A Contaminated Nuclear Environment

Today, we have very much a contaminated nuclear environment. We cannot seem to get a lot of accurate information, either it is too inflammatory or it is too limp wristed to be accurate.

In this I mean that when looking for information on Chernobyl related deaths, one set of numbers from the WHO are small, but a second set of numbers, from Greenpeace, are huge. A third set of numbers from a pro-nuke site suggests even the WHO’s numbers are too high. So how can we assess what is right or just plain misleading? We cannot, easily.

In a previous blog, I outlined some of the problems I experienced in trying to gather some relevant, reasonable, accurate facts around nuclear contamination. I actually gave up, and tried to sort some of the data and sift it to get something reasonable. Complete waste of time. So I just looked at the numbers I had, and compared them to other numbers that could be supported and found that the number of confirmed deaths via radiation exposure is actually quite minimal.  It is not unreasonable to suggest that the nuclear industry actually has an enviable safety record, believe it or not. Usual industrial accidents per year are something like 75 times higher than all recorded deaths by exposure to radiation in the 70 years from 1946.

Of course, the trouble is we don’t know if the numbers recorded are actually accurate. Corporations have a real habit of covering up their cock-ups. It is only in the last decade or so that more nations are pressing criminal charges against the Corporations for negligence that leads to a fatality in the workplace. “We do the best we can with the figures we got, simple as that.” as someone once said to me.

Anyway, to the topic at hand.

Chernobyl and Fukushima are names that stand out for making a mess of things. Three Mile Island should stand up right up there too. The corporate shenanigans surrounding Metropolitan Edison management of the plant, plus Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court incredible decisions plus the NRA’s decisions to let MetEd, later GRU, off the hook are smacking of something distasteful. But that is true of much of the US Corporate/Government/legal/financial interactions for the last 35 years.
Throw someone in gaol for 30 years for a joint, but Corporations that defraud a couple of billion public dollars, are encouraged. That’s capitalism.

Environmental damage.
Of all the arguments environmental damage is likely the most difficult for the nuke industry  to refute. Chernobyl happened 30 years ago and it is only in the next year or so that the Cesium 137 will be reaching its half life limit. Other dangerous materials have either already reached their half life or will not for millenia yet. Close monitoring of the land around Chernobyl should reveal sources of contamination, and while these are going to be expensive to clean up, they should be able to be cleaned up.
Chernobyl is giving us a unique opportunity to see exactly what happens when an area is abandoned. The wildlife in the area will be closely monitored and checked for mutations and general health. Mutations in some species seem to be of the types that will limit breeding opportunities, in others appear harmless. My suspicion is that the outcomes for animals will not be as disastrous as the schadenfreude crowd have been cawing about for decades.

A much larger risk is imposed upon the people themselves.
“…The designation of the affected population as “victims” rather than “survivors” has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future. This, in turn, has led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct, such as consumption of mushrooms, berries and game from areas still designated as highly contaminated, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and unprotected promiscuous sexual activity.” Chernobyl Forum 2006
These comments make it clear that the impact of an event such as Chernobyl has a greater range of outcomes than just considering environment. The human cost is much higher than most of us would be comfortable with, I suspect.

Table 1. Current estimate of radionuclide releases during the Chernobyl accident (modif. from 95De)

Core inventory on 26 April 1986 Total release during the accident
Nuclide Half-life Activity (PBq) Percent of
1.4h 5 600 3.5 196
67.0h 4 800 >3.5 >168
78.0h 2 700 25 – 60 ~1150
2.4d 27 000 3.5 ~95
5.3d 6 500 100 6500
8.0d 3 200 50 – 60 ~1760
12.8d 4 800 4 – 6 ~240
33.0d 5 600 3.5 196
39.6d 4 800 >3.5 >168
52.0d 2 300 4 – 6 ~115
163.0d 26 3.5 ~0.9
285.0d 3 300 3.5 ~116
1.0y 2 100 >3.5 >73
2.0y 180 20 – 40 ~54
13.2y 170 3.5 ~6
28.0y 200 4 – 6 ~10
30.0y 280 20 – 40 ~85
86.0y 1 3.5 0.035
6580.0y 1.2 3.5 0.042
24400.0y 0.85 3.5 0.03

(ref: https://www.oecd-nea.org/rp/chernobyl/c02.html)
The elements listed are actually isotopes of each element and sorted by half-life. .
We can see that the half-life of the isotopes listed varies from a few hours to thousands of years. After the Cesium137, it is only Plutonium238, Plutonium239 and Plutonium240 that have a longer half life. If these isotopes can be located and treated properly, well, the contaminated land, now that the cesium has reached its half-life, the land should recover considerably more rapidly. (Unfortunately, we can’t just spray it with “Nuke-away”, but a digging machine and sealed trucks would be good here.)
We currently cannot objectively assess the damage to the environment. We may never be able to properly assess the damage to the environment. I know this seems a bold claim, but the fact is unless we can accurately model the environment, we cannot even make accurate predictions to environmental changes or other rising issues. The major limiting factor here is time. The secondary limiting factor here is no two nuclear power plants will explode exactly the same way.
I didn’t really grasp, initially, why what was seen with Chernobyl did not correlate to what we saw with Fukushima. They were both operating nuclear power plants, they both blew up, what was different? Lots, Chernobyl’s reactor went critical and exploded. Fukushima’s reactor vented after the cooling system went down being swamped. Fukushima’s output was about 20% that of Chernobyl’s. More importantly, the mix of radionuclides in the two events were very different, or so I am led to believe. So far, I have yet to dig up a credible source that describes what fallout consisted of, how much and where is it.

