There is a nuclear waste problem; but it's not what you think
Updated: Apr 16
When did the word "logistics" start appearing on trucks? It's become quite the fashionable tag for all manner of companies; waste logistics, military logistics, energy supply chain logistics, the list seems endless. The word was borrowed from the French back in the late 19th century, but it received a popularity boost, along with "supply chains", when Covid-19 arrived. Suddenly, politicians started talking about supply chains and logistics of everything from masks to vaccines and, more stubbornly, to computer chips and whole cars. Our globalised supply chains have become a popular topic of conversation.
What's all this got to do with the title of this little article? Hang tight, I won't take too long to set up the link.
Think about immunocontraception of wildlife. What? You've never heard of it? It's where you deliver a drug to wildlife to control their fertility, by manipulating their immune system. It's been a "promising" technology for as long as I can remember; but never quite delivering. I recall Conferences in the 1990s where immunocontraception was hyped as the next big thing to replace all those ineffective and savage animal culls (which is what we euphemistically call random killing). I'd still love for that to happen.
The big problem for immunocontraception was always logistics. How do you deliver the drug?
You might have expected the extraordinarily complicated biology behind drug development was the issue, but no, it was the seemingly mundane task of delivery. Which brings us, finally, to nuclear waste and the unsolved problem of delivery; the logistics of waste.
But surely you just ship the waste to the waste repository (aka nuclear waste dump) using trucks or perhaps ships? Yes. But that's not the delivery problem I'm thinking of.
No ... the unsolved problem I'm thinking of is how you deliver the waste to people in big enough doses to cause sickness. That's the problem that's never been solved. If you want nuclear waste to be dangerous, as many in the anti-nuclear movement do, then this is the problem you need to solve. Power plant nuclear waste has never hurt anybody for the simple reason that there is no delivery system; and nor has anybody ever detailed one.
Before thinking about the problem in some detail. Let's consider one of the most dangerous energy supply technologies on the planet; button batteries. These supply a tiny amount of energy and contain very little toxic material, but they come with a terrific delivery system. By terrific, I mean terrifying! Being small and ubiquitous, people just leave them lying around and children swallow them. For something to be actually dangerous, it's not enough to be theoretically dangerous, you need a delivery system.
One reasonable way to rank risks is in deaths per terawatt hour of energy. I haven't made a rigorous global estimate, but based on US data (where 2,800 children are hospitalised annually), we could roughly estimate that 19,000 children a year are hospitalised by button batteries; with some deaths and many serious lifelong impacts. Button batteries are a serious waste problem and it's all down to logistics; they have a very efficient delivery system for putting people (usually small and vulnerable people) in touch with the dangerous bits.
Now consider nuclear waste. In reality, the nuclear industry wants to recycle waste, but let's think about the worst case scenario where there each country has one or a few repositories; most will be in remote regions, because that's the cheapest place to buy a site.
Logistic problem 1: Delivering people to the site
So the first logistic problem if you want to make people sick is to deliver them to your site ... or perhaps move the site to the people! I'll deal with that later, but first lets deal with the more obvious task of moving people to the site.
You can't hurt a million people if there are only 1,000 living close to your site. That's a tough problem. It's not like there's anything to see at a nuclear waste repository. Just the odd freight train or truck delivering a cask. You might think that you don't need to deliver people to the site you just need to wait for accidents involving trucks and casks. Sorry, that won't work. You can smash a locomotive into a nuclear waste cask without a problem. Truck accidents may kill drivers and pedestrians but they won't create a radiation risk. A nuclear waste cask weighs over 100 tonnes and is seriously tough:
...Nuclear waste containers have been tested over the last 40 years by running them into concrete bunkers at 80 mph, being dropped onto huge steel spikes, burned in jet fuel fires at thousands of degrees, and sunk deep in water for weeks. These things are as strong as humans can make them.
The Yucca mountain EIS looked at this in great detail. Trucks are a serious risk in any project, but there are no radiation risks from accidents, just the usual mundane risks of death and disability that don't concern anti-nuclear activists; even when they out-rank the exotic risk of radiation.
Alternatively you can move the site to the people. What? Ask people how nuclear waste can move and they'll sometimes mumble "groundwater" like it's an answer. It isn't. Climate scientists over the past few decades have found it incredibly easy to find sites that have been undisturbed for millions of years. They can extract cores and drill boreholes and establish things about past climates ... back through ice ages and warm ages. Finding areas without groundwater flows isn't hard. And for groundwater to act as a delivery vehicle it needs to flow fast enough to deliver a large enough dose to be dangerous.
