By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN | March 30, 2011
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is focusing attention on a problem that has bedeviled Washington policymakers since the dawn of the nuclear age -- what to do with used nuclear fuel. Currently, spent fuel -- depleted to the extent it can no longer effectively sustain a chain reaction -- is stored in large pools of water, allowing the fuel to slowly cool and preventing the release of radiation. But events in Japan, where two of the six spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi facility were compromised, have raised questions about practices at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors, which rely on a combination of pools and dry casks to store used fuel.
Waste is generated by the nuclear power industry at every stage.
"The disaster at Church Rock was not an isolated event. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges ten accidental releases of tailings solutions into major watercourses in the region between 1959 and 1977. Runoff of rainwater from tailings piles also contributes to the contamination of surface water. In 1984, a summer flash flood in Hack Canyon washed four tons of high-grade uranium ore into Kanab Creek and on to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. In many communities, abandoned open pit uranium mines serve as stock tanks and swimming holes.
Aerial view of the Atlas Uranium Mill tailing ponds with Moab visible across the Colorado River. Photo © 1999 by Ray Wheeler.
Downstream from most of America’s uranium mines and mills sits Lake Mead, a huge reservoir that supplies drinking and irrigation water for southern California, Las Vegas, and parts of Arizona. The 40-year-old Atlas mill tailings pile at Moab, Utah, located 750 feet from the Colorado River, covers 130 acres and leaks on average 57,000 gallons per day of contaminated fluids into the river. The radioactive isotopes that are released in the mining and milling process have very long half-lives and are slowly making their way downriver into the sediments and water of the lake. The implications of a contaminated western water system are catastrophic.
Surface water is not the only threatened resource. Seepage from tailings ponds and “direct injection” of wastes into the subsurface contribute to ground water contamination. Wells that tap into these aquifers provide much of the drinking and irrigation water for the arid Colorado Plateau. Both people and livestock are affected by drinking this water and eating plants that are irrigated with it.
The mining and milling process greatly altered the land itself. The removal, transportation, and milling of vast quantities of rock resulted in the deposition of radioactive tailings piles at mine sites and at mill facilities. By 1978, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) recorded 140 million tons of on site tailings piles at twenty-two abandoned and sixteen operational mills. Continued production resulted in the addition of six to ten tons of tailings per year. One site, a 1.7-million-ton tailings pile, covers seventy-two acres in the center of Shiprock, New Mexico. Durango and Grand Junction, Colorado, and Monticello, Utah, are some of the other affected communities.
These tailings piles threaten air quality in various ways. Radioactive dust from the piles, dispersed by the persistent regional winds, settles long distances from the sites. The piles produce significant quantities of radon gas, a deadly substance that has caused a five-fold increase in lung cancer among uranium miners. The use of tailings as building and landfill materials was widespread throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Whether covered by dirt to mitigate the pollution, or left uncovered, these tailings piles present a threat to the regional plant, animal, and human communities." read more... cpluhna.nau.edu/Change/uranium.htm
FOREIGN RADIOACTIVE WASTE: Why not dump it on the United States?
NRC: Foreign, domestic waste aren't different
By Brock Vergakis The Associated Press
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it doesn't have the authority to keep foreign radioactive waste from being imported into the States just because the material is from another country. read more... userfiles/file//SaltLakeTrib_NRC_ForeignRadWaste_4_13_09.pdf
Most of what comes out of the ground from mining for uranium -- 99.9% depending on the ore value -- is waste. In fact, the actual waste will be larger than what actually comes out of the ground because it will be "pumped up" by chemicals that will be used to leach the uranium from the host ore rock.
"Uranium mining also results in large quantities of waste rock because much of the mined material will be below ore grade. The waste is produced during open pit mining when overburden is removed and during underground mining when tunnels are driven through non-ore or low-uranium content ore. Piles of so-called waste rock often contain hazardous amounts of uranium and its daughter products and therefore will pose a significant health hazard – virtually forever. Long after the mining and milling operation has shutdown waste rock will release radon gas and seepage water containing toxic materials." Marvin Resnikoff, Ph.D., Radio Active Waste Management Associates
Read more... userfiles/file/Fremontfactsheet1,May23.doc
Mill tailings are stored on site at the uranium mills in impoundment ponds. Impoundment ponds have a long history of leaking and leaching into the groundwater. These ponds used to be allowed to be huge -- 90 or more acres -- until the EPA and NRC realized that those impoundment ponds were too big to handle.
