Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Waste: The Nuclear Nightmare" sheds light on low-level radioactive contamination in Washington State, Russia, Europe (& holds insights for Japan)

*"Waste: The Nuclear Nightmare" airs Oct. 16, 2011 on Sundance Channel*

Waste: The Nuclear Nightmare spotlights contaminated regions in Washington State (which has the highest incidence of cancer in the U.S.) and Russia, and overviews the problem of nuclear waste that also hangs over Japan, the UK, Germany, and France.

...Some notes from the film...

Filmmaker Eric Guéret and producer Laure Noualhat open their 2009 film overviewing how nuclear nations have strewn nuclear waste into oceans for decades. Some ocean bottoms have become nuclear dumping grounds, covered with radioactive waste after the barrels ripped open.

Mike Townsley of Greenpeace International describes the rusted radioactive waste barrels and answers his own question: "Where’s the radioactive waste? It’s in the environment. It becomes part of the food chain.

"Everybody did this. The British. The French. The Americans. The Russians. In less than 50 years, they've buried over 100 metric tons of nuclear waste in various oceans."

"It took ten years for nuclear activists to build worldwide support for a 1993 UN Treaty forbid dumping radioactive waste."

Hanford Nuclear Complex, along the Columbia River in Washington State, 1960

Hanford Nuclear Reservation (HNR), the world's first nuclear manufacturing site, is one of the most contaminated places in the world. In 1942, the Roosevelt administration chose Washington State as a site to develop radioative components for atomic bombs because they wanted a remote area to minimize fatalities in case of an accident.

At its peak, the massive complex (half the size of the state of Maryland) employed 51,000 people at 9 nuclear reactors and plutonium factories. A breeder reactor was built in 1943 to produce plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. No one was allowed to know how many leaks, accidents or fires took place at Hanford.

"This was all secret. It was a US Army operation."

Without the consent of nearby residents (farmers and members of the Yakima tribe, the indigenous people whose territory included Washington state), plant operators used water from a nearby river for plant cooling and discharged the used water right back into the river. Plant operators let people use the river without telling families of the dangers to which they were exposed.

(Exposure map for the "Green Run" U.S. Air Force nuclear radiation experiment at Hanford Nuclear Reservation that released somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 curies of iodine-131 into the air on December 2-3, 1949. (Image:

The plant produced 1,500 billion liters of nuclear waste that operators dumped, contaminating the Columbia River ecosystem. They poured liquid waste directly into trenches dug in the earth and put 210 million liters of radioactive and chemical waste into 177 concrete tanks they buried in the ground. By the 1960's, some tanks were already leaking, and now 67 tanks have failed, leaking 4 million liters of waste, thereby contaminating the water table. In 2002, Strontium 90 was found present in Columbia River fish.

The film explains that, besides Hanford, the US government built a dozen nuclear sites in the U.S. to support the Manhattan Project, then shifts to a contaminated region in Russia that even most people in Russia did not know about until decades after the disasters, and that most people worldwide still don't know about...

In 1976, news leaked about an nuclear waste explosion in 1957 at the Mayak nuclear weapons complex (built by Gulag-era prison laborers in the eastern Urals and probably modeled after Hanford; U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers' destination when he was shot down in Soviet airspace in 1960). The explosion at Mayak, a Soviet plutonium production site, was the worst nuclear accident in the world before Chernobyl, and one of three catastrophic nuclear accidents at Mayak.

Villages in a previously idyllic region were contaminated by the fallout. The disaster was kept secret; no one could see the radiation, so didn't understand what had happened. The Soviet government buried the harvest, saying it was contaminated but they wouldn't explain how this happened; and dumped nuclear waste into lakes, which contaminated the Techa River which goes to Siberia.

Many villages were evacuated. Two thirds of the population have left. Now village houses are empty because almost everyone who stayed have died. Cancers. Heart conditions. Diabetes. All linked to radioactive contamination of the environment: tritrium and cesium-137 has transformed affected soil into radioactive waste. Plutonium 239 and 240, which creates the explosive component of nuclear bombs, is now part of the river.

One lonely peasant who refused to leave says, “When I see the empty houses, I feel the same anguish as after a bombing.”

