As governments and nations work towards a fossil free energy future, a strong push by the nuclear industry for an atomic energy future is making its way into global energy power discussions around the world. Apart from the economic weakness of an atomic power future as well as the enormous risk of meltdowns and radioactive contamination from atomic reactors, what the nuclear industry fails to mention is their total inability to properly manage and dispose of the highly toxic waste created by the nuke industry that threatens humanity for hundreds of thousands of years.
In Fairewinds’ latest video, Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen and Dr. Marco Kaltofen, nuclear forensics expert and president of Boston Chemical Data Corporation, discuss major problems that continue to plague radioactive waste dumps with toxic releases that impact people and the environment in the United States and abroad.
Atomic garbage has piled-up more than 70-years high, beginning with the first atom bomb testing in the American Southwest, and the nuclear industry has failed to safely “take the trash out.”
In this video, Mr. Gundersen and Dr. Kaltofen take a look at the currently raging underground fire in the St. Louis area, from which Dr. Kaltofen has studied at least 350 samples during the past 2-years. Dr. Kaltofen draws our attention to the 1950s chemical explosion at the Kyshtym nuclear waste facility in Russia, a rarely discussed nuclear disaster whose repercussions continue to haunt the health and lives of people living in Kyshtym’s fall-out area today. From the cracking, leaking Hanford site threatening the Columbus River to plutonium and americium found in house dust from the homes of people living near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal in Rocky Flats, Colorado, Mr. Gundersen and Dr. Kaltofen concur that no country is managing nuclear waste. Arguably one of the worst releases of radiation into the environment was in New Mexico, at a place called Church Rock that borders Navajo Nation. At Church Rock, a 20-foot breach in a dam allowed acidic water containing uranium mill tailings to enter Puerco River and contaminate 70 miles of crucial desert water flowing through Navajo land.
Mr. Gundersen and Dr. Kaltofen highlight a chilling truth: the threat of economic strain and financial burden hardly touches the lasting devastation to people and the environment that atomic energy and the nuclear industry impose throughout every link in the nuclear power fuel chain.
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**See below for audio and transcript**
AG: Hi. I’m Arnie Gundersen from Fairewinds Energy Education and we have a really special guest with us via Skype, Dr. Marco Kaltofen from Boston Chemical Data in Natick, Massachusetts. Hi, Marco.
MK: Hey, good morning, Arnie.
AG: Today I wanted to talk about radioactive waste dumps and the releases from them all around the country and all around the world that in the nuclear industry we call the front-end mining and we call the back end what comes out of the nuclear reactor. So let’s just dig right into this pile of waste, whether it’s the new material that’s in the ground as mining or the old material that’s come out from the reactor. So Marco, the news is alive with a fire in St. Louis. Can you tell us what you know about that?
MK: Sure. I’ve been working a small group and we’ve been doing testing in the St. Louis area for about the past 2 years. We have about 350 samples that we’ve analyzed. And what we’re looking at is the radioactive waste, the dross that’s left over from processing uranium ore into the uranium metal used in the first nuclear weapons. So we’re talking World War II era materials, the Manhattan Project. And over time, these materials have been disbursed in multiple places all over north St. Louis. Some of it ended up in the land fill. It didn’t belong there. Unfortunately, the land fills caught fire. And maybe the most unfortunate thing is when uranium waste decay into their byproducts, one of the things it decays into is radon, a gas. So people are concerned that the fire will approach the waste and release the radon gas into the atmosphere.
AG: So this is bomb waste that dates back from the early 1940’s that wound up in a dump in St. Louis and now, 70 years later is rearing its ugly head because an underground fire is approaching it. Did I get that right?
MK: Yes, you did. The waste from uranium processing actually has a lifetime of several hundred years and over time can actually get more radioactive because the decay products are more radioactive than the original uranium. And that’s what’s happening. Unfortunately, in the 1940’s we didn’t have much of a clue about what we would do with the waste from this process. So we wound up playing a game of musical chairs and moving to multiple locations around North St. Louis. I suppose at the time they originally dumped it, it was an empty area, but every city grows. And now St. Louis’ suburbs – Florissant, Hazelwood, Ferguson – have grown around these old waste sites. And there are far more people living next to the waste than there were when it was originally disposed of.
