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Nuclear and Human Waste – Facts and Fiction!

March 16, 2011

To our friends across the sea, with such hardship and tragedy and no end in sight, here are a few words for you:

And I will light a candle for you.
To shatter all the darkness and bless the times you knew.
Like a beacon in the night
The flame will burn bright and guide you through.
Oh, today I light a candle for you.

Now back to the discussion.

Nuclear energy and its waste are issues of the day, but so are humanity’s ravages and its wastes today.Like anything else, facts must prevail over perception. If not, Witches would be in short supply.   For some reason, naysayers tend to hold their tenuous position in face of reason. Maybe that’s the human race, but where would we be if the world was still considered flat and the center of the universe. Upon the pain of death, Galileo, “the Father of Modern Science,” was forced to recant his findings refuting the geocentric view of the Earth and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

For a moment, to put into proper perspective the issue of waste, a brief overview of human waste is in order. For this discussion, human waste includes: feces, urine, sullage (wastewater from kitchens, bathrooms and laundries), and solid waste (garbage, refuse, rubbish, discarded food, cloth, medical dressing, etc.).

A 2010 report on Water Quality by United Nations Environment Programme, states:

Human Health Impact
• Worldwide, infectious diseases such as waterborne diseases are the number one killer of children under five years old. More people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence, including war. (WHO 2002)
• Unsafe or inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene cause approximately 3.1% (about 57 million) of all deaths worldwide and 3.7 % of DALYs (disability adjusted life years) worldwide. (WHO 2002)
• Unsafe water causes 4 billion cases of diarrhea each year, and results in 2.2 million deaths, mostly of children under five. This means that 15% of child deaths each year are attributable to diarrhea – a child dying every 15 seconds. In India alone, the single largest cause of ill health and death among children is diarrhea, which kills nearly half a million children each year. (WHO and UNICEF 2000)

Impacts on the Environment
• There has been a widespread decline in biological health in inland (non-coastal) waters. Globally, 24% of mammals and 12% of birds connected to inland waters are considered threatened. (UN WWAP 2003)
• In some regions, like the Mediterranean and Madagascar and other island groups in the western Indian Ocean, more than 50% of native freshwater fish species are at risk of extinction, and nearly one-third of the world’s amphibians are at risk of extinction. (Vié et al. 2009)
• Freshwater species have faced an estimated extinction rate five times greater than that of terrestrial species. (Ricciardi and Rasmussen 1999)
• Freshwater ecosystems sustain a large number of identified species, including a quarter of known vertebrates. Such systems provide more than US $75 billion in goods and ecosystem services for people, but are increasingly threatened by a host of water quality problems. (Vié et al. 2009)

Drinking Water Quality
• Point-of- use drinking water treatment through chlorine and safe storage of water could result in 122.2 million avoided Disability Adjusted Life Years, a measure of morbidity. (UN WWAP 2003)
• Nearly 70 million people living in Bangladesh are exposed to groundwater with arsenic above WHO recommended limits of 10 ug/L. (UN WWAP 2009)
• Naturally occurring arsenic pollution in groundwater now affects nearly 140 million people in 70 countries on all continents. (UN WWAP 2009)

Costs and Benefits of Water Quality
• With the Millennium Development Goals, the international community committed to halving the proportion of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. Meeting this goal would mean an extra 322 million working days per year gained. (SIWI 2005)
• Economic losses, due to the lack of water and sanitation in Africa as a result of the mortality and morbidity impacts, are estimated at $28.4 billion or about 5% of GDP. (UN WWAP 2009)

Pollution from Industry and Mining
• 70% of untreated industrial wastes in developing countries are disposed into water where they contaminate existing water supplies. (UN-Water 2009)
• An estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the U.S. will cost $20 billion in management and remediation of pollution; many of these sites will require management in perpetuity. (Septoff 2006)

