Freewheeling Fission Products

By Sue Prent

The catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants has made many people throughout the world newly aware of the hazards posed by nuclear waste in conjunction with the ‘Age of Decommissioning’ that is unfolding in the wake of the triple meltdown.

Dozens of nuclear reactors will, for various reasons, potentially cease to generate power during the coming decade, leaving a legacy of highly radioactive spent fuel and debris that must be safely sequestered for hundreds of years.

What most people are surprised to know is that some of these highly radioactive reactor leftovers will represent a hazard to all living things for thousands and thousands of years.

That this problem has remained stubbornly unresolved while the industry grew up around it was brought home to me by the February 20 obituary of engineering physicist Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, whose distinguished career began at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington in 1947, where he exchanged ideas with Albert Einstein, and ultimately resolved on the issue of radiation disbursement and how it can be tracked by tracing evidence of strontium-90 in baby teeth.

Addressing a Senate committee that ultimately moved to ban the aboveground nuclear testing in the 1960’s, Dr. Sternglass testified to the hazards posed to infants and small children from exposure to the radioactive byproducts of such tests.

Now, fifty plus years later, Fairewinds is receiving many unsolicited requests from parents near Fukushima to have their children’s teeth analyzed for evidence of Sr-90.

Coincidentally, test wells in the soil surrounding the now idle Vermont Yankee have revealed the presence of this same telltale “tooth seeker,” evidencing the likelihood that still more fission products have been liberated into the Vermont pastoral landscape.

The NRC is singularly uncurious about this discovery and has recently decreed that VY owner-operator Entergy has no need to trace the source of the leak now before decommissioning begins, which may push out the possibility for any investigation decades from now.

The lesson here is that there is far more to caretaking nuclear waste than finds its way into estimates of tons of spent fuel or demolition debris.

In the exclusion zone surrounding the devastated and entombed Russian Chernobyl nuclear plant, trees that are reaching the end of their life cycle are not returning to feed the soil, as would normally be the case. Instead, they turn tinder dry and are prone to destruction by fire. So thirty years after the disaster at Chernobyl, investigators are discussing this new phenomena and its potential significance to the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi ongoing tragedy.

According to Science News, it is believed this failure to yield to the forces of normal decay is due to the loss of a critical sector of wildlife in the exclusion zone: insects and micro-organisms that play an important role in the life-cycle of trees, but readily succumb to even low-level radiation in their environment.

So, while nuclear industry apologists have been quick to celebrate the “renewed biodiversity” of a Chernobyl forest now free of human competition (‘Wolves of Chernobyl’), this apparent bounty disguises a “missing link” in the essential food chain that will inevitably take its toll.

Meanwhile those pest-free trees represent a renewed radioactive hazard that is unique to their situation.  The trees absorbed air-borne fission products that were released in the 1986 reactor explosion.  Unlike the bugs and bacteria, the trees were such large organisms that they continued to live and grow.

Safely ensconced in tree tissue,  “hot particles” like cesium-137 have remained sequestered until now, when the dead trees are ready to re-release these isotopes into the environment once again.

Because the trees cannot rot due to microorganic activity, they simply dry into firewood.  The liberated radioactive isotopes don’t fall to the ground incorporating themselves in the developing soil.  Instead, they are sent again heavenward in the smoke and ash from forest fires, where they can be carried thousands of miles for redistribution halfway around the world.

You might think of this as the “globalization of risk” from a reactor accident anywhere in the world.

While a fair amount of care can be enforced in the management of spent fuel, less can be expected from management of dry and volatile debris from the wreckage of a reactor site, particularly in a place where the gargantuan impact of storm damage has left undifferentiated waste everywhere to be seen, as has happened at Fukushima Daiichi.

Without clear-cutting on a truly epic scale, as the spontaneous wildfires that plague Chernobyl inevitably come to Fukushima, this cycle of “black rain” seems doomed to repeat.