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Radioactive Wastes

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July 1, 2003

Radioactive Wastes

By Harry Braun

Although hundreds of billions of taxpayer's dollars have been spent over the past 50 years to develop and promote nuclear energy systems, rather than solving the diminishing fossil fuel problem, nuclear technology has instead created a vastly more profound problem of its own-radioactive waste. The radioactive waste problem is especially insidious because it is virtually impossible to contain, and it is invisible to the human senses until disease or death occurs. Radioactive isotopes spread in an ecosystem like red dye spreads in a glass of water, and some isotopes, such as Neptunium-237, Cesium-135 and Iodine-129, have half-lives of over a million years. In the case of Iodine-129, its half-life of 16 million years means it must be sequestered from the natural environment for over 160 million years. Assuming a single maintenance technician earning $50,000 a year is considered, the cost over time would be $8 trillion, the vast majority of which will be paid for by billions of taxpayers in the future for over a million centuries.


Iodine-129 is a particularly toxic isotope to humans and other mammals because iodine is an essential nutritional element. As such, the microbes in the body selectively extract iodine from food, water and the air. Once acquired, the iodine is then stored in the thyroid gland. The problem is that radioactive and non-radioactive iodine are identical from a chemical viewpoint, thus the body's microorganisms do not distinguish between the two elements, storing either in the thyroid. If the iodine is radioactive, it will result in fatal thyroid cancer. Because Idoine-129 is highly toxic for such a long period of time, and because it is highly mobile through both engineered and natural-sediment systems, it is one of the key radionuclides that the Department of Energy (DOE) seeks to control. The high mobility problem is due to Iodine-129's anionic nature that causes it to be repulsed from negatively-charged surfaces, which dominate essentially all materials. In spite of the fact that billions of dollars have been expended over the past 50 years to try and contain such isotopes, according to investigators at DOE's Savannah River site, there has still been little actual testing of proposed containment systems. According to the EPA (The New York Times, March 28, 1991), the engineers who built the nuclear weapons in the 1950's dumped over 127 million gallons of highly radioactive waste containing Iodine-129, into the ground just a few miles from the Columbia River, the 4th largest river system in the U.S., which flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Because of the vast array of unresolved technical issues, there is still no long-term storage facility for radioactive wastes and virtually all of the existing temporary waste storage facilities are full and in many cases, out of control in terms of their ability to prevent the radioactive wastes from leaking and spreading into the environment. This "spreading" problem occurs because of the heat and corrosion creates cracks in the waste storage tanks. There is also the fact that once irradiated, materials change their nature as their atoms become unstable. This is why the storage vessels which contain the radioactive wastes are only reliable for relatively short periods of time. Eventually, the containers also become radioactive. Indeed, the longer a nuclear reactor operates, the more radioactive it becomes, which is why any repair or maintenance of aging nuclear reactors is an extraordinarily hazardous task. Given these unresolved and financially irresponsible waste storage problems, and given that every nuclear reactor is a "time-bomb" that will be eventually triggered by corrosion, such plants need to be decommissioned with wartime speed. For information on how to rapidly decommission the existing nuclear power plants in the U.S., refer to the website, or contact H2 Pac at 6128 North 28th Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85016.

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