MAC: Mines and Communities

Uranium Special - On Infinitely Dangerous Grounds

Published by MAC on 2005-08-15

On Infinitely Dangerous Grounds

Nostromo Research

15th August 2005

On August 15th 1945, the Japanese empire surrendered to the US military; an act undoubtedly brought about by the calculated US incendiarisation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a week before. Now, sixty years later, various government leaders, numerous peace groups, and journalists have united in deploring continued proliferation notably in Iran, but also India, Pakistan, South Korea and Israel.

The anniversary provided yet another opportunity for states which acquired the capacity of destroying millions of people in the fifties and sixties, to distance themselves from those that have since followed their lead.

Often masked by the simplistic and sometimes hypocritical rhetoric are three central truths. First, all nuclear weapons have depended on uranium as their prime source material. Second, the majority of fuel used in bombs derives from so-called "civil" reactors that also generate electricity. Third, mining uranium is uniquely hazardous. Only mineral sands extraction comes close, in terms of the degree of radiation to which workers, local communities and non-human species may be subjected.

For much of the first period of the "uranium age" (roughly 1940 - 1960), the mining of U308 (uranium oxide), its upgrading into enriched uranium, its incorporation as reactor fuel, and the consequent "recovery" of plutonium was principally determined, financed and promoted by four "warrior" nations: the US, UK, France and Russia. They were the true progenitors of "weapons of mass destruction"; the justification that the enormous releases of heat from atomic fission could power commercial electricity generators was tacked on later.

The fifties and sixties saw uniquely damaging, nuclear bombing ("testing") of Indigenous territory in the south west US and on South Pacific atolls. This carcinogenic legacy continues today, with some communities still unable to return safely to their traditional, but irradiated territory.

As the "Cold War" dominated Super-power politicking, so did the illusion that "deterrence" against nuclear attack depended on building more, and more destructive weapons - justified by the morally-twisted concept of MAD ("mutually assured destruction"). By the time of the first treaty to limit proliferation, so many nuclear weapons were stockpiled that - had they all been detonated - life on this planet would have been exterminated..

Hand-in-glove with this "arms race" came an inevitable scramble to seize and exploit uranium deposits, wherever they could be found. Virtually every country with some important mineraological history was subject to exploration. The Soviet regime plundered resources both within Russia (using the enslaved prison labour of the "gulag") and its satellite states. The US enlisted some of its biggest mining companies in a domestic search; Union Carbide was the prime source of enriched uranium for the military.

The French government, through state atomic agency, the CEA, and domestic company, Cogema, mined several sites in mainland France, while opening major projects in Niger and Gabon. The Indian government started its Jaduguda mine on tribal land in Bihar (now Jharkhand), under the aegis of the Uranium Company India Ltd. (UCIL). In the sixties and seventies some third world states - such as Brazil (from 1981) and Argentina (from 1962) - dug up their own yellowcake for nuclear programmes. Others got it from wheever they could. For example, Iran, under the US-supported Shah, purchased equity in RTZ's Rossing Uranium Ltd in Namibia. Japan's Marubeni corporation bought uranium oxide direct from Rossing, in flagrant violation of the government's embargo on trading with the South African apartheid regime).

Indeed, RTZ (now Rio Tinto) was pre-eminent in the exploitation of yellowcake for the world market up until the late eighties. In the early 1960s, RTZ chair Sir Val Duncan was (so he later recounted) called to the British Atomic Energy Commission and ordered "to go forth, find uranium and save civilisation". Within the decade, the company was exploiting the Rum Jungle and Mary Kathleen mines in Australia (the uranium from which was destined for nuclear weapons). Between 1956 and 1959, its Elliot Lake mines in Ontario, Canada, were the most important supplier of yellowcake to the US military. From 1976 the Rossing mine became the world's largest single producer of the deadly mineral, despite a United Nations Decree which expressly forbade exploitation of the territory's natural resources. Across the border in apartheid South Africa, uranium was also being obtained as a by-product of the company's Palabora copper mine. Meanwhile the UK-Australian conglomerate was contracting for yellowcake with a host of nation-states, including Spain, West Germany and the US, as well supplying more than half the UK's pretended needs.

But, in 1980, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, on east coast USA suffered a melt-down. It was the first acknowledged global nuclear "accident". The US government cancelled all new reactors (although its rivals, the French and Japanese refused to follow suit). Shortly afterwards, a much worse disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, seemed finally to set the seal of doom on civilian nuclear power.

By then, the movement against nuclear weapons' proliferation movement had segued into a broad coalition opposing all nuclear power. Rather belatedly, peace and environmental activists in the Americas, Europe, Japan and South Asia, recognised that opposition to uranium mining was key to their success. This would scarecly have been possible had Indigenous Peoples themselves not been able to show that - almost exclusively - it was their territory that had been purloined, dug up, and radiated to provide for the biggest mines.

The repudation of state capitalism in the USSR, at the start of the nineties, brought an official end to the "Cold War." Weapons were decommissioned (and some of the uranium "recycled"); putative nuclear reactor programmes were slowed, or cancelled, by most states that had previously factored them into their future energy supply plans. Coal and gas seemed to have taken up the slack. Certainly, uranium mining was not abandoned altogether (after all, the raw material was still required for hundreds of existing reactors). Nonetheless, anything resembling the yellowcake rushes of the previous four decades seemed unthinkable; a near-collapse in the spot market bore out this prognosis.

So what has happened, in a few brief years, to change it all around? In the last year alone, new uranium projects have been proposed in the US, Australia and India, whle China is intending to more than double its present number of reactors. Ironically, the reversal can partly be attributed to some of those very organisations and individuals that formerly led the opposition to nuclearisation, and moved onto campaign so vigorously against global warming as a consequence of burning fossil fuels.

Along this recent way, vital and fundamental objections to uranium power have been forgotten or ignored.

In the first contribution to this special posting, Helen Caldicott reminds us of those basic arguments. Following this, we briefly cover the unsolved (many would say insoluble) problems of safely disposing of mill tailings, including those deriving from by-product mines; finally, we point to the vast legacy of radiated wastes from plants which have burned uranium to produce electricity or atomic weapons.

All these consequences will be compounded, unless movements against the nuclear industry are now revived and can achieve success. Above all, we need to be reminded that the parameters of previous exploitation - whether at the mine or the dumping site - have not changed.

This is an industry that continues to depend on the exploitation of Indigenous territory and poorer, rural communities. It is as environmentally, socially, economically and morally unacceptable now, as when those obscene messengers of death were visited on the Pacific, sixty years ago.

First, one of the founders of the Australian Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM), Helen Caldicott succintly challenges the myths that nuclear power is clean, doesn't produce greenhouse gases, and is cheaper than alternative energy sources.

Nuclear Power is the Problem, Not a Solution

by Helen Caldicott, The Australian

April 15, 2005

There is a huge propaganda push by the nuclear industry to justify nuclear power as a panacea for the reduction of global-warming gases.

In fact Leslie Kemeny on these pages two weeks ago (HES, March 30) suggested that courses on nuclear science and engineering be included in tertiary level institutions in Australia.

