Nuclear Waste Disposal and Issues of Health and Safety
November 22, 1996
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Topics covered in this forum:
- Will taxpayers or utility customers pay for nuclear waste cleanup?
- What is the best way to handle nuclear waste, at nuclear plants or at a central location?
- How can nuclear waste be transported safely?
- What is the status of the Rocky Flats Arsenal cleanup?
- Why can't nuclear waste be mixed with the ground it came from?
- How long before we have the techonology for a permanent solution to nuclear waste?
- Is Yucca Mountain the solution for America's nuclear waste?
- Is the nuclear industry more responsive to criticism than before?
- Viewer comments on nuclear waste
Dean Haworth of Dahlgren, VA, asks
My question is, why can't plutonium, uranium, and other wastes be mixed up into the same earth in which it was retrieved?
Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project replies:
Plutonium is not mined from the earth. It is created as a result of "fissioning" uranium atoms in a nuclear reactor. Plutonium does not exist in nature. It is very deadly for hundreds of thousands of years in tiny quantities, and uptakes in the biosphere quite handily. Plants and animals absorb plutonium in bodily tissues, and concentrate it in areas like the bone and the brain. Because of the deadliness of plutonium, and it's long-lived nature that cannot be neutralized, plutonium cannot be stored in the earth with uranium.
The uranium you referred to also has been enriched a great deal, and is much more radioactive than that mined from the earth. Uranium mined from the earth is mostly U-238, with less than 1 percent of it U-235 - - the stuff that is fissionable. By the time it is enriched for reactor operations, the enrichment is 3-4 percent U-235. After it that uranium is subjected to reactor operations, the uranium is turned into other, deadlier reactor products, such as plutonium, etc.
Even the process of mining the uranium creates a huge amount of nuclear waste, called mill tailings. Mill tailings are a huge environmental problem in the West, and have caused many health problems in places like Grand Junction, CO.
Jim Werner of the Department of Energy replies:
The consensus throughout the world is that the best approach to the disposal of high level nuclear waste is to emplace it in a deep geologic repository. Such a repository will rely partially upon an engineered system of containers and perhaps constructed barriers and partially upon the natural geologic setting to prevent radiologic materials from escaping to the accessible environment. The United States is evaluating the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada to assess its capability to support a repository. Although the engineered technologies that will be used are important, the critical issues at that site involves the projected behavior of the geologic setting over thousands of years after the waste is emplaced. The Department of Energy will complete a description of the potential repository and the technologies that will be used in 1998. The independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have to license the project before it can be constructed. If the project proves to be capable of meeting the safety standards, waste could begin to be emplaced in the year 2010.
Mixing or diluting plutonium and uranium and other wastes into soil is not acceptable for a number of environmental and public health reasons. Plutonium is not generally found on Earth except in minute quantities. The plutonium for which a disposition path is needed was entirely man-made by bombarding uranium-238 in a nuclear reactor.