Category Archives: hazardous waste

The Nightmare: Sabotaging 20 Million Nuclear Shipments

Nuclear and other radioactive material is hardest to protect when it is transported from point A to point B — more than half of the incidents of theft of radioactive material reported to the IAEA between 1993 and 2019 occurred while it was in transport.

Around 20 million shipments of nuclear and other radioactive material are regularly transported within countries and across borders each year. These materials are used in industry, agriculture and medicine, as well as in education. Some of them are also radioactive sources that are no longer useful, known as disused sources.

The aim of nuclear security during transport is to ensure that the material is secured throughout and that it is not used for criminal or malicious purposes. While the level of security differs depending on the sensitivity of the material, the fundamental elements of secure transport include physical protection, administrative measures, training and protection of information about the transport routes and schedule. In some cases, escort personnel may also need to be armed

“During conversion of our research reactor from high enriched to low enriched uranium fuel, we had to transport highly radioactive spent reactor fuel from the site to the airport to be sent back to the original manufacturer, and we had to transport the new low enriched uranium fuel from the airport to the facility,” said Yusuf A. Ahmed, Director of the Centre for Energy Research and Training in Nigeria, who was involved in the conversion project. “Although the transport time is only a few hours, there is a lot that can happen during that time, from simple traffic accidents to malicious interventions and sabotage of shipments.”

While only around 30 countries use nuclear power and therefore have significant amounts of nuclear materials to transport, almost all countries use radioactive sources.

Excerpts from Inna Pletukhin, A Moving Target: Nuclear Security During Transport, IAEA Bulletin, Jan. 24, 2020

Saving the Fisheries of Barents Sea from Nuclear Waste: the Andreeva Bay Case

A shipment of 14 containers with spent nuclear fuel from Andreeva Bay to Atomflot in Murmansk, Russia took place in December 2019 but it was paid by Norway.  Unloading the 40-years old spent uranium fuel elements from the rundown storage tanks and repacking them to transport containers came with a price-tag of 5 million kroner (€500 000), while the shipment from Andreeva Bay to Murmansk will cost additional 2,5 million kroner (€250 000).

The December 2019 shipment was the fourth that year, but the first one paid by Norway.  In Andreeva Bay, only 65 kilometers from the border to Norway, the Soviet navy packed away its lethal leftovers. Without too much thought for the costs of future clean up.  In Norway, like in Russia, the demand for action came out of fears for possible radioactive leakages that could have potentially negative impact on the important fisheries in the Barents Sea.  So far, isotopes contamination has only been discovered in the sediments in the near proximity off the shore and not further out in the bay.

Concerns of nuclear accidents and radioactive leakages are also why Norwegian authorities have granted hundres of millions kroner in aid to secure and clean up the site.  After 25 years of cooperation to improve the situation in Andreeva Bay, the Norwegian experts argue that direct financing of practical work is the best way to gain an insight into how Russia deals with the clean up.

By the end of Soviet times, in the late 1980s, a total of 22,000 spent nuclear fuel elements, equal to about 100 reactor cores from submarines, had accumulated at the run-down storage facilities. In addition came thousands of cubic meters of solid radioactive waste stored outdoor in rusty containers and hundreds of cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste in tanks.

The two first decades of international cooperation concentrated on improving the infrastructure. Buildings were erected to cover three concrete tanks holding the spent nuclear fuel, both to keep out rain and snow, but also to make sure the removal- and repacking work could take place in safe conditions.  The quay by the shore was rebuilt, a new special crane for lifting transport casks where put in place. Even a new on-purpose designed ship was built, paid by Italy.

In 2017, the first load of containers with spent nuclear fuel left Andreeva Bay towards Murmansk, from where it go by rail to Mayak, Russia’s reprocessing plant north of Chelyabinsk east of the Ural Mountains.  So far in 2019, three shipments paid by Russia and one shipment paid by Norway have left Andreeva Bay.  “25% of the original amount of spent nuclear fuel is now removed,” says Per-Einar Fiskebeck…

The remaining waste, tank 3A holds numerous rusty, partly destroyed steel pipes where concrete of poor quality was filled in the space between. Some of those fuel assemblies are stuck in the canisters, while some of the canisters are stuck in the cells.  This is high level nuclear waste with radiation levels close to the uranium fuel comparable to the melted fuel rods inside the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor. 

Another groundbreaking milestone in the clean up work took place earlier this fall when the retrieval of six abandoned, highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel assemblies from the bottom of Building No. 5 were successfully completed.  Building No. 5 is a former pool storage, where several elements fell to the floor following a water-leakages in 1982. Traces of uranium and other radionuclides remained in the sludge at the bottom of the pool.