I agree. But I would suggest that all the relevant facts be taught to students. Mandatory courses in medical schools should embrace the short and long-term biological, genetic and medical dangers associated with the nuclear fuel cycle. Business students should examine the true costs associated with the production of nuclear power. Engineering students should become familiar with the profound problems associated with the storage of long-lived radioactive waste, the human fallibilities that have created the most serious nuclear accidents in history and the ongoing history of near-misses and near-meltdowns in the industry.

At present there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as the nuclear industry suggests, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors. Considering that no new nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1978, this proposal is less than practical. Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years.

The true economies of the nuclear industry are never fully accounted for. The cost of uranium enrichment is subsidised by the US government. The true cost of the industry's liability in the case of an accident in the US is estimated to be $US560billion ($726billion), but the industry pays only $US9.1billion - 98% of the insurance liability is covered by the US federal government. The cost of decommissioning all the existing US nuclear reactors is estimated to be $US33billion. These costs - plus the enormous expense involved in the storage of radioactive waste for a quarter of a million years - are not now included in the economic assessments of nuclear electricity.

It is said that nuclear power is emission-free. The truth is very different.

In the US, where much of the world's uranium is enriched, including Australia's, the enrichment facility at Paducah, Kentucky, requires the electrical output of two 1000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for 50per cent of global warming.

Also, this enrichment facility and another at Portsmouth, Ohio, release from leaky pipes 93& of the chlorofluorocarbon gas emitted yearly in the US. The production and release of CFC gas is now banned internationally by the Montreal Protocol because it is the main culprit responsible for stratospheric ozone depletion. But CFC is also a global warmer, 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle utilises large quantities of fossil fuel at all of its stages - the mining and milling of uranium, the construction of the nuclear reactor and cooling towers, robotic decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactor at the end of its 20 to 40-year operating lifetime, and transportation and long-term storage of massive quantities of radioactive waste.

In summary, nuclear power produces, according to a 2004 study by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, only three times fewer greenhouse gases than modern natural-gas power stations.

Contrary to the nuclear industry's propaganda, nuclear power is therefore not green and it is certainly not clean. Nuclear reactors consistently release millions of curies of radioactive isotopes into the air and water each year. These releases are unregulated because the nuclear industry considers these particular radioactive elements to be biologically inconsequential. This is not so.

These unregulated isotopes include the noble gases krypton, xenon and argon, which are fat-soluble and if inhaled by persons living near a nuclear reactor, are absorbed through the lungs, migrating to the fatty tissues of the body, including the abdominal fat pad and upper thighs, near the reproductive organs. These radioactive elements, which emit high-energy gamma radiation, can mutate the genes in the eggs and sperm and cause genetic disease.

Tritium, another biologically significant gas, is also routinely emitted from nuclear reactors. Tritium is composed of three atoms of hydrogen, which combine with oxygen, forming radioactive water, which is absorbed through the skin, lungs and digestive system. It is incorporated into the DNA molecule, where it is mutagenic.

The dire subject of massive quantities of radioactive waste accruing at the 442 nuclear reactors across the world is also rarely, if ever, addressed by the nuclear industry. Each typical 1000-megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 33tonnes of thermally hot, intensely radioactive waste per year.

Already more than 80,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste sits in cooling pools next to the 103 US nuclear power plants, awaiting transportation to a storage facility yet to be found. This dangerous material will be an attractive target for terrorist sabotage as it travels through 39 states * roads and railway lines for the next 25 years.

But the long-term storage of radioactive waste continues to pose a problem. The US Congress in 1987 chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada, 150km northwest of Las Vegas, as a repository for America's high-level waste. But Yucca Mountain has subsequently been found to be unsuitable for the long-term storage of high-level waste because it is a volcanic mountain made of permeable pumice stone and it is transected by 32 earthquake faults. Last week a congressional committee discovered fabricated data about water infiltration and cask corrosion in Yucca Mountain that had been produced by personnel in the US Geological Survey. These startling revelations, according to most experts, have almost disqualified Yucca Mountain as a waste repository, meaning that the US now has nowhere to deposit its expanding nuclear waste inventory.

To make matters worse, a study released last week by the National Academy of Sciences shows that the cooling pools at nuclear reactors, which store 10 to 30 times more radioactive material than that contained in the reactor core, are subject to catastrophic attacks by terrorists, which could unleash an inferno and release massive quantities of deadly radiation -- significantly worse than the radiation released by Chernobyl, according to some scientists.

This vulnerable high-level nuclear waste contained in the cooling pools at 103 nuclear power plants in the US includes hundreds of radioactive elements that have different biological impacts in the human body, the most important being cancer and genetic diseases.

The incubation time for cancer is five to 50 years following exposure to radiation. It is important to note that children, old people and immuno-compromised individuals are many times more sensitive to the malignant effects of radiation than other people.

I will describe four of the most dangerous elements made in nuclear power plants.

Iodine 131, which was released at the nuclear accidents at Sellafield in Britain, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile Island in the US, is radioactive for only six weeks and it bio-concentrates in leafy vegetables and milk. When it enters the human body via the gut and the lung, it migrates to the thyroid gland in the neck, where it can later induce thyroid cancer. In Belarus more than 2000 children have had their thyroids removed for thyroid cancer, a situation never before recorded in pediatric literature.

Strontium 90 lasts for 600 years. As a calcium analogue, it concentrates in cow and goat milk. It accumulates in the human breast during lactation, and in bone, where it can later induce breast cancer, bone cancer and leukemia.

Cesium 137, which also lasts for 600 years, concentrates in the food chain, particularly meat. On entering the human body, it locates in muscle, where it can induce a malignant muscle cancer called a sarcoma.

Plutonium 239, one of the most dangerous elements known to humans, is so toxic that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic. More than 200kg is made annually in each 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant. Plutonium is handled like iron in the body, and is therefore stored in the liver, where it causes liver cancer, and in the bone, where it can induce bone cancer and blood malignancies. On inhalation it causes lung cancer. It also crosses the placenta, where, like the drug thalidomide, it can cause severe congenital deformities. Plutonium has a predisposition for the testicle, where it can cause testicular cancer and induce genetic diseases in future generations. Plutonium lasts for 500,000 years, living on to induce cancer and genetic diseases in future generations of plants, animals and humans.

Plutonium is also the fuel for nuclear weapons -- only 5kg is necessary to make a bomb and each reactor makes more than 200kg per year. Therefore any country with a nuclear power plant can theoretically manufacture 40 bombs a year.

Because nuclear power leaves a toxic legacy to all future generations, because it produces global warming gases, because it is far more expensive than any other form of electricity generation, and because it can trigger proliferation of nuclear weapons, these topics need urgently to be introduced into the tertiary educational system of Australia, which is host to 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the world's richest uranium.

Helen Caldicott is an anti-nuclear campaigner and founder and president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, which warns of the danger of nuclear energy.

Australia's Northern Territory Environment Centre - one of the key collaborators in the former Movement against Uranium Mining (MAUM) - has declared its oppostion to plans for a new uranium mine in Western Australia.

Environmentalists to campaign against new uranium mine

21 March 2005

The Northern Territory Environment Centre is campaigning against plans by a Western Australian mining company to develop a new uranium mine in central Australia.

The Deep Yellow company announced plans last week to conduct tests for uranium at Napperby Station, 150 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.