Water Quality Facts and Statistics
• In the U.S. state of Colorado alone, some 23,000 abandoned mines have polluted 2,300 km of streams. (Banks, et al. 1997)
• Chlorinated solvents were found in 30 % of groundwater supplies in 15 Japanese cities, sometimes ending up as much as 10 km from the source of pollution. (UNEP 1996)
• Roughly one unit of mercury is emitted into the environment for every unit of gold produced by small-scale miners. A total of as much as 1000 tons of mercury is emitted each year. (UNEP/GRIDArendal 2004)

Pollution from Agriculture
• In a comparison of domestic, industrial, and agricultural sources of pollution from the coastal zone of Mediterranean countries, agriculture was the leading source of phosphorus compounds and sediment. (UNEP 1996)
• Nutrient enrichment, most often associated with nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, can deplete oxygen levels and eliminate species with higher oxygen requirements, affecting the structure and diversity of ecosystems.
• Nitrate 1 is the most common chemical contaminant in the world’s groundwater aquifers.(Spalding and Exner, 1993) Mean nitrate levels have risen globally by an estimated 36% in global waterways since 1990, with the most dramatic increases seen in the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa, where nitrate contamination has more than doubled. (GEMS 2004)

As a footnote, The University of Georgia study has concluded that the main reason for the death of coral reefs in the Caribbean is untreated sewage from countries surrounding the sea. Researchers say the same is likely to be the main reason for the dying of coral reefs surrounding Okinawa and other areas.

Now for the heart of this discussion! A 1990 publication, “The Nuclear Energy Option,” by Professor Emeritus Bernard L. Cohen University of Pittsburgh is one of the best repositories of information about nuclear power plants. ( It is unbiased, factual, and well referenced compilation of topics such as:

1. Nuclear Power — Act II
2. Do we need more power plants?
3. Environmental problems with coal, oil, and gas
4. Is the public ready for more nuclear power?
5. How dangerous is radiation?
6. The fearsome reactor meltdown accident
7. The Chernobyl accident — can it happen here?
8. Understanding risk
9. Costs of nuclear power plants — what went wrong?
10. The next generation of nuclear power plants
11. Hazards of high-level radioactive waste — the great myth
12. More on radioactive waste
13. Plutonium and bombs
14. The solar dream
15. Questions and answers
16. Recapitulation

Keeping in mind this is based on 1990 technology, highlights from Chapter 11, “Hazards of high-level radioactive waste — the great myth,” states:
“….. radioactive waste from nuclear power operations represents less of a health hazard than waste from any other large technological industry.”

“….. The impact of this radioactive radon gas from coal burning on the public’s health far exceeds the effects of all the radioactive waste released from nuclear plants.

“….. waste from 1 year of operation weighs about 1 tons and would occupy a volume of half a cubic yard, which means that it would fit under an ordinary card table with room to spare. Since the quantity is so small, it can be handled with a care and sophistication that is completely out of the question for the millions of tons of waste spewed out annually from coal-burning plant.”

“….. if all the air pollution emitted from a coal plant in one day were inhaled by people, 1 million people could die from it, which is 10 times the number that could be killed by ingesting or inhaling the waste produced in one day by a nuclear plant.”

“….. nuclear waste, a simple, quick, and easy disposal method would be to convert the waste into a glass — a technology that is well in hand — and simply drop it into the ocean at random locations. ….. if all the world’s electricity were produced by nuclear power and all the waste generated for the next hundred years were dumped in the ocean, the radiation dose to sea animals would never be increased by as much as 1% above its present level from natural radioactivity.”

“….. radioactive waste from a flourishing nuclear industry, on the other hand, radiation exposures would be increased by only a tiny fraction of 1% above natural levels.

“….. put the spent fuel through a chemical reprocessing operation to separate out the uranium and plutonium which are valuable for future use as fuels, and to convert the residual material into a form suitable for burial.”

“….. reprocessing plants have been an important part of nuclear industry planning in the United States. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, three commercial plants were built, one of them was operated for a few years,”

“Great Britain has been reprocessing spent fuel since the 1950s ….. France has been operating reprocessing plants for many years ….. Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands also utilize the French and British facilities….. The Soviet Union reprocesses its spent fuel, and Eastern bloc countries as well as Finland make use of the Soviet facilities.”