Thomas Nilsen,Norway helps pay for transporting old Russian navy nuclear waste, Barents Observer, Dec. 20, 2019

Forever Fukushima: Cleaning Up the Huge Mess

By the end of 2019, Japan further delayed the removal of thousands of spent fuel units that remain in cooling pools since the 2011 disaster The government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., are keeping a 30- to 40-year completion target.

More than 4,700 units of fuel rods remain at the three melted reactors and two others that survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. They pose a high risk because their storage pools are uncovered and a loss of water in case of another major disaster could cause the fuel rods to melt, releasing massive radiation. Their removal at Units 1 and 2, after repeated delays, is now postponed by up to 10 years from the initial target of 2018, with more preparation needed to reduce radiation and clear debris and other risks.

Fuel rod removal at the Unit 1 reactor pool will begin sometime in 2027-2028, after debris is cleaned up and a huge rooftop cover installed to contain radioactive dust. Fuel removal at Unit 2 pool is to begin in 2024-2026. Work at the Unit 3 reactor pool began in April 2019 and all 566 units will be removed by March 2021. TEPCO has emptied the pool at Unit 4, which was offline and only suffered building damage, and aims to have all remaining rods in reactor pools removed by 2031 for safer storage in dry casks.

TEPCO has been unable to release the 1.2 million tons of treated but still radioactive water kept in nearly 1,000 tanks at the plant, fearing public repercussions and the impact on the area’s struggling fishing and agriculture. The amount of water is growing by 170 tons daily because it is used to cool the melted fuel inside the reactors.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry recently drafted a proposal to release the water to the sea or the air, or a combination of both. TEPCO says it can only store up to 1.37 million tons, or until the summer of 2022. Time is limited because preparation is needed before any water release. TEPCO and the government say the tanks pose risks if they were to spill their contents in another major earthquake, tsunami or flood…. The water is still somewhat contaminated, but TEPCO says further treatment can remove all but radioactive tritium to levels allowed for release. Experts say tritium is not harmful to humans in small amounts and has been routinely released from nuclear plants around the world.

Removing an estimated 880 tons of molten fuel from Fukushima’s three melted reactors is the toughest and unprecedented challenge. It’s six times the amount dealt with in the aftermath of the 1979 Three Mile Island partial core melt in the United States.  Removal is to begin in 2021 at Unit 2, where robotic probes have made more progress than at Units 1 and 3. A robotic arm was developed to enter the reactor from the side to reach the melted fuel, which has largely fallen to the bottom of the primary containment vessel… The first decade through 2031 is a crucial phase that will affect future progress…

Japan has yet to develop a plan to dispose of the highly radioactive melted fuel and other debris that come out of the reactors. TEPCO will compile a plan for those after the first decade of melted fuel removal. Managing the waste will require new technologies to reduce its volume and toxicity. TEPCO and the government say they plan to build a site to store waste and debris removed from the reactors, but finding one and obtaining public consent will be difficult.

Additionally, there will be an estimated 770,000 tons of solid radioactive waste by 2030, including contaminated debris and soil, sludge from water treatment, scrapped tanks and other waste. They will be sorted, treated and compacted for safe storage under a plan to be compiled by 2028.

The government says Fukushima’s decommissioning cost is estimated at 8 trillion yen ($73 billion), though adding compensation, decontamination of surrounding areas and medium-term storage facilities would bring the total to an estimated 22 trillion yen ($200 billion). The Japan Center for Economic Research, a think tank, estimates that decommissioning alone would cost 51 trillion yen ($470 billion) if the water is not released and tritium removal technology is pursued.

More than 10,000 workers will be needed annually in coming years, about one third assigned to work related to the radioactive water. 

Excerpts from MARI YAMAGUCHI,  Japan revises Fukushima cleanup plan, delays key steps, Associated Press, Dec. 27, 2019

540 Katrina Oil Spills Equal an Exxon Valdez Disaster

The federal agency overseeing oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico after hurricane Katrina reported that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged. The U.S. Coast Guard, the first responder for oil spills, received 540 separate reports of spills into Louisiana waters. Officials estimated that, taken together, those leaks released the same amount of oil that the highly publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound — about 10.8 million gallons…

While hurricanes gain speed due to the effects of climate change, the push for oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico shows no sign of slowing down. In 2014, the Obama administration opened up 40 million new acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development. Four years later, the Trump administration announced plans to open up most of the rest, in what would be the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. history. Many of these 76 million acres are to be offered at reduced royalty rates to encourage additional near-shore drilling in Louisiana waters…

“In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come,” said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill. “One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn’t rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense.”…

In 2009, a class-action lawsuit against Murphy Oil Corp. ended in a settlement requiring the company to pay $330 million to 6,200 claimants, including owners of about 1,800 homes in St. Bernard Parish. The damage occurred when one of Murphy’s storage tanks floated off its foundation during Katrina and dumped over a million gallons of crude oil into a square-mile segment of Meraux and Chalmette….