Others who chose or had no alternative but to remain say they are waiting to die of cancer and are tested every year: “They are using us as guinea pigs.” Last year I lost my son. He would have been 48. He died of cancer. We live like guinea pigs. It’s our fate.”

The Soviet Union tried to keep the Mayak explosion at its top secret plant and the consequences of radioactive fallout secret. It wasn't until dissident scientist Zhores Mendedev reported the accident in 1976 that it became known to the outside world. The Gorbachev government confirmed this a decade later. With Glasnost, people began to talk...

A Russian interviewee in the film explains: “It’s dangerous to our entire society. The nuclear industry started to let its secrets go. There were rumor that wrong-doings were hidden; we started talking about Mayak. Then Yeltsin came to power. Things hushed up again."

All nuclear energy plants and weapons plants discharge nuclear waste, so the issue of low-level radiation contamination is problematic for the UK, France, Germany, Japan and other countries that have nuclear energy industries and also for nations that produce nuclear weapons.

The AREVA nuclear waste reprocessing plant in La Hague has long been dumping nuclear waste into the English Channel. Iodine 129 is being detected as far as the Arctic. Seaweed, shellfish and mollusks are contaminated because the adjacent seabed has been turned into a nuclear waste dump. Krypton-85 is released into the atmosphere and carried by winds all over Europe.

The largest utilities company in Europe, France's EDF, sends "radioactive material" (recycled uranium) by train in metal containers for storage at an open-air car park in Seversk, Siberia [formerly a secret "closed city" where there are several nuclear reactors, plants for reprocessing uranium and plutonium as well as storage and production facilities for nuclear weapons].

In Japan, the US and the UK, the usual way to deal with nuclear waste is to keep it in large storage pools (a hazardous non-solution, as we now know from Fukushima). If the pools lose their water, the waste fuel heats up and catches fire.

Both Germany and Switzerland pronounced storage pools unsafe. Germany has moved nuclear waste into concrete into hillsides or thick concrete buildings.

Now the world has 450 nuclear waste storage pools spread across countries using nuclear power. Some have proposed storing nuclear waste at very deep depths in the earth, but is this efficient give the totality of costs of the nuclear industry, which would cease to exist without extensive taxpayer-funded subsidies?

It's misleading to use Hiroshima and Nagasaki high-level radiation models as a comparison with continuous external and internal low-level radiation exposure.

The French government's attitude towards nuclear energy might be likened to a state religion. The state almost wholly owns AREVA, the French nuclear corporation and biggest atomic operator in the world; therefore the French government pushes nuclear energy worldwide for its own profit and has failed to develop renewable sources of energy. Germany markedly contrasts with France: the broad public is not inhibited by the state from engaging in serious debate about the risks of nuclear energy production.


More on the film from the Int. Panel of Fissile Materials blog:
On 20 February 2010 Greenpeace issued a call for a moratorium on shipments of reprocessed uranium from France to Russia. Activists had been repeatedly blocking rail shipments of the material from the La Hague reprocessing plant to Cherbourg port.

Parliamentary enquiry, government statements, Greenpeace actions are a few of the stunning consequences of a 100-minutes TV documentary Déchets - Le Cauchemar du Nucléaire (Waste - The Nuclear Nightmare) broadcast by the Franco-German station ARTE for the first time on 13 October 2009 and re-broadcast by various television stations since. The documentary presents the results of an investigation into nuclear waste management in the US, Russia, Germany and France. The authors Eric Guéret and Laure Noualhat were often accompanied by technicians of the French independent radiation-monitoring lab CRIIRAD.

They detected and measured radiation in many places where they went, from the Columbia river close to the US nuclear weapons lab in Hanford to the Soviet counterpart Mayak in the Urals. Some of the most remarkable scenes include a Geiger counter that goes crazy under a publicly accessible bridge over the Techa river and a scene outside the French "plutonium factory" called reprocessing plant at La Hague. In the latter case a spokesman for operator AREVA, when asked about radiation levels in the fields outside the plant, stated after a long hesitation that he would not call this contamination, but "absence of impact" before stumbling: "Well, we'll redo that one..."

