Disposing of the world’s nuclear waste

As more developing countries go nuclear and waste languishes under our oceans, disposal of waste it is set to become a worldwide crisis.

The world is facing a new tidal wave of radioactive waste as developing nations launch nuclear programmes with no hope of dealing with their byproducts.

Just days after western governments finally concluded an agreement to pay for clean-up operations at the world’s biggest waste dumping ground – the Barents Sea, around north-west Russia – fears are growing that the inability of even advanced nuclear economies to deal with the problem heralds disaster in countries such as India, South Africa, North Korea and Taiwan.

Nuclear power offers the only realistic means of reducing global carbon dioxide emissions in the near future. Europe and the US are investigating some techniques for reducing the radioactivity of nuclear waste, but given the scale of the global problem this is likely to be too little too late.

Western governments continue to ‘stockpile’ waste until another solution is found, and now a growing number of experts say that the controversy currently surrounding waste disposal is only the tip of the iceberg as civil and military nuclear programmes proliferate around the world.

The situation in the Barents Sea, which thanks to its role as a dumping ground for the Soviet Northern Fleet’s old submarines and 14,000 cubic metres of radioactive material is the largest repository of nuclear waste in the world, offers a chilling glimpse of the consequences of failure to address the issue. Foreign ministers from the EU, Norway and the US signed an agreement in Stockholm last week to allocate funds for decommissioning the submarines and cleaning up the area.

The Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme for Russia (MNEPR) agreement, which will allow funds to be released for a number of clean-up projects, was signed in time for next week’s G8 Summit at Evian, France, where the issue is expected to be discussed. The MNEPR agreement will pave the way for e40m of EU money to be released to begin tackling a priority list of 16 nuclear waste-management projects on the northwest Kola Peninsula.

Environmental groups have long argued that Russian nuclear submarines pose a serious threat to Europe, particularly to fishing areas in the Arctic Waters. Some fear the submarines, which still contain spent nuclear fuel in their reactors, are also a potential target for terrorist groups and rogue states.

While the US funded the decommissioning of many strategic submarines during the 1990s on the grounds that their long-range nuclear weapons could pose a security threat to the country, around 100 vessels from the Northern and Pacific Fleets are still languishing in docks.

The huge environmental problem stems from the Soviet era, when regulations surrounding the storage of radioactive waste were far from strict, said John Large, head of nuclear safety consulting engineers Large & Associates and leader of the team that assessed the nuclear and weapons hazards aboard the sunken Kursk submarine.

Unlike the UK, which insists that radioactive waste be stored in special packaging designed to be placed in a repository, the Soviet Union had no such standards and made no distinction between lightly contaminated and heavily radioactive material, said Large.

‘The military were under-funded and had very little manpower to look after the waste, so they just threw it away. There are six or seven submarines that were sunk off the nuclear test island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic, in which they put additional radioactive fuel just to get rid of it. The Lenin icebreaker had a serious accident in the 1970s, and they simply took the reactor section out of the boat, which is about 20m x 10m, and sunk it,’ he said.

The western donors are likely to have to fund new technology to replace the ageing Russian equipment, the creation of new infrastructure such as fuel loading points, and a clean-up of certain hotspots along the Kola Peninsula believed to have been contaminated by the waste.

Nuclear engineering consultancy RWE Nukem is already involved in clean-up projects in the Russian northwest, acting as project manager for the DTI’s Former Soviet Union Nuclear Legacy Programme. The programme, which includes nuclear submarine decommissioning projects, is the UK’s contribution to the G8’s Global Partnership, for which it plans to commit up to £460m over the next decade.

But while the situation in Russia is dire – and likely to worsen following a law passed in 2001 allowing radioactive materials to be imported into the country – the West has no cause to feel complacent. Despite its contribution to the Russian nuclear clean-up, the UK has yet to decommission a single of its own Royal Navy submarines.

The Ministry of Defence’s preferred option is to remove the fuel and reactors and store them initially at Sellafield, while the radioactive reactor compartments would then be cut out in sections and stored on land. The site for this storage is currently the subject of a consultation process, but is expected to be Devonport near Plymouth, as it is the only licensed site with enough space to store the 27 submarines due to be decommissioned.

‘The UK and the rest of Europe hasn’t solved its own radioactive waste problems, so I think it’s a bit unfair practising on the Russians,’ said Large. ‘Quite frankly some of the inland MoD sites are a disgrace, and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority should sort out the mess at Dounreay. It had to abandon a shaft it has up there and give it over to private contractors to sort out the mess.’

In the US, the world’s most prolific nuclear economy, a bill currently before the Senate is seeking funds to build several new plants. Yet problems with finding a long-term solution for waste disposal have dogged successive administrations. The country is now attempting to build its first geologic repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But the state has raised concerns that the site lies above an aquifer supplying water to many desert residents and is on or near 32 geological faults.

While the site hopes to begin accepting waste in 2010, legal challenges by local residents and even the state itself are likely to delay this, meaning the current practice of storing radioactive materials at power plants will have to continue.’High-level waste constitutes the murky underbelly of attempts to promote nuclear power as an emissions-free power source,’ said Lisa Gue, a senior energy analyst for US consumer group Public Citizen. ‘You can’t guarantee that the site will not leak over the next 10,000 years – it’s a period that exceeds recorded history.’

Waste transport is also a problem. ‘Moving waste across 47 states in the US could risk hijack or sabotage by terrorists, with local emergency services being ill-equipped to deal with it,’ said Gue. She warns that if the western world is unable to cope developing countries will face severe problems. ‘In the third world this risk will be multiplied,’ she said. ‘One solution put forward by our government is to make details of shipments secret, but that’s hardly democratic. Nevada has less influence than other states, hence the fact that it was chosen for the repository.’

With countries such as the UK and US struggling over the waste issue, the growing number of emerging civil and military nuclear programmes around the world seem destined to encounter significant problems. An early example is Taiwan, where the state-owned Taipower was sold nuclear reactors by the US without any technology to deal with the waste produced. Faced with stockpiles of radioactive materials the company simply began dumping low and mid-level waste on Orchid Island off the country’s south coast.

The World Bank has labelled nuclear plants ‘large white elephants’, claiming that cost projections for building facilities are usually substantially underestimated and often fail to take waste disposal, decommissioning and environmental costs into account.Despite this, developing nations such as South Africa see nuclear power as a solution to their energy needs. South Africa’s coal reserves, though extensive, are in remote areas and produce only low-grade coal, leading to energy supply problems across the country.

Now local electricity firm Eskom wants to build a pebble bed nuclear reactor in Koeberg near Cape Town, to meet the country’s power demands. The city’s authorities have protested that thefacility will produce around 800 tonnesof high-level waste over its lifetime, with no choice but to store it at the plant.

Iran’s first reactor, being built by the Russians near the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr, is due to be ready for the loading of fuel by the end of this year. It is feared that the development of nuclear weapons by countries such as North Korea will encourage others in the region to follow suit, increasing the threat of an environmental disaster.

India’s nuclear weapons programme has already caused environmental problems. The country’s Candu reactors – the rights for which India bought from Canada claiming they were for peaceful means and promptly used them to develop its first atomic bomb – have been rife with problems, including reported radiation leaks.

According to many, even the most cursory audit of the international nuclear scene should set alarm bells ringing and push radioactive waste management up the agenda. ‘This is an absolute disaster environmentally,’ said Large.

‘The health consequences of this stuff are tremendous. If there areradio-isotopes with half-lives of 24,000 years in the environment, how do you demobilise them? These are the problems they didn’t think about when they started.’

Falling through the system

A spate of incidents in which highly radioactive material has been misplaced by operators has done little to strengthen the nuclear industry’s case that it is a ‘clean’ power source.

Despite claiming to have one of the most tightly regulated nuclear industries in the world, the US power industry has suffered a number of embarrassing mishaps.

In November 2000 the Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut reported that it had ‘lost’ two spent fuel rods. A subsequent investigation concluded that they were cut into segments in 1979 and shipped to a low-level radioactive waste facility with other irradiated hardware some time between March 1985 and December 1992. Their final resting-place is still unknown.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says at least 26 incidents involving accidental melting of radioactive material have occurred since 1983. This is worrying, as materials with low-level contamination may be recycled under government licence. Once inspected and certified, the authorities claim the substances are safe to be dumped in landfill or converted into industrial materials which may eventually be used to make household items. Monitoring is stringent, but the accidental release of a contaminated batch would be a disaster.

A serious incident involving accidental combination of low and high-level waste has already occurred in the Taiwan. In the early 1980s material contaminated with Cobalt-60 was used in the construction of buildings in the capital, Taipei. The situation was not made public until 1992. More than 100 buildings, including office buildings, homes and schools, were confirmed to be contaminated by radiation. Inhabitants have since reported abnormally high levels of thyroid disease.

In March last year a highly radioactive caesium rod was discovered in Taiwan in a pile of non-radioactive metal scraps on a truck at a steel foundry that operates a melting furnace. The rod was emitting radiation at levels over 270 times the amount recommended by the International Commission on Radiation Protection. Officials admitted they did not know its origin.

Who wants to be the world’s nuclear dustbin?

Countries using nuclear power are ethically and legally bound to take care of the disposal of their own waste materials. Some have argued that building an international repository for high-level waste would be safer and more economical. However, these plans have so far met with failure.

In 1999 Pangea Resources said it wished to ship spent fuel and other contaminated waste from commercial reactors around the world, except the US, for long-term storage at a £5bn centre in the Australian outback.

The site would use a dedicated port and rail link to accept 75,000 tonnes of waste over a 40-year period, a capacity similar to that of Yucca Mountain in the US. It could also extend its service to accept material from weapons disposal if necessary.

The Perth-based firm was created by a consortium of nuclear industry operators including the UK’s BNFL, Swiss firm NAGRA and Canadians EHL.

Pangea’s researchers had identified Australia, southern Africa, Argentina and western China as being geologically suitable, with Australia favoured owing to its political stability and on economic, technological and legal grounds. The ideal site lay in a basin between central Western Australia and northern South Australia.

But despite international pressure to accept the repository Western Australia’s parliament passed legislation making it illegal to dispose of foreign waste in the state without specific parliamentary approval. Alternative sites were examined, but the plans were eventually dropped. A spokesman for BNFL said the company was no longer pursuing the proposal as it was not believed to be a viable commercial prospect.

Now, focus for a repository has shifted to Russia. The country has said it plans to accept spent fuel for long-term storage from a variety of European and Asian countries in order to raise the billions of dollars needed to finance the clean-up of existing contaminated nuclear zones. But environmental groups such as Greenpeace have attacked the plans, accusing the Russian Duma of prostituting itself to the nuclear industry.