Okay, so let's assume we are 1,000 years into the future and everybody has forgotten about the repository and they've built a massive city on the site. It's highly unlikely, but let's play the game anyway.
Now comes your second problem.
Logistic problem 2: Getting the waste out of the ground
Waste repository sites are typically chosen in rock, salt or clay. All are chosen to be dry and as impermeable as possible; meaning very. The site is sealed and hundreds of metres underground. So how are you going to dig your tunnel? A solar powered tunneling machine? Perhaps in a thousand years, the child cobalt miners in the DRC will be looking for alternative work?
Think about it. You have to be smart enough to have engineering technology sophisticated enough to dig a deep hole through tough material. And you have to hit your target, just digging at random is highly unlikely to find your repository.
Given our substantial memory of history going back a thousand years, it's very unlikely that people don't know the repository exists, so lets extend our fantasy and assume they are deliberately digging into it. Why? A real reason would be to use the waste to fuel reactors, but in that case, they'd know what they were doing. So let's assume malevolent actors.
So they dig and find one or more casks. What next? The cask will still be intact enough that you'll need some reasonable engineering skills to penetrate it. But let's put that problem aside, just as we have all others.
After 1,000 years, the gamma radiation is pretty useless for causing illness, so it's only the alpha and beta that matter.
Ooops, I've slipped into techno babble and need to explain.
The explanation will lead us to Logistic problem 3. If you want to know how people can walk around quite safely in areas of extremely high radiation, like the Red Forest at Chernobyl, then you need to know this stuff.
A little background on radiation
Nuclear waste is a mix of all kinds of radioactive stuff. Each type of stuff (called an isotope) gives off varying amounts of one or more of the 3 kinds of ionising radiation; alpha, beta, or gamma. Alpha radiation is particles; big ones. Not so big that you can see them, but so big that they can't penetrate your skin. Waste components that only give off alpha particles are safe to handle. Uranium and plutonium are both in this category. Typically people handle them with gloves. Why? These and other radioactive source can cause illness if they are pulverised and you breath in the dust; getting such dust in your lungs is not a good idea. So best practice is to wear gloves. Best practice for avoiding the carcinogenicity of bacon would be to handle it with gloves and definitely not eat it (more later).
There is a group of people who ingested plutonium during World War II while working with it. Did they die a horrid death? (If you think that, you've been exposed to too much anti-nuclear propaganda.) No, but you could detect it in their urine for the rest of their lives. They peed plutonium! Had the dose been higher, they may have had an increased cancer risk, but they didn't. When researchers wanted to test the carcinogenicity of these materials on rats many decades ago, it was a serious technical problem to devise a way of producing dust and administering it in well measured doses to their poor rats. Chemistry labs are full of dangerous stuff; and radioactive stuff isn't the worst kind! Radiation and radioactive material isn't infectious. You can't catch radiation sickness. Those who saw HBO's Chernobyl documentary should be aware that many of the beliefs expressed by people in that doco were total bollocks. They could well have believed such things at the time, making the film accurate as history; but that doesn't make those beliefs true. For details read my simplified account or read a four part critique by US doctor Robert Gale who was at Chernobyl treating the firefighters.
But getting back to radiation ... beta particles are smaller than the alphas. If they are moving fast enough, they can penetrate your skin. Different types of radioactive stuff gives off beta particles with different speeds. It's easy to protect yourself from beta particles with gloves or just by walking away. They don't chase you ... and their energy and speed drop quickly with distance from the source.
Which brings us to gammas. These little f..kers go through walls. The reason that nuclear waste is cooled in water for a few years before going into the cask is because the water can stop gammas. High level gamma radiation is the primary risk from radioactive material; if you are close enough. The good news is that you can measure it and avoid it. Compare this with bush fire smoke. Bush fire smoke is full of nasty chemicals that can damage your lungs and airways. Unlike radiation, it's much harder to measure and categorise into it's components; there are thousands of toxic chemicals.
Over time radiation from any source declines; but levels of the three different types decline at different rates for a mixed up source. After 1000 years, the gammas have declined to a level that is no longer a problem.
At this point it's worth pointing out that you need a massive dose of radiation to lift your risk of cancer. The survivors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki got just such a dose and for those who didn't die of the blast and acute radiation poisoning over the following few months, their solid cancer rate rose by about 11 percent and their median loss of life was about 2 months. You'd be hard put to get that kind of dose from the waste after 1,000 years ... of course, if snuggled up close enough for long enough, you might accomplish it.