AG: So there are several sites in the St. Louis area, but the one that’s the biggest concern is the one that there’s an underground fire heading toward – right?
MK: (3:25) The last place that this waste ended up was the Westlake Landfill. And this landfill accepted municipal waste and it took some of the waste from these processes. And as they decay they’re releasing radon. And when you go to the area you can actually find radon being vented from various places. And the concern is if the fire reaches the waste, that venting is going to increase. And of course, now the area is very built up; lots of people live around this site. And that was the purpose of our study and we eventually did submit it to a journal and we’re waiting to hear.
AG: So does anybody have any idea how to keep this fire from reaching the waste?
MK: EPA has been on the site for a few years now and they’re trying to mitigate it. They’re trying to reduce the impact of both the waste and the fire. But boy, doing this after the fact is so much harder. You can spend an order of magnitude more on cleaning up the site compared to trying to dispose of it properly in the first place. And unfortunately, no one planned too far into the future when they disposed of that material, and we’re basically stuck. The options are all bad ones and they’ll certainly all be extensive ones.
AG: Well, let’s move on. You’ve traveled the world facing nuclear waste issues. I understand that you were in Russia, and that’s probably the site of one of the worst nuclear explosions we’ve ever seen. Can you tell us about that?
MK: Back in the 1950’s, there was a chemical explosion at a nuclear waste facility. So not a nuclear detonation but a chemical one. And it caused plutonium and plutonium waste to be disbursed over an enormous area, and we call this the Kyshtym disaster. Now these wastes have never been cleaned up and what the Russians are trying to do is evacuate communities ahead of the spreading waste. And what we’ve tried to do in our sampling and testing is want to get a look at how much radioactivity people are exposed to and what kind of isotopes are present. We’re trying to do a nuclear forensic analysis and see exactly what materials have now moved 10’s, even a hundred kilometer away from the original site.
AG: So this was spent fuel being reprocessed?
MK: The original site was – you have to think about it like we did Los Alamos during the 2nd world war. It was a crash program. Wastes were being disposed of essentially in the environment in holding ponds. And the detonation put an enormous amount of material into the environment, and it wasn’t characterized. We don’t actually know all the things that were in that original waste that was discharged.
AG: But we do know it came from spent fuel so there would be things like Cesium 137 remaining and other isotopes?
MK: (6:37) When we did our testing, we did find plutonium. We found cesium, we found strontium 90. Interestingly, we also found neutron activation products like cobalt 60, that we were not expecting. We found these in river sediments from the Techa River and we also found them in the beach area around a local swimming hole in a community called Maslemiva (sp? 7:00).
AG: Wow, that really is a – for our listeners here, the fissioning of nuclear fuel creates things like cesium 137 and it activates uranium to become plutonium and strontium is another one of those fission products. But Marco mentioned this term an activation product, and cobalt 60 comes from when a neutron hits iron and becomes cobalt 60. So that’s a different process. Geez, that’s fascinating, and of course, you guys don’t know what was there to start with, so you’ll wind up having to just chase the data and go where the data take you.
MK: The ?7:47 site, the Kyshtym site, is really not all that different in some ways from some of the U.S.’s bigger sites. We can’t look at Russia and say they did things better or worse than we did. If we go to Hanford (?8:00) where I’ve done a good deal of testing, we’ll see exactly the same materials. I think the best thing about Hanford is the site is so enormous that most of the radioactive waste has not yet reached the Columbia River; although obviously there’s a lot of money and a lot of work between now and the future where we have to make sure that that doesn’t get any worse.
AG: On Hanford – I’ve been following that for years and I realize you’ve been out there many times – a whistle blower had a concern that a hydrogen explosion could occur inside one of the tanks and blow that stuff into the air. So it’s not just a leak into the groundwater, but it has the potential to volatilize and go airborne, too.
