US residents near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation may be in grave danger: a nuclear safety board found that the underground tanks holding toxic, radioactive waste could explode at any minute, due to a dangerous buildup of hydrogen gas.
After Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DFNSB) about the risks posed by the nuclear site, board members relayed their concerns about the potential for hydrogen gas buildup within the walls of a tank – particularly those with double walls.
“All the double-shell tanks contain waste that continuously generates some flammable gas,” the board said in a letter received by Wyden on Monday. “This gas will eventually reach flammable conditions if adequate ventilation is not provided.”
The safety board had previously issued a warning about their concerns, which have not yet been addressed. In September, the board sent a letter to the Department of Energy, claiming that there were no adequate safeguards to protect against the buildup of flammable gasses inside Hanford’s waste storage tanks. The letter, which outlines the concerns shared with Sen. Wyden on Monday, was declassified on Tuesday.
If the tanks were to explode, there would be flammable releases that would “have considerable radiological consequences, endanger personnel, contaminate portions of the Tank Farms, and seriously disrupt the waste cleanup mission,” the previously classified DFNSB report states.
Hanford’s double-shelled tanks contain some of the deadliest mixtures of nuclear and chemical waste left over from World War II and Cold War-era plutonium production. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been a serious cause of concern, since six of the facility’s tanks were found to be leaking about 1,000 gallons of nuclear waste each year. The Department of Energy discovered the leaks years ago, but has failed to address the problem.
Last September, the safety board recommended that state and federal officials more closely monitor the tanks and increase ventilation. Federal officials have allegedly taken those recommendations into consideration and are working on a plan to address the board’s concerns, the Associated Press reports.
But despite continuous problems and public health risks associated with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, construction of a waste treatment plant has been delayed. Such a plant would make the toxic chemicals safe for long-term disposal and would be crucial in preventing all of the radioactive waste from leaking into the ground.
The DFNSB hopes that discussing the very real possibility of an explosion will alarm Department of Energy officials and prompt them to take action. The Hanford site currently holds 56 million gallons of radioactive toxic waste that is leaking into the soil. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, believes there is no time to waste in regards to the cleanup process.
“The next Secretary of Energy – Dr. Moniz – needs to understand that a major part of his job is going to be to get the Hanford cleanup back on track, and I plan to stress that at his confirmation hearing next week,” Wyden said in a statement Tuesday.
The US government spends about $2 billion each year cleaning up the waste generated by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, about one third of which goes towards the flawed design and construction of the plant. The $2 billion also makes up about one third of the federal government’s nuclear cleanup budget, and costs are only expected to rise.
Although the DFNSB and Sen. Wyden have long been emphasizing the risks created by the plant, the Department of Energy has long failed to acknowledge the severity of the problem. And after the latest warnings about the very possible risk of a nuclear explosion, the department countered the report.
“All DSTs are actively ventilated, which means they have blowers and fans to prevent hydrogen gas build-up,” the Department of Energy said in a statement. “These ventilation systems are monitored to ensure they are operating as intended.”
Wyden said he plans to ask tough questions during Moniz’s confirmation hearing regarding the future of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Nuclear Weapons Waste in Your Water Bottle, Hip Replacement, Baby’s Toys, Jungle Gym?
Even the deregulation-happy Wall St. Journal sounded shocked: “The Department of Energy is proposing to allow the sale of tons of scrap metal from government nuclear sites — an attempt to reduce waste that critics say could lead to radiation-tainted belt buckles, surgical implants and other consumer products.”
Having failed in the ‘80s and ‘90s to free the nuclear bomb factories and national laboratories of millions of tons of their radioactively contaminated scrap and nickel, the DOE is trying again. Its latest proposal is moving ahead without even an Environmental Impact Statement. Those messy EISs involve public hearings, so you can imagine the DOE’s reluctance to face the public over adding yet more radiation to the doses we’re already accumulating. It would be a pretty hard sell, what with dental X-rays, medical X-rays, mammograms, CAT scans, PET scans, radio-isotope “seeds” and cocktails, food irradiation, every-day releases of radioactive gases and water from 104 nuclear power reactors, major releases like Fukushima, radon from rocks, whole-body X-rays at airports (that you can refuse) and cosmic rays during flights.
Not long after Chernobyl spread radiation around the world in 1986, the National Council on Radiation Protection doubled its estimate of our annual radiation dose, from 170 millirems to 360. A few years ago it raised the estimate again, to 620 millirems per year. The agencies that both create radioactive waste and estimate the radiation doses it gives to us, say the latest increase is due mostly to rapid growth in the use of medical X-rays and radio-isotopes in medicine. Should the DOE be allowed to haphazardly add still more?
Still, the DOE wants to deregulate and actually sell 14,000 tons of radioactive scrap metal (both volumetrically and topically contaminated) from the nuclear war system — uranium enrichment, plutonium extraction, etc. — and “recycle” the waste to the commercial clean scrap metal industry. From there, according to the watchdog group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the radioactive stuff “could be turned into anything from your next pants zipper to baby toys.”