To date, more than $19 million has been paid out from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to reimburse at least two oil companies for costs they incurred cleaning up oil they spilled during Katrina…

“We don’t normally penalize [companies] for act of God events,” Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality said. “We just get right to remediation.”

Excerpts from Joan Meiners, How Oil Companies Avoided Environmental Accountability After 10.8 Million Gallons Spill, ProPublica, Dec. 27, 2019

Electronic Waste: The Death of Your Phone and the Duty to Resuscitate It

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled.  The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens,  refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants  found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain.  Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to  contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.

Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however,  barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre.  Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.

For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement

In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling  plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting  precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable.  “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made  it.”   Companies are encouraged  to include this information on their devices. It could be a  file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.

Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be  sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable.  Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure  that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their  items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to  technical information to repair professionals.

The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions.  But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.  “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says  Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated  its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation  has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world.  Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in  design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.

Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste,, Jan. 10, 2020

Swept Under the Rug: Radioactive Dust and Brine in the Oil Industry

A salty substance called  “brine,” is  a naturally occurring waste product that gushes out of America’s oil-and-gas wells to the tune of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day. At most wells, far more brine is produced than oil or gas, as much as 10 times more. Brine collects in tanks, and workers pick it up and haul it off to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the earth

The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted — carried largely in the brine…

Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The most common isotopes are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Some brine samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was more than 8,500. “It’s ridiculous that those who haul brine are not being told what’s in their trucks,” says John Stolz, Duquesne’s environmental-center director. “And this stuff is on every corner — it is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing.

“Breathing in this stuff and ingesting it are the worst types of exposure,” Stolz continues. “You are irradiating your tissues from the inside out.” The radioactive particles fired off by radium can be blocked by the skin, but radium readily attaches to dust, making it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest. Once inside the body, its insidious effects accumulate with each exposure. It is known as a “bone seeker” because it can be incorporated into the skeleton and cause bone cancers called sarcomas. It also decays into a series of other radioactive elements, called “daughters.” The first one for radium-226 is radon, a radioactive gas and the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon has also been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.

The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. …

There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer

But a set of recent legal cases argues a direct connection to occupational exposure can be made… Pipe cleaners, welders, roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickmen, and truck drivers hauling dirty pipes and sludge all were exposed to radioactivity without their knowledge and suffered a litany of lethal cancers. An analysis program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined with up to 99 percent certainty that the cancers came from exposure to radioactivity on the job, including inhaling dust and radioactivity accumulated on the workplace floor, known as “groundshine.”

“Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides,” states a never-publicly released 1982 report by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s principal trade group, passed to Rolling Stone by a former state regulator. Rolling Stone discovered a handful of other industry reports and articles that raised concerns about liability for workers’ health. A 1950 document from Shell Oil warned of a potential connection between radioactive substances and cancer of the “bone and bone marrow.” In a 1991 paper, scientists with Chevron said, “Issues such as risk to workers or the general public…must be addressed.”

“There is no one federal agency that specifically regulates the radioactivity brought to the surface by oil-and-gas development,” an EPA representative says. In fact, thanks to a single exemption the industry received from the EPA in 1980, the streams of waste generated at oil-and-gas wells — all of which could be radioactive and hazardous to humans — are not required to be handled as hazardous waste. In 1988, the EPA assessed the exemption — called the Bentsen and Bevill amendments, part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — and claimed that “potential risk to human health and the environment were small,” even though the agency found concerning levels of lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium, and admitted that it did not assess many of the major potential risks. Instead, the report focused on the financial and regulatory burdens, determining that formally labeling the “billions of barrels of waste” as hazardous would “cause a severe economic impact on the industry.”…

There is a perception that because the radioactivity is naturally occurring it’s less harmful (the industry and regulators almost exclusively call oil-and-gas waste NORM — naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM for the “technologically enhanced” concentrations of radioactivity that accumulate in equipment like pipes and trucks.”…

In Pennsylvania, regulators revealed in 2012 that for at least six years one hauling company had been dumping brine into abandoned mine shafts. In 2014, Benedict Lupo, owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, company that hauled fracking waste, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for directing his employees to dump tens of thousands of gallons of brine into a storm drain that emptied into a creek that feeds into the Mahoning River. While large bodies of water like lakes and rivers can dilute radium, Penn State researchers have shown that in streams and creeks, radium can build up in sediment to levels that are hundreds of times more radioactive than the limit for topsoil at Superfund sites. Texas-based researcher Zac Hildenbrand has shown that brine also contains volatile organics such as the carcinogen benzene, heavy metals, and toxic levels of salt, while fracked brine contains a host of additional hazardous chemicals. “It is one of the most complex mixtures on the planet,” he says…

“There is nothing to remediate it with,” says Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist. “The high radioactivity in the soil at some of these sites will stay forever.” Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. The level of uptake into agricultural crops grown in contaminated soil is unknown because it hasn’t been adequately studied.