MK: So the problem at Hanford, I think, is more severe than a lot of folks realize. The first priority at Hanford is to clean up the mess that Hanford made back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. In fact, that’s the only priority at Hanford. This is all Hanford does. Hanford cleans up Hanford. And we’re going to spend more on the cleanup than we spent on creating all of the original plutonium, uranium and thorium that was going to be used for weapons production. So we have a variety of different sites that are heavily contaminated with probably the most concentrated, most radioactive and most poorly characterized nuclear waste in the United States. We are fortunate that the site is large, gives us some buffer zone. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the people who work in Hanford. The people who work in Hanford, as they try and maintain the lid on these different wastes, often find themselves exposed, not just to the radioactive materials, but to all the chemicals that were originally disposed of and all the new chemicals that are created by exposure to these high radiation fluxes. It’s an enormous problem for us. We’re spending billions of dollars on a waste treatment plant at Hanford. It’s badly needed, but after all these years and all these billions, it actually hasn’t treated a single gallon of waste and it is not clear when that treatment is even going to start. So it is easily as intractable as the problem that the Russians have had with Myack and the Kyshtym disaster site. (?10:33)
AG: I want to talk about Legacy sites. You know, all of these sites – the whip one is handling Legacy waste from bomb programs, of course the one in Russia and Hanford have Legacy waste. And the Beatty, Nevada site was handling commercial waste, but from the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s and who knows what’s underground at any of those. The one I would like to add to this mix is West Valley in Upstate New York. That was a commercial fuel processing plant. Several power plants ship waste to West Valley on the theory that it would be reprocessed. And the chemical systems are incredibly complicated and incredibly radioactive. I had a team of people that were there back in 1980, ’81 and we were chartered by the company that got the Legacy site – a company called Nyserta (?11:35) to survey the site for radiation. And our guys had experience in power plants and they were just appalled at the radiation levels. Through 4 and 5-foot-thick walls they were still picking up hundreds of millirem an hour. And we also went outside and we were doing an environmental study and we found plutonium in the parking lot. The source of that was, as it turned out, they would drive into these hot cells forklifts. And the forklifts when they came out were contaminated and they would park the forklifts in the parking lot and the rain would wash the plutonium off. So it seems like around the country, we’ve done a really poor job of managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
MK: I have to agree. When I look at the results of my research doing dust analysis, doing residential sampling, looking for things like americium, plutonium, uranium, thorium, these are things that have a natural component, but they’re also related to nuclear weapons or nuclear energy facilities. Over and over again, I am finding plutonium and americium in house dust, in the homes of people who are either next to places like the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal, Rocky Flats, Colorado, or who worked at those facilities. And the issue there is, when you’re at your workplace, you’re taking care not to be exposed to radiation. But if you bring that home on your clothing in the dust that’s in your vehicle and you can bring that into your house, you’re exposing yourself more. But you’re also exposing family members who really were never trained and never expected to encounter nuclear material. And I’m going to bring up something that’s going to make this more complex. In my research on looking for traces of the Fukushima explosion, in house dusts around the United States and Canada, what I kept finding was our own domestic waste from our Legacy sites usually dwarfed the amount that we found coming from Japan. So there was a lot of concern and a lot of tension about radioactive dust from Japan and if you work hard, you can find it. But what it ignored was these Legacy sites that we created ourselves actually have a bigger contribution, a larger exposure to most people. And you can actually look at house dust from Los Alamos, New Mexico or Richland, Washington next to Hanford or around Rocky Flats, Colorado and you can actually see the physical evidence of what were once classified nuclear processes that caused radioactive waste to get into the surrounding homes. It was a major disappointment and it’s something that we really don’t understand from a regulatory perspective.