Which leaves the alphas and betas; because some radioactive material will still be emitting those after tens of thousands of years. This is where the myth comes from that the waste is dangerous for 10s of thousands of years. Now that we know about alphas and betas, we know what this means. It means don't swallow any waste; just like you don't swallow drain cleaner or button batteries. And yes, don't snort it either!
Logistic problem 3: Getting people to swallow enough waste to make them sick
This has always been the nub of the waste problem. How to get people to swallow or snort enough waste to make them sick. The anti-nuclear movement has never solved this problem. They've just ignored it.
Compare with bacon and other processed meats. These cause thousands of cases of bowel cancer annually in Australia (and you can pro-rata a figure for your favourite country). Here, the logistics is simple, because (some) people think it tastes good. So they eat it; voluntarily; they seek it out. The taste solves the delivery problem and allows the meat to cause its cancers. And nobody seems to mind at all; until their diagnosis; "Gosh that was unlucky", except that luck had little to do with it. Every mouthful damages DNA but almost always your DNA repair mechanisms kick in and you live to eat another day. But keep rolling the dice and probability will prevail ... some will lose.
So the anti-nuclear movements biggest unsolved problem is first how to pulverise the waste and then how to get people to eat it. Powdering waste and mixing it into metwurst or mince would probably work well.
The electric arc furnaces that melt silicon for PV panels run at over 3,000 degrees centigrade. They are incredibly dangerous, but, like nuclear waste, they are missing a delivery mechanism; making them rarely, if ever the cause of injury or death. Button batteries and bacon, in contrast, aren't very dangerous at all, but have excellent delivery mechanisms, and so annually cause tens of thousands of injuries and disease respectively.
Nuclear waste is dangerous ... but like electric arc furnaces, is logistically challenged. Unless you can tunnel into hundreds of metres of rock, salt or clay, break into the concrete casks, pulverise the contents and mix it with something suitably tasty or snort worthy and then devise a suitable marketing plan and distribution chain.
For anti-nuclear activists, the unsolved problem of a delivery mechanism is deftly sidestepped. All they seem to do is use some long technical words, wave their hands and rely on a pavlovian reflex, established by decades of people repeating the mantra: "But what about the waste?" The risk for these activists is that more people will eventually realise (many have) that the emperor is naked. Having been anti-nuclear until my 50s, I understand the shock of this revelation. It's the shattering of a world view. It means agreeing with people you have nothing much in common with. As a vegan, the idea of agreeing with people who kill animals without reason is disturbing; but rational. It's simply silly to believe that beliefs exist in nice little clumps and all the beliefs in my clump are right and all the beliefs in your clump are wrong. The groupings into left wing, right wing, capitalist, pro-growth, anti-growth and so on are convenient but we shouldn't treat them as gospel any more than the gospel. There are no holy books or holy belief systems.
There are some 70 small modular reactor designs on the drawing boards and sooner or later somebody will come up with something that is cheap and fast. But they won't do it while our collective approach to radiation in driven by slogans rather than science. Nuclear regulatory bodies are no better. They have been long been subject to "regulatory capture" for political and financial purposes. The nuclear industry itself has plenty of people whose livelihood depends on believing that nuclear waste is some kind of magic existential omnipotent poison despite the logistical challenges. But that's something for another time.
Postscript on cancer comparisons
Consider the rise in solid cancers of 11% in survivors of the atomic bombings. I should have compared that with something. Presenting risks without context is very bad practice. Is 11% a big number? How does it compare to lifestyle factors which can cause cancer? Consult any cancer text book and you'll see that when people emmigrate to a new country and adopt the lifestyle of that country, their cancer rates soon adjust to match their new home. So if you look at the cancer rates in Japan and Australia at the time of the Fukushima accident ... you'll see the combined rate (men and women) for Japan is 217 cases per 100,000 per year, while in Australia it's about 283 cases per 100,000. Raising 217 by 11% would give you 234 cases per 100,000 per year, but emmigration to Australia would be far more carcinogenic ... by about 50 cases per 100,000 ... than the radiation induced cancers from surviving an atomic blast. There are multiple reasons for this, but one of the biggest is red and processed meat; again, it's that delivery system. People will injest carcinogens willingly that are far more dangerous than the kinds of doses of radiation you can get from even a very bad nuclear accident. It's hard to imagine a nuclear waste incident that could be anything like as bad as a bacon habit. I can't imagine it and I've never seen anybody else describe such a possibility!