But the Environment Centre's Peter Robertson says no more uranium mines should be established in the Territory after recent contamination problems in Kakadu.

"I mean we've got enough trouble in the Territory dealing with the one we have at the moment, the Ranger uranium mine," he said.

"That's caused enormous problems over many years, it's still an unresolved issue.

"There's going to be a huge cleanup job at Ranger that's going to have to be conducted over the next five to 10 years and we believe that to open another uranium mine in this situation would be totally irresponsible."

The managing director of Deep Yellow, James Pratt, says any mine at the site would be subject to federal and territory government approvals.

He says the company would not go ahead with the plan without community support.

"If we do end up mining we would want that to be of benefit to the local community and to central Australia and we would want to consult with anybody who is involved with the process," Mr Pratt said.

Lethal Legacies

Although the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) claims to have "cleaned up" most mill tailings wastes from uranium mines in the US, this is far from true of one major minesite in Utah, let alone the former USSR. Northern Tajikstan, in central Asia, is just one of the news where people are in peril and houses continue to be built on - even use - uranium wastes.


International War & Peace Reporting (IWPR, London)

Reporting Central Asia Bulletin No.394, July 2005

Years after uranium mining ended in northern Tajikistan, people are waking up to the threat posed by radioactive waste.

By Daler Hamidov (pseudonym of a journalist in Khujand).

Over a decade after uranium mining ended in Tajikistan, the country is finally facing up to its nuclear legacy. Specialists estimate that almost 55 million tonnes of uranium waste lie buried across the north of the country, posing a major ecological threat.

Specialists from Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Germany met on July 3-5 for an international conference on the nuclear hazard, held in Kairakkum in the north of Tajikistan. The meeting was a follow-up to the Bishkek Declaration of 2003, which seeks to address the problem of nuclear waste across Central Asia.

Kasym Kasimov, the governor of the northern Sogd region, opened the conference by recalling how uranium mining began in northern Tajikistan as well as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1942. In May 1945, as the Second World War drew to a close, the USSR's feared security chief Lavrenti Beria took charge of a new agency called Vostokredmet – still in existence - to mine uranium which was later used to create the first Soviet atom bomb.

For the next 50 years, uranium mining and processing took place in three areas in northern Tajikistan: Chkalovsk, Taboshar and Adrasman. Waste produced by the mines and factories was buried in a network of radioactive dumps in the Tajik part of the Fergana valley.

Conference delegates visited all the waste dumps in Sogd region, which are estimated to contain 54.8 million tonnes of radioactive material.

The waste is not highly active, but it could remain harmful for hundreds of years. Making it safe would require the kind of technology Tajikistan just does not possess.

"Tajikistan does not have the resources needed to solve this problem," Kasymov told delegates. "No country can solve this kind of problem alone."

In 2003, experts from Russia's nuclear ministry investigated the state of radioactive waste dumps in Tajikistan and passed its conclusions to Vostokredmet, whose role is now to monitor radiation levels and the effect on the environment.

Vostokredmet director Zafar Razikov told IWPR, "Over the past few years specialists from the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] have come to Sogd region four times. Several evaluation projects were undertaken with the Russian nuclear ministry, but neither Russia nor Tajikistan have the necessary funds to go forward. At present, Vostokredmet can only monitor the situation. Around 10-15 million US dollars would be needed to make any progress."

Ecologists have been warning that because many dumps and disused mines lie close to a major Central Asian waterway, the river Syr Darya, any natural or manmade disaster could produce an ecological catastrophe right across the region.

At the conference, Razykov confirmed that radioactive waste could indeed be washed into the river. For example, dumps outside the village of Dehmai, which lies only nine kilometres from the water, hold over 36 million tonnes of waste, some of it brought in from Kyrgyzstan.

Hotam Muratazoev, head of the non-government group Ecology and Scientific and Technical Progress, raised the case of a radioactive dump in Degmai, which has remained unguarded for over ten years even though it holds over two million tonnes of waste. In winter, the pit foundations fill up with water, and this produces material which then dries into radioactive dust during the summer, he said.

This dust settles over residential areas of Chkalovsk, a town near the regional capital Khujand. Local experts in Khujand say that in some surrounding areas, background radiation is over 80 microroentgens per hour - way above the Tajik official safety level of 57 microreoentgens per hour. Background radiation is even higher closer to the old mines, where experts say there are levels of 1,000 microroentgens per hour.

Unaware of the terrible dangers posed by uranium waste, people continue to build houses and plant gardens next to the dumps. The government's agency for civil defence and emergencies recorded the case of a family in the village of Adrasan whose yard is located almost on top of a dumping pit, exposing them to radiation levels in excess of 500 microroentgens per hour.

Only one kilometre outside the village of Taboshar, six million tonnes of waste lie in three dumps. Ecologists say that the dumps are insufficiently covered over, and material from them is washed into a nearby creek which locals use for drinking water.

Mahmadullo Teshaev, a resident of Taboshar, told IWPR that his son was among several children who used to play next to a mine where uranium was once mined.

"There were no warning signs there and no guards and we had no idea of the danger," he said. "My son was six years old then, and now he is 15 and seriously ill - he has osteomalacia [softness of the bones] and anaemia and doctors have said that he will never be able to father a child."

Muratzoev told the conference that poor security at the disused mines allows thieves to steal old bits of railway track, reinforced concrete and metals, and sell them on as construction materials at markets. This means that houses and other buildings are now being made out of radioactive materials.

Vadim Ostroborodov, representing Russia's nuclear ministry, appealed for international funding to help the Tajiks. "Tajikistan can't deal with this problem alone," he said. "In Kyrgyzstan, land restoration is currently under way in the Lake Issyk-Kul area, with funding from the United States. Funds should also be allocated to Tajikistan."

Geophysicist Richard Knapp from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which co-sponsored the conference together with Vostokredmet, said, "Radiation does not recognise time or borders. But the bulk of this problem is on the territory of Tajikistan. You have major technical knowledge and experience at Vostokredmet, and there is support for solving problems." He said that the United States ambassador to Tajikistan, Richard Hoagland, had expressed an interest in the radioactive waste issue, but that past experience shows that the World Bank is the most likely funder of land restoration projects.

In Utah desert, tons of uranium waste sit near Colorado River.

Dilemas of disposal

TRAVIS REED, Associated Press

March 25, 2005

MOAB, Utah - The engineers here call the worst stuff "slime," and they've got about 6 million tons of it.

For decades, no one even knew there was anything wrong with it - here, in a remote southeastern corner of Utah marked by stunning red rock cliffs, or in any of the other places where the age of The Bomb turned sleepy dustburgs into uranium mining boomtowns in the 1950s.

But now, this facility is the only decommissioned uranium mill overseen by the Department of Energy that hasn't yet been cleaned up, despite falling under the jurisdiction of three different federal agencies that have produced hundreds of pounds of paperwork over more than 50 years.

Energy officials are poised to decide what to do with this waste, sitting in a floodplain, 750 feet from the banks of the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to an estimated 25 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities throughout the Southwest.

A chain-link fence checkered with biohazard warnings and "no trespassing" signs surrounds a ramshackle metal building and about 12 million tons of nuclear waste on the old mill site - all that remains of what once was the best thing to happen to this region.

