Ecologists remind European parliamentarians of nuclear power’s irredeemable future

Last October 7, Greenpeace parked two containers with four samples of radioactive waste in front of two entrances to the European Parliament building in Brussels. The action was organised in order to remind Members of the European Parliament, before their last plenary session, that there is no solution to the problem of nuclear and radioactive waste. This had to be done before the new European Union (EU) Directive on Nuclear Waste was put on the parliamentarians’ desks for their consideration.

Four orders of waste? Coming up

Two specially qualified Greenpeace employees delivered two lead-and-concrete containers with four samples of radioactive waste to two entrances of the European Parliament building. Several dozen activists locked their hands together with handcuffs, forming a live circle around each of the containers.
[picture1 left]

According to Greenpeace, the arrangement with the handcuffs was to ensure the containers’ safety. At the same time, sixteen activists climbed up the flagpoles flying banners representing those countries whose nuclear energy programmes lead to, or may in the future result in, the generation of vast amounts of nuclear and radioactive waste –these nations include Bulgaria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Great Britain – and next to their national standards very different banners were hung, each featuring one phrase translated into each of the sixteen languages: “Nuclear Waste: No Solution.” Notably, Lithuania and Italy no longer have nuclear power plants in operation, but their governments have been voicing plans to build new ones, while Germany and Spain both have adopted programmes that will see nuclear energy phased out in these countries in the future.
[picture2 left]

The protest may have already brought some tangible results. One of the participants, Greenpeace EU nuclear policy advisor Jan Haverkamp, told Bellona:

“As a result of this protest, several members of the European Parliament publicly expressed their views on the problem of nuclear waste. Greenpeace hopes they will continue to do so during the upcoming discussion of the directive as well.”

What is the European Parliament planning to do?

In the second half of October, the European Parliament is expected to receive a proposal for a European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) directive on nuclear waste from the European Commission. Under the Euratom Treaty, the European Parliament has to advise the European Council on new nuclear laws, Greenpeace said.

According to the European Commission, “in the framework of the Euratom Treaty, the existing Community legislation dealing with spent fuel and radioactive waste covers only a small range of the issues involved in their management, such as the supervision and control of shipments of radioactive waste and spent fuel as well as the nuclear safety of storage facilities for spent fuel and radioactive waste that are on the same site and are directly related to nuclear installation.

In order to fill this gap, in 2003, the Commission proposed a Council Directive (Euratom) on the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste and, in 2004, resubmitted to the Council an amended proposal.”

Since then, the Commission has been addressing these issues by means of different initiatives at EU level. In 2009, the Council called on the Commission to continue its work towards a Community approach in this field. The European Parliament also asked to submit a new proposal for a Directive on radioactive waste management.

The European Commission says such an instrument “would respond to the concerns of the European citizens,” citing a poll that revealed “an overwhelming majority of European citizens prefer a solution for the management of high-level waste to be developed now. They also expect the EU to monitor national practices and programmes for managing radioactive waste in the Member States and to harmonise methodologies.”

The Parliament is to consider the nuclear waste law for Europe next month. But according to Greenpeace, early drafts do not include the types of radioactive waste such as that Greenpeace delivered into the category of waste. They also approve geological disposal of radioactive and nuclear waste – an approach that has had many experts voicing their concern as the reliability and safety of this method is yet far from being exhaustively proven.

The police let the activists be

As he described the protest and its results for Bellona, Haverkamp said the event proceeded without any incident:

“After representatives of the Belgian Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) concluded that Greenpeace activists had in fact delivered radioactive waste to the European Parliament building, employees of the Belgian Agency for Radioactive Waste and Enriched Fissile Materials (NIRAS/ONDRAF) came to take the waste away.

“Greenpeace voluntarily handed the radioactive materials over to the authorities and, having made sure the waste was safely taken away, the activists voluntarily ended the protest. The police did not interfere and only checked the participants’ documents.”

What was inside the containers?

What the activists brought to the European Parliament building was samples of exactly the kind of substances that, despite their high radioactivity levels and the hazard they represent to human health and the environment, may be declared to be, sort of, non-waste …

Such materials “are not classified as radioactive waste when discharged or left in the open environment as they stem from so-called ‘authorised emissions’ or from uranium mining,” Greenpeace said in a press release detailing the event in Brussels.

Yet, when collected and put in a container that radioactive hazard specialists are called to handle, the samples are classified as radioactive waste that needs to be guarded for centuries until decayed.
[picture3 left]

“Other nuclear waste, such as […] waste from decommissioning and spent nuclear fuel, is even more dangerous and must be stored for hundreds of thousands of years. There is no way of securing this waste over such long time periods with guaranteed safety, and it continues to pile up all over the world,” Greenpeace said in its press release.

So what was it exactly that the activists had in those containers?

The usual suspects

Packed and delivered from an unsecured location on Sellafield Beach, Great Britain, had been 1.2 kilograms of sand contaminated by waste waters discharged from the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) reprocessing plant nearby. The plant, owned by the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – a non-departmental public body – takes spent fuel from nuclear power stations in the UK, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan for reprocessing.

