It’s important to know “both sides” of the nuclear waste controversy now that Saskatchewan is being targeted as a nuclear dump. Even if you are skeptical of industry claims that a nuclear waste solution “is in the works”, and see this as a ploy to get more nuclear power plants approved, there’s lots to learn about the nuclear worldview.
Bruno Comby of the French-based “Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy” argues that “nuclear waste has undeniable environmental benefits”. Comby lists three benefits: its “small amount”, it not being “disposed of in the biosphere” and it being “almost totally confined.” He claims that “reprocessed radioactive waste” can be decreased “to the natural level of radioactivity of the original ore after only 5,000 years”, and that “safe, simply and efficient solutions exist to make nuclear waste inert” and to isolate it “from the biosphere until it is no longer toxic”. Finally he claims that a naturally-occurring nuclear reaction 2 billion years ago at Okla, Gabon shows that “waste, after being left unconfined…has not migrated more than three meters.” He concludes the nuclear waste issue is “technically and ecologically solved by a combination of reprocessing technology, vitrification and deep geological disposal.”
This is quite a mouthful. If it’s this “pat” then why, nearly 70 years after the first atom was split, are governments struggling with what to do with nuclear wastes? Comby’s argument is constructed to make real problems disappear. Notice his phrase “after only 5,000 years”, as though it would be acceptable to continue to create high-level wastes threatening environmental health for 50 generations. (It’s actually many more generations when you consider that plutonium has a half-life of 26,000 years.) He claims that because it takes a smaller quantity of uranium than oil to produce the same amount of energy, nuclear wastes are less problematic. But he completely ignores the build-up of long-lived radioactive uranium tailings, which are part of the nuclear waste stream; there are already more than 200 million tons of such tailings in Canada. Comby trivializes the toxicity of spent fuel, claiming that once plutonium is “reprocessed and recycled” as fuel for new reactors the remaining waste “is totally isolated from the environment”. Furthermore, Comby completely ignores the increased dangers of proliferation from plutonium becoming more available.
Comby states that over time nuclear wastes “…are only weakly radioactive. And these…are alpha-ray emitters from which we can easily protect ourselves.” Actually alpha radiation is highly mobile and much more dangerous than previously thought, and is highly carcinogenic if breathed and imbedded in our lungs. Radon gas, which after smoking is the greatest cause of lung cancer worldwide, is an alpha-emitter. But Comby tries to minimize the dangers from nuclear waste build-up by focusing on the dangers of other energy systems. He quotes pronuclear “gaia” theorist James Lovelock that “there is at present no other safe, practical and economic substitute for … burning carbon fuels.” Lovelock said this in 2003, when the global shift to renewables was already underway. By 2005 electricity from renewables surpassed that from nuclear power worldwide, and the gap keeps growing.
Comby tries to turn the table on non-nuclear environmentalists saying, “Since the energy resources of our planet are limited, it would be a great shame and highly unecological, not to recover such large amounts of energy-rich materials”, by which he means plutonium. He continues, “Reprocessing…as practiced at the La Hague plant in France (and) at Sellafield in UK…is ecologically sound.” Comby wrote this in the Journal of Environmental Studies in 2005 without careful research. As I’ve shown in a past column, the Sellafield reprocessing plant has been a financial and technical calamity, and is to be closed down.
Comby admits “the Earth was much more radioactive…when life first appeared”, but then makes the silly claim that “natural radiation has not stood in the way of evolution and development.” Going against mainstream science he claims “The weak doses of natural radioactivity, to which we have been exposed since the dawn of time, are not dangerous.” Mainstream science now admits there is no safe level of radiation; the smallest doses increase risks. And a global industrial experiment has already disproven Comby’s naïve view, for with the thinning of the ozone layer protecting us from UV rays we have seen a steep rise in skin cancer. But Comby simply says that we “need only wait for the radioactivity to fade away of its own accord”, and even asserts that “one might say that in burning uranium we accelerate…its natural disappearance from the environment.” Such an outrageous statement gives pronuclear “environmentalists” a bad name!
WAY BEHIND THE TIMES
After speculating across 2 billion years to “prove” there is no threat from nuclear waste, Comby says “Elaborate simulations at Yucca Mountain…have confirmed these conclusions, with a large safety factor.” Actually simulations at Yucca Mountain led to it being abandoned as a nuclear waste site after $10 billion taxpayer money was expended and full cost estimates rose from $58 to $96 billion. Yucca has been in the works for over three decades, but being an earthquake-prone and oxidizing environment that could corrode waste containers, it failed to meet IAEA siting criteria. “Environmentalist” Comby doesn’t seem to know or care to know about such details.
Recent freedom-of-information releases indicate it would take two Yuccas to handle the 63,000 tonnes of nuclear wastes already accumulated in the US, the 42,000 tonnes expected from existing plants and the 21,000 tonnes of waste projected from new plants. Most startling, the Bush administration made 11th hour deals to take nuclear wastes off the hands of companies building new plants, even though no waste disposal system is in place. Fact and fantasy are apparently interchangeable for nuclear zealots. But even the Canadian industry-run Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) won’t claim, as has Comby, that research “has demonstrated the feasibility and the safety of long-term geological storage of nuclear waste”. Demonstration in scientific terms means actually doing something. British Petroleum (BP) didn’t demonstrate they could safety do off-shore drilling simply by claiming in 2009 that they could. And look where things are now.
Basically Comby supports the French nuclear industry, with which he has connections, storing waste temporarily at La Hague “awaiting reprocessing”. Though he says this is “not as safe as long-term disposal in a deep repository”, he rejects the plans of the US, Sweden and Finland for “direct disposal” without reprocessing to recover plutonium. I prefer to accept the judgment of the US Academy of Science and Union of Concern Scientists who reject reprocessing. Past senior adviser to the US Energy Department, Robert Alvarez, has said, “Reprocessing plants release about 15,000 times more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power plants…” while noting that 50 years of failing to create a “closed fuel cycle” have created 250 tons of plutonium, “enough for some 30,000 nuclear weapons”.
When Comby calls for the public to “be informed” he clearly means accepting his astonishing claims, even if they are untrue. I have a different meaning of informed consent and “environmentalist.” With no solution to nuclear waste in practice, anywhere, I say let’s stop producing more of it and get on with sustainable energy.
Next time I’ll look at a proposal to bury nuclear wastes under Southern Saskatchewan.