 12,000 shipments of spent fuel “would be transported by rail, and the rest by highway or other forms of transportation,” Judson said.
If there’s an accident with just one of those 12,000 shipments, will we still believe in “safe clean nuclear energy”?
Thousands of people in the St. Louis area don’t call it “safe clean nuclear energy” anymore.
When the people working on the Manhattan Project finished inventing the Atomic Bomb in the mid-1940s, they had a lot of stuff left over. More accurately, a company called Mallinckrodt, to whom the Manhattan Project outsourced its uranium enrichment, had a lot of stuff left over. The leftover stuff was nuclear waste. Wikipedia explains what Mallinckrodt did with it:
The waste was secretly dumped on Coldwater Creek and in various St. Louis suburbs, including Berkeley, Hazelwood, Bridgeton, and Weldon Spring with the approval of the federal government, which is now taking financial responsibility for the cleanup. The dumping substantially contaminated Coldwater Creek.
One place that eventually ended up with most of this stuff, thirty years later, was West Lake Landfill. It’s now a “Superfund” site. In December, the St. Louis Post Dispatch confirmed that the landfill is contaminating its neighbors’ property with radioactive lead and radon.
Since 2010, an underground fire has been burning nearby and getting closer. St. Louis Public Radio reported last November that the fire was “about a thousand feet away from nearly 9,000 tons of nuclear waste – and there’s no barrier in between.” The report added that “consultants say the underground fire at Bridgeton is spreading and – in a worst-case scenario – could reach the radioactive waste at West Lake in just a few months” and that there’s “no feasible way to put out the underground fire.”
A report released last year by EPA scientists said if the nuclear waste gets hot enough, it could release both radon and radioactive dust into the air – and “since no one knows exactly what’s mixed in with the radioactive material, those other substances could be prone to explosion.” The report explained a long-term threat:
If there were an underground fire in the radioactive waste, people in the area could be exposed to unhealthy levels of radon gas. In addition, more liquid would build up inside the landfill, which could carry radon gas, radioactive waste, and other contaminants into groundwater and out of the landfill that way.
More places where the Manhattan Project and its nuclear waste still threatens people today:
- Hanford, Washington.
- Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
- Los Alamos, New Mexico.
- Tonawanda Falls, New York.
- New York City.
We understand why the Manhattan Project geniuses were secretive while they were inventing The Bomb. The fact that they were so secretive about what they were doing with their waste when their work was done makes it obvious that they did not believe that nuclear power plants would be creating “safe clean nuclear energy.”
Join the #NuclearIsDirty campaign.
Utility companies and the nuclear power industry call it “safe clean nuclear energy” because they know it’s dangerous and dirty!
More Palisades info: