September 19, 2017

Reprocessing the truth

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The Ecologist Analyses the Windscale Report. This pamphlet, published by The Ecologist in 1978, was written by Edward Goldsmith, Peter Bunyard, and Nicholas Hildyard.


1. Introduction

The proposed extension of BNFL’s reprocessing facilities at Windscale is the thin edge of the nuclear wedge. Although Mr. Justice Parker claims that such an extension need not have any bearing on future policy and development of nuclear power, it is clear that THORP – the proposed Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant only has practical and economic advantage if Britain is to embark on an aggressive fast breeder reactor programme. Despite his statements to the contrary, he has to a large extent pre-empted the outcome of any future hearing on Britain’s first commercial fast breeder reactor.

There is a perfidious logic in Parker’s report which could dangerously mislead anyone ignorant of the fundamental issues associated with nuclear power and the atomic cycle. Parker has a way of twisting the argument so that the objectors’ case seems to support BNFL’s. Thus he manages to argue that instead of increasing the chances of proliferation, reprocessing actually reduces them: instead of incurring a greater threat from radioactive waste, it diminishes it: and instead of leading to a greater drain on energy resources, it actually augments them.

At issue with the Inquiry was the future shape of our society and a number of objectors argued that if mankind is to survive, an alternative must be found to our present high energy, growth orientated lifestyle. Parker listened to them but gave them no credence. He accepts the status quo of our industrial society without question, arguing that only nuclear energy can give us the power to progress. Yet no evidence emerged at the inquiry to show that nuclear energy is a viable option for the future, or that our industrial system can be sustained in the long-term. The thesis of A Blueprint for Survival and The Limits to Growth still stands, and Parker fails to come to grips with its implications. Indeed, in plumping for BNFL’s limited view of the future, he and his assessors have despatched us down a one-way street to moral, ecological and social bankruptcy.

2. The Answer to Pollution?

2.0. Corrosion or Storage

The first generation of Britain’s nuclear power stations, the Magnox reactors use fuel elements which corrode if left too long in their cooling ponds. No one disputes the need for reprocessing magnox fuel in order to prevent radioactive contamination of the cooling ponds, and hence the environment. Parker has used the same argument to justify the reprocessing of oxide fuel from Britain’s Advanced Gas Reactors.
AGR fuel is clad in stainless steel, and Mr. B. F. Wamer of BNFL stated at the inquiry that because of corrosion “it would be imprudent to store substantial quantities of stainless steel clad fuel in ponds for more than a decade.” His statement that AGR fuel corrodes came as a surprise to objectors. As late as November

1976, more than ten years after implementing its AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor) programme, the CEGB had only just begun to make preliminary enquiries about the storage of stainless steel clad fuel. It contacted four American companies to find out what their exprience had been with such spent fuel. In reply the companies stated that they had had no problems to date with fuels stored for up to seven years, nor did they expect to find any.

“It is worth noting”, says Walt Patterson of FOE, “that until the paper submitted to the Inquiry by the UKAEA – which is undated but which appears to have been produced after the commencement of the Inquiry – there does not seem to have been any published paper anywhere raising any doubt about the performance of spent fuel in water storage.” Considering BNFL’s lack of research on the subject, it is curious that Mr. Parker should rely on its evidence.

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2.1 Vitrification

On the assumption that spent fuel, which contains considerable quantities of plutonium, will corrode, Parker argues that extracting the plutonium during reprocessing will diminish- environmental pollution. The high level wastes produced by reprocessing contain some 1000 times less plutonium than does intact spent fuel. “Our responsibilities to future generations therefore appear to demand reprocessing”, he states.

Parker accepts that “if permission to develop is granted and if BNFL go ahead as planned, there will be more plutonium and uranium separated; more discharges to the sea and the atmosphere; more material for burial at Drigg; more dumping in the deep oceans; and more storage of highly active waste.” He believes, however, that these are all problems that cau be controlled. Professor Ivan Tolstoy is less optimistic.

Reprocessing makes the management and disposal of nuclear wastes “more dangerous and more difficult” than conventional storage. The liquid wastes boil unless constantly refrigerated and they must be kept in special tanks. Moreover alongside the high level wastes proper, there will also be large quantities of chopped up fuel cladding and other plutonium contaminated trash.

