• Geoff Russell

European word games

Updated: Jan 7

The EU is inching toward classifying nuclear power and methane as 'sustainable' for the purposes of getting onto a magic list that enables a project to get access to "green" funding.

Methane is commonly called natural gas when you pull it out of the ground, and is usually shipped in liquified form (LNG) at -160 degrees C. The proposal will see nuclear plants eligible to be on the magic list if they have a plan, funds and a site to safely dispose of nuclear waste. Gas plants will get on the list if they can come in at under 270 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.

The most recent (2021) UN Life Cycle Emissions estimates put the emissions for gas at between 400 and 500 grams-C02/kwh. Which means the only gas projects which can get on the list will have to have some significant carbon capture and storage tricks. But what about nuclear? Isn't waste disposal an unsolved problem? Isn't safe disposal of nuclear waste oxymoronic? That depends on the many definitions of the word 'safe'. For many European Greens, the meaning changes depending on the activity. Alcohol is presumably safe because they have never opposed its sale, despite causing over 100,000 cancers every year in Europe. I've estimated this based on Australian data, where alcohol causes about 3,500 cancers each year. Red and processed meat are similarly safe according to European Greens, despite causing tens of thousands of cancer annually in addition to massive amounts of methane during the raising of the animals. European Greens, like our Australian Greens are in denial of a considerable amount of both climate science and cancer science.

You could dump nuclear waste, with little in the way of planning or funding, in any abandoned mine shaft and be quite sure it wouldn't cause as much cancer in a million years as alcohol and red meat cause every year. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

That same UN emission study mentioned earlier ranked nuclear power as the lowest carbon (4.9-6.3 gms-C/kwh) energy source, much lower than the most common (because it is cheapest) solar technology (23-83 gms-C/kwh) and even lower than onshore wind farms (7.9-16 gms-C/kwh). The same study showed that nuclear power requires considerably less resources, meaning mined and processed material, despite needing fuel (uranium or thorium).

Put simply, nuclear power produces less emissions and requires fewer resources than any other energy source. Which is why so many prominent environmental scientists support it.

So not having nuclear classified as clean is ideological, not science based. It is merely pandering to those with an irrational fear of radiation ... rather similar to the phobias some people have of flying or vaccination.

It's not cool to call people morons or nut jobs, or say they have a phobia, simply because they believe things that don't align with basic science. Except when they are climate change deniers. You can call those deniers anything you like and nobody blinks. But the people who love to laugh at climate change deniers, or anti-vaxxers aren't too happy when their own beliefs are questioned and found to be equally in denial of the evidence.

Enough editorialising, let's look at some (more) evidence.

But before I start, does anybody know of even a single person made sick or killed by nuclear power plant waste? I've looked but couldn't find any. So, even before it is buried or recycled (a much better choice), nuclear waste is obviously easier to keep safe than, for example, button batteries. In the US alone, these put a couple of thousand children in hospital annually with about 50 suffering serious consequences. 29 children under 6 have died since 2005. It's a curious thing, but things that are really dangerous, like blast furnaces, rarely kill anybody ... precisely because they are really dangerous! Nuclear waste, fresh out of a reactor, is really dangerous ... which actually makes it very unlikely to ever hurt anybody; because really dangerous things are well looked after. And trying to steal it, as a terrorist might like to do, is simply impossible. It's like trying to steal a blast furnace ... while it's in operation.

Recycling or decommissioning a nuclear plant

Before discussing nuclear waste in more detail, let's consider the decommisioning of the plant itself; there are plenty of simply false ideas circulating about how hard this is.

The nuclear part of a nuclear power plant weighs about 600 tonnes; the reactor pressure vessel (and fuel); The rest of the plant is just the same stuff you find in a gas or coal plant; turbines, generators, and grid connection stuff. This is all steel, reinforced concrete, aluminium, copper and the like; all readily recyclable. Depending on the design there will also be some piping which will have been exposed to radiation, and cooling ponds and so on. Nuclear plants typically pay into a decommissioning fund as they operate, just like mining companies pay into a site remediation fund.

