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The Nuclear Legacy—
Radioactive Wastes and Plutonium

          In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and a number of other nations signed a treaty banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere. Up to that time, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had exploded nuclear fission-type bombs equal to some 300-400 megatons of TNT in the atmosphere. The radioactive fallout from these bombs contaminated the land, the waters, the vegetation, the animals, and man himself. Indeed, concern over the biological effects of this devastating fallout was the main reason for the atmospheric test ban treaty.

          A single large nuclear-power plant (1000 megawatts electrical) produces as much radioactive material in one year as a 25 megaton atomic bomb can produce.

          If the nuclear power plants now on order are built, they will produce 10 times as much radioactivity, each and every year, as was produced by all the atmospheric weapon tests before the treaty. By the year 2000, nuclear plants now planned will be producing 100 times as much radioactivity each year. Unfortunately, the evidence, to date, indicates that appreciable quantities of the radioactive material will find their way into the environment and thence into man.

Waste disposal practices

          Fuel reprocessing plants take the spent fuel rods from reactors and reclaim the fissionable material, leaving behind tremendous quantities of radioactive waste. The AEC has several fuel reprocessing and waste storage and disposal sites. At the present time, there is one private fuel reprocessing plant and several private waste disposal sites.

          The one commercial fuel reprocessing plant is the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in West Valley, New York. The safety regulations under which it operates are a travesty on the public health. Data on the radioactivity released from the West Valley plant, published by the U.S. Public Health Service,[1] indicate that any person eating as little as one pound of fish per week from Cattaraugus Creek, where the plant's wastes are released, would be exposed to the guideline dosage of 0.17 rad. The plant is operating at only a fraction of its planned capacity! Moreover, in the August issue of Radiological Health and Data Reports, it is stated:

      . . . Suckers are taken from Cattaraugus Creek for food, especially in the springtime. In addition, there may be a practice of grinding up the flesh and bone to make fishburgers.[2]

          Nuclear Fuel Services is also licensed by the AEC for waste "disposal." As a result, the company has a burial site on the West Valley compound. The July issue of Radiological Health and Data Reports shows that 10-15 percent of the radioactivity in the creek is coming from this so-called burial site.[3] Even if the reactors maintain low discharge rates, it appears, from the West Valley story, that these fuel reprocessing plants and waste burial sites may well bring our ground water and rivers to the limit of the regulations.

          The West Valley story demonstrates the true attitude of the AEC toward its regulations and one of the reasons why it is so reluctant to make them more restrictive. In the AEC's 1969 publication, The Nuclear Industry, we read the following:

      Intermediate level liquid wastes is a term applicable only to radioactive liquids in a processing status which must eventually be treated to produce a low level liquid waste (which can be released) and a high level waste concentrate (which must be isolated from the biosphere).
      Low level liquid wastes are defined as those wastes which, after suitable treatment, can be discharged to the biosphere without exposing people to concentrations in excess of those permitted by AEC regulations.
      Wastes generated in the cold or pre-irradiation phase of the fuel cycle (from the mine to the reactor), as well as wastes resulting from research laboratories and from medical and industrial applications of radioisotopes, are generally considered as low level or low hazard potential wastes.[4]

          The West Valley plant is discharging "low level wastes" which the AEC considers as of "low hazard potential." A 5 to 50 percent increase in genetic disorders and deaths plus a 10 percent increase in cancer deaths appears to impress the AEC as a small hazard.

          The AEC's own waste disposal practices are no better than those of the West Valley Plant. In 1965, at the request of the AEC, the Committee on Geologic Aspects of Radioactive Waste Disposal of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council made a final review of waste disposal practices at the Atomic Energy Commission's installations. The Committee submitted its report to the AEC in May 1966.

          The AEC immediately suppressed the report, ignoring repeated requests to release it. Finally in 1970, in response to pressures applied by Senators Frank Church and Edmund Muskie, the report was made public.[5] As expected, it is critical of the AEC's waste storage and disposal practices.

          The Committee report contained two important conclusions:

  1. None of the existing AEC disposal installations is in a satisfactory geologic location.
  2. Present practices of disposing of intermediate and low level liquid waste, and all types of solid waste, directly into the ground, will, in the long run, lead to serious fouling of man's environment.

          The AEC has still not changed its practices nor relocated its installations. The West Valley story demonstrates that the time for taking the Committee's recommendations seriously has already passed. We have no adequate means of containing these low and intermediate level radioactive wastes, and the proliferation of nuclear reactors is only going to compound an already serious problem.

