The global problem of radioactive wastes is indeed the “elephant in the room” of the nuclear industry.
In every place where uranium is mined, or where nuclear power plants operate, or where nuclear weapons are tested, the problem of radioactive wastes remains. Often forgotten, or at least not mentioned in polite company, these toxic wastes remain. – and continue to be built up.
In the USA, where, to be fair, they are a little more “upfront” than the other (extremely secretive) nuclear countries, President Obama has set up a “Blue Ribbon Panel” to try to find a solution to the USA’s escalating crisis of radioactive wastes.
The waste problem is particularly ignored in URANIUM MINING AND MILLING This is easier to ignore, as it has always gone on in rural areas, most often in the homelands of indigenous people, safely far away from the concerns of the owners, directors and shareholders of the uranium company. Below: some examples
Africa: In Niger – AREVA continues to mine uranium, leaving evermore radioactive pollution of the land, air and water, of this impoverished population. Left in the Dust – Areva’s uranium mining in Niger | Greenpeace International
In USA and Canada, long gone uranium mines have left radioactive wastelands for the home areas of indigenous peoples, as well as of the rural poor. Uranium movie makes comeback
Many of the companies that left hazardous sites in the 1980s are the same companies that are receiving new leases for projects now…..the mess left behind is staggering: In New Mexico,…..In Colorado,…Near Moab, Utah,….Wyoming….. Arizona is a unique and potentially expensive case. D.A. Barber: Hot Rocks: Hidden Cost and Foreign Ownership of “Clean” Nuclear Fuel Emerging
Central Asia: “…..little thought was given to the disposal of radioactive waste. Approximately 2 million cubic meters of uranium tailings were buried in the area, according to Kyrgyz government statistics. It is the largest such site in the country. In addition to the 23 tailings dumps, workers sprinkled almost a million cubic meters of uranium waste rock atop 13 dumps nearby, on land still exposed to the rain and annual mudslides. at right – mountain of uranium tailings- Tajikistan
Many of the tailing sites and waste rock dumps are now poorly marked. Sheep graze on them.Water drains through the radioactive material and downstream into Uzbekistan and the Syr Darya, which winds its way through Central Asia’s most densely populated areas… EurasiaNet Civil Society – Kyrgyzstan: Radioactive Legacy Vexes Bishkek
In Australia old uranium mining and milling left radioactive tailings to be blown away, (Radium Hill) washed into the sea (Spenser’s Gulf), seeping into underground waters, (Mary Kathleen), poisoning rivers (Rum Jungle) . Today’s mine at Ranger leaks radioactivity into the World Heritage Kakadu National Park. BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine leaks radioactivity into groundwater, while BHP plans the world’s biggest uranium mine and biggest uranium tailings dump at that site.
Europe’s nuclear waste history is shrouded in secrecy. Under Germany’s mining law, public consultation is excluded. With the unification of Germany in 1990, uranium production was terminated. What is left over, are the huge shut-down uranium mines, hundreds of millions of tonnes of radiating waste rock and uranium mill tailings, presenting health risks through release of radon gas and contaminated seepage. Uranium Mining in Eastern Germany: The WISMUT Legacy
NUCLEAR WASTES – it’s actually a “blurred” term – including radioactive wastes from uranium mining, depleted uranium, nuclear reactor operation, nuclear weapons, and of course, that unmentionable, unsolvable, and unaffordable waste – the finished NUCLEAR REACTOR itself
While the USA struggles more publicly with its immense nuclear waste problem, countries like France, China, Russia, Europe, even the UK, are more secretive about what they do with nuclear wastes
France – La Hague acknowledges that it is intentionally dumping thousands of gallons of radioactive waste into the ocean while the incidence of childhood cancer is rampant in the area surrounding that plant. No answer on waste issue: Rutland Herald Online . Many thousands of tonnes of nuclear wastes sent to Siberia, supposedly for “reprocessing”, but only a tiNy fraction reprocessed. The rest is dumped and abandoned in places like the ‘closed’ city of Seversk, the nuclear waste storage facility in Siberia. Some of it is even stored in open air car parks.AREVA resumes nuclear waste shipments from France to Russia – Nuclear Reaction – A Greenpeace blog about nuclear power
Europe - scandalous, but so secretive dumping of nuclear wastes into the Mediterranean and off the coast of Somalia – In 2005, more than 300 coastal residents died from radiation sickness after leaking barrels of radioactive waste started washing ashore. Much of the toxic waste found on the Somali coast is traceable to European hospitals and industrial facilities. Pirates, Bankers, Libertarians