A thousand years or more will nave to pass before the radioactivity in such tanks has reduced through decay to anything like acceptable levels. To overcome the intractable problem of maintaining such tanks for a millennium, atomic energy experts talk of vitrifying the waste into glass blocks to be disposed of in geological sites. It is generally agreed that the glass blocks will disintegrate over a long period of time, but it is claimed that the amount of radiation released will be negligible.

Parker therefore argues that once disposed of the glass blocks are safer than intact spent fuel would be, primarily because they contain so much less plutonium. If the spent fuel rods should break, the consequence “could be particularly serious”, says Parker, “for not only might the plutonium get back to man as such, but it might accumulate, for example in a clay deposit, reach a critical mass and then release highly active fission products.” That appears to beap admission on Parker’s part that Mevedhev’s story about the 1958 explosion in the Urals, in which several hundred square miles were devastated, could contain more than a grain of truth. Is it not significant that only a few months ago, Sir John Hill informed us that such an accident was impossible?

Favouring vitrification over conventional storage does not, however, put an end to the problem of waste disposal. It might do if the vitrification process had been perfected but Harwell scientists have not so far come up with a satisfactory technique that can be used industrially despite 25 years experimentation. Indeed there is growing evidence to suggest that their search is a vain one.

Tolstoy, for instance, points out that the heat emitted by the radionuclides may fracture the glass – a possibility reinforced by studies at the University of Grenoble – and that if the glass cylinders are disposed of on the ocean bed, as suggested by the NRPB, their fate cannot be predicted with any precision. Nor are those the only problems associated with waste disposal. The fission products, caesium-134 and 137, and strontium-90, must be isolated for not less than 600 years: americium-241 and plutonium-239 for half a million years or more and other actinides for even longer. Even should the vitrification process prove possible, it is impossible for the wastes to be kept isolated from the biosphere for such long periods.

Yet Parker accepts unhesitatingly BNFL’s word that its HARVEST vitrification programme will be a success and that the technique of waste disposal will be mastered. One million years ago, civilization did not exist: in the meantime we have had an ice-age and gigantic geological upheavals. How on earth can BNFL predict what will happen in the next one hundred millennia?

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2.2. Two evils

Waste disposal is just one example of how, by opting for nuclear power, we have forced ourselves to make an impossible choice between two evils. On the one hand, we can adopt conventional storage techniques, and risk an explosion like that in the USSR. On the other we can put our trust in an untried technology, which to date remains unproven. There are alternatives to nuclear power but by refusing to discuss the fundamental question of whether a nuclear future is either right or acceptable, Parker has virtually taken upon himself God-like rights to decide this enormous moral question for us.

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2.3. Permissible levels

Reprocessing unleashes a cascade of radionuclides, a proportion of them escaping through the factory stack into the atmosphere and being released – at authorised levels – into the sea and waterways. Aqueous discharges include caesium-134 and 147, strontium-90, tritium, iodine-129, ruthenium-106; zirconium-95, niobium-95 as well as a number of alpha emitters such as plutonium-239. Atmospheric discharges include krypton-85, tritium, carbon-14, iodine-129, ruthenium106, strontium-90 and alpha emitters.

Parker does not consider that their release in any way invalidates his argument that reprocessing will reduce pollution. He believes that so long as the permissible levels established by the ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) are adhered to faithfully, the, public will be fully protected from dangerous levels of exposure to radioactive pollution. Are we really so well protected by ICRP’s standards?

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2.4. Ignorance

We are too ignorant of all the factors involved to be able to set standards that have very much more than symbolic value. Even Hetherington, a witness for BNFL, acknowledges that “the appalling lack of useful information of the chemical form of transuranics and for that matter a lot of other nuclides in the environment leaves no scientific foundation for assessing detriment.” Still less do we know about the different pathways whereby radionuclides enter into contact with men, nor the precise way in which they affect living tissue.

It is generally conceded that there is no threshold dose below which radiation levels can be regarded as safe. Parker accepts that any radiation over and above that from natural sources must do biological harm. The question is not therefore a purely scientific one, but. a moral one: how many extra cases of cancer and congenital diseases are a just price to pay for the extra fuel that THORP will put at our disposal and the extra money it will earn for us be reprocessing Japanese wastes?