"Everything But the Squeal"

          When an industry, like Armour, has abundant by-products, difficult or expensive to dispose of, it attempts to find a use (market) for the by-products. The nuclear industry is no exception, Again consider the 1969 report of the AEC, The Nuclear Industry, in which the following can be found:

Useful By-Products From Reactor Wastes

      Fission products, such as strontium, cesium, and promethium, recovered during irradiated fuel processing operations, are already finding some useful commercial applications such as industrial thickness gauges, food irradiators, teletherapy units, as a power source in remote weather stations, etc. Others, such as xenon, krypton, rhodium, and palladium, are being considered for recovery because of their potential use in the electrical, jewelry, oil, and chemical industries. Possible markets for the expanded use of these materials in the near future offer many challenging opportunities.

      Late in 1968, the AEC announced that the Richland Operations Office would seek expressions of interest from industry in the recovery of fission products rhodium, palladium, and technetium from the Hanford high level wastes. (See AEC Public Release L-252, dated October 31, 1968.) Considerable interest was indicated by several firms and one, PPG Industries, is exploring the possibilities of recovering these fission products by a proprietary process, using a sample of the Hanford waste.

      Of particular interest in the by-product category is neptunium, which is used as the target material in the production of plutonium-238. It is possible that at some future date there will be a very large demand for Pu-238, for use as a power source in our space program and also there could be large demands for the artificial heart program if it is successful. General Electric is offering to recover neptunium (as well as uranium and plutonium) from irradiated nuclear fuel at its chemical reprocessing plant being constructed at Morris, Illinois. Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., New York State Atomic and Space Development Authority, and all the other companies with interests in the chemical reprocessing business are giving serious consideration to this and other isotopes for which a market and economic conditions justify recovery.[6]

      There are about 100 private firms that produce radioisotopes or convert them into products for medicine, science, and industry. Total sales of these companies are estimated at $53 million annually, consisting of about $8 million in basic radioisotope materials, $16 million in radiochemicals, $25 million in radiopharmaceuticals, and $4 million in radiation sources. In addition, sales of devices, in which radioisotopes are employed, total about $40 million a year. If the sales of products produced by radiation processing, auxiliary materials, and services related to radioisotope and radiation uses are included, the total commercial activity in the United States is at a level of several hundred million dollars annually.[7]

          A very large fraction of these radioactive by-products will eventually find its way into the environment. In the process, some of these radioactive products will produce serious, immediate consequences.

          Consider the case of a young Mexican boy who found a cobalt-60 source. The source, highly radioactive, looked to him like a metallic marble and he put it in his pocket. The radioactivity subsequently made him ill and his mother put him to bed. She put the "marble" in a drawer in the kitchen. As a consequence, both the mother and the boy's little sister became so ill that the maternal grandmother came to care for them. In the end all four died.

          Other such tragic examples are available. However, it is important to recognize that the unknown genetic consequences of introducing this radioactivity to man's environment will pale these examples by comparison.

          One of the major legacies of the nuclear age is radioactive waste. Discussions concerning the disposal of it are misleading, because radioactive waste is not disposable! Guardianship of nuclear waste is a more meaningful concept.

          We are producing waste products that must be maintained in isolation from the environment for a thousand years or more. The AEC does not appear to recognize this fact.

Plutonium: The Ultimate Hazard

          The worldwide inventory of plutonium is man-made. It was virtually non-existent in the earth's crust before the U.S. atomic bomb program was initiated. By far the major use of plutonium today is in the manufacture of nuclear bombs.

          Plutonium has several nuclides, the most important being plutonium-239 (Pu-239) which is used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs. But Pu-239 is intended as the major reactor fuel of the future, through the development of the fast-breeder reactor. Its extremely long half-life, 24,000 years, will keep Pu-239's radioactivity undiminished much longer than the recorded history of modern man.

          The cancer producing potential of plutonium is well known. An amount as small as one ten-millionth of an ounce injected under the skin of mice has caused cancer. A similar amount injected into the blood streams of dogs has produced bone cancers. However, it is the lung that is the most vulnerable to plutonium.

          The vulnerability of the lung to plutonium exists because plutonium exposed to air ignites spontaneously. As it burns, it forms numerous tiny particles of plutonium dioxide. These particles are intensely radioactive. If inhaled, they are deposited in the deepest portions of the lung. There they remain, immobilized for hundreds of days, and during this time their radiation is able to affect the cancer-sensitive cells of the lung. The tissue around the particle is exposed to a very intense localized dose of radiation.

          Our colleague, Donald Geesaman, has made an extensive analysis of the scientific data related to the hazard of these highly radioactive particles. His analysis pointed up a very sobering fact: The experimental data indicated that when small portions of tissue are exposed to extremely high dosages of radiation, cancer is an almost inevitable result. In other words, irradiation by plutonium oxide particles appears to represent a unique carcinogenic hazard. Somewhere between a few and a few hundred such particles would be enough to double an individual's chance of developing fatal lung cancer. An ounce of plutonium can form 10 trillion such particles.

          Once in the air, these tiny particles remain suspended for long periods of time. Thus, plutonium released to the environment will represent a very long term and serious hazard. Plutonium fires have occurred at the Rocky Flats plutonium plant in Colorado that is operated by the Dow Chemical Company. Plutonium is measurable in the soil surrounding the plant. If the plutonium industry burgeons, we can expect more and more such contamination.

          In a talk entitled, "Plutonium and Public Health," presented at the University of Colorado at Boulder on April 19, 1970, Donald Geesaman stated:

      Finally, I would like to describe the problem in a larger context. By the year 2000, plutonium-239 has been conjectured to be a major energy source. Commercial production is projected at 30 tons per year by 1980, in excess of 100 tons per year by 2000. Plutonium contamination is not an academic question. Unless fusion reactor feasibility is demonstrated in the near future, the commitment will be made to liquid metal fast breeder reactors fueled by plutonium. Since fusion reactors are presently speculative, the decision for liquid metal fast breeders should be anticipated and plutonium should be considered as a major pollutant of remarkable toxicity and persistence. Considering the enormous economic inertia involved in the commitment it is imperative that public health aspects be carefully and honestly defined prior to active promotion of the industry. To live sanely with plutonium one must appreciate the potential magnitude of the risk, and be able to monitor against all significant hazards.

      An indeterminate amount of plutonium has gone off site at a major facility [the Dow Rocky Flats plant] 10 miles upwind from a metropolitan area [Denver, Colorado]. The loss was unnoticed. The origin is somewhat speculative as is the ultimate deposition.

      The health and safety of public and workers are protected by a set of standards for plutonium acknowledged to be meaningless.

      Such things make a travesty of public health, and raise serious questions about a hurried acceptance of nuclear energy.

          Although the carcinogenic hazard of plutonium in the environment is a serious problem, there is an even more serious problem associated with plutonium. It can be used to make atomic bombs. Even without the fast breeder program, considerable plutonium is produced in the present-day reactors. In fact, government purchase of the recovered plutonium is one of the price supports for the nuclear power industry.

The Safeguards Problem

          U-235 and Pu-239 have been used to manufacture atomic bombs. Obtaining weapons-grade U-235 is very difficult because the U-235 has to be separated from its chemically identical and much more abundant relative, U-238. However, Pu-239 can be separated from its breeding material (U-238) by chemical means. The spent fuel elements from a present day reactor therefore contain, in a relatively easily extractable form, the primary ingredient for the manufacture of atomic bombs (enough to make several bombs).

          With the spread of nuclear reactors and the eventual change to the fast breeder, plutonium will become as commonplace as heroin and even more profitable. A serious, an unsolved and probably unsolvable, problem is—how to prevent this plutonium from falling into criminal hands, where it can be used for blackmail and black-market enterprises?

          A front page article in The Wall Street Journal of Thursday, June 18, 1968, stated:

      Scientists are raising a horrendous new possibility. It is far too easy, they say, for a crazed man, a revolutionary or a criminal to make an atomic bomb.

      "I've been worried about how easy it is to build bombs ever since I built my first one," says Theodore Taylor, a nuclear physicist who headed the Defense Department's atomic bomb design and testing program for seven years. He says the once-secret information needed to build nuclear bombs became available in unclassified literature several years ago. He especially recommends the World Book encyclopedia for its explanation of how a bomb works.

          The December 1969 issue of Nuclear News reported on the Nuclear Safeguards symposium held at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory on October 27-30, 1969. The article stated:

      There was general agreement at the end of the symposium that, although there has been good progress made in safeguards technology, the world is still a long way from a foolproof system. In fact, some expressed doubts that this goal would ever be reached. AEC Commissioner Clarence E. Larson, keynote speaker at the symposium's banquet, identified himself with this group when he said: "From a practical standpoint, we may never solve all the problems, but we must collectively undertake to find solutions and to make use of safeguards practices."[8]

          Later in the article, the comments made by Mr. C. Bellino of Wright, Long & Co., during a panel discussion are reported:

      Bellino stole the show. A leading expert on auditing procedures, Bellino serves also as a special investigator to the White House and the FBI. He told the audience that the subject of his treatise was "assessing the threat of highjacking by the Mafia." After humorously defining his terms, Bellino became quite serious. He pointed out that a letter was received recently on Capitol Hill stating that every trucking firm in a certain state, which he did not identify, was Mafia-owned and -controlled. He noted, too, that out of a secret list of 735 so-called Mafia members, 12 are or were owners of trucking firms; two are truck drivers and at least nine are or were union officials.