China: Known for its nuclear secrecy and corruption, has nuclear waste dumps in earthquake prone Sichuan province, and others, and planning more in various mainland provinces, and in Taiwan Nuclear waste hearing ends in opposition to Taitung site – Taiwan News Online
Reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, as a “solution” to nuclear wastes. The planned International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), involves “reprocessing” the used (or “spent”) fuel from nuclear power reactors. Reprocessing separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste contained in spent nuclear fuel. The separated plutonium can be used to fuel reactors, but also to make nuclear weapons…. Reprocessing does not reduce the need for storage and disposal of radioactive waste, and a geologic repository would still be required. Plutonium constitutes only about one percent of the spent fuel from U.S. reactors. After reprocessing, the remaining material will be in several different waste forms, and the total volume of nuclear waste will have been increased by a factor of twenty or more, including low-level waste and plutonium-contaminated waste. The largest component of the remaining material is uranium, which is also a waste product because it is contaminated and undesirable for reuse in reactors. Even if the uranium is classified as low-level waste, new low-level nuclear waste facilities would have to be built to dispose of it.
Waste discharge into the environment begins with mining uranium. Although the radioactivity of the wastes is low-level the volumes left behind at abandoned mining sites are huge.
After mining ceases tailings dams become hills of fine sand which retain 80 per cent of the radioactivity in the ore body. Thorium-230 in the tailings decays into radium-226 which in turn decays into gaseous radon. Before mining, these and other radioactive elements are locked into impervious rock; little of it reaches the open environment. Once mined they get into waterways and the atmosphere. Tailings are so finely ground that the radon escapes 10,000 times faster than from the ore body.
Tailings dams have a poor track record. Waterways have been polluted by radium after a sudden collapse or constant erosion. Radon gas and radioactive dust are carried downwind. Since radioactive decay will persist for over 100,000 years the hazard will be virtually without end.
Most of the world’s uranium has been mined in the poor African countries of Namibia and Niger and on the remnants of land left to the indigenous people of North America. The mining sites have become radioactive wastelands bringing devastating health problems to indigenous people
The mining on the plateau is in the dry lands of the Navajo people who were promised jobs and wealth if they accepted mining. Today their lands are poisoned by dry dusty hills of tailings; winds spread radioactive dust and radon gas gets into the atmosphere. Aquatic creatures concentrate radium in the waterways up to 10,000 times.
Navajo communities fear the consequences of eating the food they grow because it has elevated levels of radioactivity. They suffer an epidemic of cancer and birth defects.
A report by the Los Alamos laboratory, a leading centre of nuclear research, says the health problems created by uranium mining may be irremediable. The report says the only solution could be “to zone the land in uranium mining and milling districts to forbid human habitation”.
Spent-fuel straight from a reactor emits fierce heat and lethal radiation and must be handled by remote control. The radioactivity of 30 tonnes of spent fuel (from one year of operation) is equivalent to 5000 tonnes of radium. It is stored in water-cooled ponds on the reactor site.
Within 15 days the radioactivity drops to about one-tenth. Thereafter it remains a slowly decaying hazardous material for thousands of years.
Wastes are commonly classified according to their level of activity.
- High-level waste generates heat and has to be constantly cooled.
- Intermediate-level waste is less radioactive but still needs shielding; it does not generate enough heat to require cooling.
- Low-level waste exceeds the radioactive limits for conventional landfill sites and must be buried at special sites. It is unshielded during transport.
And – let’s not forget one of the biggest and most expensive nuclear wastes of all – the nuclear reactor itself.
Probably ont of the main reasons that, in every country, the nuclear industry is trying to extend the life of old nuclear reactors, is that (a) they don’t really know what to do with them, and (b) they don’t know how much it will cost to somehow dispose of them.
That is a process yet to be worked out – as they’re finding in England (Sellafield), and in the Ukraine (Chernobyl). So, old finished nuclear reactors are often just sitting there - dead but not buried
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