And then there's the waste

In addition to decommissioning, there is about 25 tonnes of highly radioactive waste produced each year which gives off a mixture of alpha, beta and gamma radiation. It is cooled for 5 years in a pool; called, obviously, a cooling pond. It's not a lot of stuff to deal with. Over say 80 years of a reactor's lifespan, assuming each 25 tonne load is encased in a 125 tonne cask, you'd have about 10,000 tonnes to handle and it's all nicely collected in one spot and perfectly safe to handle. To generate the same energy as a 1 gigawatt reactor, you'd need 70,000x3 tonnes of PV panels. The x3 is because you PV panels don't last long. That's a considerable amount of stuff to deal with, and it is distributed over a large area. The really dangerous thing isn't the panels, it's the trucks and transport. Any industry moving vast tonnages around is intrinsically dangerous, because roads and trucks are intrinsically dangerous. Moving a 125 tonne cask of nuclear waste is done slowly, probably by rail. Moving failed solar panels would be done on B-double trucks at whatever speed the drivers can get away with; which exacerbates the risks.

But getting back to that 25 tonnes of used fuel rods. The radiation drops rapidly over time, but it is still incredibly high when they leave the reactor. But put just 7 cm of water between yourself and the rods and radiation is halved. So the first stage of dealing with the waste is to store it under water for about 5 years. And, whilst reactor operators don’t supply towels or beach balls, it would be quite safe to swim in a cooling pond packed with fuel rods (click for an informative cartoon)!

There are 3 types of radiation: alpha, beta and gamma. They all decrease over time, but not at the same rates. The difference in rates is crucial.

After just 500 years, the gamma radiation has dropped so much that you could stand one metre from an unshielded fuel element for an hour and get less radiation than a mammogram (and you’d get it at a much lower and therefore safer rate).

But what about all those stories about waste being dangerous for tens of thousands of years? Those stories rely on people not bothering with detail. Let's leave the gammas for a bit and think about the other two; alpha and beta radiation. They are emitted for many thousands of years, but aren't really any kind of problem. The half life of radioactive potassium is 1.3 billion years? Does that make it a problem? Think of a flamming log; if the fire and heat is intense the log is gone quickly. Get too close and you will be hurt. It has a short half life; the log halves it's size quickly. Now think of a barely smoldering log. It might take a really long time to halve in size; meaning it has a long half life. You could stand next to it and perhaps even pick it up without danger. So it is with radioactive material. Really long half lives mean really low risk, especially if the radiation being emitted are alpha and/or beta particles.

Alpha radiation particles are too big to penetrate your skin; a common household smoke detector uses a radioactive material that produces alpha particles. Beta radiation particles are smaller and can penetrate your body a little, but are easily blocked with gloves. Not all beta radiation is equal, some is high energy and needs more careful handling than low energy beta.

It is only the gammas that are a big deal and after 500 years, the gamma level of radioactive waste is pretty low. If you were to pulverise alpha emitting waste and snort it like heroin, then the alphas would be a serious issue; because you don't have skin inside your body to protect your lungs. But pulverising and snorting many things would do you damage, even solar panels, and the advice is the same; just don't do it.

The first 500 years are the only years where it would be dangerous to puncture a cask and cuddle some fuel rods. Mind you I'd much rather a risk of cancer in 20 years than to risk breaking my back by falling off a ladder while cleaning solar panels. It's a bizarre notion that an industry that puts millions of people on roofs and ladders is safe.

Mediaeval architects managed to build buildings that have stood for longer than 500 years. Burying stuff that will stay buried for that long is trivially easy by comparison.

Geological sites that have been undisturbed for millions of years are easy to find; climate scientists use them regularly to plot climate history over long time periods. You can bury the waste in vitrified form in salt, clay or stone. The fact that people say that nuclear waste is an unsolved problem doesn’t mean that it is! The fact that the amounts are tiny and highly centralised makes it a relatively simple problem.

Geothermal power is typically regarded as renewable. It mines the heat from radioactive decay of material within the earth’s mantle and crust; the two outermost layers. The heat in these outer layers is equivalent to about 14,000 nuclear reactors at full power. Our planet is, quite literally, full of radioactive material, it's only people who don't know anything about our planet who think there is something weirdly different about used fuel rods. Burying them could be described as sending them home to mummy :). In fact, there is an area in Africa, Oklo, where nuclear fission, as occurs in a nuclear reactor, occurred quite naturally. This natural reactor fired up about 2 billion years ago and ran for a million years. It's waste stayed where it was and hasn't been a problem; ever.

