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An observation

(Still head-down, working on the book. Likely to stay there for at least another couple of weeks ...)

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that when the definitive history of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is written, there will be a tally of casualties and fatalities at the end of the book.

I firmly believe that the fatalities will be dominated by iodine poisoning, self-administered by people in countries not exposed to emissions from the plant.

(So far there is one definite fatality at the plant: a crane operator who had the great misfortune to be sitting in the control cab of a crane when it was hit by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake.)



There were some guy(s) who bought a lot of iodine and tried to sell it on The auction was taken down.


Well the Finnish (who according to the linked website are buying iodine tablets in bulk) had been "hit" particularly hard by the Chernobyl fallout, so paranoia levels are higher than average.

Fun fact: None of the current German nuclear power plants would be within regulations in Finland. (source: (in German))


Wasn't there also an early report of someone who had died (probably sort of heart attack) in the control centre? it was reported shortly after the problem began, can't remember the details except that the site I saw it on made it sound like it was caused by radiation rather than stress etc. if you didn't read it carefully.


It bothers me that the FDA routinely is being called a disaster, catastrophe, calamity, etc. Not that I particularly disagree with any one of those terms, but it would be nice to have a noun that is only used for events that cause multiple deaths and serious trauma. Me, I'd nominate "catastrophe" for the role. Under that convention, FDA would be a major disaster but not a catastrophe, whereas the tsunami would be both.


I missed two persons who have been missing since the hydrogen explosions on the 11th and/or 14th -- and "suddenly taken ill" can cover a multitude of ailments. But the highest level of radiation detected near FD is ... well, this chart speaks for itself. I reckon heart attacks/strokes/nervous breakdowns are more likely than radiation sickness in the control room.


We need to change the classification of radiation emitted from three to four

Alpha Beta Gamma Hysteria

with hysteria being the most dangerous type, and unstoppable by most screening substances.

I hope you're right, and think you probably will be.


Looks like there are some people in Tampere who think that the fifth horsewoman of the apocalypse is coming:

But you know, I spent my three week summer vacation of 2006 driving around Finland (after preparing for the trip for nearly thirty years) and I was struck by the number of airtight nuclear fallout shelters that they had everywhere, in every nook and cranny.


I think better information needs to be given regarding the difference between contamination with radioactive sources and exposure to radiation, right now I think people mix both liberally, and it contributes greatly to the fear of the unknown.


For a time I worked at a nuke plant (Point Beach in Wisconsin) for a Y2K project. I also upgraded the computers at a coal plant during the same project.

The coal plant always felt a hell of a lot less safe. The workers at the nuke plant, and their families, lived NEAR that plant. They were serious about safety and security, and unlike those in Chernobyl have the opportunity to speak out about it.

Now if we continue with privatization and deregulation here in the States I'm not so sure, but for now...

That said, I'd prefer there not be any more nuke plants built from the cost perspective. Nukes are way more expensive than any of the alternatives, even the green ones, with natural gas in our area of the world being ridiculously cheap by comparison.


I heard a rumour that someone in Japan died as a result of radiation - he boarded up his house so that none of the radioactive dust could get in and suffocated. I can't find a reference to it now, remember reading it in passing in a blog.


I felt I should point out some poor logic from a couple threads ago regarding the dangers of rooftop solar. Yes, there is a high death rate per terawatt, but that death rate is exactly the same as the death rate from going up on the roof of your house for any reason - fixing the air conditioner, putting on a new roof, fixing a leak, etc., so this is a slightly unfair characterization. The rooftop accident rate can be fixed with some shamefully simple, extremely well-understood measures - harnesses, scaffolding, etc., - that are well within the means of any successful contractor. Contrast this with the cost of creating and testing a safer nuclear design and the fallacy inherent in this comparison becomes obvious.

The problem in this case is not "Rooftop Solar" but "Going up on your roof."

As for what's happening in Fukushima, it's currently looking much better than it was a few days ago, but I don't think they're out of the woods yet. They've found some landmarks and they're heading in the right direction, but they certainly aren't home.


Today's WashPost has an outside opinion on 5 Myths about Nuclear Energy and an article from yesterday: Radiation risks low, according to science.