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2.5. Low Dose Radiation

Because of our ignorance of the, dose response relationship we are in the dark when it comes to fixing levels. The ICRP assumes the dose-response relationship to be linear. However, as Bowen pointed out at the Inquiry, new information suggests that it may deviate from the linear at very low doses, the biological damage being proportionately greater at the bottom end of the dose-response curve. That notion was curtly dismissed by Parker, although it fits with data obtained from other sources, indeed Dr. Alice Stewart gave evidence of a
26 percent increase in cancer among the labour force of the Hanford Atomic Energy Works in Washington State, the increase indicated a 20-fold higher effect of radiation in cancer-induction than accepted by ICRP.

Parker did not find Dr. Stewart’s evidence “impressive” and he berated her for adopting “too patronising an attitude” towards her rival, Dr. Gilbert, whose research was cited by BNFL. He also misrepresented Professor Rotblat’s evidence so as to suggest that he, too, contested Dr. Stewart’s evidence. Intact Rotblat had simply not been given time to study her evidence, to see if he agreed with it. Elsewhere he states explicitly that he considers current permissible levels to be too high. Bowen’s evidence, as well as that of Rotblat and Stewart, fits in well with further evidence not mentioned at the Inquiry, which shows an alarmingly high incidence of cancer among workers habitually handling radio-active material in a naval dockyard in the USA.

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2.6. Levels Too Lax

Levels fixed in the past have always been too high, and have had to be reduced no fewer than four times since 1931. Then the recommended permissible dose for occupational persons was 73 rems a year. This was reduced to 50 rems in 1936, 25 in 1948, 15 in 1954 and 5 in 1958. On what grounds does Parker believe that the experts who fixed the last permissible level are more reliable than their many predecessors?

On the contrary there is good reason. to suppose that the ICRP’s approach to the fixing of permissible levels has grown laxer over the years. Ichekawa points out that “In 1954 ICRP strongly recommended that every effort should be made to reduce exposure to all types of ionizing radiation to the lowest possible level. By 1958 it was recommending that all doses be kept as low as practicable, and that any unnecessary exposure be avoided. That was further altered in 1965 to, all doses be kept as low as is readily achievable, economic and social considerations being taken into account. That was revised partially in 1973 to as low as is reasonably achievable.”

These shifts from first to last represent an obvious regression of ICRP policy. Equally suspect is the fact that ICRP has not reduced permissible levels since 1958 despite the wealth of evidence that low dose radiation is more harmful than previously believed.

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2.7. New Information

Is it because of their vested interest that members of ICRP have not kept abreast of the latest developmEmts in radiobiology? Thus permissible levels for inhalation of plutonium are based on the estimated radiosensitivity of the lung, but the lung may not be the critical tissue. New information reveals that the radiosensitivity of the bronchial epithelium is much more sensitive than the lungs to soluble particles of plutonium.

Radford maintains that the air standard for exposure to insoluble plutonium should be lowered by a factor of about 200 firstly because the capacity of plutonium to induce lung cancer has been underestimated 20-fold, secondly because the radiosensitivity of the bronchial epithelium has been underestimated 10-fold. In spite of Professor Radford’s being a member of the US National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on the biological effects of ionising radiation, his evidence was rejected. Mr. Parker faulted it on the basis of unconvincing statistical technicalities. If it were taken into account then THORP could never be built.

Along with the ICRP and BNFL, Mr. Parker also assumes that inhalation is the only critical pathway. Relatively large amounts of plutonium can be eaten, he says, “without appreciable harm.” This is an indefensible assumption for it is based on the notion that plutonium is. insoluble in living tissue. This is backed. by a few experiments with animals, which as Bowen points out are open to very serious criticism. Mercury too was once considered insoluble in tissue hence harmless. Nevertheless hundreds of people have died of mercury poisoning and thousands more grotesquely deformed at Minnemata and in Iraq. How do we know that the same is not true of plutonium?

Manfred Siebker, nuclear physicist and member of the Club of Rome; suggested such a possibility in The Ecologist (May 1977). This would appear to be the only explanation for a recent appreciable increase in the plutonium content of vegetation in the Hanford area. It also seems the only way of explaining the high values for plutonium in the urine of the resettled native population of Bikini Atol.

