I imagine the inhabitants of Kimba South Australia would have a little chuckle if the ABC ran a story with the headline: “Murray flooding, 4,000 at risk in Kimba”. The 600 or so inhabitants of the town would probably also have been surprised if one of their number was interviewed and was expressing grave fears over the prospects of Murray waters flooding the town. I’d imagine them asking by what strange magic powers of transportation the water would need to reach them. “What’s he been smokin’?” would probably slide from the lips of a few.
But what if it happened again? What if a second similarly bizarre story about Kimba hit the airwaves? And another? And another? I’d reckon that decades of strange tales would see them lose their composure and get really pissed off.
So it is with the recent ABC story on the possibility of high-level waste from Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines being stored at Kimba; the site chosen for a low level radioactive waste repository, and for temporary storage of intermediate level waste.
Did nobody involved with the story have any idea at all about nuclear submarines? Did they even spend 5 minutes with Wikipedia getting a little background?
How long do nuclear submarines go between refuelling stops? The question makes no sense. They don’t refuel modern nuclear submarines – that’s kind of the point.
Wikipedia has a nice page about Submarine classes of the US Navy. There’s a section about the submarines built since the end of the cold war, called unsurprisingly Post-Cold War.
There are only two classes of submarines in this category. One of these is the Virginia, which lists the reactor type as the S9G. What does Wikipedia tell you about the S9G? It is designed to run for 33 years before refuelling.
Ah … think about it.
What’s the lifespan of the actual submarine?
Go back to the page on the Virginia Class Sub. The lifespan is 33 years. What a coincidence!
The reactor type of the other class of submarines isn’t given, but it would be extraordinary if it didn’t meet or exceed the specifications of the Virginia.
You can also reasonably presume, if you know anything at all about the paranoia of the US military, that they will be handling the decommissioning of the critical parts of the submarine on US soil.
Lastly, you need more than a pair of multi-grips and a screwdriver to remove the fuel from a reactor, and it makes no sense for Australia to have such tools for such a small fleet.
This kind of irresponsible journalism has been the norm for nuclear issues going right back to (at least) 1986 when newspaper headlines around the world pronounced “2,000 dead” after the Chernobyl accident. Really? How many people did they think it takes to run a reactor?
There were just 173 people on site at the time and in any event, radiation at any plausible level doesn’t kill that quickly. Like the ABC submarine waste story, the Chernobyl news coverage was simply ridiculous and incompetent journalism; and it has coloured the energy economics and politics of the last 36 years.
So there won’t be any submarine waste at Kimba.
And what if there were?
Terry Schmucker appeared on the ABC story. He has a farm at Cootra, about 30km in a straight line from Napandee where the repository will be built. You could dump the unshielded nuclear fuel cores of as many nuclear reactors as you like on Napandee and the radiation isn’t going to get to Cootra. Radioactive material is just stuff, like any other; except it is really, really heavy. Would you expect a prime mover truck without wheels to magically slide along the ground for 30kms? A couple of cubic metres of nuclear fuel weighs about 40 tonnes. Stick it in a couple of 110 tonne waste canisters and it weighs 260 tonnes. Moving even one of these takes some doing.
You can cuddle up to one of these high level waste canisters without a problem.
What kind of magic does Mr Schmucker think can shift this kind of material 30 kilometres? A Murray River flood? Why didn’t the journalist consider by what means any radioactive material could move between the repository and his farm? Just lazy bloody journalism. Report any old opinion, don’t ask questions, don’t actually investigate.
The actual waste that’s going to be stored at Kimba isn’t high level and isn’t going to move either.
Would Mr Schmucker be worried about a solar thermal power station 30kms from his property? These have tanks containing tens of thousands of tonnes of solar salt (a mix of sodium and potassium nitrate). A small one of these plants might contain 30,000 tonnes of solar salt.
Consider the image below. It contains a landscape devastated by salt. We have millions of hectares of land like this in Australia. At the bottom of the image is a picture of some Przewalski horses in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Wildlife and plants are thriving in this area.
Radiation isn’t a chemical.
It can certainly cause problems in large enough amounts, but even the worst accident in nuclear power history didn’t release enough to do anything like the damage that salt can and does do regularly. Salt in modest concentrations kills plants and animals.
Salt Vs Radiation as a contaminant
In contrast, radiation is relatively benign. When people have radiotherapy, they receive doses of radiation at rates that are hundreds of thousands of times higher than background rates. What’s a “background” rate? We live in a radioactive environment. It’s around us all the time, but at low levels. These low levels are called background levels, but vary from place to place.
And in order to kill cells (cancer cells), radiotherapy delivers these doses (at this rate) day after day after day after day; often for weeks. Why? Because the cells keep repairing the damage. At the dawn of the anti-nuclear movement, nobody knew about DNA repair and most in the movement still act like it doesn’t exist.
Some places have very high background levels, up to about 70 milliSieverts per annum in Kerala in India. If Kerala was in Japan, the Japanese would have shovelled the entire area up into black plastic bags!
Mr Schmucker lives close to some quite rich uranium deposits. Here’s a map. Each of the little yellow dots is a deposit; certainly most won’t be economic to mine, but there are plenty of them.
Uranium deposits in SA
Does Mr Schmucker perhaps have uranium or other radioactive material on his property? Who knows.
In Kerala, it isn’t uranium that is common, but thorium, in what are called monazite sands. The people of Kerala have been living with high levels of radiation for ever. They eat radioactive fish; radioactive food. What’s their cancer rate? About half that of Australia; and the rate in Kerala isn’t different from other areas of India. To push cancer rates up with radiation, you need something like an atomic bombing and even that won’t do much. The rate of solid cancers in survivors of the Japanese atom bombs rose by about 11 percent. In contrast, when the Japanese added more red and processed meat to their diet, there was a steep rise in bowel cancers. In the early 1970s, there were about 20,000 bowel cancers in Japan annually. These days it’s over 140,000 … every year. That’s what I call a rise in cancers!
Mr Schmucker is worried about the wrong thing.
Does Mr Schmucker eat bacon or burgers? These are much more potent carcinogens than radiation, as judged by actual cancer and death.
As for the ABC. Their incompetence on reporting nuclear issues is of long-standing. It’s like nobody wants to do even the most basic of background reading on the issues. So they keep producing flotsam and jetsam.