Now, it's one of the greatest sources of fear. The waste has given rise to sharp debate over what should be done with the remains of uranium ore processing, which contain potentially deadly chemicals like ammonia, residual uranium and radon, which can cause lung cancer and leukemia and won't decay for thousands of years.

"The pile has a lot of fluid in it from treatment," said Dianne Nielson, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "All of those contaminants just leak out of the bottom of the pile right into the shallow groundwater. It leaks right into and under the river, and into wetlands on the south side of the river."

Scientists on both sides of the issue are at odds over how likely it is for flooding to damage the site, how the river has changed since waste began piling up in the 1950s and even how dangerous current contamination is.

The site is the Department of Energy's responsibility, and the agency in November outlined four plans for it - three of them moving the waste by truck, rail or pipeline and burying it somewhere else, the other leaving it on the river and covering it with dirt and rocks so it's no longer exposed.

The fourth option would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less than hauling the pile somewhere else, but the notion riles opponents - including Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state's congressional delegation and scores of activists who say it's environmentally unconscionable.

Don Metzler, who manages the site out of the Energy Department's Grand Junction office, said he expects the agency to make a decision sometime this summer. Meanwhile, no one in the department is tipping their hand over what might finally come of the waste.

"I understand these concerns. This site has particular high interest among lots and lots of people," Metzler said.

The DOE, Metzler said, is considering several factors - economic, environmental and political - as it mulls a final decision. But the agency has insisted there's no risk the waste would face catastrophic collapse even in the biggest probable flood if it were covered.

Though no final decision has been made and that's only one of several choices, the fact that it's even being considered has spawned strong opposition. The fear is that a big Colorado River swell rushing through the desert would swallow the poisonous pile, pushing it into a freshwater supply that flows hundreds through the Southwest on its way to the sea.

"I don't think the people of California would ever forgive us, ever forgive the Department of Energy," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Metzler and other site officials on a recent visit to the pile.

The pile covers 130 acres and contains about 12 million tons of dirt and waste. The worst of the waste - about half - is sandy and purplish, and fills in an earthen berm made of less radioactive dirt, left over from uranium processing, like a jelly doughnut.

Uranium mining boomed in Utah after 1952, when a deep bed of ore near Moab was struck. The industry collapsed in 1962, and the Uranium Reduction Co. sold its mill in 1962 to Denver-based Atlas Corp., which ran it sporadically until declaring bankruptcy in 1998 - after realizing the company couldn't afford to clean up the site.

All decommissioned mills are the responsibility of the Energy Department, but this one took a circuitous path. Most of the sites were transferred to the DOE by congressional order in 1978, but since this one was still processing small amounts of uranium, it was not included. The DOE finally took control of the site in 2001 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - part of the reason it remains while all the other sites are already taken care of.

Three sites located 17, 28 and 85 miles from the waste have been proposed as new homes for it. The cost estimates range from $407 million to $543 million, depending on whether truck, rail or pipeline is chosen to move it.

Simply capping the pile and leaving it in place would cost just $249 million.

The DOE is required to take public comments on the plans released in November, and received about 1,600. An overwhelming majority favored transporting the waste, Metzler said.

Nielson said that besides flood danger, leaving the waste in place and capping it doesn't protect the river from groundwater contamination, which is already killing fish. If the waste were taken away, it would be buried inside a hole lined with clay and then covered, better sealing it, she said.

Metzler acknowledges that some of the waste is seeping through groundwater into the river, but said DOE tests have shown it dissipates within a half-mile downstream.

"Nobody's at risk," he said. "Nonetheless, I consider that any contaminants getting into the river is something that no one wants."

The EPA has joined the chorus of other agencies against leaving the pile in place, reporting in a letter to the Energy Department the option would be "environmentally unsatisfactory."

Metzler concedes it would be hard to sell the public on keeping the waste where it is, but insists the DOE is on solid scientific ground in considering it.

"We think that (the pile) could be protected if one would choose to do that," he said.

Metzler pointed to an early-1980s flood that brought the Colorado 4 feet high on the pile, but didn't sweep the waste into the river.

"When the waters come out of the bank in a huge flood, the velocities are very low - almost like a big swimming pool. There's not that much erosion," he said.

But Sarah Fields, a Moab resident who's followed the issue and advocated moving the pile since the early 1990s, said that flood is a small demonstration of what the river could do - and the next time, the 25 million people who get water from it might not be so lucky.

Even worse, she says, is that the true health effects of the pile might not be known for years.

"That's the problem with radiation exposure. Sometimes it takes so long for any physical reaction," she said.

Either way the DOE goes in the coming months, the decision must be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Though Congress has no direct oversight, Utah's delegation is expected to try to leverage congressional authority over DOE funding to get the waste moved.

In the meantime, pressure building for more than a decade continues from environmentalists and state officials on the same issue Nielson tackled when she took over as head of environmental issues in Utah in 1993.

"That's the discouraging point," she said. "After all these years, we're just finally here."

Meanwhile, on the border between the USA and Mexcio, what one Mexican journalist has called "Our Chernobyl" is being played out at the risk of lives of thousands of Mexicans. It's potentially the worst example of the illegal cross-border transport of nuclear "scrap" - in this case deadly gamma-radiated nuclear scrap containing Cobalt-50, which has already been used in public buildings and shopping malls.

Discovery of Radioactive Scrap near Border Begs Proper Burial

By Talli Nauman, Americas Program, International Relations Center (IRC)

August 05, 2005

Lurking in the dunes along the highway just 50 kilometers south of the U.S.-Mexico border city area of El Paso - Ciudad Juárez are heaps of uncontained radioactive waste. The secret in the desert sands recently was revealed by Mexican nuclear physicist Bernardo Salas Mar, a former employee of the federal atomic power plant in Veracruz state who was fired after publicly disclosing its radioactive contamination of the Gulf of Mexico.

Salas, now a professor at the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM), investigated the border public health threat in cooperation with the rural residents of the municipality of Samalayuca, adjacent to Ciudad Juárez, in the northern state of Chihuahua. His field research turned up four mounds of metal scraps, each about six cubic meters in size, exposed to wind and water. The radiological inspection determined that the risk of radiation contamination in the human food chain from this abandoned site warranted protective measures.

Salas, not an anti-nuclear activist but a proponent of safe use of nuclear technology, recommended such drastic measures as burial of the waste and a fence around it. The Sociedad Española de Protección Radiológica (Radiological Protection Society of Spain) has invited him to present his findings at its upcoming tenth national congress.

But like so many other prophets in their own lands, Salas encountered colleagues' unwillingness to admit the results of his work in Mexico. Three domestic institutions similar to the one in Spain refused to accept his conclusions at their congresses.

The Sociedad Mexicana de Seguridad Radiológica and the Sociedad Nuclear Mexicana, told him the rejection was because he hadn't sought permission to enter the abandoned lot where the waste is located. The Sociedad Mexicana de Física would not answer his written request for its reasons.

The location is on top of the burial grounds of other waste from what Chihuahua journalist Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez calls the worst nuclear disaster of this hemisphere, "Our Chernobyl." That is the fiasco that began 21 years ago in 1984 when guards at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories near Santa Fe, New Mexico, detected a truckload of rebar from Old Mexico contaminated by radioactive Cobalt-60.