Geothermal power isn't the only way people might come into contact with the radioactive material beneath all of our feet. Many mining operations unearth radioactive material; including many that supply materials for renewable energy and/or battery applications; e.g., rare earths.

Yucca mountain: a case study in dysfunctional planning

The US spent millions investigating a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain; with a 4,689 page windfall for consultants in its 2002 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The EIA defined a “latent cancer fatality” (LCF) as one that might occur when large numbers of people were exposed to trivial amounts of radiation. The methodology was explicitly advised against by the UNSCEAR Chernobyl report. It’s also explicitly advised against by the other major international scientific body on radiation, International Commission on Radiological Protection:

“The aggregation of very low individual doses over extended time periods is inappropriate, and in particular, the calculation of the number of cancer deaths based on collective effective doses from trivial individual doses should be avoided”

It’s not hard to understand why this is silly, but they did it in the EIA just the same.

Here's why the ICRP reckons you shouldn't do it. Of any 100 people, some 42 will get cancer during their lifetime. Expose those 100 people to a huge burst of radiation, like 100 milliSieverts (mSv), and you might get 43 with a cancer diagnosis instead of 42. Give them a bigger burst and you get more cancers; the relationship is linear for bursts bigger than 100 mSv but smaller than about 2000 mSv (2 Sv). If you ignore the biology and extrapolate the linear relation backwards, towards zero, then giving 10,000 people 1mSv, even over the course of a year rather than in a burst, would cause 1 LCF (because 10000x1mSv equals 100x100mSv).

Both of the big international scientific bodies dealing with radiation recommend against doing this because it flies in the face of the existence of our superlative mechanisms for DNA repair; it’s biological nonsense. But that’s exactly what the EIA did to calculate that during the operation of the facility, the public might suffer 0.00023 of an LCF from accidents and workers might suffer 12 LCFs from trivial amounts of radiation … over 24 years. I kid you not, this 0.00023 of a chance of a cancer was what the US anti-nuclear movement sold to the US public as "unsafe"!

There is also a footnote in the report that over this 24 year period 10-17 workers would die in traffic accidents commuting and transporting material to the site. These deaths, of course, would be real ones; there would be nothing latent about them. Workers would die during the prime of life. As I've said before, it's not always the exotic risks which are the most dangerous; its the simple things people take for granted.

The EIA itself explains the situation quite clearly but it uses a slightly different method than the ICRP. The EIA says that of any 10,000 people, 2,224 would be expected to die of cancer (as opposed to merely get it as was used in the ICRP explanation). One LCF would raise this by 1; to 2,225 deaths; but you couldn’t tell which person had died from cancer induced by the radiation rather than from obesity, inactivity, alcohol, red meat or any of the other things that cause cancer. The EIS also explains that the additional radiation might not cause any additional death; it’s just a risk.

In the world of the anti-nuclear activist, a radiation risk (an LCF) is the ultimate boogeyman, while car accident fatalities and other real deaths and injuries are relegated to footnotes or ignored entirely.

The EIS also calculated the radiological consequences of all manner of “catastrophic” failures to the repository; except that none was catastrophic.

Many “catastrophic” failures were considered; inadvertent drilling into the repository in 10,000 years, having the storage material breakdown prematurely and contaminating groundwater, and so on. No matter what the scenario, the laws of physics simply didn’t allow radioactive material to move far enough and fast enough to have any actual impacts. Even having all failures happen simultaneously resulted in nothing but trivial radiological consequences for the area within 80km of the site.

The EIS also estimated that doing nothing would mean looking after the waste at the then current 72 locations for 10,000 years, involving 760 additional worker commute deaths and an additional 16 LCFs over those 10,000 years.

Such is the degree to which the US nuclear regulatory and political systems are totally dysfunctional that the final decision was to do nothing; which has, as intended, enabled the antinuclear movement to continue claiming that nuclear waste is an unsolved problem. It’s like opposing each and every proposal to build a hospital and then claiming there is an unsolved health problem.