Nuclear waste: Beneficial or a permanent burden?

Let me give the nuclear industry first go with this:

The following is reproduced from :

“World Nuclear Association, Radioactive Waste – Myths and Realities(Updated May 2017) at

“There are a number of pervasive myths regarding both radiation and radioactive waste.
Some lead to regulation and actions which are counterproductive to human health and safety.
Over the years, many views and concerns have been expressed in the media, by the public and other interested groups in relation to the nuclear industry and in particular its waste. Questions have been raised about whether nuclear power should continue when the issue of how to deal with its waste has apparently not yet been satisfactorily resolved.Some of the more commonly expressed views and concerns include:
1. The nuclear industry still has no solution to the ‘waste problem’.
2. The transport of this waste poses an unacceptable risk to people and the environment.
3. Plutonium is the most dangerous material in the world.
4. Nuclear waste is hazardous for tens of thousands of years. This clearly is unprecedented and poses a huge threat to our future generations.
5. Even if put into a geological repository, the waste might emerge and threaten future generations.
6. Nobody knows the true costs of waste management. The costs are so high that nuclear power can never be economic.
7. The waste should be disposed of into space.
8. Nuclear waste should be transmuted into harmless materials.
9. There is a potential terrorist threat to the large volumes of radioactive waste currently being stored and the risk that this waste could leak or be dispersed as a result of terrorist action.
10. Man-made radiation differs from natural radiation.”

Please read the rest of the article at the link above, because the industry explains how none of these issues are valid. The article contains a lot of information. I am not going to put it all here. However, I will include the following selected quotes. You need to read the whole thing at source if you re used to thinking for yourself.

“The amount of waste produced by the nuclear power industry is small relative to other industrial activities. 97% of the waste produced is classified as low- or intermediate-level waste (LLW or ILW). Such waste has been widely disposed of in near-surface repositories for many years. In France, where fuel is reprocessed, just 0.2% of all radioactive waste by volume is classified as high-level waste (HLW).aThe amount of HLW produced (including used fuel when this is considered a waste) during nuclear production is small. In providing 11% of the world’s electricity, nuclear power stations produce approximately 34,000m3 of HLW annually.” source: as above.

The piece also says “Hazardous waste is produced by most major industrial processes. Of all hazardous material shipped each year in the USA, radioactive waste accounts for just 5% of the total; and of that 5%, less than 10% relates to nuclear power production.cAt least 25,000 shipments of HLW have been made worldwide, covering many millions of kilometres on land and sea. Shipments have been executed virtually without incident and without any harmful radioactivity releases.dThe primary assurance of safety in the transport of nuclear materials is the way in which they are packaged. Packages that store waste during transport are designed to ensure shielding from radiation and containment of waste, even under the most extreme accident conditions. Different packaging standards have been developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) according to the characteristics and potential hazard posed by the different types of nuclear material. HLW shipments are made in robust 125-tonne ‘Type B’ casks. There has never been an accident in which a Type B transport cask containing radioactive materials has been breached or has leaked. A significant accident in the USA in 1971 demonstrated the integrity of a Type B cask, which was later returned to service.” ibid.


“3. Plutonium is the most dangerous material in the worldPlutonium has been stated to be ‘the most toxic substance on earth’ and so hazardous that ‘a speck can kill’.Comparisons between toxic substances are not straightforward. The effect of plutonium inhalation would be to increase the probability of a cancer developing in several years time, whilst most other strong toxins lead to more immediate death. Best comparisons indicate that, gram for gram, toxins such as ricin, some snake venoms, cyanide, and even caffeine are significantly more toxic than plutonium.Nevertheless, plutonium is toxic and therefore must be handled in a responsible manner. Its hazard is principally associated with the ionising radiation it emits. However, it is primarily hazardous if inhaled in small particles.” ibid. And that is the under pinning attitude of the industry. I must add here that the issue of the hot particle and dose effective of internal vs external radiation both underpin the debate about the relative risk of radionuclides, radionuclides which are fission products, and stable chemical toxins. I will also add that plutonium is an iron analogue biochemically, and that fact determines how it is used by the body and the tissues it is transported to. What components of the body need iron? What is the biological half time of plutonium? What are the isotopes of plutonium and what is their rate of radioactivity? What type of radiation do these isotopes emit? How chemically toxic is plutonium? How much plutonium has been released into the biosphere since 1945 until now? (not as storage but as the result of accidents and deliberate releases? So on. Lots of issues there. (in radio-biochemistry, how the body “identifies” a chemical (all elements and their isotopes are chemicals, whether they are radioactive or not) and much the body needs that “identified” chemical determines in part how much is absorbed of it at the gut. The airways are different, and chemicals below a certain small size can be retained in tissue. If insoluble the speck maybe entrapped in tissue. If soluble the chemical may be transported by the lymph system to the organs of excretion. Very small insoluble particles may also enter the lymph system.