      Bellino believes it highly probable that, if some foreign tyrant offers a "deal," U.S. racketeers would be interested in it. A truck carrying uranium or plutonium could easily be highjacked. The theft could just as easily occur at a warehouse or dockside . . . [9]

          Representative Craig Hosmer of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy made the following comments before the 11th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management in Gatlinburg, Tenn., on May 25, 1970:

      Earlier this year the Attorney General of the United States cited the Kennedy Airport cargo handling apparatus as being under the control of organized crime. The same can be said of many other key transportation elements of this country too. When and if SNM [special nuclear material] ever becomes an article of illicit commerce, the transportation element of the nuclear fuel cycle will become most vulnerable to diversions. We'd better be cinching up in this area all along the way.[10]

      . . . Many people, including myself, do not regard as very convincing the Dr. Goldfinger scenario where James Bond thwarts holding Miami hostage for a zillion dollar ransom under threat of blowing it up with a stolen H-bomb. Stealing a 1,000-pound top secret bomb isn't exactly easy.

      But when you think not in terms of stealing whole bombs, but of diverting very small amounts of SNM at a time and of the possibility of a profitable black market developing, you get on more credible ground. Black markets already exist from all kinds of "hot" goods. They are quite flexible in taking on new product lines. If an SNM black market develops, the sale price to some country, individual, or organization—desperately wanting to make nuclear explosives—has been estimated as high as $100,000 [sic.—this should be $1,000,000] per kilogram.

      A gram is 1/1000th of a kilogram and 1/1000th of $100,000 [sic.—should be $1,000,000] is $1,000. Liberating a half gram of plutonium at a time from the local fast breeder reactor fuel element factory might be so small an amount as to be relatively undetectable even by the best black boxes and the sharpest eyed inspectors.[11]

          At the 20th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs held September 9-15, 1970, Drs. Patricia J. Lindop and Joseph Rotblat of the United Kingdom stated:

      Finally, when discussing the problems involved in the use of nuclear energy one must not forget about another and possibly even greater hazard: the possibility of clandestine acquisition by governments or groups of individuals of weapon-grade materials. This will become more and more difficult to avoid as the number and size of nuclear reactors increase. A very efficient system of controls is essential from the beginning. The IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency has not yet produced convincing evidence that they can tackle this problem, nor has the Agency been provided with the funds necessary for a project of this magnitude . . .

          Plutonium was indeed aptly named: Plutonium—the element of the Lord of Hell. What kind of social responsibility exists within men who strongly advocate a drastic increase in the worldwide inventory of this element? There are currently acceptable alternatives for electrical power generation and the future holds out great promise for even better means of generating electric power. These men would seem to be possessed with a death wish that encompasses all of mankind. Shouldn't they be stopped?

  1. July issue: N.I. Sax, Paul C. Lemon, Allen H. Benton, and Jack J. Gabay,"Radioecological surveillance of the waterways around a nuclear fuels reprocessing plant." Radiological Health Data and Reports 10:289-296, 1969. August issue: William J. Kelleher, "Environmental surveillance around a nuclear fuel reprocessing installation, 1965-1967." Radiological Health Data and Reports 10:329-339, 1969.

  2. William J. Kelleher, "Environmental surveillance around a nuclear fuel reprocessing installation, 1965-1967." Radiological Health Data and Reports 10:335, 1969.

  3. N.I. Sax, et al. "Radioecological surveillance of the waterways around a nuclear fuels reprocessing plant." Radiological Health Data and Reports 10:294, 1969.

  4. The Nuclear Industry, 1969. Report "published annually to present the AEC's assessment of the state of the nuclear industry . . ." Prepared by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969, p. 252.

  5. National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, Division of Earth Sciences, Committee on Geologic Aspects of Radioactive Waste Disposal, John E. Galley, Chairman. Report to the Division of Reactor Development and Technology, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, May 1966. Unpublished.

  6. The Nuclear Industry, 1969. Op. cit., pp. 266-267.

  7. Ibid. p. 22.

  8. "Time may be running out—safeguards warning sounded." Nuclear News (December), p. 16, 1969.

  9. Ibid., p. 17

  10. "Hosmer: some plain talk on safeguards." Nuclear News (July), p. 36, 1970.

  11. Ibid., p. 37.

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