AG: (14:45) That’s really frightening and the horse is out of the barn; there’s no way to get that material back in the ground or wherever it belongs. The back end of the fuel cycle is what we’ve focused on so far and I’d like to close by talking about the front end of the fuel cycle. That’s when uranium is mined, it’s really a low percentage of the rock in which it’s placed and it has to be separated out, usually with acids, and then processed into something called yellow cake, which then gets processed again and enriched and finally works its way into a nuclear reactor. But the two front-end steps of that – the digging it out of the ground and stripping out the uranium with acids creates something called mill tailings. And I was recently in Utah testifying and very near a site called Moab. And at the Moab site, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the owner of the site that they needed to put up a $6 million decommissioning fund and the site cleanup has actually now exceeded a billion dollars. So it’s taxpayers that are on the hook for that. But the good news is the pile of waste stayed intact. The Native Americans I worked with will tell you loud and clear that the worse release of total amount of radiation into the environs was at a place called Church Rock, and that was a 20-foot breach in a dam that allowed acidic water containing lots of uranium mill tailings to enter a river and contaminate 70 miles of river, largely on Navajo reservations. It happened about 3 months after Three Mile Island and of course, the combination of Three Mile Island and the fact it happened to Native Americans in an unpopulated area where news trucks couldn’t get to very easily, it was not very well covered in the press, but it was still – and still remains – an environmental disaster. Have you taken any looks at mill tailing sites, Marco?
MK: I actually have been to those sites. I’ve collected samples and analyzed them. There are a few problems we’ve run into. One is a technical problem. Uranium and thorium exist naturally in the earth. We obviously mine them, refine them and create materials from them. So you always have to be careful about measuring the difference between what’s naturally present and what’s been caused by industry. And that actually is not that difficult as long as you’re using the proper tools, but it does get complicated in working with the regulatory agencies where there’s a tendency to say well, it’s a natural material, it’s not our fault, it was there even if we hadn’t done this. And of course, like any mining activity – arsenic is natural - we mind it, we expose people to it. It’s our responsibility to do it carefully and not expose members of the public. Unfortunately, if you talk about Legacy, we have a really bad legacy of how we have allowed first nation peoples – the Navajos and others – to become exposed to some of the most radioactive materials, as miners, because many of these Native Americans were working in the mines, and also in their homes where their groundwater supplies have been contaminated by mine tailings and mining waste. And they’re also exposed to radioactive dust and gases. And I think it’s a real American tragedy that we haven’t faced up to this cost. But we do it in other industries where when we’re working with hazardous materials – and I’ll take petroleum – we work with gasoline, which is toxic, dangerous, explosive, but we spend the money and we do it right and the vast majority of the time we do it without incident and use the product. Well, this just hasn’t happened with first nation people and uranium mining. We have not spent the money. We have not done the things we can to prevent exposure to radioactive materials to workers and to their families. I think most people do not recognize that the largest radioactive release in the history of the United States was the release of uranium contaminated mine tailings to first nation people and the Navajos. And we have just got such a long way to go. Even if we were to develop perfectly safe perfectly clean nuclear power plant, we still have to worry about the cost to the miners. I think we understand that coal mining, uranium mining are hazardous occupations. But they’re only this hazardous because we allow it to happen.
AG: (19:55) You know, if there’s a common thread here from the front end of the cycle and the back end of the cycle, it seems to me it’s what I’ve been saying to our viewers for a long time about Fukushima cleanup and that’s the issue of follow the money. It seems like we take the profit early in the game but we never really set aside enough money to do the appropriate cleanups after the fact.
MK: Well, I’m just speaking as a life-long engineer. I think the mistake we made with the nuclear industry happened early. We treated it as if it were a special industry. It was insulated from some of its liabilities and therefore it didn’t take the necessary steps to protect its own workers early on. And it didn’t make that part of its culture. I don’t think it was so much a technical problem as it was an economic one. Once relieved of the economic burden, what corporation will want to take it back, really?
AG: Well, I guess that’s the takeaway for this entire video, Marco. And I wanted to thank you for giving us the time today to talk about this.
MK: Thank you.
AG: Thank you, Dr. Marco Kaltofen in Massachusetts.