The radio-sensitivity of various human tissues varies quite widely. Adult bone is the most resistant, whereas lymph tissue and bone marrow is among the most radio sensitive tissues. I suppose the nuclear industry believes sharing biological science with citizens is beyond its brief and perhaps they consider it counter productive. However, for sure, a lethal dose of coffee does exist. As does a lethal dose of radiation. It’s all very interesting. Lethal doses of radiation are associated in the west with Acute Radiation Syndrome. And that is an interesting read. Russian medicine recognises and diagnoses Chronic Radiation Syndrome. It also recognised Acute Radiation Syndrome. Western medicine does not recognise Chronic Radiation Syndrome. I disagree with the Western nuclear industry on this most strongly.

The presentation by the nuclear industry at the link above is a happy and optimistic one. It is one which is merely reacting to a more pessimistic view held by many people. Such a view is held by significant industry advocates as proof of a specific mental condition they call radio phobia. Such medicalisation of dissent is symptomatic of the industry world view and unbounded sense of entitlement.

The IAEA view of nuclear waste

I refer to the publication IAEA Estimates of Global Inventories of Radioactive Waste

Original Link for full text download

Selected short quotes:

“It was considered worthwhile to produce a set of worldwide data that could be assessed to evaluate the legacy of the nuclear activities performed up to the transition between the twentieth and the twenty first century.

The assessment tries to cover the inventory of all the human produced radioactive material that can be considered to result from both military and civilian applications. This has caused remarkable difficulties since much of the data, particularly relating to military programmes, are not readily available. Consequently the data on the inventory of radioactive material should be considered as order-of-magnitude approximations. This report as a whole should be considered as a first iteration in a continuing process of updating and upgrading.

The accumulations of radioactive materials can be considered a burden for human society, both at present and in the future, since they require continuing monitoring and control. Knowing the amounts and types of such radioactive inventories can help in the assessment of the relative burdens. Knowledge of the national or regional radioactive waste inventory is necessary for planning management operations, including the sizing and design of conditioning, storage and disposal facilities. A global inventory, either of radioactive waste or of other environmental accumulations of radioactive material, could be used to provide a perspective on the requirements and burdens associated with their management, by means of comparisons with the burdens caused by other types of waste or other environmental threats.

The IAEA officer responsible for this publication was K. Hioki of the Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety.”

“The production of electricity by nuclear means has created radioactive residues which have to be carefully managed and accounted for because they are potentially hazardous to human health. Similar residues have been generated as a result of the defence programmes in several countries. The residues include solid and liquid radioactive waste from civilian nuclear power production and from the production of nuclear weapons and residues from the above surface or underground testing of nuclear weapons.”

“In most countries, high level solid radioactive waste that is the product of solidification of the liquid waste generated by the first extraction cycle in the reprocessing of spent fuel, including spent fuel that is declared to be waste, is currently being stored in purpose-built stores pending disposal deep underground. In many countries, some lower activity waste containing mainly comparatively short lived radionuclides is being disposed of in near surface repositories. Liquid radioactive waste is generally converted to a solid form suitable for disposal, but there are some exceptions.

In some cases, mainly in the past, some liquid radioactive waste, considered too active for environmental dispersal, in the absence of safer management solutions has been pumped underground within enclosed aquifers or mixed with cement and injected as sludge in a low- permeability formation. Cases exist where high level waste (HLW) and higher activity low and intermediate level waste (LILW) in liquid form have been stored in near surface underground tanks and, after some decades, are still being kept in that form.

