Tag Archives: nuclear waste dumping

Radioactive Water Dumping and Human Rights

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, [UN Special Rapporteurs  have] consistently raised concerns about the approaches taken by the government of Japan. UN Special Rapporteurs have been concerned that raising of “acceptable limits” of radiation exposure to urge resettlement violated the government’s human rights obligations to children.

UN Special Rapporteurs have been concerned of the possible exploitation of migrants and the poor for radioactive decontamination work. Their most recent concern is how the government used the COVID-19 crisis to dramatically accelerate its timeline for deciding whether to dump radioactive wastewater accumulating at Fukushima Daiichi in the ocean

The communities of Fukushima, so devastated by the tragic events of March 11, 2011, have expressed their concerns and opposition to the discharge of the contaminated water into their environment. It is their human right to an environment that allows for living a life in dignity, to enjoy their culture, and to not be exposed deliberately to additional radioactive contamination. Those rights should be fully respected and not be disregarded by the government in Tokyo. The discharge of nuclear waste to the ocean could damage Japan’s international relations. Neighboring countries are already concerned about the release of large volumes of radioactive tritium and other contaminants in the wastewater.

Japan has a duty under international law to prevent transboundary environmental harm. More specifically, under the London Convention, Japan has an obligation to take precaution with the respect to the dumping of waste in the ocean.

Indigenous peoples have an internationally recognized right to free, prior and informed consent. This includes the disposal of waste in their waters and actions that may contaminate their food. No matter how small the Japanese government believes this contamination will be of their water and food, there is an unquestionable obligation to consult with potentially affected indigenous peoples that it has not met…The disaster of 2011 cannot be undone. However, Japan still has an opportunity to minimize the damage…There are grave risks to the livelihoods of fishermen in Japan and also to its international reputation. Again, I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

Excerpts from, Baskut Tuncak [UN Rapporteur], Fukushima nuclear waste decision also a human rights issue, Kyodo News, July 8, 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

The Nuclear Waste Dumps in the Arctic

Source: Nuclear Waste In the Arctic, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, July 12, 2109

Nuclear Priesthood: the future of nuclear waste

As  the world increasingly buries its nuclear waste, a growing number of experts are trying to come up with a way to warn future generations of what, exactly, will be lying under their feet.    Deciding where to create nuclear waste storage sites, demarcating them clearly and then writing it all down seems like the obvious solution. After all, mankind started writing down its history 5,500 years ago and the likelihood of us stopping to do so seems slim.   But the question then becomes: what should we write this crucial piece of information on?  Stone and paper deteriorate. USB sticks and servers do, too.  Some government entities, like ANDRA, the French National Agency in charge of managing radioactive waste, have started to record their archive on permanent paper.  Also known as acid-free paper due to its composition, it can remain chemically and physically stable for a long period of time — unlike traditional paper, which starts to yellow and decay over time when exposed to light or heat.

The agency has also built sapphire discs, made out of sapphire and etched with platinum on one side. These can contain up to 40,000 pages of pictures and text and could, theoretically, last for some two million years.   Language, after all, is a living, changing entity. That’s why it took us decades to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs and why you might have gotten a headache reading Shakespeare’s Old English masterpieces in class. So who’s to say that French scientists 1,000 years from now will be able to understand la langue de Moliere’s current form?  The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has since created a working group whose task it is to set the best practices on Radioactive Waste Repository Metadata Management so that all the information is not only stored properly but is also easily accessible as national nuclear waste programmes evolve…

In a report, the researchers led by Thomas Sebeok of the University of Indiana recommended the creation of a nuclear priesthood, inspired by the Catholic Church, which would relay information down the generations through “a mixture of iconic, indexical and symbolic elements” and “a high degree of redundancy of messages.”..

The problem with art, explained Peter Galison, professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and author of the Containment documentary, is that if a message is too artistic, then it might not be properly understood as different people may have different interpretations of it….For instance, you know for sure what the skull pictogram means. If you’re thinking death, you’re right. Yet this symbol, Blanquer said, “comes from alchemists.”  “The skull represents Adam and the crossing bones the promise of resurrection,” he revealed. So in the span of just a few centuries this particular pictogram has evolved from meaning resurrection to meaning death.

As waste can be buried either near or deep under the surface, the signal should be seen both above but also under the ground. The researchers employed by the US Department of Energy in the mid-1980s (who came up with the nuclear priesthood, remember!), had also envisioned different monuments to get the point across: fields of pikes, threatening statues of thunderbolts, or enormous blocs of granite positioned into a tight grid….
The Finnish project of Onkalo took the problem completely differently: what if we came up with a way that would allow us to simply not tell future generations?  Its solution? Digging a deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel.  “The entire concept of Posiva (the company which manages the project), is that 100 to 120 years after it’s been closed, the site will not be signalled. The 500 meters to the storage site in the geological layer will be filled with rock and the entire thing will be isolated and invisible in the natural landscape.”

Excerpts from What will a nuclear waste warning look like in 100,000 years’ time?, Euronews, Nov. 16, 2018

Texas is Thirsty for Nuclear Waste

The company operating Texas’ only radioactive waste dump site is asking state regulators to allow disposal of depleted uranium and triple the capacity of a burial site that accepts waste from dozens of states.  Although Waste Control Specialists says the uranium stored at its West Texas site would have only low-level radioactivity, opponents say the proposal would get the company another step closer to handling more dangerous material that wasn’t part of the original license. The company has already been in talks with county officials about high-level waste disposal.