Are you counting the cost of the deaths in the coal mines and natural gas drills as opposed to those of nuclear reactors? We'll run out of coal and natural gas, too.

I get my electricity from a reactor on Lake Anna and the housing around the lake is massively expensive because you can use water skis, boats, fishing gear, etc., and often swim during the winter.


Yes, carbon monoxide poisoning from a heater, IIRC. On the other hand I think that isn't uncommon in normal circumstances either.

I felt I should point out some poor logic from a couple threads ago regarding the dangers of rooftop solar.

You felt wrong. Gathering together all deaths in that way is the only honest number, otherwise you get different people picking and choosing what they think is "valid". You say "well obviously installing the panels doesn't count, and besides, we can fix that"; then I say "well obviously mining the uranium doesn't count, and besides, we can fix that".

(Repeat for 200+ comments at increasing levels of caps.)


(And I realize that for consistency, logically "just count them all" also means that the anticipated cases of iodine poisoning that was the actual subject of the post could then be argued to count under "deaths from nuclear" as well. Interesting twist...)


Just out of curiosity, what's your criteria for counting the fatalities, Charlie? Most importantly, what's the time frame you're going to use?

At one point the Japanese authorities announced Fukushima complex was leaking 400 mSv/hour. 1.25 hours of exposure at that rate is maximum US limit for volunteers averting major nuclear escalation. 2.5 hours exposure at that rate would be the US limit for volunteers rescuing lives or preventing serious injuries. Granted most of the workers there at Fukushima are probably wearing protective gear, but the annoying thing is, we really don't know where exactly those measurements were taken. Were they taken right up near the plant? Or were they taken a kilometer away? Curious minds want to know.

As for the population in and around Fukushima, I don't think we really can say just yet that everything will turn out to be hunky-dory. Utsunomiya in Tochigi prefecture, about 130 km from Fukushima, reported radiation at 33 times the normal level. What that dosage is in mSv is difficult to tell, but using the handy chart, I'd say that a daily dosage at the location where that reading was taken was somewhere in the 0.3 mSv/day range (3.1 mSV is the average background radiation we get in a year --> 3.1/365*33=0.28 mSv/day. Pretty high. That's about 1/3rd the max recommended radiation dosage the EPA says that a person should get in a year from XRays, flying, airport security scanners, etc etc etc.

I know your background is in pharmacy and computer science, but do you feel like making any epidemiological predictions about how the cancer rates will increase in NE Japan over the next few years? Don't forget to add into your calculations ground water contamination -- the Japanese government mentioned that ground water around the plant is now contaminated due to a ruptured containment vessel. Once it gets into an aquifer, I think you'd need a degree in geology to know how far the contamination will spread. Maybe, it won't be that bad. Granted the cancer stats are hard to interpret below 10 mSv exposures. But what do you think? is 1 per 10,000 too high an estimate? 1 per 100,000? Anyway, I'm sure this all a tempest in a teapot, and all serious people regard the media's over-attention to Fukushima to be a misguided overreaction at best. On the other hand, there will be at least a few kids dying from leukemia and thyroid cancer due to the Fukushima incident. That makes the pronouncements of serious people ring sort of hollow, at least to an unserious person like myself.


"the other hand, there will be at least a few kids dying from leukemia and thyroid cancer due to the Fukushima incident. That makes the pronouncements of serious people ring sort of hollow, at least to an unserious person like myself."

The argument from "protect the kids at any cost" is a fail, we have lots of kids (ok i have one love more than anything and would give my life for and therefore it makes me sick to my stomach event thinking about this , HOWEVER i still drive a car with my kid in back, still cross road with kid, let kid ride a bike (with helmet) etc.)

Kids get killed doing things every day but we dont quit doing them in fact you could very cynicaly set a cost schedule of how much a particular activity is worth to us in terms of "dead kids per year"

convenience of driving = ? deadkids per year Convenience of being able to buy asprin over counter = ? dead kids per year Pleasurability of being able to buy Snickers bars = ? dead kids per year (peanut allergy deaths could be stopped by banning peanuts)

My point is generating electricity is going to have a cost in dead kids per year whatever method and electricity is such an important thing to our civilisation we should probably rate it higher than eating snickers bars or buying asprin over the counter .