Gaseous and liquid waste containing very low levels of radionuclides are discharged to the environment in the same way as other low level industrial pollutants. This practice is subject to close regulatory control and environmental monitoring to ensure that the hazards to the public are minimal.

Finally there are sites, either above or below the ground, used in the past for either nuclear weapon testing or other purposes, or with significant amounts of radioactive materials, , that are considered to require continuing surveillance and monitoring to control access to the radioactive material.”

“Accumulations of radioactive material can be considered a burden for human society, both at present and in the future, since they require some level of continuing control. Knowing the amounts and types of such radioactive inventories can help in the assessment of the relative burdens. Knowledge of the national or regional radioactive waste inventory is necessary for the planning of management operations, including the sizing and design of processing, storage and disposal facilities. A global inventory, of radioactive waste and other environmental accumulations of radioactive material, could be used to provide a perspective on the requirements associated with their management, by means of comparisons with other types of waste or other environmental threats.”

“In the past, reliable information on the radioactive waste production of military or defence programmes has been rather difficult to obtain. This difficulty may continue in the future; for example, military waste is not included within the scope of the Joint Convention. In some countries, defence waste is not even subject to the normal controls of the national regulatory authorities or may be mixed with the waste from civilian uses.

Information on other environmental accumulations of radioactive material, such as those at nuclear test sites and locations of past disposal operations of liquid waste, is also not always complete.

It is evident that, globally, information on radioactive waste and on other radioactive residues in the environment is not complete. For this reason an estimation approach has been adopted in this report, which intends to provide an approximate but comprehensive assessment of the global inventory of radioactive waste and other human generated accumulations of radioactive material in the environment. The inventory derived in this publication should be considered the result of a first iteration. More reliable estimates may become available in the coming years as a result of progress within the various international data collection mechanisms.”

“The amounts of mine and mill tailings accumulated worldwide are not known in detail, since this information is not reported by all Member States in a consistent and reliable way. However, estimates of the inventory of uranium mining and milling waste can be produced from consideration of the data on global uranium production. No equivalent data on thorium production are available, but the extraction of thorium has been relatively small in comparison with uranium. An additional uncertainty associated with such estimates is due to the fact that average uranium concentrations in mined ores has to be used to calculate the inventory of both mine and mill tailings. Since these values are not always available, the resulting average concentrations used to derive the amounts of tailings from the reported amounts of produced uranium are necessarily uncertain. Further, the values are distorted by the fact that early use of uranium in the US was largely with imported ores of higher quality. Additionally, the greater use of in situ leaching techniques has reduced the production of tailings. Finally, new mining techniques including the freeze drill system and the mining of higher grade ores has resulted in smaller mill tailings production [6]. The utilization of down-blended enriched weapons uranium and the use of mixed weapons plutonium and natural uranium has further complicated the picture. The vagaries of the uranium market including price changes has also influenced the amount of uranium mined. Therefore, estimations of future production are very uncertain.

The total amount of uranium produced worldwide up to the year 2004, is approximately 2.2 million tonnes2 [6].”

“In the late 1990s, there were two uranium mines operating in Australia: Ranger in the Northern Territory and Olympic Dam in South Australia. Together they generated about 3 million tonnes per year of tailings, containing about 70% of the radioactivity originally present in the ore – including almost all of the 230Th and 226Ra. The total quantity of tailings accumulated in Australia at that time was about 50 million tonnes, resulting from a total uranium production of about 70 000 tonnes.

In the United States of America, the accumulation of commercial mill tailings, generated up to the end of 1996, amounts to about 190 million tonnes with a volume of about 120 million m3 [7]. To estimate the accumulation of uranium mine and mill tailings generated by defence activities in the USA, a possible approach is to apply the estimated production of tailings per warhead to the total number of warheads produced in the country. Using the published estimates of 2000 tonnes of both mine and mill tailings for single warhead and 17 000 as the total number of warheads produced, about 34 million tonnes each of mine and mill tailing can be assumed to have been generated by defence programmes 3 [8]. Adding this amount to the estimated production of commercial mill tailings gives a total close to 220 million tonnes. Accepting the assumption used in [8], that mine tailings amounts are roughly the same as mill tailings, it is possible to estimate that about 220 million tonnes of mine residues exist in proximity to the mines.