The issue is we do not have the technologies to isolate, then destroy contaminated materials. Chernobyl is still a no-go zone, even if people are moving back into the area. That seems to be the only way we can properly deal with it, make it an exclusion zone. Not good enough for me, but I have no alternative to offer as a resolution.

This table shows and compares before and after samplings from Fukushima. TEPCo, the company operating the Fukushima plant has lied, (and there is no other way to describe it), about so many things to do with the venting. They tried to cover up by not releasing information in a timely or appropriate manner. They also claimed there was no plutonium release. These figures show different.
Table 1: Activities of 239+240Pu, 241Pu and 137Cs, and atom ratios of 240Pu/239Pu and 241Pu/239Pu in soil and litter samples

From: Isotopic evidence of plutonium release into the environment from the Fukushima DNPP accident.

Sample Location 239+240Pu activity (mBq/g) 241Pu activity (mBq/g)a 240Pu/239Pu atom ratio 241Pu/239Pu atom ratio 137Cs activity (mBq/g) 137Cs/239+240Pu ratio
25 km
0.019±0.003 ND ND ND 148000±1350 7.79×106
(0–1 cm)
25 km
0.215±0.006 ND 0.171±0.013 ND 1693±48 7.87×103
26 km
0.329±0.011 34.8±2.7 0.323±0.017 0.135±0.012 1416000±4230 4.30×106
(0–1 cm)
26 km
1.163±0.033 ND 0.177±0.013 ND 21410±360 1.84×104
32 km
0.184±0.011 20.2±4.2 0.330±0.032 0.128±0.034 4649000±9070 2.53×107
(0–1 cm)
32 km
1.400±0.023 ND 0.144±0.006 ND 17060±250 1.22×104
surface soil (0–2 cm)
20 km
0.059±0.004 4.52±0.56 0.303±0.030 0.103±0.013 11480±540b 1.95×105
surface soil (5–7 cm)
0.024±0.004 ND ND ND 630±30b 2.63×103
surface soil (10–12 cm)
0.026±0.003 ND ND ND 140±10b 5.38×103
surface soil (0–1 cm)
130 km
0.020±0.004 ND ND ND 1443±22 7.22×104
soil 1 (0–1.5 cm)
220 km
0.070±0.006 ND 0.209±0.031 ND 898±15 1.28×104
soil 2 (0–0.5 cm)
0.042±0.004 ND 0.173±0.031 ND 2887±30 6.87×104
soil 3 (0–1 cm)
0.100±0.006 ND 0.198±0.017 ND 694±14 6.94×103
soil 3 (1–3 cm)
0.117±0.008 ND 0.200±0.029 ND 50±6 4.27×102
soil 3 (3–5 cm)
0.133±0.011 ND 0.199±0.035 ND ND ND
soil 3 (5–13 cm)
0.097±0.006 ND 0.186±0.028 ND ND ND
Kamagaya soil 1
(0–2 cm)
0.081±0.008 ND 0.195±0.036 ND 1311±20 1.62×104
Kamagaya soil 2
(0–2 cm)
0.235±0.012 ND 0.171±0.019 ND 11429±88 4.86×104
Kamagaya soil 2 (2–5 cm) 0.223±0.059 ND 0.172±0.034 ND 1045±87 4.67×103
0.180±0.007 0.00194±0.00014c
(0–30°N) 0.178±0.010 0.00188±0.00039c
fallout in Japan
0.1922±0.0044 0.00287±0.00056c
Soil in
Tokyo, Japan
0.1755±0.0012 0.00171±0.00010c
Soil in
Sapporo, Japan
0.1765±0.0011 0.00183±0.00011c
0.408±0.003 0.123±0.007d

a. 241Pu decay corrected to 15 March 2011.
b Data cited from Tagami et al.
Tagami, K. et al. Specific activity and activity ratios of radionuclides in soil collected about 20 km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: Radionuclide release to the south and southwest. Sci. Total Environ. 409, 4885–4888 (2011).11
c 241Pu decay corrected to 1 January 2000.
d 241Pu decay corrected to 1 May 1986.
A: Data for global fallout and soils in Tokyo and Sapporo are cited from Kelley et al.
“Kelley, J. M., Bond, L. A. & Beasley, T. M. Global distribution of Pu isotope and Np. Sci. Total Environ. 237/238, 483–500 (1999).”
B: Data for atmospheric fallout in Japan are cited from Zhang et al.
Zhang, Y. S. et al. Characterization of Pu concentration and its isotopic composition in a reference fallout material. Sci. Total Environ. 408, 1139–1144 (2010).
C: Data for the Chernobyl accident are cited from Muramatsu et al, and Ketterer et al:
Muramatsu, Y. et al. Concentrations of 239Pu and 131Pu and their isotopic 240 determined by ICP-MS in soils collected from the Chernobyl 30-km zone. Environ. Sci. Technol. 34, 2913–2917 (2000).
“Ketterer, M. E., Hafer, K. M. & Mietelski, J. W. Resolving Chernobyl vs. global fallout contributions in soils from Poland using plutonium atom ratios measured by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. J. Environ. Radioact. 73, 183–201 (2004).”
Ref:Pu Isotopes in soil and litter samples