"The waste materials or tailings left over after the leaching process are extremely toxic. At site after site throughout the US, tailings piles have caused major health and environmental problems. The tailings are normally dumped as slurry into special ponds or piles. The amount of slurry produced is more than the volume of the original ore because the ore contains only 0.12% uranium, and chemicals are added in the milling process.
Apart from the portion of uranium removed, the slurry contains all of the constituents of the ore, including extremely long-lived radioactive elements. In fact, the slurry contains 85% of the initial radioactivity of the ore, primarily in the form of radium-226 (half-life, 1,600 years) and thorium-230 (half-life, 75,400 years). Radionuclides in the uranium tailings can contain 20 to 100 times as much gamma radiation as natural background radiation. This toxic material will continuously emit radon gas and if the slurry dries out, wind will carry the radioactively contaminated dust for miles. Tailings also contain heavy metals and other contaminants, such as arsenic." Marvin Resnikoff, Ph.D., Radio Active Waste Management Associates
Makhijani, Arjun, Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects, the MIT Press, 2000, p. 34 Read more...
Uranium Mill Tailings
report by the Department Of Energy (DOE) report to the United States General Accounting Office (GAO)to the Subcommittee on Energy and Power Committee on Commerce, House of Representatives, 1996: http://www.gao.gov/archive/1996/rc96085t
"During the three decades in which uranium was used in the government’s nuclear weapons and energy programs, for every ounce of uranium that was extracted from ore, 99 ounces of waste were produced in the form of mill tailings—a finely ground, sand-like material. By the time the government’s need for uranium peaked in the late 1960s, tons of mill tailings had been produced at the processing sites. After fulfilling their government contracts, many companies closed down their uranium mills and left large piles of tailings at the mill sites. Because the tailings were not disposed of properly, they were spread by wind, water, and human intervention, thus contaminating properties beyond the mill sites. In some communities, the tailings were used as building materials for homes, schools, office buildings, and roads because at the time the health risks were not commonly known. The tailings and waste liquids from uranium ore processing also contaminated the groundwater. Tailings from the ore processing resulted in radioactive contamination at about 50 sites (located mostly in the southwestern United States) and at 5,276 nearby properties. The most hazardous constituent of uranium mill tailings is radium. Radium produces radon, a radioactive gas whose decay products can cause lung cancer. The amount of radon released from a pile of tailings remains constant for about 80,000 years. Tailings also emit gamma radiation, which can increase the incidence of cancer and genetic risks. Other potentially hazardous substances in the tailings include arsenic, molybdenum, and selenium. DOE’s cleanup authority was established by the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978. Title I of the act governs the cleanup of uranium ore processing sites that were already inactive at the time the legislation was passed. These 24 sites are referred to as Title I sites. Under the act, DOE is to clean up the Title I sites, as well as nearby properties that were contaminated."
"Finally, DOE’s costs for long-term care are still somewhat uncertain. DOE will ultimately be responsible for long-term custody, that is, the surveillance and maintenance, of both Title I and Title II sites, but the Department only bears the financial responsibility for these activities at Title I sites. For Title II sites, the owners/operators are responsible for funding the long-term surveillance and maintenance. Although NRC’sminimum one-time charge to site owners/operators is supposed to be sufficient to cover the cost of long-term custody so that they, not the federal government, bear these costs in full, NRC has not reviewed its estimating that basic monitoring will cost about 3 times more than NRC estimates. Moreover, while DOE maintains that ongoing routine maintenance will be needed at all sites, NRC’s charge does not provide any amount for ongoing maintenance. In light of the consequent potential shortfall in maintenance funds, our report recommended that NRC and DOE work together to update the charge for basic surveillance and determine if routine maintenance will be required at each site. On the basis of our recommendations, NRC officials agreed to reexamine the charge and determine the need for routine maintenance at each site. They also said that they are working with DOE to clarify the Department’s role in determining the funding requirements for long-term custody."
Visit this site with numerous articles on nuclear waste: