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#748 - The Importance Of Surprises -- Part 2: Waste Management Forever, 24-Jul-2002

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.[1]

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.[2] 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
surprise.)

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.] ab

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.

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[1] http://www.rafi.org/text/txt_search.asp?type=communique

[2] http://www.wv.doe.gov/LinkingPages/sitehistory.htm