However, remarkably enough, the largest impact had a simple mass calculation that the journalists presented. Constantly facing the AREVA PR that states that 96% of the nuclear materials are "recycled" through the reprocessing scheme, the reporters inquired where the recovered uranium, roughly 95% of the mass of spent fuel, does end up. In fact, AREVA has been sending most of the reprocessed uranium (23,000 tons were still stored in France at the end of 2008), to Russia officially for re-enrichment.

In fact, even if all of that uranium had indeed been re-enriched, which is not the case, over 90% of the mass remains in Russia as enrichment tails. This material is waste, because there is absolutely no economic incentive to re-enrich it, in particular considering the hundreds of thousands of tons of "clean", first generation enrichment tails that are stored in Russia and in the other major enrichment countries, including in France (close to 260,000 tons at two sites).

The message that AREVA's "recycling" ratio had to be corrected from 95% to less than 10% of the original mass send a shockwave through the French political landscape. The minister of Environment asked for clarifications and the parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Option Assessment (OPECST) organized public hearings. During the hearings EDF has admitted that, apart from a period of about five years, 100% of the reprocessed uranium had been sent to Russia.

Between 2000 and approximately 2005 (the EDF representative was not certain) reprocessed uranium was sent to URENCO's Dutch plant that can re-enrich reprocessed uranium (contrary to URENCO's UK and German plants). EDF signed a contract with AREVA to use part of the Georges-Besse-2 plant, currently under construction, to enrich reprocessed uranium for a period of about 10 years starting in 2013. The French Nuclear Safety Authority ASN announced that by the end 2010 it will have finished studies into the potential requalification of reprocessed uranium as waste.

The full version of the film "Déchets - Le Cauchemar du Nucléaire", by Eric Guéret and Laure Noualhat (in French and German with English subtitles) is available online. ARTE-Editions has also published a 210-page book by Laure Noualhat with the same title (in French).
More on nuclear waste:

"Top Ten Talking Points on the Environmental Impacts Caused by Reprocessing High-Level Radioactive Waste" (Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear, November 2008)

• Heart of America Northwest: The Public's Voice for Hanford's Cleanup

• "Hanford Nuclear Waste Still Poses Serious Risks"(Marc Pitzke, Spiegel Online, March 24, 2011) In-depth report on radioactive contamination, including the intentional release of radioactive clouds during an experiment by Hanford physicists that they called "Green Run."

• "Risky Nuclear Experiments on a Global Collision Course -- it's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Radioactive World!" (Dvija Michael Bertish, HOANW blog, Feb. 2011):
the states of New York, Connecticut and Vermont have sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over a federal policy that allows nuclear waste to be stored at a nuclear power plant for 60 years after it has been decommissioned. The three states challenge this policy because it allows long term storage of nuclear waste without environmental review. Most nuclear plants were developed without sufficient infrastructure for safe long term waste storage.
"Analysis Triples U.S. Plutonium Waste Figures" (Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times, July 10, 2010)

• "Mayak: A 50-year tragedy" (Greenpeace, September 28, 2007)

• "The French Nuclear Industry Is Bad Enough in France; Let's Not Expand It to the U.S. -- Areva, France's nuclear industry, has a solid reputation, but a trail of radioactive waste and deaths in Africa follow its wake."(Linda Gunter, Alternet, March 23, 2009 - mentions the French use of leftover radioactive dirt (tailings) and rocks from 210 abandoned uranium mines in school playgrounds and ski resort parking lots.)

Cheylabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet (This site contains information about Kyshtym-57, an environmental organization which is working to help radiation victims in the Chelyabinsk region; a film description and script from Chelyabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet, a documentary by Slawomir Grunberg.)

Cheylabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet official film website:
"Nobody knows anything about us. Chernobyl happened, but that's Europe. The pollution reached Europe, and the whole world was upset. But us, out here in the backwoods of Russia? Nobody knows about it, nobody in the world cares about the fate we've sealed for ourselves here." - Farida Shaimardanova, Muslyumovo teacher
"Urals Nuclear Disasters Contaminated 450,000 : Russia: Figure is given by officials in account of events at the Mayak atomic plant from 1948 to 1967. They say site could still pose hazards" (Richard Bourdreaux, The Los Angeles Times, Jan. 30, 1993)

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