“Only the United States has a full-scale program in operation leading to burial of spent fuel”

“….. spent fuel will be shipped to a chemical reprocessing plant where it will be dissolved in acid and put through chemical processes to remove 99.5% of the uranium and plutonium that are valuable as fuels for future use. The residue — 1.5 tons of high-level waste — will then be incorporated into a glass in the form of perhaps 30 cylinders, each about 12 inches in diameter and 10 feet long, weighing about 1,000 pounds.”

“….. 15 tons of waste glass, roughly one truckload, will then be shipped to a federal repository, where it will be permanently emplaced deep underground.”

“If nuclear power was used to the fullest practical extent in the United States, we would need about 300 power plants of the type now in use. The waste produced each year would then be enough to kill (300 x 50 million =) over 10 billion people. Rarely quoted, however, are the other numbers given along with it: we produce enough chlorine gas each year to kill 400 trillion people, enough phosgene to kill 20 trillion, enough ammonia and hydrogen cyanide to kill 6 trillion with each, enough barium to kill 100 billion, and enough arsenic trioxide to kill 10 billion.”

“….. how much of the waste glass, converted into digestible form, would have a good chance of killing a person who eats it — this may be called a “lethal dose” and the results are as follows:

 Shortly after burial 0.01 oz.
 After 100 years 0.1 oz.
 After 600 years 1 oz.
 After 20,000 years 1 lb.

Lethal doses for some common chemicals are as follows:

 selenium compounds 0.01 oz.
 potassium cyanide 0.02 oz.
 arsenic trioxide 0.1 oz.
 copper 0.7 oz.

“….. concentration of the waste in one place will be concentrated on the relatively small number of people who live in that area. ….. but it is also true for just about any other environmental problem. We in Pittsburgh suffer from the air pollution generated in making steel for the whole country; citizens of Houston and a few other cities bear the brunt of the considerable health hazards from oil refineries that make our gasoline, ….. The health burden from these inequities is thousands of times larger than those from living near a nuclear waste repository will ever be.”

“….. buried waste package components are as follows: waste glass – the waste itself, converted into a glass; container – stanless steel can in which glass is originally cast; stabilizer – filler material to improve physical and chemical stability of the waste; casing – special material highly resistant to corrosion by intruding water, which it should keep out; overpack – provides additional corrosion resistance and structural stability; sleeve – liner for hole, gives structural support; backfill – material to fill space between waste package and rock, swells when wet to keep water out;”

“….. glass, which is not readily dissolved. Glass artifacts from ancient Babylonia have been found in river beds, where they have been washed over by flowing river water — not just by the slowly seeping dampness which better describes groundwater conditions — for 3,000 years without dissolving away. A Canadian experiment with waste glass buried in soil permeated by groundwater indicates that it will last for a hundred million years — i.e., only about 1/100 millionth dissolves each year.”

“….. suppose that somehow some of the waste did become dissolved in groundwater. Groundwater moves very slowly, typically at less than 1 foot per day — in the region of the New Mexico site it moves only about 1 inch per day and at the Nevada site which is under investigation it moves only 0.03 inches per day. Furthermore, groundwater deep underground does not ordinarily travel vertically upward toward the surface; it rather follows the rock layers, which tend to be essentially horizontal, and hence it typically must travel about 50 miles before reaching the surface. In the New Mexico area it must travel over a hundred miles and at the Nevada site at least 30 miles. Anyone can easily calculate that to travel 50 miles at 1 foot per day takes about 1,000 years, so this again gives a very substantial protection for the few hundred years that most concern us here.”

This is only a very small portion of arguments supported by facts and analysis that appear in “The Nuclear Energy Option.” Whether a believer of disbeliever in nuclear power, it is well worth your time to become knowledgeable in this important issue.

In closing, presenting society with another potential hazard is not wise. The less the better off we will be. Nevertheless, nuclear is here, nothing we can do about it anymore. Like fire, we must learn how to deal with it. With the proper safe guards and training, nuclear energy is by no means as dangerous as it is made out to be.

When the investigation is over, it will be interesting to understand how the tsunami translated into possibly the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever seen.

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