It is a twisted tale typical of the bi-national boundary line's environmental predicament. A U.S. gamma radiation chamber sent illegally to Mexico was scrapped in Ciudad Juarez with other metal, which it contaminated. The contaminated metal was made into the rebar and shipped for sale in the United States. Only then was it discovered to be dangerously radioactive, and it was returned to Mexico for confinement.

The defunct state-run Aceros de Chihuahua foundry made the rebar by recycling material obtained at the Yonke Fenix. The Ciudad Juarez junkyard is now famous because among the objects it received for resale was the gamma radiation chamber with pellets of Cobalt-60 that the most expensive private hospital in the city had acquired as contraband from a U.S. supplier.

U.S. importers of the resulting rebar were located. The rebar in the United States was carted back to Mexico for burial. But south of the border many shipments of recycled metal that different foundries made with the contaminated scrap from the Fenix junkyard were delivered and never recovered for interment.

Perhaps the waste mounds that Salas verified are a miniscule part of what somehow was picked up around the country.

Meanwhile, the radioactive construction material remains in at least half the states in Mexico. Millions of people are being exposed to the elevated radiation from the rebar in more than 17,000 shopping centers and public buildings, according to conservative estimates. The harm, in terms of cancer and mutations, to this and future generations is incalculable.

As the world reflects on the tragedy of radiation damage from the atomic bomb explosions' destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago during the first week of August, the less obvious calamity of the Cobalt-60 contamination in Mexico also continues.

The least society can do is admit to the mounds at Samalayuca and procure a proper burial at the site.

Talli Nauman is a program associate at the Americas Program of the International Relations Center (online at She originally published this opinion in her weekly column at The Herald Mexico, based at El Universal in Mexico City, as part of her independent media project Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, which she initiated with support from the MacArthur Foundation.

Recommended citation:
Talli Nauman, “Discovery of Radioactive Scrap near Border Begs Proper Burial,” IRC Americas Program (Silver City, NM: International Relations Center, August 5, 2005).
Web location:

The deadly afterthought

For decades uranium has been also extracted from gold, coal and copper deposits (South Africa being a prime example). In these cases, stringent safeguards which should be observed at primary uranium mines have often been ignored. Bob Boyce describes the consequences of such dereliction for Paiute Tribal members of a reservation in northern Nevada.

The Paiute Mining Disaster

by Bob Boyce

The Yerington Anaconda Mine in northern Nevada was one of the world's largest producers of copper from 1953 to 2000. Today, nearby residents complain the defunct site is a major polluter. The Yerington Paiute Tribe's (YPT) Campbell Ranch Reservation is barely three miles north, downwind from the 3,500-acre mining property and squarely in the path of any contaminants that might leave the mine.

Several owners and tenants operated the mine over the years, including the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), which purchased Anaconda's interest in 1977 (and was itself later swallowed up by British Petroleum). When the bankrupt operator, Arimetco, walked away from the project in 2000, it left everything as it was, including millions of gallons of waste solutions in evaporation ponds and processing chemicals in miles of pipelines and storage drums. The tribe met firm resistance from authorities when it asked for the site to be included on the National Priorities List (NPL) for Superfund status. City and county leaders pointed out fears of decreased property values and stigma.

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn said in 2001, "While we can all agree that there is localized contamination at the site, we fail to see any scientific evidence that tribal resources are threatened, or have been adversely impacted." With the requested Superfund status circumvented, Governor Guinn put the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) in charge of site remediation.

After two years, the first barrels of chemicals were removed from the site. It was another year before the first work plan was approved for the processing area, but basic site evaluations are still underway.

The YPT had long suspected uranium was on the mine site and that it may have polluted a nearby river and local irrigation ditches. Both ARCO and NDEP discounted the possibility until the summer of 2003, when documents were located that described Anaconda's processing of yellowcake on the site in 1976. Eventually, tests of about 30 wells to the north of the mine site revealed that nine had "elevated levels" of uranium above drinking water standards. A U.S. Geological Survey test of the site in 1978 established high levels of many heavy metals (including uranium and thorium) in evaporation and tailing ponds, but it did not test groundwater.

NDEP, ARCO and local officials said there was no evidence that high levels of uranium in off-site wells came from the mine. "Their position is totally against what we know," says YPT Chairman Wayne Garcia. "There were high levels of uranium in the ponds found on the site in the 1978 survey. High levels of other heavy metals in those ponds were confirmed to be in the groundwater below the site. Did somehow the uranium stay behind?"

High winds have also been blowing over the site and toward the reservation for decades. Undefined red dust has found its way into attics of reservation homes, many of which were built on top of fill dirt and tailings from the mine.

Governor Guinn has reportedly agreed to reconsider his position, but he remains insistent that "things have been accomplished" and that NDEP can do the job. But a fractious meeting of all interested parties last August revealed considerable unhappiness with NDEP's stewardship.

BP of America has thus far been silent, but its subsidiary ARCO publicly demanded last year that the federal Bureau of Land Management, which has coordinated hazardous waste cleanup with the state, end its involvement in the dispute. "That action in and of itself speaks volumes about BP's and ARCO's intentions regarding this site," says Garcia.

Contact: Yerington Paiute Tribe

Canada hosts the world's highest-grade uranium deposits. The Inter-Church (inter-denominational) Uranium Committee has campaigned against uranium mining in general since the 1970s. Earlier this year, its compelling arguments that wastes from the McClean Lake mine were being negligently "contained", was arbitrarily dismissed by the country's Supreme Court. Mining Watch Canada declares this to be a disgraceful sop paid to the powerful uranium industry, marking a threat for generations to come

ICUCEC Refused Leave to Appeal McClean Lake Court Case

Mining Watch Canada Bulletin, April, 2005

The decision not to grant leave for the Inter-Church Uranium Committee Educational Cooperative (IUCEC) to appeal its case to the Supreme Court of Canada represents a hollow victory for the nuclear industry, vindication for ICUCEC and a dark day for the environment and for present and future generations.

ICUCEC originally took Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), now known as Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), to court for its failure to follow proper procedures in the granting of licenses with respect to the McClean Lake JEB Uranium Tailings Pit. Cogema, now known as Areva, was sufficiently concerned that they sought intervernor and party status in the court case. After meticulous scrutiny by the Federal Court Trial Division ICUCEC won its case.

AECB and Cogema responded by seeking a stay on the decision pending an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal. Cogema also endeavored to secure its operation by applying for a new license in the event the original license was illegal. The Appeal Court hearing was held in Calgary. The environmental and health issues were obfuscated by economic issues resulting in overturning the original lower court decision. Hence, ICUCEC applied for leave to take the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court without written reasons denied leave to ICUCEC.

Although the court has brought legal closure to this case, the tribunal of mother nature is still ongoing. The next decade or so will bear witness to the devastation in Northern Saskatchewan from the McClean Lake JEB Uranium Tailings Pit, which was the focus of the court case.

Eventually the ground water contamination from the uranium tailings (including arsenic, radium & heavy metals ) will contaminate large areas in the north and south, reaching out to the seas. This will add to the radioactive and chemical pollution buildup worldwide causing a sharp increase in genetic damage, more cancers and neurological disorders among human and non-human populations. We are leaving a shameful nuclear and toxic legacy to our children and grandchildren and to their children for generations to come.