The DOE claims that potential radiation exposures to men, women and children would amount to a “negligible individual dose.” But anyone with a scrap of understanding of DOE and the Atomic Energy Commission knows not to believe a word of their assurances. The DOE famously said that rainwater would take thousands of years to seep through Yucca Mountain to a deep waste repository; it ran through the mountain in 40 years.
Even Some in Congress Object
Rep. Ed Markey wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu Jan. 11, calling the deregulation proposal “unwise” and urging that it “should be immediately abandoned.” Rep. Markey warned that radioactive products could “ultimately be utilized by pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations.”
The DOE has never officially acknowledged — in spite of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2006 findings — that the same radiation dose does far more harm to women than to men. The drastically increased vulnerability of fetuses and infants is well known, but the whole population is nevertheless treated as the same big, young, Caucasian male (“reference man”) in most radiation risk assessments.
The DOE’s assessment of the proposal’s risks neglects the fact that exposures can go on for years from a watch or from medical implants or tableware or other items, leading to many millirems for many years. A millirem per year over 30 or 70 years is 30 or 70 millirems which is not trivial, NIRS points out.
The DOE currently bans the release of its radioactive scrap under a moratorium that began in 2000. The ban must not be lifted, but should be made permanent and expanded to keep all radioactive waste — plastic, concrete, soil, asphalt, etc. in addition to all metals — under control, out of commercial recycling and managed as the deadly hazard it is. NIRS.org has more details.
You can tell the DOE to continue to keep its radioactive metal out of the commercial metal supply, commerce, and our personal items. You can demand a full environmental impact statement. Comment deadline is Feb. 9, 2013. Email to: scrap_PEAcomments@hq.doe.gov (with an underscore after “scrap_”). Snail mail to: Jane Summerson / DOE NNSA / PO Box 5400, Bldg. 401K. AFB East / Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185
John LaForge works for Nukewatch and edits its Quarterly newsletter.
- AUDIO USA Dept of Energy plans to put radioactive materials into products (nuclear-news.net)
Having the Energy Department manage radiation health research makes as much sense as giving tobacco companies the authority to see if smoking is safe
The U.S. government is going out of its way to downplay radiation hazards in the aftermath of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) heralded an Energy Department-funded study indicating that evacuation zones around nuclear power stations might not be needed after a major nuclear accident. The study, which exposed mice to radiation levels comparable to those near the Fukushima nuclear disaster, found no evidence of genetic harm. “There are no data that say that’s a dangerous level,” says Jacquelyn Yanch, a leader of the study.
“Current U.S. regulations require that residents of any area that reaches radiation levels eight times higher than background should be evacuated,” according to MIT’s press release. “However, the financial and emotional cost of such relocation may not be worthwhile, the researchers say.”
It’s quite a leap to claim that evacuation zones around nuclear power plants might not be needed based on the chromosomes of 112 irradiated mice.
In a devastating critique, blogger Ian Goddard points out that the MIT study excluded extensive evidence of genetic damage to humans living in a radiation-contaminated environment. Although doses in a peer-reviewed study of 19 groups of children living near Chernobyl were consistently lower than the MIT mouse study, most showed lasting genetic damage. “MIT’s presentation of its study as the first scientific examination of the genetic risks of living in a nuclear disaster zone is pure science fiction, not fact,” Goddard concludes.
Even more troubling, the Obama administration reduced emergency preparedness in case of a major nuclear accident in a quiet announcement made six months ago, right before Christmas — virtually guaranteeing minimal media attention. Given that the number of people living near nuclear stations has grown four-and-a-half times larger since 1980, a move in the opposite direction would make more sense.
What’s going on? The United States remains a major pillar of nuclear support here and around the world. About 70 percent of the Energy Department’s $26.3-billion budget covers nuclear activities — and that’s not including $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors that are slated for construction in South Carolina and Georgia. Japan’s failing nuclear industry is supposed to build them.
The Energy Department is also the main source of funding for radiation health research. That’s like having the tobacco industry determine if smoking is bad for your health. And this conflict of interest is nothing new. Several prominent scientists on the nuclear payroll in the 1950s and 60s vigorously claimed that radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests was harmless. Some went so far as to claim that fallout might be beneficial because increased radiation-induced genetic mutations could weed out the weak.
This problem was not lost on congressional investigators over the past 35 years. They revealed the government’s suppression of incriminating data, blacklisting of uncooperative researchers, unethical human experiments, and submission of fraudulent research in federal court. By the late 1980s, the agency was forced to move funding for radiation research to public health agencies. This all changed a decade later, when the Republican-controlled Congress restored the Energy Department’s monopoly over radiation health research.
Things have gotten so bad that the agency gave MIT a $1.7-million grant last month to research, among other things, the “difficulties in gaining the broad social acceptance” of nuclear power. MIT also receives millions of dollars from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
This conflict of interest has tragic dimensions. The government and nuclear industry still have yet to deal with the costly disposal of enormous amounts of radioactive waste and profoundly contaminated “sacrifice zones” at the Energy Department’s nuclear sites. Or to resolve the issue of the tens of thousands of sick nuclear workers, uranium miners, military veterans, experiment victims, and nuclear test “down-winders,” who are receiving billions of dollars in compensation after being put in harm’s way on behalf of splitting the atom.
Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration. He authored the report Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage.