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NUCLEAR GUARDIANSHIP FORUM, On The Responsible Care of Radioactive Materials,
Issue # 3, Spring 1994, pp. 1, 6.

U.S. Nuclear Waste Program in Crisis

Interview With Arjun Makhijan

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute For Energy and Environmental Research, Takoma Park, Maryland

by Francis Macy

You have long watched American policy and practice with regard to radioactive waste. What is the most critical problem we are facing right now?

Well, I think there are two different areas of critical problems. One is the problem of military high level waste stored mainly in tanks in Hanford, Washington, Idaho National Laboratory, and Savannah River. There is some risk that waste contained in several dozen tanks could catch fire or explode so there is a real environmental health danger.

Already some are leaking at Hanford.

True, there are over 60 tanks leaking, 66 and more tanks are identified as potential leakers. Of these tanks, many have actually leaked more than three quarters of a million gallons of radioactive waste into the soil.

Has this endangered the water table?

Yes, there are radioactive materials in the water. However, part of the characteristics of these cracks in the tanks is that salts tend to get deposited around them so the leaks tend to be self-sealing. By the same token, if you try to empty the tanks by washing them out you're going to risk washing out the seals. -- This is a major challenge at Hanford: how are we going to empty these tanks?

What is the second problem area?

The second is primarily an institutional problem and it is central because all of the technical issues around disposal of radioactive waste cannot be resolved until the institutional issues are resolved. The Department of Energy has historically approached the disposal of high level waste for the long term as a matter of political expediency rather than scientific integrity. The whole process which led up to the selection of Yucca Mountain as a permanent geologic disposal site is simply unbelievably weak. It was not a process in which scientific integrity and democracy and public participation were paramount.

You see that as an institutional problem more than a policy problem?

Historically the Department of Energy has been devoted to the production of nuclear weapons and the promotion of nuclear power. One of the main roadblocks to nuclear power is the apparent lack of any long term solution to nuclear waste disposal. So nuclear utilities and nuclear power plant vendors and their supporters in the Department of Energy want to see a repository opened. Actually, I think many nuclear utilities don't want nuclear power plants.

They have not ordered any for 13-14 years.

But they do want to get rid of existing waste.

The American government has become
a machine for the conversion of
public assets into private profits,
and a big machine for
the conversion of private liabilities
into public liabilities.

Unfortunately, the American government has become a machine for the conversion of public assets into private profits, and a big machine for the conversion of private liabilities into public liabilities. The problem of nuclear waste is a very good illustration of the second feature. The government has agreed to take the nuclear waste of private American utilities and convert it into government waste to be handled at public expense.

Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary said she is concerned about the commitment the U. S. Government made to utilities with nuclear power plants to relieve them of responsibility for their highly radioactive used fuel rods by 1998. Yet the DOE has no disposal site, medium or long term.

The Department made commitments under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act to have two repositories with scientific integrity. And it has not met these commitments. Instead, it has lobbied unsuccessfully for legislation to abandon these commitments for political expediency. To evaluate sites it has set up scoring systems that are transparently political and without scientific merit. It has failed to use technical literature which it, itself commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences. It has failed to respond with any serious integrity to public concerns. All these things are public commitments which the department has repeatedly made, and has repeatedly failed to implement.

We often say that the DOE
has created a new Murphy's Law
for high level waste disposal.

So the question does arise, which commitments will this Department take more seriously? Is it going to take a commitment to the public and to the people of this country more seriously, a commitment to democracy and scientific integrity and environmental protection, and to finding the best possible site? Or is it going to take more seriously a dubious commitment made in haste to take away the utilities' nuclear waste?

You see this as an institutional question.

Yes, here is an example. The Department made some commitments to environmental protection. And yet the depository investigation of Yucca Mountain in Nevada proceeded even when it looked like the environmental standards that had been promulgated by EPA would not be met by Yucca Mountain in relation to specific radionuclides, such as Carbon-14. These standards could be easily met by many other repository sites. The Department and its supporters in Congress moved to have special standards developed for Yucca Mountain. So we have a double standard for disposal of highly radioactive waste: one set of standards being developed by the National Academy of Sciences which would apply only to Yucca Mountain, and another set of standards which would apply to all other sites. Such are the Department's commitments to the public and to future generations.

Does the Department have a conflict of interest as weapons producer and manager of nuclear waste?

Yes. Our Institute published a book [High-Level Dollars, Low-Level Sense: A Critique of Present Policy for the Management of Long-Lived Radioactive Waste and Discussion of an Alternative Approach, by Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska] on nuclear waste in which we proposed that the Department of Energy should no longer be in charge of waste and long term waste disposal. We advocate that a new institution without this conflict of interest should be put in place.

Outside of DOE?