ICUCEC has been vindicated for its many years of hard work. Not only does it prove its contention that Canadian laws are grossly inadequate to protect the health of people and the environment but the courts have essentially gutted existing weak Canadian environmental laws. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is a sieve, full of holes. It is just like the JEB Pit which is nothing but a giant hole in porous sandstone that is supposed to forever contain radioactive and poisonous uranium wastes.

Neither the Act nor the pit offers protection for the public or the environment. Indeed the Court decision is a green light for the further weakening of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the manner in which CNSC monitors, regulates and grants licenses to the nuclear industry. The higher courts have yet again ruled in favor of the politically powerful uranium and nuclear industry. Their victory comes at the expense of the environment and present and future generations.

The very fact that ICUCEC had to go to court was due to the fact that our politicians failed to fulfill their responsibilities. Politicians need to wake up and do their job and enact better laws and demand higher standards. The fact that ICUCEC won its case at the Federal Court Trial Division not only shows that the issues at stake are serious and not frivolous but that better environmental laws and stringent inspection are an absolute necessity. The people of Saskatchewan need to wake up and demand better protection and accountability by politicians, the regulators, and the industry.

ICUCEC has used all legal mechanism at its disposal: the Enviromental Assessment processes, the licensing hearing processes and the courts. Its attempts to protect present and future generations from a toxic future failed because the legal means available are weak. As we look to the future ICUCEC will be exploring other peaceful alternatives to continue its work for environmental justice. Now that the legal case is over ICUCEC intends to go on retreat, to fast, pray and seek wisdom.

While uranium was not recognised for its unprecedented energy potential until the discovery of nuclear fission in the twentieth century, for hundreds of years it was dug up in the form of pitchblende. During roughly the same period it was also extracted along with tin, and used as glazing for porcelain - especially in the South West of England, source of the world's largest china clay deposits. (There is historical evidence that many who used these uranium oxide-based glazes succumbed to cancer of the mouth and fingers).

Even where uranium is not mined for its own sake - or as a byproduct - its exposure through underground excavations leads inevitably to a major increase in alpha-emitting radon gas, with potentially deadly consequences for miners and those living on the surface.

Now, a new initiative under the aegis of the WHO will examine ways of combatting the dangers of "natural" radon ionization. Whether the study will examine the linkages with uranium mining (past and present) remains to be seen.

Twenty Countries Act to Repel Deadly Radioactive Radon Gas

June 22, 2005

Environmental News Service (ENS)

GENEVA, Switzerland - Exposure to a natural radioactive gas in the home and workplace causes tens of thousands of deaths from lung cancer each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday. Recent results from the largest radon studies ever conducted in North America and Europe show six to 15 percent of all lung cancers are caused by exposure to the gas.

Smokers have something else to worry about besides the health effects of tobacco. For them, exposure to the radon that may permeate homes or offices, poses a risk of lung cancer 25 times greater than for non-smokers.

"Radon poses an easily reducible health risk to populations all over the world, but has not up to now received widespread attention," said Dr. Mike Repacholi, coordinator of WHO's Radiation and Environmental Health Unit.

"Radon is all around us. Radon in our homes is the main source of exposure to ionizing radiation, and accounts for 50 percent of the public's exposure to naturally occurring sources of radiation in many countries," Dr. Repacholi said.

To cut the risk of lung cancer for smokers and non-smokers alike, the World Health Organization (WHO) Tuesday announced that 20 countries have joined with the agency in a new project that will identify effective strategies for reducing the health impact of radon.

The project is initially expected to run for three years - 2005-2007. As a first step, the WHO International Radon Project is setting up a global network of radon scientists, regulators and policy makers to collaborate in the project.

Coordination will be provided by the World Health Organization. Working groups will focus on risk assessment, exposure guidelines, measurement and mitigation of radon levels, investigations of cost-effectiveness, and risk communication.

Based on their findings, WHO will issue guidelines intended to help national authorities develop, promote and strengthen activities at country or regional level.

The WHO fact sheets produced in the course of the project will be uses as communication tools to increase public awareness about radon.

A global radon database and a set of maps for pinpointing radon concentrations will be compiled as part of the project, and improved global estimates of the disease burden associated with radon will be calculated.

Overall, together with global tobacco control activities and initiatives on healthy indoor air, the project is expected to be a key step towards reducing lung cancer risk worldwide, WHO says.

Radon is a chemically inert, naturally occurring radioactive gas without odor, color or taste that emanates from the ground into the air. Radon gas in the air is present worldwide, its concentration depending on the variable uranium content of the soil.

Radon is produced from radium in the decay chain of uranium, an element found in varying amounts in all rocks and soil. Radon gas escapes easily from the ground into the air and emits ionizing radiation called alpha particles. These particles are electrically charged and attach to aerosols, dust and other particles in the air we breathe.

As a result, radon progeny may be deposited on the cells lining the airways where the alpha particles can damage the DNA and potentially cause lung cancer.

Radon exposure is the second most important risk factor for lung cancer, after tobacco smoking, causing between six and 15 percent of all cases. Yet, there is little public awareness of radon as a threat to human health, or the fact that can be mitigated with relatively simple measures.

The increased risk of lung cancer as a result of high radon exposure has been investigated in detail, and substantiated in many studies of uranium miners. Based on these studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO agency specializing in cancer, and the U.S. National Toxicology Programme have classified radon as a human carcinogen.

Pooled analyses of key studies in Europe, North America and China have confirmed that radon in homes "contributes substantially to the occurrence of lung cancers worldwide," WHO said. The pooling studies all agree on the magnitude of the risk estimates that run from six to 15 percent.

"This analysis, based on the largest radon data set assembled in North America, agrees with a similar large-scale radon pooled analysis performed concurrently in Europe," said R. William Field, Ph.D. The University of Iowa associate professor of occupational and environmental health and epidemiology is a co-author of the study, which is reported in the March 2005 issue of the journal "Epidemiology."

He was part of an international team of researchers who performed the combined analysis of the original residential radon studies, conducted in Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Utah and South Idaho, as well as in Winnipeg, Canada. The original studies were funded from several federal sources, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute.

The investigators' review of 3,662 cases and 4,966 controls from these combined studies represents the largest analytic radon epidemiologic study ever performed in North America.

"The North American and European pooling provides unambiguous and direct evidence of an increased lung cancer risk even at residential radon exposure levels below the U.S. EPA's action level," Field said in March.

The concentration of radon in a home depends on the amount of uranium producing the radon in the underlying rocks and soils as well as the routes available for its passage into the home and the rate of exchange between indoor and outdoor air.

Radon gas enters houses through openings such as cracks at concrete floor-wall junctions, gaps in the floor, small pores in hollow-block walls, and also sumps and drains. Radon levels are usually higher in basements, cellars or other structural areas in contact with soil, and, WHO says, the radon concentrations in houses directly adjacent to each other can be very different.

Radon exposure in homes can be easily mitigated during the construction of new homes, WHO says, but existing buildings can also be protected from radon. Most measures such as increasing under-floor ventilation and sealing cracks and gaps in the floor require simple alterations to the building, but other approaches may have to be taken in areas with high radon concentrations.