Anyway this is only a comment on using the "dead kids argument"


Gathering up deaths per teraWatt-hour at a global level is only interesting for historical purposes. If you're looking at investing in any particular electricity generation, then the health & safety risks depend on that particular generation, the technology used and the regulatory context.

Coal, at a global level, looks hideously dangerous to produce, but the death rates are very different between in small, labour-heavy, poorly-regulated Chinese mines than they are for huge, open-cast, capital-heavy, and strongly regulated Australian mines. Similarly, small photovoltaic installations on numerous roofs is going to have a very different death rate than installing the same number of panels at ground level at one site.

As for the topic at hand, while hysteria about nukes probably causes frequent deaths, more relevant are the infrequent kilodeaths from meltdowns, where those kilodeaths are spread across continents and decades. Chernobyl is reckoned by various sources to eventually kill somewhere between 5000 and 50000 people from cancer across Europe and you don't want that to happen too often. (There's several hundred million people living in Europe, about 15% will die of cancer, so actually detecting those extra deaths is a hard question for epidemiologists.)


We may never know, for the simple reason that burning petrochemical units and like in the wake of the same quake are going to do havoc with the cancer rate regardless of any radiation. Also note that for the same reasons, not all heightened radiation might come from the FDA[1].

Concerning the FDA, it might depend on the isotopes in question, e.g. if they are highly radioactive, they have a short halflife.

On another level and to troll a little bit, what about putative hormesis effects of slightly heightened radiation? Current state of affairs says there isn't solid proof, but looking at current radiobiology, besides being amazed how little we know (hey guys, there are a lot of unemployed biologists who need a job, so why no research?), things like the bystander effect seem to imply that direct radiation damage is only part of the picture, with putative (over-)reactions of the body contributing to the symptoms of radiation poisioning:

[1] Err, was it only me who thought "the FDA is a disaster" was a comment on the American health system?

21: 6 - Back of the net, with the note that there is one effective form of screening against hysteria. It's called "scientific education", and has even been known to prevent journalists from subcoming to the effects of the hysteria particles (call them "hysterions"?) emitted by the radioactive substances involved.

The biggest problem concerning nuclear energy is radioactive waste - it needs to be stored away safely for million of years. Thats something that we can't guarantee.

Another major point, that Fukusihma emphasized is, that nuclear power might be safe in the normal situation, but the redundancy dosn't help in extreme situations. What happens in a warlike situation? What happens in the case of a large scale terrorist attack or what happens in the case of a large scale natural disaster? You can't just switch off a nuclear power plant. You still need energy, over at least a year, to actively cool the nuclear fuel elements in the power plant. And you still have to keep all the nuclear waste safe - world wide the nuclear waste is kept in temporary storage constructed with a safe storage time frame of maximum a 100 years. Lets just hope, that in a hundred years the resources still exists to build a new temporary storage or to permanently and safely bury the stuff. And lets hope, that no psychopath gets access to the waste ( for the next hundred of thousands of years that is).


Thyroid cancer: there was a big cluster in Byelorussia, the Ukraine, and Russia right after Chernobyl. However, of roughly 4000 kids who were diagnosed with it, a grand total of 9 died. Juvenile thyroid cancer is definitely not fun, but it's extremely treatable, with a fatality rate an order of magnitude lower than severe influenza infection these days if it's diagnosed in time (which probably says more about the lethality of flu than about thyroid cancer ...). And you can bet there's going to be a screening program in Sendai over the next few years.

More to the point: in old money, Chernobyl distributed nearly 200 megaCuries of fallout across northern and eastern Europe. I'd be surprised if the long-term emissions from Fukushima Daiichi were measurable in integer Curies at this point, with the exception of the activated isotopes in the steam discharge, which decay within minutes anyway (i.e. don't stick around to cause us problems later).


But you've missed out the biggest source of deaths from coal: admittedly it's murderously hard to factor in, but coal is our major greenhouse gas source, so roughly 30-50% of deaths resulting from global climate change need to be lumped in with things like direct fatalities in coal mines, lung disease from households cooking on stovetops burning brown coal in the developing world, and so on.