Meanwhile, the Dallas-based business has also asked the state to reduce the money it’s required to have available to fund potential liability at the site — to about $86 million from $136 million.”The public should be paying attention, but they’re not,” said state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who has taken an active role in monitoring how the state handles radioactive waste. “We have less and less financial assurances and greater threat for more harm.”…

Environmental groups have long worried about the local geology and contamination of underground water sources near the site, which can accept low-level waste from compact members Texas and Vermont as well as 36 other states.  The site could soon be the resting place for hotter material that’s being stored at Texas’ four commercial nuclear reactors.

In March, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked lawmakers to explore establishing a location in Texas to store the high-level radioactive waste from these reactors. Two months earlier, House Speaker Joe Straus directed lawmakers to examine the economic impact of permitting such a site.  McDonald said the company has had conversations with Andrews County officials about high-level waste storage. Officials in Loving County, the nation’s least populous county, have interest in building a storage site there

Excerpts from BETSY BLANEY, West Texas site seeks to bury depleted uranium, Associated Press, June 14, 2014

Nuclear Waste and Environmental Justice

After California regulators refused to allow the U.S. Air Force to label residue from radioactive aircraft instruments as “naturally occurring” – declaring it unsuitable for a Bakersfield-area dump – the military turned to Idaho with the same story.  There, military officials met with success. The Air Force is now sending radioactive waste from Sacramento County’s McClellan Air Force Base to a Grand View, Idaho, hazardous waste landfill.

This solution involved a bit of legal semantics rejected in California despite 10 months of Air Force lobbying: The military claimed radium dust left over from glow-in-the-dark aircraft instruments actually was naturally occurring, putting it the same relatively lax regulatory category as mine tailings, according to government memos obtained by California Watch through a public records request.  Larry Morgan, a health physicist with the California Department of Public Health, disagreed with that characterization. Radioactive paint does not “meet the definition” of naturally occurring waste, he wrote in a September 2011 memo.

The Idaho facility’s permit allows it to accept materials defined as natural without notifying state regulators, leaving the state’s hazardous waste manager in the dark.  “I’m not familiar with this particular waste stream. I intend to find out now that you’ve contacted me,” Robert Bullock, hazardous waste permits manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said during an October interview.  The redefinition of the waste as natural might not even have been necessary, given Idaho’s different standards for waste containing trace amounts of radium.

Days after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality told California Watch that the agency was unaware of the Air Force waste, an official went out to inspect the landfill. Interviewed after that visit, engineer Dennis Meier said the dumping was legal because of the low concentration of radium in the soil, despite the source.  “It’s not waste that has to go to a radioactive waste facility,” he said. “The concentration is way below what we would accept.”

Nonetheless,California health officials and environmental activists accused the Air Force of bending the truth to get its way.  “Illuminated instrument dials do not naturally occur,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz who leads the environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap. “I can’t dig into the soil and discover naturally occurring radium instrument dials.”

The radioactive dirt in question hails from the former McClellan Air Force Base northeast of Sacramento,now a commercial development site.“At least 24 sites” on the base “all have low levels of radium mixed in with the soil, and there are many thousands of cubic yards” of contaminated soil, according to Philip Mook, Western region senior representative for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is in charge of cleanups at Air Force installations. “A little bit of radium goes a long way.”  The Air Force has sent 22,000 tons of radioactive dirt from McClellan out of state so far, according to Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, if significant radium is inhaled or ingested, it can increase the risk of diseases such as lymphoma, bone cancer and leukemia. While the concentrations in the McClellan soil are low, they are above limits the federal government has set to protect human health.  Before these medical effects became evident, aircraft dials and gauges were painted with glowing radium so pilots could see them better at night. Air Force officials speculate that the radium became dispersed in the soil at McClellan “probably in cleanup water, like mop water or solvents that were used to clean the equipment or to clean up spills of radium,” Mook said. Although radium paint wasn’t used on the base after the 1950s, items contaminated with it remained…

Stephen Woods, chief of the California Department of Public Health’s Division of Food, Drug and Radiation Safety, argued in a Nov. 4, 2011, letter that the dirt should be sent to “a licensed low-level radioactive waste disposal facility.” The Idaho facility where the soil is now going does not meet that criteria. Neither do any California waste disposal facilities.  That’s partly because of vocal opposition from local Kern County residents and environmental groups.  “Hazardous waste landfills in low-income communities of color in California aren’t the right places for” nuclear waste, said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which for almost two decades has fought to limit the Buttonwillow landfill’s expansion and impact on local residents.

But in the past, the landfill has accepted nuclear waste. In 1998 and 1999, the Army Corps of Engineers sent residue from the Manhattan Project, the World War II-era research and development program that produced atomic bombs dropped in Japan, to the landfill.  The move outraged civilian officials.  Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer testified before a Senate committee on July 25, 2000: “When I learned that the Corps had disposed of 2,200 tons of radioactive waste at an unlicensed hazardous waste facility in Buttonwillow, California, I was shocked. The facility sits atop aquifers that supply water to the Central Valley of California.”  Since the Manhattan Project controversy, the facility’s permit has been tightened. Yet the landfill’s current permit states that it may accept naturally occurring radioactive materials at low concentrations….

US Ecology, which operates the hazardous waste landfill in Grand View, Idaho, seemed to accept the terminology.  Steve Welling, senior vice president of sales and marketing for US Ecology, said in an interview that “state law and our permits” allowed the facility to accept the waste that the Air Force had characterized as naturally occurring.

Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, Air Force Ships Calif. Radioactive Waste To Idaho Landfill, NBC, Nov. 9, 2012