“Not much research has been done on this,” says Bill Burgos, an environmental engineer at Penn State who co-authored a bombshell 2018 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that examined the health effects of applying oil-field brine to roads. Regulators defend the practice by pointing out that only brine from conventional wells is spread on roads, as opposed to fracked wells. But conventional-well brine can be every bit as radioactive, and Burgos’ paper found it contained not just radium, but cadmium, benzene, and arsenic, all known human carcinogens, along with lead, which can cause kidney and brain damage.

Brine as dust suppressant

Ohio, because of its geology, favorable regulations, and nearness to drilling hot spots in the Marcellus, has become a preferred location for injection wells. Pennsylvania has about a dozen wells; West Virginia has just over 50. Ohio has 225. About 95 percent of brine was disposed of through injection as of 2014. Government scientists have increasingly linked the practice to earthquakes, and the public has become more and more suspicious of the sites. Still, the relentless waste stream means new permits are issued all the time, and the industry is also hauling brine to treatment plants that attempt to remove the toxic and radioactive elements so the liquid can be used to frack new wells.

Excerpts from America’s Radioactive Secret, Rolling Stone Magazine, Jan. 21, 2020

The Global Flows of Dirty Recyclables

For decades, America and much of the developed world threw their used plastic bottles, soda cans and junk mail in one bin. The trash industry then shipped much of that thousands of miles to China, the world’s biggest consumer of scrap material, to be sorted and turned into new products.  That changed last year when China banned imports of mixed paper and plastic and heavily restricted other scrap. Beijing said it wants to stimulate domestic garbage collection and end the flow of foreign trash it sees as an environmental and health hazard. Since then, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia—other popular markets for the West’s trash—have implemented their own restrictions…China’s 2018 restrictions on a variety of waste imports radically changed global flows of plastics, including polyethylene, a popular type used in shopping bags and shampoo bottles.

For years, the world’s bottles and boxes made their way to China on ships that offered deep discounts to avoid returning empty after dropping off cargo in the U.S. and other countries. Since 1992, China has imported 45% of the world’s plastic waste, according to data published in 2019 in the journal Science Advances. “It was a great relationship, where we bought their goods and sent them back the empty boxes,” says Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste management company in the U.S. In 2018, China instituted a ban on 24 categories of waste—including, for example, plastic clamshell containers, soda and shampoo bottles, and junk mail. It said foreign garbage was “provoking a public outcry.”

China accepted dirty and mixed recyclables because it had low-wage workers to sort out unwanted material, often by hand. That gave American contractors little incentive to weed out food scraps, plastic bags and nonrecyclable junk stateside. After China rejected imports, a flood of trash was rerouted to countries such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many of those places now say they are overwhelmed and have imposed their own restrictions on paper or plastic imports. The countries also want to focus on developing their own waste collection industries.

Malaysia in May 2019 began sending back 60 containers of imported trash to the U.S. and other countries, complaining it had become a dumping ground for rich countries. The containers were meant to contain plastic scrap but were contaminated with other items such as cables and electronic waste. A government spokeswoman said more containers will be returned as Malaysia ramps up inspections.

Japan, which historically sent most of its plastic exports to China, had been redirecting trash to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam after China’s ban. But when those countries began turning dirty recycling away, Japanese collectors started stockpiling, in hopes a new market would arise. Over the past year, Japan has amassed 500,000 tons of plastic waste, according to Hiroaki Kaneko, deputy director of recycling at the environment ministry. Japan, the second-biggest exporter of plastic waste behind the U.S., is trying to stimulate domestic processing by earmarking billions of yen to subsidize plastic recycling machinery for private companies.

The U.K. is burning more of its trash, including dirty or low-value recycling. Attitudes toward incineration vary greatly by country. In the U.S., where space is plentiful, it has long been cheaper to send materials to landfills, and incineration has remained unpopular. Across much of Europe, by contrast, trash burned for energy has been popular for years. ….“The China ban has highlighted that we can no longer export our problem,” said managing director Bill Swan. Paper Round’s buyers have much higher standards now, he said, such as checking moisture levels, which can decrease the quality of paper.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, Recycling Rethink: What to Do With Trash Now That China Won’t Take It, WSJ, Dec. 21, 2019