We won't have the data to put an accurate figure for deaths/Tw on coal for many decades to come, but I suspect the ultimate figure will be measured in kilodeaths/TwH (i.e. over a million deaths/Tw/year for coal).


I would say that it's a clear and fixable problem, but count the deaths/injuries. One of the reasons for the cost of nuclear is the effort spent on safety. We can't exclude that cost from other means of power generation.

A lot of why coal gets accepted is that we don't do the same full calculations of the risk--the costs of mining and transporting; the pollution, chemical and radioactive--there's a lot which is hidden, not getting onto the books of the companies and not paid for by the flow of money from the end users.

We are, after all, worrying about fossil fuels because of the limited supply, and because of the side effects of dumping all that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If ignorance can make us terrified of radiation, why are the ignorant not terrified of global warming? Are we seeing a manipulation of the information markets?


The problem with naming this phenomenon 'hysteric radiation' relates to the etymology from hystera, greek for uterus. Leaving gender discrimination aside, I feel somewhat reluctant to name it for a part of the female anatomy when both sexes seem to be equally affected and public displays of its dele(te)rious effects mainly concern the male part of the species (gender ratio in politics, journalism and both natural and social sciences, for starters).

Since some of the most notorious samples I know are male[1], what about calling it 'vesical radiation'? First of, it relates to the fact some people can't hold their water in certain circumstances; second of, a vocal minority of those afflicted gets you really pissed off, and since the urinary bladder is near the uterus in females, it might just be Hippocrates et al. got the wrong mighty organ.

[1] "Hope you're not a geneticist." "What'd be wrong with that?" "They like to play god!" "Er, what is the relation between crossing beans and playing god? You mean gene technology." "I'm the public, don't patronize me[2]." "I'm not patronizing you, but you need to inform yourself, else you have no idea but an opinion." [2] "Help, help, I'm being repressed!" "Bloody hipp, err, peasant."


Nuclear waste is maybe more a political problem than an engineering problem.

OK, one issue is "nuclear proliferation", the risk that bad guys can get plutonium and make bombs. So reprocessing spent fuel rods may be frowned on. But that means that usable fuel is not used, and there is a lot of high-level waste created. There are similarities with how you handle domestic waste--do you dump it all in landfill, or extract the recyclable components.

There isn't a clear answer, but maybe there's been an overdose of the Clancy-juice, and a wild underestimate of the difficulty of actually making plutonium into an explosive device.


Ok whilst the word may have bad connotations in the far past no-one uses it that way nowadays. Same as when I say testify im not really asking the person to swear on and hold my balls when telling a story.

There is no need to start using different words when their origin has no bearing on how they are used, everybody identifies hysteria to be an irrational, destructive panic.


Ryan @ #28 Thanks mate - I was genuinely unaware of the details of the etymology until the last few minutes.

Trottelreiner @ #26 - Over-react at the wrong person much? I was replying to comment #6, and trying to make a joke name for a new massles sub-atomic particle.

Same as when I say testify im not really asking the person to swear on and hold my balls when telling a story.

Err, takes all kinds. I know some lawyers where this interpretation is, err, interesting. And who knows how the girls have to pay for their study...


Sorry if it sounded like a scoulding, I though I could do without the usual smileys for once, err.


S'alright. Just because a word used to be sexist doesn't make the people using it sexist!

Trottelreiner @ #30 - Smilies help with internet sarcasm lol


There isn't actually a lot of high-level waste -- I've seen the claim that the share of high-level waste from an individual's consumption of nuclear electrical power in the US (about a kW/hr continuous, about 20-25% of total consumption) is about the size and mass of an aspirin pill each year.

The "hot" radioactive stuff goes away quite fast due to those isotopes having short half-lives. It's the longer-lived biologically-preferential isotopes that people worry about, and even they will effectively go away after a couple of centuries of storage. Those isotopes can be destroyed by using particle accelerators to forcibly fission the nuclei into something less long-lived but the power budget for that process doesn't look too good.