The question is why would TEPCo lie about this? It would seem that honesty is not a good Japanese practice, but that is really harsh. The fact is that Japanese culture may glorify failure, but it doesn’t like to stare it in the face. There were very strong political reasons for keeping quiet, but in the end, they only made the Company look foolish, or worse, criminal. The Russians did the same thing with Chernobyl, as have the Americans with Three Mile Island, and there is still likely things the British are hiding about Windscale, so the Japanese are not alone.

So to the point of this overly long bit of nonsense. Should we build a nuclear storage facility here? Simply put, there is actually no reason not to. People scream their heads off when discussing anything nuclear, but the simple fact is, that the real nuclear risk lies in a nuclear power plant. Few people are talking about building one of those here, thankfully.

My own perspectives:
My home state, South Australia, holds the largest Uranium mines in the world. We currently produce more than a quarter of the world’s supply of uranium, and expansion of those facilities could see that go to well over 35%. (This may only be a bit of local jingoism, but there is no reason to suspect it is not true.)
Recently we have had a Royal Commission to investigate the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and, again, the debate has been bogged down in the mess of nuclear energy.
The State Government has argued that we should be discussing the issue of nuclear waste, more specifically, the long term storage of nuclear waste. As we produce so much uranium, why would we want it to be left where it might wreak future havoc after it has been used?
That is at the core of the thinking that is driving the idea of a nuclear waste storage facility here in South Australia. Do we accept any culpability in providing so much of the uranium that is at the core of so much social anxiety?
The dangers are very real, of that there can be no doubt. All the real dangers though, are around nuclear power stations. Transport of high level nuclear materials has been without major incident for sixty years. Storage of wastes has been safe, usually, but not always. Most incidents involving storage can easily be tracked back to incompetent or criminally negligent management.
With careful management, and strict Parliamentary oversight, I do not think that the risks so readily painted by the anti-nuke lobby are anywhere near as great as is suggested. They are a more hysterical reaction to bogus perceptions than real.
Do we need uranium mining to continue? No, I do not believe so; the returns for SA are just too small to justify keeping it going. The amount of employment generated is not sufficient to warrant our continued involvement.
Even if all uranium mining was to cease tomorrow, we still have a huge mess to clean up the day after. That is what drives my interest in this. The dangers found in the nuclear cycle are real, but we need to deal with them. An even more terrifying though is that of the GenIV plants. The GenIV plant is supposed to consume the waste products of older nuclear plants. Scientists are suggesting that fast-breeder reactors are the saviours of the nuclear energy industry. Is this the same as the cane toad? Or the Mitsubishi 380? The red fox? The list goes on and on. When something goes disastrously wrong in the GenIV systems, and it will, these same scientists will all stand around saying “We didn’t think of that.” In the meantime we have no way of assessing the long term damage that irradiation will do to people, to the environment. The only way we will get rid of it, will be by returning it from whence it came, underground.
Why should SA do this? We are responsible for producing the materials that cause more than 20% of the world’s high level waste. To not think we have any responsibility here is doing exactly the same as Pontius Pilate. We might be able to wash our hands of it, but can we get the stench of hypocritical self-righteousness off? We should be prepared to bring it back here, particularly from nations that just do not have the ability to safely store it themselves. We have a naturally occurring safety zone, well as far as any region of the world can be considered to be safe. Nationally, we are politically stable, economically on the skids and going nowhere very slowly. We need to do something unique.
As a nation we have become timid, inward looking, afraid of our own shadows. Time to stop being so and start to look outwards again.
The ALP has far more connection to the beginnings of the nuclear industry that most will be comfortable with. Have a look at H.V.Evatt as Minister for External Affairs in the Chifley Government and his connection to a proposed treaty banning all nuclear weapons. Evatt refused to support it and many other small nations followed his lead. The nuclear industry has the dubious honour of being the only industry that was developed for war, which had military application before peace time application. Today, about 10,000 tonnes of waste is generated every year. We can sit back and wait for someone to fix it, or we can accept a responsibility, and be that someone.


The GenIV nuclear plants were supposed to be the saviors of the nuclear industry, but instead, the failures of the design and development of the plants are proving to be far more intrinsic to collapsing the entire nuclear power industry.

For the existing fission designs, the Gen3 plants, nearly half the plants that have begun construction have been abandoned. More existing plants have been decommissioned so less nuclear energy is being accessed than was. More coal fired plants are being decommissioned, but they are being replaced with renewable plants – wind and solar thermal.

It really doesn’t matter though, a nuclear waste repository, a dump, will be needed anyway.

About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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