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Monday, July 14, 2008

nuclear waste in the columbia river basin.

As the heat over the expansion over nuclear power in Alberta seems to have cooled down a bit over the summer months, a piece in the New Scientist on the long-term consequences of nuclear left-overs caught my eye last week.

The United States Government Accountability Office has released a report raising "serious questions" about the long-term viability of the underground nuclear waste storage facility in Hanford, Washington. The Hanford Site, considered one of the most contaminated places on Earth is a decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River, built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project contains 210 million litres of radioactive and chemical waste stored in 177 underground tanks. With most being over 50 years old, 67 of the tanks have failed, leaking almost 4 million litres of waste into the ground in the Columbia River Basin.

At a length of over two-thousand kilometers, a basin of over 668,217 square kilometers, and a water discharge of over 7,504 cubic meters per second, the Columbia the fourth largest river in the United States and the largest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean from North America. The Columbia River Basin spreads over Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and British Columbia.

Robert Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies:

"The risk of catastrophic tank failure will sharply increase as each year goes by," he says, "and one of the nation's largest rivers, the Columbia, will be in jeopardy."

A 2004 study conducted by Alvarez suggested that there "is a 50% chance of a major accident" while the United States attempts to clean up Hanford over the next thirty years.

Interestingly, in 2004, 69% of Washington voters approved Initiative 297 (PDF), which would halt the Federal Government's transfer of nuclear waste to the Hanford Site
until it cleaned up the present contamination there according to existing Federal and state environmental cleanup standards. Initiative 297 was overturned in 2006 by the U.S. District Court, stating that it was unconstitutional for a State to put demands on the Federal Government.

Though there is a growing need for a larger energy supply (which is increasingly unsustainable), we have a responsibility to ensure that the effects of our developments do not adversely affect the lives and well-being of the current population, as well as generations to come. As these three points frequently conflict, it is important that Albertans understand these
consequences as our provincial government continues the charge towards nuclear power.


Trevor said...

I'm sure that 65 years later, we have better tank technology that will prevent tank failure due to age. The government won't use old technology and prevention of such leakage would definitely be at the forefront when designing such waste management systems.

eh said...

Great post, Dave. I think a lot of people in Alberta have been too complacent about nuclear power coming to this province. This post shows the dirty legacy nuclear power can leave behind, especially if implemented in a lax regulatory environment (which is how I would characterize Alberta's current mitigation of energy-related environmental risks). Anyways, well done.

Anonymous said...

trevor: I'm sure that 65 years ago they thought they had tank technology that would prevent tank failure due to age.

High-level radioactive waste is stored temporarily in spent fuel pools and in dry cask storage facilities. This allows the shorter-lived isotopes to decay before further handling.

In 1997, in the 20 countries which account for most of the world's nuclear power generation, spent fuel storage capacity at the reactors was 148,000 tonnes, with 59% of this utilized. However, a number of nuclear power plants in countries that do not reprocess had nearly filled their spent fuel pools, and resorted to Away-from-reactor storage (AFRS). AFRS capacity in 1997 was 78,000 tonnes, with 44% utilized, and annual additions of about 12,000 tonnes. AFRS cannot be expanded forever, and the lead times for final disposal sites have proven to be unpredictable.

Anonymous said...

In the case with Hanford, you have to remember that the waste that comes off of power reactors is solid, containable and the like.

Also, no waste that isn't produced at Hanford is moved to Hanford. The only transfering of waste is draining the contents of the old tanks into new double walled tanks.

Hanford is the legacy of a nuclear weapons industrial complex, that needed large stock piles of numerous radioactive elements to manufacture all the different components of the bomb.

True, the historical legacies of technology are awful, but we don't stop using fire due to fear mongering about the effects of current day forest fires or past fire bombings.

The Hanford site isn't a long term storage site, which your post can be read to construe. 64 of these storage tanks date from the second world war, the rest all date from before 1964, when the project was at its peak with 9 reactors. By this year, almost all of the waste from the old tanks has been transferred to new tanks (only 4 tanks still have liquid waste). By 2040, all the plutonium will have been vitrified in glass and the remaining high level waste which is easier to manage will be loaded into barrels and shipped to New Mexico for geologic disposal. (the plutonium glass will likely be shipped to New Mexico aswell).

No one has proposed facilities like this for Alberta, and none currently exist in Canada. (Saskatchewan sometimes dabbles with the idea of a reprocessing and enrichment facility).

Anonymous said...

Kudos to poster #4 (another Anon), that was some very interesting information which was not conveyed in Dave's original entry. If that site is the result of a heavily dated nuclear weapons program and not the by-product of a modern nuclear energy facility, then it paints a very different picture.

michael in calgary said...

Anonymous 9:12:00 AM: Dave's point wasn't that this will happen in Alberta but that there are implications as to how current and future nuclear waste will be stored.

I echo Anonymous 3:33:00 PM in that 65 years ago they more than likely thought they had tank technology that would prevent tank failure due to age or assumed that future generations would take care of it. They did not and now we have a largely contaminated area in one of the largest river basins in North America.

A lot of Albertans are being complacent about the expansion of nuclear power in Alberta. There are real implications to the decisions we make today for future generations.

ryan said...

Good post.

Nuclear is not a solution.