I have a couple of personal solutions for making this dangerous waste harmless -- my favourite is to package it up and softland/lithobrake it on the Moon. It would provide a new well-funded market for launch vehicles which might result in reducing the cost per launch generally. The other solution, much more mundane and very much cheaper to carry out is dilution. Turn the dangerous stuff into water-soluble salts and release it slowly into deep ocean currents over a wide area using submarines. Finally, a real use for homeopathy!


I know this is a bit OT but the Telegraph has an interesting article on "safe" thorium-based molten salt reactors

Is this reactor-type really safe? If so, and if Thorium is so abundant, why aren't we all adopting it?


I can't see environmental lobbyist ever allowing it into the sea. Problem with boosting it into space is what happens when a rocket fails to launch properly and spreads radioactive waste all over the nearby land? And what would be the carbon footprint et al of boosting our waste to the moon?

Best option I see is just to keep digging really deep vaults and load them up with waste. when one vault is full we fill it with concrete


Funny thing is, Finland has a fairly high level of backgroud radiation, mostly from radon. Some Tampere neighbourhoods are somewhat bad for your health, unless you make a effort to ventilate your house (or undergroud shelter) properly:


@6: "with hysteria being the most dangerous type, and unstoppable by most screening substance"

and emitted strongly by many if not most media sources.


Yep, the hysteria from the people who can't do sums wrt dilution (and who have a subset who believe in homeopathy) means it's not going to happen. Pity.

Assume 2 tonnes of soluble-salt waste representing 1 tonne of the really dangerous stuff we have no use for, long-lived and biologically preferential. That's more dangerous waste of its type than a reactor complex generates in a year. Diluted into a cubic kilometre of seawater that would produce a concentration level of waste of 1 part in a billion. By comparison the same cubic kilometre of seawater already contains over 3 tonnes of natural uranium. Of course the tonne of waste wouldn't stay that concentrated for very long, spreading out over many millions of cubic kilometres of seawater as current and tides work their environmental wonders.

As for the idea of putting waste on the Lunar surface, it's not difficult to design a rugged storage capsule and containment system that would easily survive any sort of pad accident or an inadvertant return to Earth; it would save on any requirement for soft-landing systems FOB Luna. Cost-wise offer the launches at, say 100 million dollars a pop to dispose of 5 tonnes of the really hard stuff and most energy companies would rip your hand off to agree the deal. To get to that sort of cost-per-launch would require a guaranteed pipeline of launches though, not just a few one-offs.


The Thorium fuel cycle was discussed last week, for example here:


I have a couple of personal solutions for making this dangerous waste harmless -- my favourite is to package it up and softland/lithobrake it on the Moon.

Oh NO!! He's trying to blow half the Moon out of Earth orbit! ;-)


How about burying high-level waste in one of the bits where the plate edge is being buried? I want to say "subduction zones", but can't remember if that's the correct term or not.

The biggest problem concerning nuclear energy is radioactive waste - it needs to be stored away safely for million of years. Thats something that we can't guarantee.

Yes, with current reactors that only use up single-digit percentages of the fuel you put in. (I've heard 1% and 3% but don't know enough to be sure about those numbers.)

With reprocessing the waste as fuel for breeder reactors you can get much more out of it, and the "final" waste is composed of lighter and more highly active isotopes. And "highly active" of course means a shorter half-life. ("The candle that burns twice as bright...")

I've been reading a bit of what Barry Brook writes on the topic, and this appears to be a decent list of posts and interviews that he's done. The figure he uses (but I'm not competent to judge how correct it is) is that we'll have to store the waste for something like 300 years. That's still a long time, but it doesn't seem entirely impossible to me. And it'll be a lot less of it.

What happens in a warlike situation?

Not an expert on military matters, but I believe that generally you try to impede the other guy's ability to fight; making the land uninhabitable and plowing down salt in the soil has gone out of fashion. Taking out the electrical grid can be done easier (and more selectively) by targeting the grid instead of generation; and in a full-scale war you'd have better weapons than improvised dirty bombs, which is what blowing up a reactor would be.

What happens in the case of a large scale terrorist attack or what happens in the case of a large scale natural disaster?

