The Guardian June 21, 2000


The dangers of nuclear waste

by Peter Milton 

In 1987 and 1988 Peter Milton and Chas Collison were co-editors of two 
background paper entitled Radioactive Wastes and Nuclear Accidents: 
Unresolved Problems of the Nuclear Industry and Uranium Mining - 
Market Prospects and Environmental Consequences. The conclusion they 
drew was that nuclear power is not safe and is not economically viable, 
when the costs of nuclear waste disposal are included.

Materials for disposal

Nuclear waste comes in many forms, but is usually classified into low level 
waste (LLW), intermediate level waste (ILW), and high level waste (HLW), 
depending on the concentration and quantity of the radio-activity present. 
HLW contains a high concentration of radioactivity and may take thousand of 
years before it decays to a level which is safe for humans. LLW can also 
become concentrated in a biological way and thus become unsafe for humans. 

As indicated by a Pangea Resources article, there will be about 250,000 
tonnes of spent fuel and HLW by the year 2015 although, presumably military 
nuclear sites were not included. Such waste is presently held in temporary 
storage, often close to one of the 400 nuclear power stations around the 
world or in military bases in the form of nuclear weapons. 

It is difficult to be accurate about the total quantities of waste because 
litres, gallons, cubic metres, tons, are all units of volume used by 
different countries, but there will be about 1 litre of the toxic and life 
destructive waste for every human being on earth. Around the world there 
have been many occasions when nuclear material in these sites have become 
exposed to humans and resulted in their death.

Method of disposal

Pangea Resources suggests that the HLW could be vitrified and the ILW could 
be bound in cement inside steel drums. Apart from the SYNROC method, 
vitrification and cementation in steel drums have both been found to be 
unsafe for long term burial.

Geo chemists have shown that vitrifying HLW in borosilicate glass would 
disintegrate after burial in the earth if it were ever to come into contact 
with ground water at quite modest pressures and temperatures. Despite 
attempts to overcome this problem by surrounding the HLW with a system of 
engineered barriers, they could not guarantee effectiveness for the many 
thousand of years necessary to protect all forms of life, including humans.

In the case of the drums, such burials have not been effective because the 
drums have burst open after only several decades of burial.

SYNROC is a synthetic rock, invented by an Australian engineer, but to date 
it has only been used in research experiments and has yet to be used 
commercially, Some critics maintain that there is no proof that rock 
crystals of the synroc type will remain stable in the long term.

Apart from the fact that no safe method for the disposal of nuclear wastes 
has yet been developed, it is also important to note that the cost of 
disposal has never been factored into the price of electricity produced by 
nuclear power.

Transport of nuclear wastes

Pangea Resources proposes that nuclear waste will be transported from 
international nuclear sites to a remote and geologically stable disposal 
site in Australia. The transport is planned to be by ship to the nearest 
Australian port. From the port it will be transported by road or rail to 
the remote destination. Chapter 5 of the report of the Senate Select 
Committee on the Danger of Radioactive Waste, published by the Commonwealth 
Parliament in April 1976, deals exclusively with transportation. The 
Committee was told that the risks involved during transportation of 
radioactive waste are of major concern to the public. A number of incidents 
were reported but as only small amounts of waste have been transported over 
the past 30 years, no major incident or accident was reported. However, the 
Pangea proposal would inevitably involve the transportation in Australia of 
large quantities of HLW from overseas, with the public exposed to much 
higher levels of risk. In this respect it was clear that there are no 
sufficient trained fire service and emergency staff available to handle 
radioactive spillages en route. The Code of Practice for the Safe Transport 
of Radioactive Substances, is currently being revised, and the Senate 
Committee stated that "many concerns in relation to its readability and 
regulatory limits must be addressed.: (para 5.26)

The Nuclear Waste Repository

Pangea proposes that the repository site will be remote from populated 
areas and will be in a stable geological area with low seismic activity. It 
is not clear, however, whether traditional Aboriginal land is involved. The 
disposal areas for nuclear waste will be several hundred metres underground 
and are planned to operate for 40 years. The proposal is, of course, a 
commercial venture and promises substantial benefit for the host country.

The Senate Committee did not have before it, for consideration, the 
proposal for the underground disposal nuclear waste repository, as proposed 
by Pangea Resources. However, it did make certain of its views on disposal 
known. It defined "storage" to refer to facilities that allow for retrieval 
of radioactive waste and "disposal" as repositories intended to hold waste 
permanently and irretrievably, as proposed by Pangea. The Committee 
commented that "the international nuclear community has been unable to come 
up with an answer on how to dispose of radioactive waste..." (para 7.15) It 
therefore recommended a national above ground storage facility, as opposed 
to a disposal repository. It commented that "the question with deep burial 
is not whether the containment of waste will leak, but when." (para 6.108) 
Two members of the Committee, in a minority report, opposed even a storage 
facility. The Committee specially opposed the import of radioactive waste 
from overseas for treatment or disposal by the Australian Nuclear Science 
and Technology Organisation. Although Pangea has indicated that it is 
satisfied that some Australian sites are geologically stable, it was 
pointed out the Committee that earthquakes can occur all over the 
continent.

Conclusion

I have to say that I do not believe that the Pangea proposal is either 
feasible or acceptable to the Australian public. The rather brief article 
derived from information from Pangea Resource does not deal with all the 
problems related to the establishment of a deep burial nuclear waste site 
for HLW and ILW in Australia. How do we, for example, ensure that a 
commercial company remains responsible for a repository holding radioactive 
waste, much of which is dangerous to life forms for thousands of years? 
Pangea has specified 40 years, but where will the company and its financial 
resources be when depository problems arise in the next hundred years or 
so, let alone thousand of years? Surely this is not a legacy we would wish 
to bequeath to future generations of Australians!

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Acknowledgment to The Beacon

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