Yes. I think it has to be a new structure that is more responsive to considerations of democracy and science and environmental protection. The structure should be a matter of considerable debate. A Blue Ribbon Commission to look into all of the radioactive waste issues should be formed at the presidential level. [see Fresh Start Advocated, below]

Would you say that the U.S. has a real public policy on waste management now?

Well, we don't have a public policy on waste management. We have got a lot of attempts to do something. Almost all of which are failing. In sum, the whole waste management system is in crisis. The low level waste system is breaking down. The high level waste disposal system deadlines are being repeatedly postponed.

The DOE should
no longer be in charge
of nuclear waste.

We often say that the DOE has created a new Murphy's Law for high level waste disposal. The more money is spent to open a repository, the farther away from a repository we get.

Does your new Murphy's Law also apply to the so-called clean up of radioactive contamination at DOE nuclear production sites?

We have spent a lot of money on clean-up and have very little to show for it. I'm afraid most of the cleanup is being regarded as a quick cash contract job for private companies. A lot of money has been wasted. Yet some progress has been made. For instance some of the problems with the Hanford liquid waste tanks have been improved. Some progress has been made in stopping some very bad things from happening.

Have satisfactory ways been found to stabilize liquid waste in tanks which you called our greatest danger?

Vitrification is a proven commercial technology, the glass produced in vitrifying radioactive waste is essentially the same as Pyrex. But there are problems when we combine radioactive materials with molten glass. Radioactive waste has been neutralized with sodium hydroxide, or lye, and this has separated the waste into many different layers which are very difficult to manage physically. At the bottom of tanks there is a sludge area which contains most of the radioactivity which is very hot. It is a very inhomogeneous waste. We are generating explosive gases and flammable gases, and all these things are very difficult to handle in the processing.

Do you feel as an alternative to vitrification that it is useful to mix liquid waste with cement, as Dr. Rustom Roy proposed in an interview published in the second issue of Nuclear Guardianship Forum?

I think large quantities of radioactive material with organics and nitrates is a very bad idea in cement mixtures. The cements will not set in a regular way, and if anything goes wrong, it will be practically impossible to undue the damage. And in all these areas there are everyday engineering principles which have never been spelled out.

Is there another approach?

For many years I thought that photo fission of transuranic waste had potential by knocking out neutrons from long lived fission products, using protons in certain energy regions. However --

Is that what's called transmutation, which we examined in the first issue of the Nuclear Guardianship Forum?

Yes. But I am discussing a transmutation with a very particular technology, not what is being advocated in Los Alamos which you mentioned. They propose to add neutrons and have many of the same old problems. The amounts of energy that are required are huge. The amounts of chemical processing that are required are gigantic. And the waste that will be created from that process will be tremendous. In the end it is not clear what will have been solved. A lot of radioactive waste problems will remain in any case.

What do you propose as the most responsible approach to waste management today?

I have been able to identify no good approach to getting rid of the highly radioactive waste which contains long-lived materials.

We should have on site storage of radioactive waste from 50 to 100 years. We should give ourselves the time to study these issues carefully.

We should build institutions and staff them with people who are committed to environmental protection, who know what excellence in science means, and who know what democracy and public participation mean. I think the question of geologic repository disposal must be kept open because it is one of the options that is least bad.

We should have
on-site storage
of radioactive waste
from 50 to 100 years.

Some research on seabed disposal should also be done. It is not that I advocate seabed disposal, but again it might be a method of dealing with these things which is less horrible than other methods.

The most important two things that need to be done, which I have not mentioned, are: first, management of medical wastes should be separated from the controversial wastes from production of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. [see Medical Waste, page 12]

We must stop the production
of radioactivity...
We have no need
to produce more waste.

Secondly, we must stop the production of radioactivity from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons production. We have no need to produce more waste. I recognize that we can't switch off all nuclear power plants overnight, but we must have an energy plan which includes the dramatic reduction of fossil fuel use, certainly more than 50 percent, and the gradual elimination of nuclear power by phasing out the existing power plants.

Because of the unsolvable waste problems?

That is one of the reasons. The other is that however small the probability, nuclear power plants are prone to catastrophic accidents, although the risk in some countries is smaller than in others. However, the consequences of these accidents are so bad even in the United States as to be unacceptable to me.

Thank you very much.

High-Level Dollars, Low-Level Sense: A Critique of Present Policy for the Management of Long-Lived Radioactive Waste and Discussion of an Alternative Approach, by Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska,Apex Press, New York,1992, is available from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, 6935 Laurel Avenue, Takoma Park, MD 20912, USA. tel: 301-270-5500, fax: 301-270-3029.

Francis Macy is a founding member of the Nuclear Guardianship Project. As Senior Advisor of the Environmental Program, Center for Citizen Initiatives, he is facilitating collaboration between activist groups at Russian and U.S. weapons complexes.

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