That seems a great deal more serious. If you know what you're doing and don't care about radiation exposure, I'll handwave that you could perhaps cause something like Chernobyl with enough explosives. (And presumably, the passive security measures in newer plants would still make that difficult.) In between that, it seems to me that a Fukushima/Three Mile Island scenario would be the most likely. Sabotage key safety systems, trash the reactor, leak radiation, cause panic.

On the other hand, we should also go through similar hypothetical scenarios for, say, hydroelectric dams.

You can't just switch off a nuclear power plant. You still need energy, over at least a year, to actively cool the nuclear fuel elements in the power plant.

With Fukushima era designs that are currently still in operation. But there has been some progress made in the last 50 years, and I don't think that statement is true – in general – any longer. You'd still need to monitor things (and have electricity for that, plus cooling water of course) but things don't have to go kaboom as soon as there is a problem either.

Yes, you couldn't just shut down and walk away, but that's true for a lot of things, both generally and specifically with power generation.


You're right, they are called subduction zones. But by the time it is swallowed up (tens of thousands of years, I guess?), the waste won't be high level any more.

Not really a problem, but it seems like pretty serious overkill. :-)



when it comes to nuclear waste, there is a cheap, straightforward and safe way to get rid of the "really hard stuff".

Just wait.

All the rest is either the really soft stuff - namely long lived fission products with a sum-total radiotoxidity at or below that of the original quantity of uranium ore.

Or (basically) Plutonium.(*)

And we know what to do about that Plutonium: Namely, put it into an unmoderated nuclear reactor and turn it into fission products. 75% of reactor grade plutonium are fissle Pu-239, the rest is mostly Pu-240 - which can be turned into fissle Pu-241 by the exact same magic that allows those reactors to turn U-238 into Pu-239. There are even neutrons left to spare, which can transmute the more bothersome long lived fission products into stable elements. (Especially Tc-99 and I-129.)

(*) Yes, also some other stuff like Neptunium, Americium etc. But those are small quantities that also happen to respond just fine to the same treatment without gobbling up neutrons. Fast fission produces more neutrons than fission with moderated neutrons. So, there are plenty to go around. They are just a bit harder to capture.


Cheers; plate tectonics are in the "I know this in principle, but rarely use" fields.

I was thinking about burying it really deep (as in "how good is our mining technology?" deep), not because it's hugely necessary, but in the hope of shutting up some of the "but the half-life is elebenty gazillion eons so you've got to actively look after it for that long" loonies.


Re radionucleides, researchers are looking into Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW), which would also generate electricity over and above the requirement for running the accelerators.

As for the costs of coal, including externalities would double or treble the price per kilowatts from coal plants.


@R Lloyd: I don't mind playing the dying kids card, because Charlie was callous enough to downplay the vast suffering caused by Fukushima incident, to promote his pro-nuke stance.

@Charlie: I see (by the thyroid cancer numbers you're quoting) that you're cherry-picking from the WHO report on the aftereffects of the Chernobyl disaster. Unfortunately, your overlooking the fact that there's a lot of controversy about its conclusions. That Leftie rag, the Guardian, mentions it in passing...

Granted, your arguments that nuclear plants are orders of magnitude less dangerous to humans than a carbon-based power sources are probably valid. But that doesn't mean that that nuclear plants don't have profoundly negative effects in the areas where they decide to take a "core dump". And I have no problem with nuclear power if it's kept away from population centers. It just irks me that you're so blase about this whole Fukushima fiasco.

What's ironic, is that environmental organizations will probably get the blame from the Right and Big Business for demise of nuclear power as an energy option, when it's really the incompetence of power plant operators and regulators that is to blame for nuclear power becoming the radioactive hot potato that it is today.


At least in America, tripling the $/kWh for coal would still leave coal costing far less than nuclear power, even if we don't count the cost of government subsidies for nuclear.

Re: original post The most likely scenario is good to look at, but for a true assessment you need to look at the range of possibilities and their probabilities. The worst case for this accident is far worse than the worst case for a coal planet getting flooded by a tsunami.


Hmmm ... isn't the worst-case scenario for continued use of coal (and other fossil fuels) something like Venus?


