Dangerous accidents, poor economics, deadly waste, and hazards of proliferation – four issues that even the nuclear industry indicated as obstacles for a nuclear boom. Its strategy is now to claim all four have been technically solved, and only irrational public concerns remain that need to be addressed.
Fortunately, we are not blind. We can see quite clearly on the EPR failures in Finland and France how successfully the industry improved its safety and economics. But also on the issue of nuclear waste, three important news make it crystal clear that it has not been solved, on the contrary getting worse despite decades of desperate research and billions spent.
Every year, additional ten thousand tons of spent fuel is generated on our planet. It contains a deadly mix of isotopes, including one percent of plutonium-239 with half-life of 24,000 years. It is deadly for its radioactivity, toxicity and risk of military use. This one percent of plutonium translates into hundred tons every year - enough for many thousands crude nuclear weapons, and it will remain around for dozens thousands years. There is no guaranteed way to keep it isolated from biosphere and humans in such a time scale.
What industry and politicians suggest as a fix are “temporary storages”, that can hold this waste for anything between 50 and 150 years. The only thing it guarantees is that people who made money on it and who allowed it to be done will not be here to handle the consequences when the full bill arrives..
Plus, there is quite a lot of talk about final repositories. Now lets have a look at three pieces of news of this summer showing the real face of these final repositories:
In US, federal ministry announced in August that the final storage project will not cost 57.5 billion dollars -- this was the last estimate from 2001 – but 96.2 billion. Guess whether this is the final figure. When the works on the final storage in Yucca Mountain started in 1983, government was confident it could start receiving spent fuel in 1997. Today, they repeat it will take fifteen years, and will be ready after 2020. Guess whether they can make it. But be careful, they also say the storage will be sealed in 2133. Crystal ball. Past years have also seen weakening standards that were originally set for the project, in order to accommodate the research findings that against expectations, water can leak quickly to the containers and contamination getting out can cause irradiation of citizens several times exceeding today’s overall limits dose several times already after first 10,000 years.
In UK, the National Decommissioning Authority increased the bill for decommissioning of already existing legacy to 83 billion pounds (about 150 billion USD), while only three years ago the tag was at 53 billion pounds.. The works are planned to last for next 130 years, and late August a leaked report from state agency said that as many as 40 % (two out of five) containers with nuclear waste that are now being used will leak before first 1,000 years.
Last story came from Germany. The experimental repository in abandoned salt mine, called Assen II, that had been used for 25 years as a reference to show how perfect salt formations are for this job, started to be flooded at the rate of 12,000 liters of water every day. The pilot project for German final repository in Gorleben is now under hazard of collapse, plus the water already got contaminated with isotopes of cesium 137, strontium, radium and plutonium – obviously leaking from the containers. The idea to flood the whole mine with another solution to neutralize the salty seepage got rejected by the federal nuclear safety agency on the ground that according to its calculations, that would only speed up corrosion processes and lead to illegal levels of contamination of external environment as soon as in 150 years.
To say it simply – we are no closer to the answer to nuclear waste problem than twenty or even fifty years ago. One does not need to be an expert to conclude that it is high time to stop producing that lethal material especially since there are clean and more efficient methods of producing electricity exist.
(This is a guest post by Jan Beranek; nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International)