Greenpeace’s press release on the Brussels protest said the sample contained 11,670 Bq/kg (becquerels per kilogram) of Americium-241 and 5,990 Bq/kg of Cesium-137. The levels of Americium-241, Greenpeace says, are eleven times over the limit set by Belgian authorities for radioactive waste of 1,000 Bq/kg. Because usable uranium and plutonium are extracted during reprocessing, vast amounts of radioactive waste are generated as a result, Greenpeace reminds, and part of that is emitted into the Irish Sea, where it contaminates shores, seabed, plants, and fish.

Another of the samples the activists brought was 50 grams of sludge taken from the seabed near the La Hague reprocessing facility in France. This sludge is contaminated by the La Hague reprocessing facility, owned by the French company Areva, Greenpeace said in its press release.

This sample contains 1,210 Bq/kg of Americium-241, 2,840 Bq/kg of Cesium-137, and 1,016 Bq/kg of Cobalt-60. The concentration of Americium-241 is over the Belgian limit of 1,000 Bq/kg. La Hague is also an SNF reprocessing facility, which takes spent fuel burned in nuclear reactors operating in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Italy, and Japan. Just like at Sellafield, some of the resulting radioactive waste, again, ends up in the sea, contaminating the water, flora, and fauna of the English Channel.

On the global scale, it is the nuclear power plants that are responsible for the bulk of nuclear waste accumulating in the world. Each reactor generates up to 25 to 30 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel on average. For instance, the Russian reactor VVER-1200, currently under development as part of the NPP-2006 project, will, project engineers say, generate 26.7 tonnes of SNF per year. Global stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel have in the decades that nuclear energy has been in use grown to between 80,000 and 100,000 tonnes, depending on the particular assessment.

SNF reprocessing facilities are meant to recover what usable material remains in the spent fuel, thus, theoretically, reducing the volumes of nuclear waste accrued. However, it is exactly on account of these facilities that the overall amount of resulting waste is hundreds of times higher than it would be otherwise. It is not by chance that nuclear reprocessing is banned in the United States.

European reprocessing facilities in Sellafield and La Hague have been continuously dumping liquid radioactive waste that is generated as a result of their operations at sea. The total quantity of high-level waste produced by Great Britain and France combined is about 200 cubic metres per year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The environmental discharges from reprocessing at these plants were much higher during the 1960s and 1970s – the Irish Sea bed still has the highest concentrations of artificial radionuclides of any marine ecosystem – and have been dramatically reduced since then. At Sellafield, says UNEP’s 2007 Special Edition Environmental Alert Bulletin on nuclear waste (download report at right) total alpha and total beta discharges fell from peaks of 175 TBq (terabecqerels) in 1973 and 9,500 TBq (1975) respectively to levels of 0.2 and 120 TBq in 2001.

In what was also an encouraging development, a 2003 trial started at Sellafield on an initiative of Bellona’s, proved a chemical called tetraphenylphosphonium bromide (TPP) to be highly successful in limiting Sellafield’s discharges of Technitium-99 – as much as 95 percent of the radioactive element was cleansed from the facility’s discharges into the Irish Sea.

But a valid argument can be made that good discharges are zero discharges. The practice of disposing of liquid radioactive waste resulting from nuclear waste reprocessing is still ongoing, and continues to breed danger, as Greenpeace’s samples suggest.

Russia’s radioactive waste and its management

Russia, too, has an SNF reprocessing plant – the infamous Production Enterprise Mayak in Chelyabinsk Region in the South Urals. Mayak, too, dumps its liquid radioactive waste into natural water bodies located nearby – both lakes and, until recently, the river Techa. Mayak has so poisoned the area’s environment that Ozyorsk, the town where it operates, has earned the dubious title of the most contaminated place on earth.

And just like the European nuclear industry, its Russian counterpart, headed by the State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom, is unwilling to recognise its waste as waste.

A newly drafted nuclear and radioactive waste management law lobbied by Rosatom – laudable as the effort is to take under control this as-yet unregulated field – proposes to legalise underground disposal of radioactive waste and introduce a previously unheard-of category of waste: Ultra Low-Level Radioactive Waste. The latter is apparently meant to make radioactive waste not be waste anymore – but rather something that one would be permitted by law to continue spilling into lakes and rivers.

In the Greenpeace press release on the October 7 event, Haverkamp said: “It is a scandal that the waste Greenpeace delivered today is being pumped into our seas, rivers and left to accumulate near where people live. The nuclear sector has no idea what to do with this waste, let alone the far more dangerous and long-lived waste that also continues to pile up.”

Haverkamp believes the only logical step is to phase out nuclear power altogether:

“The EU has phase-out clauses for other no-go substances such as mercury. MEPs must ensure that radioactive waste is treated no less severely,” he said adding that the proposed directive is “little more than a PR exercise to smooth the way for new nuclear power stations.”

Will Russian parliamentaries never wake up to the real risks of nuclear and radioactive waste unless containers like the ones brought to Brussels – only with our own, home-grown radioactive sludge from the Russian rivers and lakes, which take the brunt of reprocessing waste – arrive at the doorstep of the State Duma?