The WashPost has a graphic with different ways of storing/reusing nuclear waste and the pros & cons.


A lot of the more extreme waste disposal proposals are disrespectful as all hell towards coming generations. It is quite likely, although not certain, that our decendants will have uses for this stuff, and they will not thank us if they have to retrive it from the moon. Good solutions are thus both ignorable and reversible - That is, they do not impose a burden of continious maintainance on coming generations, nor do they deny them valuable resources to appease our paranoia. These dual requirements are why all waste disposal programmes end up with some variation of "Tunnels into bedrock/clay/salt"


If future generations want or need a lot of cesium-137, they can go to the Moon and get it. Alternatively they can make it themselves; after all it's not too difficult assuming you have enough uranium and there's plenty of that dissolved in seawater -- 3 tonnes per cubic kilometre, and more gets washed down from the mountains via rivers every year. It's a lot cheaper right now to mine the 50,000 tonnes or so of uranium metal dug up each year than to extract it from seawater but that will change in a few decades or centuries.

I'm not proposing sending fuel rods to the Moon for very long-term storage, I'm presuming there would be reprocessing to extract the few grammes of unusable long-term nasty stuff in each fuel rod, store the short-term nasty stuff locally and let it decay to harmlessness a few years and re-use the uranium and plutonium which makes up 98% of an expended fuel rod. It's the nasty stuff that gets the one-way trip or diluted to parts per quadrillion levels in deep seawater.


The future generations won't be after the Cesium-137 or Plutonium or whatever we're burying.

They'll be after the valuable stable decay products of those isotopes: for example, Cesium's decay chain leads to Barium.


NOTE: A friend opines that the best way to deal with high level nasty radioactive waste is to pack it in your suitcase and fly somewhere via Heathrow Terminal Five.

It will never be seen again ...


Unless you are flying into Montreal.

In which case, a very battered case may be seen on the conveyor at YUL. Note that we didn't suffer this on the LHR-YUL flight, we just witnessed it. We had our case mangled flying into YUL from Vancouver. Thank goodness we were on the way home at that point - a 25 kg case with a non-extending handle is not something I want to have to endure for any longer than I can.

As a hypothesis, that Montreal's baggage conveyors are actually repurposed nuclear waste disposal crushers is a not unattractive one.


A friend opines that the best way to deal with high level nasty radioactive waste is to pack it in your suitcase and fly somewhere via Heathrow Terminal Five. It will never be seen again ...

This is funny, until you hear the story I am about to tell you.

PREFACE: How shipping works. 1. You have a document called a bill of lading; this is either endorsed to a person, called the consignee ("One (1) container full of stuffed badgers, dispatched by Charlie Stross, Schloss Stross, Edinburgh, to Peter Watts, Gangrene Towers, Toronto") or endorsed to bearer ("One (1) container full of stuffed badgers, dispatched by Charlie Stross, Schloss Stross, Edinburgh, to bearer") - the latter because this allows Mr Watts to sell it on to someone else before the container arrives, and then the new owner just turns up on the dockside with the bill of lading and says "those are my badgers, here is my bill of lading, please unload them". The shipowner gets a copy as well for his own reference.

  • If no one turns up to claim a container after a certain (fairly short) time, it becomes the property of the shipowner, because keeping a ship hanging around in dock waiting to unload is very expensive.
  • A ship in an unnamed port (located in an unnamed country full of people who eat sushi) found itself in this position. No one turned up to claim a container whose bill of lading was endorsed to bearer. They called the company which had put the container onboard in the first case, which was in an unnamed country full of men in fur hats. Didn't exist. They opened the container - it was full of nuclear waste.

    They called their lawyers for advice.

    The only advice anyone could come up with was "put it back on board on the top of a stack, head for the nearest patch of rough weather, and don't tie it down too securely; maybe the problem will solve itself".

    What's worrying is that this may not be the only time this has happened; it may just be the only time it's happened to a shipowner who was a client of this particular firm.