The five main ways of reducing the amount of radon accumulating in a house are:

Improving the ventilation of the house and avoiding the transport of radon from the basement into living rooms

Increasing under-floor ventilation

Installing a radon sump system in the basement Sealing floors and walls

Installing a positive pressurization or positive supply ventilation system

Radon safety should be considered when new houses are built, particularly in high radon areas, WHO advises.

In Europe and the United States, the inclusion of protective measures in new buildings has become routine for some builders and in some countries has become a mandatory procedure. Passive systems of mitigation have been shown to be capable of reducing indoor radon levels by up to 50 percent. When radon ventilation fans are added, radon levels can be reduced further.

The International Radon Project intends to issue detailed recommendations on radon risk reduction that will target:

The installation of mitigation devices at the time of construction versus retrofitting

The incorporation of radon prevention and control measures in national building codes

Radon testing, mitigation and inspection of existing passive/active systems at the time of sale for existing homes

Control measures designed for medium and low radon exposure levels, which contribute most to the overall radon lung cancer burden

The role of tobacco smoking in radon risk reduction programmes with a view to the overall goal of healthy indoor air

The use of both voluntary guidelines and enforceable regulations

Financial support mechanisms to assist radon mitigation actions in cases where such support is necessary to allow implementation of effective protection from radon health hazards

The 20 countries on the WHO International Radon Project are: Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, Ukraine, and the USA.

The Million Year Baby

Finally, when uranium has passed from the ground, through the mines and mills, and is burned in nuclear reactors, there remains the even more intractable problem of "storing" or neutralising millions of tonnes of radioactive detritus. Uranium-dependent nations look to the US - as the repository of the largest amount of such wastes - to show how it should be done. But in Argentina (just one example) there isn't even agreement on the standards which should be observed regarding uranium-polluted water .

As the US embarks on a new era of nuclear power plant construction, the ugly truth is that there is no generally-agreed safe solution. The US administration is proposing to create a "facility" on Indigenous territory in the Yucca mountains, Nevada to which wastes will be trucked through no less than 44 states. The US EPA claims the world's most massive radioactive dump will protect future generations from damaging consequences over the next milion years (sic). But the state of Nevada, and many others, are vehemently opposed. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat minority leader in the US Senate calls the proposal "voodoo science", claiming it will lower existring groundwater standards, since the wastes will sit atop vital aquifers.

ARGENTINA: Uranium-Polluted Water Is "Legally Safe to Drink"

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 24 (IPS) - Laboratory testing ordered by an Argentine court concluded that the water consumed by close to a million people living near a nuclear facility is contaminated with uranium and not fit for human consumption.

However, there is every indication that the residents affected will be defeated in the legal proceedings underway for the last five years.

On Wednesday, environmental activists from Greenpeace Argentina dressed up as waiters and attempted to serve "uranium-contaminated" mineral water to Minister of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services Julio de Vido outside the headquarters of the ministry, which oversees the country's nuclear activities.

The issue goes back to 1958, when the Ezeiza Atomic Centre (CAE) -- located 40 kilometres from the Argentine capital and next to the international airport of the same name -- began to bury radioactive waste despite the protests of nearby residents who feared the contamination of the Puelches aquifer, the source of their drinking water.

Argentina has two fully functioning nuclear plants, Atocha I and Embalse, under the direction of the National Atomic Energy Commission and agencies for the development of nuclear technology applied to health care, agriculture and industry. The CAE is one of these agencies.

Despite continued protests, no action was taken until 2000, when a federal prosecutor saw a complaint published in the letters to the editor section of a Buenos Aires newspaper and proceeded to file a suit in the federal court of Judge Alberto Santamarina.

The letter had been written by Valentín Stiglitz, president of the Association Against Environmental Pollution in the Buenos Aires district of Esteban Echeverría.

In his letter to the editor, Stiglitz called attention once again to the danger of uranium contamination of the water from the Puelches aquifer, resulting from the CAE's burial of radioactive waste nearby, a practice that continued until the late 1990s.

Esteban Echeverría, Ezeiza, Montegrande and la Matanza are heavily populated working-class districts of Greater Buenos Aires that have all been affected by the pollution. Claudio Carusso, a member of the Association, told IPS that the number of people endangered is close to one million.

After two years of struggling with the lack of funds to pay for the water to be tested abroad, the judge contracted geologist Fernando Díaz of the University of Buenos Aires to carry out the testing. He submitted his results in late December 2004.

A copy of the study, more than 600 pages in length, was anonymously deposited in the mailbox of the Esteban Echeverría headquarters of the Association, said Carusso, which is how the local residents learned of its results.

The study determined "the existence of significant contamination from the activities of the Ezeiza Atomic Centre, which affected the underground water in the region to a degree that prevents it from being suitable for drinking by humans."

Díaz concluded that the water in 74 percent of the 46 wells tested was not fit for drinking, with uranium concentrations of between 50 and 80 micrograms per litre.

Two other radioactive agents, radon and strontium, were also detected, along with nitrate levels far greater than those permitted for human consumption.

When the study was made public, it prompted a reaction from the Argentine Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ARN), which is responsible for monitoring activities in the industry. A statement released by ARN ensured that regular testing was carried out in the area around the atomic centre, and the results "comply with Argentine standards in this respect."

ARN also stated that the proportion of uranium in the water also met World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, and that the drinking water in the region was therefore "radiologically fit for human consumption.

This point constitutes the crux of the issue, noted Carusso. The WHO establishes 15 micrograms of uranium per litre of water as the maximum for human consumption. But Argentina's hazardous waste legislation sets the threshold at 100 micrograms per litre.

"The ARN protects itself by saying that the levels are within legal limits, despite the maximum amounts allowed by the WHO and by many other countries, which are between 20 and 25 micrograms per litre," said Carusso. "Obviously, the law needs to be changed."

Local residents are also angered by the fact that the judge failed to take precautionary measures once he was in possession of the test results. "On the contrary, it seems that they did everything possible to keep the study from getting out," said Carusso.

Judge Santamarina's secretary, Guillermo González, told IPS that preventative measures were in fact ordered. However, he failed to specify what these measures were, and merely referred to a copy of a one-page press release prepared by the court, which also leaves out any details of the purported measures, as he himself admitted.

The communique states that "the testing that reports the presence of radioactive elements in the underground water is preliminary," and that "complementary measures" had been requested from a team of specialists in various disciplines, who were to draft a counter-report.

The court also forwarded Díaz's study to the Ministry of Health (which oversees the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources) and to the corresponding provincial authorities in Buenos Aires, "for any health-related efforts that may eventually be entailed."

Environmental Secretary Atilio Savino said he was "not worried", because the ARN had established that the complaints were unfounded.

Dozens of environmental organisations are backing the campaign waged by the residents of Esteban Echeverría, and will be taking part on Apr. 1 in a demonstration aimed at drawing attention to the issue and demanding the adoption of measures to protect the public from the pollution.

Juan Carlos Villalonga, the director of campaigns at Greenpeace Argentina, commented to IPS that "the battle between the interests of the health of the citizens and the nuclear industry is very uneven." He also admitted that he is afraid the ruling in the trial currently underway will go against the local residents.

Villalonga maintained that even if the exact concentrations of uranium are not known, it is still obvious that the water is highly toxic and harmful to human health.

When Argentina set the maximum allowable limit for uranium at 100 micrograms per litre of water, it based its decision on the legislation used in Canada, a country with significant natural deposits of this heavy metal, Villalonga said.

However, Canada subsequently lowered the limit to 20 micrograms, while Argentina kept it at 100.

"Argentina's legislation is outdated, and is designed to shelter a dirty industry," he said. Unfortunately, though, it is still the law of the land, and will most likely lead to defeat for the victims of uranium contamination.

Million Year Yucca Mountain Safety Standards Proposed

August 9, 2005

Environmental News Service (ENS)

WASHINGTON, DC, - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing public health standards for the planned high-level radioactive waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada that the agency says will protect public health for one million years. If built, the facility would contain 77,000 tons of nuclear waste from U.S. nuclear power plants and weapons production facilities across the country.

The EPA issued standards in 2001 that are supposed to protect the public from the nation's highly radioactive waste for 10,000 years. The standards proposed today retain and add to these original standards issued in 2001.

The new standards are required as the result of a July 2004 ruling by the DC Court of Appeals in a lawsuit brought by the state of Nevada. The court ruled that the EPA's original standards did not conform to those recommended by the National Academy of Sciences as Congress mandates in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The Academy said the most dangerous peak radiation levels from nuclear waste isotopes would persist for 300,000 years.

"It is an unprecedented scientific challenge to develop proposed standards today that will protect the next 25,000 generations of Americans," EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Jeffrey Holmstead said. "EPA met this challenge by using the best available scientific approaches and has issued a standard that will protect public health for a million years."

The EPA says that under the new one million year standards, people living close to the facility would not receive total radiation higher than natural levels of background radiation people experience routinely in other areas of the country.

For the first 10,000 years, the proposed standards: Retain the original 15 millirem of radiation exposure per year individual protection standard. By comparison, 15 millirem is equivalent to the radiation exposure of a passenger who took three coast to coast round trip flights in a year. Ensure that people living near Yucca Mountain are protected to the same level as those living near the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico , currently the only operational deep geologic radioactive waste disposal facility in the U.S.

From 10,000 years up to one million years, the proposed standards: Add a limit of 350 millirem per year. Limit the maximum radiation from the facility so that people living close to Yucca Mountain for a lifetime during the one million year time frame will not receive total radiation any higher than natural levels people currently live with in other areas of the country. The University of California - Davis gives 300 millirem as the average yearly dose of background radiation to which people in the United States are exposed.

U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and Senate Minority Leader, said, "I am astounded that the EPA actually put those recommendations on paper. What the agency released today is nothing more than voodoo science and arbitrary numbers. At the time when the public faces the highest risk of radiation exposure, EPA proposes easing the overall public health standard, including throwing out the groundwater standard."

The EPA states in its new standards document that, "The groundwater protection standards were a subject of the Court decision, were upheld, and are not a subject of today's proposal."

There are two major aquifers beneath Yucca Mountain. Regional ground water in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain is believed to flow generally in a south-southeasterly direction. The DOE plans to build the repository about 300 meters below the surface and about 300 to 500 meters above the water table. Senator Reid is still opposed to the Yucca Mountain project.

"This is the latest attempt by the Bush Administration to ignore sound science and disregard the health and safety of Nevadans, and I vow to continue fighting on behalf of Nevadans against this ill-conceived project."

The EPA will accept written public comment for 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register. The agency will also hold public hearings during the comment period.

But Senator Reid says the public comment period is inadequate. "In addition to risking the health of the public, EPA is also trying to silence voices of opposition by limiting the comment period," he said "It took EPA more than a year to put together this proposal, but the agency is giving the public less than two months to review hundreds of pages of documents and put their concerns on record."

Reid and fellow Nevada Senator John Ensign, a Republican, wrote in a joint letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson on Monday, "The comment period for this proposal must be no less than 180 days." The senators wrote that evaluation of the EPA standard "may depend on assessments in DOE's draft license application that to date DOE has been unwilling to provide. Nevadans may not be in a position to respond fully to the EPA rule until DOE releases this key information."

The Nevada senators reminded Johnson of the EPA's agreement to hold a public hearing in Las Vegas and urged him to attend in person "so that you can hear and see the depth of Nevadans' opposition to a weak radiation standard that does not meet the National Academy of Sciences guidelines, thus needlessly exposing them to public health risks."

Congress authorized three federal agencies to perform different functions related to Yucca Mountain. EPA sets standards to protect human health and safety, and the Yucca Mountain facility will open only if it meets EPA's standards to protect human health and the environment. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for implementing EPA's standards and determining if the Yucca Mountain facility can be safe enough to contain nuclear waste. The Department of Energy owns, constructs, applies for licenses, and will operate the facility, should it be approved.

Under the new proposed standards, the Department of Energy (DOE) is required conduct analyses covering a one million year time frame to assess the potential effects of natural processes or disruptive events that could affect how well Yucca Mountain contains the waste.

These include:
Earthquakes, which could affect the facility tunnels and breakdown of the waste containers
Volcanic activity, which could affect the waste containers directly or cause releases of radionuclides to the environment
Climate change, which could cause increased water flow through the facility, resulting in the release of radionuclides to the environment
Corrosion processes, which could cause breakdown of the waste containers

In its new standards document, the EPA emphasizes how difficult it is to accurately predict what conditions will be like for long periods of time into the future.

"Clearly, we believe that calculations beyond 10,000 years have value, or we would not have previously required DOE to include them in its EIS [environmental impact statement]. However, we also believe that over the very long periods leading up to the time of the peak dose, the uncertainties in projecting climatic and geologic conditions become extremely difficult to reliably predict and a technical consensus about their effects on projected performance in a licensing process would be very difficult, or perhaps impossible, to achieve."

This is one of the major reasons that the 10,000 year time frame was originally selected in the generic standard for land disposal of the types of waste intended for the Yucca Mountain repository, the EPA document explains.

The EPA relies on the concept of "reasonable expectation" to rescue the situation from the dilemma that the uncertainties create - either giving little or no weight to highly uncertain projections as a basis for a licensing decision - or - precluding the possibility of licensing at all.

"We believe that the performance projections at Yucca Mountain, if constructed and interpreted consistent with the concept of "reasonable expectation," can provide useful information on the facility's performance and can form a key part of the basis for a licensing decision," the EPA says.

The agency cites the opinion of National Academy of Sciences in its report, "No analysis of compliance will ever constitute an absolute proof; the objective instead is a reasonable level of confidence in analyses that indicates whether limits established by the standard will be exceeded."

The Yucca Mountain site was approved by Congress and President George W. Bush signed the bill into law in February 2002. However, the site is still opposed by the State of Nevada and the Nevada Congressional delegation.

Plans are to transport the waste by road and rail from the power plants and Department of Defense sites where it is stored through 44 states to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Reid says this is perhaps the most dangerous part of the project. "The Achilles heel of the Yucca Mountain proposal is transportation," the senator says on his website. "The tragic events of September 11, 2001 showed us what terrorists can do. Transporting thousands of shipments across our country would provide thousands of targets for terrorists, and putting the millions of Americans along the transportation routes in danger is irresponsible."

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