These were seriously hazardous substances

However Europe’s debate on what to consider or not consider dangerous waste pans out, one intriguing – if, possibly, unintentional – argument highlighting the potential carelessness of the proposed new policies was made by the Belgian nuclear supervision authority, the FANC.

The FANC had a very telling reaction to the waste paraded at the European Parliament building by Greenpeace activists, at least tentatively lending weight to the stated hazardousness of the sample materials that MEPs may, via the new EU nuclear waste directive declare harmless. In a statement posted on its website, the agency said the containers were taken away, as a measure of precaution, pending further analysis of their contents.

“The transportation and storage of this radioactive waste are subject to strict measures of, and regulations on, security,” the FANC said.

How solid the rock?

Yet, though it has no solution, nuclear and radioactive waste does urgently need one. If such waste is not sent for reprocessing, then it has to be stored someplace – for as long as hundreds of thousands of years while the SNF remains hazardous – and its safety must be guaranteed throughout this time.

The nuclear lobby is attempting to persuade the European Parliament that the industry has found just that kind of solution: Deep geological interment.  

However, contrary to the nuclear industry’s assertions, scientists are sceptical of the safety guarantees this method is supposed to provide. In a September 2010 paper entitled “Rock Solid? A scientific review of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste,” written for Greenpeace, the author, Dr Helen Wallace from the non-profit organisation GeneWatch UK, disputes claims such as a quoted passage from a 2009 Euratom-funded document stating that “‘a growing consensus exists’ that deep disposal is the most appropriate solution to disposing of spent nuclear fuel, high-level waste, and other long-lived radioactive wastes, and that it is time to proceed to licensing the construction and operation of deep geological repositories for radioactive waste disposal.”

Too early for such assurances, says Dr. Wallace, as she analyses a number of certain very troubling issues, after studying a wide range of scientific publications on the subject.

“…The existence of road maps and the rejection of other options do not automatically mean that deep disposal of highly radioactive wastes is safe. On the contrary, the present report’s review of papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals has identified a number of scenarios in which a significant release of radioactivity could occur, with serious implications for the health and safety of future generations,” Dr Wallace writes, and details an extensive list of factors that could compromise nuclear waste containment in a deep repository.

But Finland is actively pursuing on such project, a deep repository in the granite bedrock near a nuclear power plant in Olkiluoto. The repository, where initial surveying and excavation began in 2004, is expected to be large enough to accept canisters with spent fuel for one hundred years of storage before it is filled to capacity around 2120, upon which the tunnel will be backfilled and sealed. According to experts, however, this repository’s safety may come under serious risk in the future as a result of possible seismic activity and shifts in permafrost in the area.

Sweden has been working on building a deep geological storage site for spent nuclear fuel, with the launch date projected for 2023, but scientific data surfaced suggesting the reliability of copper canisters intended to store SNF in the Swedish concept may be compromised owing to the canisters’ susceptibility to corrosion.

 Still, similar plans are under consideration in Canada, Great Britain, South Korea, France, and other countries, Dr Wallace reminded.

But whatever the promise of deep geological interment, there is “little public support for the idea that the problem of high-level nuclear waste has been dealt with in the sense that it can now be ‘got rid of’ safely,” Dr Wallace writes.

According to a 2008 survey, Dr Wallace’s report says, in Greece, Sweden, France, Germany, and Finland, around 80 percent of respondents “totally” or “tended to” agree that there is no safe way of getting rid of high-level radioactive waste. Of EU residents as a whole, 41percent totally agreed that there is no safe way of solving the problem of such waste, while under a third (31 percent) tended to agree. Only 14 percent disagreed and a similar percentage did not know or had no opinion on the issue.

The Russian case

Russia’s approach toward storing, disposing of, or interring nuclear and radioactive waste remains somewhat frivolous. At the moment, most of the waste produced by the Russian nuclear industry is stored in temporary surface facilities. Some storage facilities are under ground, and some nuclear enterprises continue with the currently illegal practice of injecting liquid radioactive waste into underground aquifers. Still other enterprises simply dump radioactive waste into natural water bodies.

Russia, in its newly drafted legislation that, if passed, will regulate the management of radioactive and nuclear waste in the country – the bill has come under heavy fire from environmentalists as it would, they say, legalise underground injections and completely ignore public opinion regarding future sites where radioactive waste would be stored, forcing local populations to live with it for thousands of years – is only considering the option of deep geological burial of nuclear waste.

But the idea has even been challenged by Russia’s former top nuclear official Yevgeny Adamov, whose background as an aggressive nuclear proponent, a nuclear scientist, and a former minister of atomic energy, would, if anything, only give additional weight to the warnings voiced by independent experts and environmentalists.

The Russian top nuclear authority Rosatom has mentioned a granitoid formation near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk as the possible site for deep geological interment of nuclear waste, should the idea materialise into a project.

For now, however, the state corporation has no substantial data on the location’s suitability, nor any project to follow, nor, indeed, any finance to support it.