    For all that we focus on the disposal of spent (or not-so-spent) nuclear fuel, there's another and probably even nastier problem that we in the US face, though I don't know how much of a problem it is elsewhere. That is "legacy waste", the thousands of tons of high-level solid and liquid radioactive waste sitting in tanks, pools, dirt, and local water tables around various nuclear labs. I live about 200 miles from one of those labs at Hanford, Washington, whose waste is already into the ground water and is heading down towards the Columbia River. There are over 100 such sites in the US, and the total amount of waste isn't known to closer than a factor of 5 or 10 (although it could be even worse than that). Much of that waste is in liquid form, and the storage is known to be leaking. Much of it is in the form of contaminated soil that's simple been bulldozed into a big pile. And the Department of Energy admits that some of those sites will never be cleaned up, especially given that all attempts to do so so far have been far behind schedule, far above cost estimates, and often not even successful. At Hanford, for instance, quoting WIkipedia:

    The most significant challenge at Hanford is stabilizing the 53 million U.S. gallons (204,000 m3) of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. About a third of these tanks have leaked waste into the soil and groundwater.
    The plan to deal with this waste was to build a vitrification plant to solidify the waste so it could be more safely stored. Construction on the plant was begun in 2001 and it was scheduled to begin operation in 2011, with vitrification of all liquid waste to be complete in 2028. The current schedule is for operation to begin in 2019, with vitrification to be complete in 2047. You can imagine that I have no real belief in the current schedule, given the history. So I'm not terribly upset about problems with a few of tons of nuclear fuel that has emitted a small amount of radioactivity into the atmosphere, as it's almost certain I'm going to be dealing with high level liquid waste in the river that passes by not far from my house at some point.


    Yeah, the legacy waste problem from the military weapons program in the 1940s is horrendous.

    And that's before you contemplate the Soviet equivalent. They pumped about 3 billion Curies of high-level liquid waste into the ground outside Moscow and Leningrad. Some of it is now coming up.

    For comparison? Chernobyl released 200 million Curies, and the A-bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki each released about 1 million curies of fallout.


    Reading Charlie's last comment I recalled reading about an incident of a reactor fire in England back in the 50s. I found this write up about it:

    Which had a link to this Soviet Union incident:

    One thing I find interesting about all of this is my father worked at a nuclear gaseous diffusion plant for about 3 decades. The last 10 or so as one of the managers in charge of the production operation. A this plant they took leaks of hazardous material incredibly seriously. Almost over the top. Both of product and support materials. And yet at a sister plant about 200 miles away where he visited at times to help out and did consulting for after he retired they continually had issues of leaks and such. It seemed to mostly be a culture at the plant and whatever culture got established first seemed to stick for a very long time. These plants well over 2000 people working there for years then somewhat over 1000 after computers allowed for some automation. When you get than many people in a single plant the group takes on a personality.


    Cancer rates will go through the roof in north-eastern Japan. Not from radiation but from all the crap released into the environment by tsunami-flattened cities. So far the expert statements I've read predicts that radiation levels will be so low that it will be impossible to pick out radiation-induced cancers from statistical background noise. A coal-powered plant would probably cause more cancers over its operational life.

    There's also the hypothesis that health effects of radiation doesn't scale up linearly. A number of observations (inhabitants of a Taiwanese apartment complex mistakenly built with radioactive materials, Apollo astronauts etc) indicate the opposite, that increased exposure up to some undefined level might actually reduces rates of cancer.


    That a little bit of radiation might be good for you isn't a ridiculous concept from a cellular biochemistry point of view. DNA coding is highly redundant, which allows for repair mechanisms to detect and fix errors in a cell's genetic code. These mechanisms aren't always active, however. A bit of radiation-induced genetic damage, if it triggers the cells' genetic repair mechanisms, could very well end up not only getting fixed completely, but fixing some dormant errors along the way, leaving your genetic code in better shape than it would have been without the radiation. I don't know anybody advocating deliberate radiation exposure on the basis of this hypothesis, but I know several people who are very knowledgeable about health effects of ionizing radiation and they all agree that this hypothesis (together with the necessary respect for truly dangerous levels of radiation) is reasonable, fits the facts, and leads to entirely sensible attitudes towards radiation levels far below legal limits.



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    This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on March 20, 2011 6:45 PM.

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