“In addition to the waste generated by the nuclear fuel cycle front-end activities discussed in the preceding section, nuclear power generation causes the production of several kinds of radioactive waste, including spent reactor fuel (if it is declared waste), high level waste (HLW) that is generated mainly from the chemical reprocessing of spent fuel and low and intermediate level waste (LILW) that is generated as a result of reactor operations, reprocessing, decontamination, decommissioning and other fuel cycle activities.

The purpose of this publication is to produce global estimates of the amounts of residual radioactive material accumulated by nuclear activities up to the beginning of the 2000s and requiring continuing institutional controls. Despite the great progress achieved in many areas, particularly thank to the NEWMDB, some information is still open to question, since not all Member States have provided the required waste inventories. An additional uncertainty, due to the differences among classification systems used by various Member States has been also addressed by the NEWMDB by means of a matrix tool to normalize information submitted under a variety of classification systems. A number of promising activities aimed at improving the situation are currently going on at the international level [29, 30].
Official information about radioactivity in contaminated sites as a result of accidents or weapon testing is even more incomplete. As a result it was felt that exploring alternative approaches aimed at produced global estimates of the radioactive waste inventory and of radioactive material present in the environment was a worthwhile exercise.
The resulting estimates, which are based on broad simplifications, are characterised by unavoidable uncertainty. However, considering that they are not to be used for design purposes, for example for planning management activities, but simply to produce an order-of- magnitude assessment of the societal burden generated by nuclear activities, the exercise may help to place in a rational perspective the radiological and environmental burden generated by the first half century of nuclear activities. The estimates may be used for comparison with environmental burdens created by other means of energy production and other human activities and to provide some rationality to the societal controversy about nuclear energy.
This publication has to be considered as a first iteration to be revised and updated in the future as more reliable and comprehensive data become available.” end quote. source as above.

Who you choose to believe, if anyone, is up to the reader.

I find it most interesting that the IAEA itself can only estimate, and according to footnote 3 in the chart above states “estimates are highly uncertain” and that the IAEA has great trouble in distinguishing military from civilian nuclear waste processing.

Whereas, as per usual, the World Nuclear Association appears to me to be so certain of the accuracy of its perceptions that it is dogmatic to the point of arrogance and disregard for those to whom it actually has a duty to share the whole truth in this complex set of maters.

If there is no nuclear waste storage crisis in the world, why is every reactor in the US jammed packed full of high level waste stored in fuel pools? Why have the people of Nevada rejected the much touted US permanent high level nuclear waste dump proposed for their state? Up to the time of cancellation, the aborted project had cost $9 billion dollars. If there is no nuclear waste storage crisis why did the industry lobby for an international high level waste dump to be established in SA? Why is the current state government still considering the economics and social thrill such an undertaking would bring to the state? If the industry is correct in its assertions, why is it proposed that the high level dump, if it gets built, must keep the waste separated from the biosphere for a period of time which is longer than the life span of the average human civilisation?

The facts as presented by the state government, the government and industry bodies of Sweden and Finland during the recent SA Fuel Cycle Royal Commission conflict greatly with the points of view and opinions presented by the world nuclear association at its link given above. It is important to note that both Sweden and Finland prohibit the importation of nuclear waste into their nations. And that the US national high level waste dump is now defunct as far as a solution to the great number of spent fuel rods now soaking at each reactor site in the USA.

I say there is a nuclear waste problem. The industry for decades has denied this. If there is no crisis, why does the industry want to inflict the people of SA with the world’s spent fuel.

Sure, as the Royal Commission said, Let’s use Sweden and Finland as the gold standard.

Therefore, do not allow the importation of high level nuclear waste. The industry says all is in hand. If it is, there is no need for a deep hole on Eyre Peninsular which will have to be guarded and kept secure and separate for a span of time far longer than the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Or the American one.