Nuclear waste and floods

Notes by Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia, Jan. 2022.

1 – Preventing problems at a nuclear waste dump/store from flooding should be manageable, if and only if project management oversight and regulation is up to the task. There are serious questions about whether management and regulation of the Australian government’s proposed national nuclear waste dump/store at Kimba in SA would be adequate. The most relevant case study in Australia is the flawed ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s, overseen by the federal government. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There has been no honesty or transparency about the failures at Maralinga, no attempt to learn from mistakes. Successive governments have simply lied about the problems and tried to cover them up. Expect the same at Kimba.

Flawed ‘clean-up’ of Maralinga

2 – The proposed Kimba dump will be designed to leak. Either barriers prevent leakage, in which case there is a risk of accumulation of infiltrated water resulting in corrosion of waste drums and other such problems. Or, as is the case with the Kimba proposal, there will be water outlets, i.e. it is designed to leak.

3 – Even with the expertise and resources available to ANSTO, and the importance of safely managing irradiated/spent nuclear fuel, water infiltration has been a problem at Lucas Heights. In early 1998, it was revealed that “airtight” spent fuel storage canisters had been infiltrated by water – 90 litres in one case – and corrosion had resulted. When canisters were retrieved for closer inspection, three accidents took place (2/3/98, 13/8/98, 1/2/99), all of them involving the dropping of canisters containing spent fuel while trying to transport them from the ‘dry storage’ site to another part of the Lucas Heights site. The public may never have learnt about those accidents if not for the fact that an ANSTO whistleblower told the local press. One of those accidents (1/2/99) subjected four ANSTO staff members to small radiation doses (up to 0.5 mSv).

4 – One example of flooding compromising nuclear waste: Flooding at Nine Mile Point

In July 1981, water flooded the Radwaste Processing Building containing highly radioactive waste for Unit 1 at the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant in upstate New York. The flood tipped over 55-gallon metal drums filled with highly radioactive material. The spilled contents contaminated the building’s basement such that workers would receive a lethal radiation dose in about an hour. The Unit 1 reactor had been shut down for over two years and was receiving heightened oversight attention when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigated the matter. But the NRC was reacting to a television news report about the hazardous condition rather than acting upon its own oversight efforts. The media spotlight resulted in this long over-looked hazard finally being remedied.

Flooding at Nine Mile Point

5 – Another example: Federal health officials agree radioactive waste in St. Louis area may be linked to cancer

The US government confirms some people in the St. Louis area may have a higher risk of getting cancer. A recent health report found some residents who grew up in areas contaminated by radioactive waste decades ago may have increased risk for bone and lung cancers, among other types of the disease. The assessment was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tens of thousands of radioactive waste barrels, many stacked and left open to the elements, contaminated the soil and nearby Coldwater Creek which sometimes flooded the park next to people’s homes.

6 – Another example: US: Poison in the Vadose Zone

Waste from 1950’s and 1960’s nuclear weapons production, including more than one ton of plutonium, endangers the Snake River Plain aquifer, the largest in the western US, according to a report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Much of this waste is in the vadose zone (an unsaturated region of rock and soil located beneath the land surface and above the water table) but it is migrating towards the aquifer much faster than anticipated, and some of the waste is already in the aquifer. According to the report, official US government data indicate that more than one metric ton of plutonium, packaged in nothing more than cardboard boxes, wooden boxes, or 55 gallon drums, was dumped into shallow trenches on the site in the 1950s and 1960s. Rain, snow, and occasional flooding of the trenches have already caused migration of some radioactive and hazardous materials towards, and in some cases into, the aquifer. Evidence has existed for more than 25 years that these long-lived radionuclides are migrating through the vadose zone to the aquifer much faster than anticipated.

7 – Another example: Radioactive thorium found at residential properties is linked to nuclear-weapons work done decades ago

Radioactive contamination has been discovered at three residential properties in the St. Louis area, adding fuel to a long-running controversy about how much damage was done to the environment and possibly people’s health by nuclear-weapons work performed there decades ago. Current and former residents of nearby areas have argued that contamination from the creek had spread into their neighborhoods during periods of flooding and they have pushed for extensive sampling of houses and yards. They also contend residents have suffered from an unusually large number of cancer cases and other maladies possibly linked to radioactive contamination. The thorium is a leftover from uranium-processing work done for the weapons program. The contamination likely was deposited by flooding from the creek, said Mr. Petersen, the Corps spokesman.

8 – No doubt there are plenty of other examples of nuclear waste being compromised by flooding.