Too much haste to nuclear waste

Too much haste to nuclear waste – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

  By Helen Caldicott

Posted Mon Aug 13, 2007 8:25am AEST
Updated Mon Aug 13, 2007 10:57am AEST
Lucas Heights … Govt wants waste to be stored at Muckaty Station in the NT. (File photo)

Lucas Heights … Fed Government wants waste to be stored at Muckaty Station in the NT. (File photo) (Getty Images: Ian Waldie)

Australia is in grave danger. Not only has the Labor Party joined the Coalition’s open-slather uranium mine policy, but the Prime Minister is mooting domestic uranium enrichment, construction of 25 nuclear reactors on the East Coast, storage of foreign radioactive waste in Australia and reprocessing spent radioactive nuclear fuel in a “closed nuclear fuel cycle”.

Interestingly, Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s former company, constructed the railway line between Adelaide and Darwin, now managed by Serco Asia Pacific, a leader in the management and transport of Britain’s nuclear waste. It runs adjacent to both the SA Olympic Dam uranium mine and to Muckaty Station at Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory – the preferred site chosen by the Federal Government to store radioactive waste from Lucas Heights.

This geologically unstable area recently experienced an earthquake measuring 2.5 on the Richter scale and is laced with underground aquifers supplying water to Indigenous populations, to outback towns and numerous stations.

Ominously on June 2, the Liberal Party’s federal council also quietly endorsed a foreign nuclear waste dump for Australia.

Uranium mining, the railway line and the nuclear waste dump are part of a bigger global picture.

The US Department of Energy (DoE) is planning a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to promote a robust future for their nuclear industry. GNEP consists of uranium mining, enrichment, export of fuel rods, return of irradiated rods, reprocessing and construction of generation 1V reactors by selected and trusted countries.

Because of the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation posed by non-nuclear-armed nations with access to nuclear power technology, the DoE plans to control the entire nuclear fuel cycle by exporting enriched uranium fuel rods, and re-importing irradiated nuclear fuel to be reprocessed in the US.

These intensely radioactive rods will be chopped up, dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, and from this intensely radioactive liquid solution plutonium will be extracted to be fissioned in the new “Generation 1V” or fast reactors (200kg of plutonium is generated yearly in a nuclear power plant). Reprocessing is a filthy process which unavoidably exposes both workers and the public to massive amounts of radioactive, biologically dangerous elements such as tritium, and long-lived elements – krypton 85, carbon 14, iodine 129 and technetium 99.

Generation 1V reactors deemed “passively safe” will be fuelled by five to 15 tonnes of plutonium cooled by liquid sodium, a highly reactive and explosive material when exposed to air. If the coolant pipes break, the sodium would burn, triggering a massive spontaneous nuclear explosion scattering tonnes of plutonium to the four winds because only two to three kg of plutonium is critical mass. (Less than one millionth of a gram of plutonium is carcinogenic and it has a half life of 24,000 years – radioactive for 500,000 years).

Generation 1V reactors are hailed as part of a closed loop process because the plutonium can be “transmuted” into shorter-lived fission products such as strontium 90 and cesium 137 that only last 600 years, instead of 500,000 years while at the same time generating electricity. But this is a vacuous plan because only 10 per cent of the plutonium is converted to fission products while 90 per cent remains. This deadly radioactive mixture then must be cooled, transported, stored and isolated from the environment virtually forever at enormous expense.

Only China, France, Japan and Russia are included in the US GNEP plan, but clearly Australia is involved as John Howard is about to repeal federal legislation banning uranium enrichment, nuclear power and the reprocessing of spent fuel in Australia.

The question which begs an answer is this: GNEP is to be handled only by politically stable countries, but given the radiological life and proliferation properties of plutonium, how long can political stability be guaranteed?

Dr Helen Caldicott is the founder and president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, headquartered in Washington, DC. She has devoted the last 35 years to an international campaign to educate the public about the medical hazards of the nuclear age and the necessary changes in human behaviour to stop environmental destruction. This piece was first published in The Courier-Mail on August 8.

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