BNFL claims that plutonium’s main pathway to man is from the Windscale stack and it is on that basis that measurements are made of likely biological damage. As Bowen points out, BNFL is ignoring at least three other sources of plutonium contamination: the dusts that escape the filter systems in the exhaust stacks; the sediments that wash up on the beaches, a portion of which become windborn and the atomization of transuranic particles by the action of waves on the shore.

“Examination of the inhalation pathway associated with resuspension of contaminated sediments was only seriously started in 1976,” says Bowen, “even though sediment wash-up and blowing away had been known to the Department of the Environment since 1969.” That this is not. a trivial problem is indicated by the information in Mr. Hermiston’s testimony that the mean air concentration of plutonium particulates in the area of the Ravenglass estuary was about ten times the mean in the surrounds of the Windscale works.

No specific limits have been set on discharges of plutonium into the sea. They are included in a block limit on alpha emissions. That limit masks the appreciable differences in the biological effects of alpha-radionuclides. Thus, as Bowen points out, “even though radium 226 and plutonium are both bone-seeking elements in mammals, plutonium has 10 times greater effectiveness in bone cancer induction, because it is deposited close to the most radiosensitive cell layers while radium is deposited throughout the mineral layers.”

Worse still BNFL includes in its alpha-emissions only the plutonium 249 discharged directly to the sea. Conveniently it does not take into account other alpha-emitting radionuclides such as americium-241 into which plutonium-239, a beta-emitter, transforms. Bowen considers that “if americium’s higher absorption efficiency and higher toxicity were taken into account, it would be reasonable to multiply the estimated plutonium exposure by 10 times or more.” Why do BNFL not take americium discharges into account?

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2.8. Radioactive Emissions

Parker fully accepts BNFL’s assurances that THORP can be built to such high design standards that although the throughput of irradiated fuel will increase considerably the discharges will be lower than at present. The credibility of this claim rests on the nuclear industry’s past record. In 1962 Williams and Davidge of the UKAEA claimed that although nuclear capacity would increase to 8,000 megawatts by 1971 “the effluent discharged to the sea associated with this installation will be about one quarter of the total discharge level in 1959 to 1960″. The releases in 1971 should then have been of the order of 25,000 curies. In fact they were over 200,000 curies, or 16 times the levels predicted.

What explanation does BNFL have to offer? Why is it that the British government rejects the strict emission standards set by the EEC? The technology exists to reduce. substantially radioactive discharges from reprocessing plants and is already being made use of in Germany. Why has BNFL not adopted it? Is it because the economics of reprocessing militate against excessive care? Or is it simply because large scale reprocessing is inevitably a dirty business?

Caesium 134 and 137 are just two radioisotopes that have already slipped BNFL’s safety net, and between 1972 and 1976 the quantities discharged rose from 25,000 to 136,000 curies. Even the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), has shown concern, for according to the Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratories (FRL), fish taken near the Windscale outfall pipe contain enough caesium to produce one third of the ICRP maximum permissible dose, in those who eat it regularly (The Canadian nuclear industry manages to keep emissions down to 1 percent of the maximum permissible limits).

Nor does dispersal by dilution work as effectively as once believed: radioactive levels in the sea water are only a factor of 13 lower across the sea off the coast of Ireland. The actual levels in fish may have been underestimated. MAFF scientists do not actually measure levels in the fish themselves but only in the sea water: they then multiply the levels by 30, on the basis that fish concentrate caesium by such a factor. That assumption is based on experiments with plaice which, as Radford points out, is a relatively poor concentrator of caesium. It would be more realistic, says Radford, to assume that levels in fish are 60 to 70 times higher than in the surrounding sea-water.

BNFL makes no attempt to control either the emissions of tritium or of krypton-85 and carbon-l4. As an isotope of hydrogen, tritium combines with oxygen to form water, and hence becomes part of the hydrological cycle. Carbon-14 is also readily metabolised by all living matter. In his testimony Dr. Spearing suggested that carbon-14 presented a greater threat to life than any other radionuclide discharged during reprocessing.

Professor Fremlin stated at the inquiry that krypton-85 released from Windscale would constitute but a trivial increment to the total inventory of discharged radionuclides. According to. Dr. Boeck, of the International Commission of Atmospheric Eiectricity natural krypton-85 scarcely existed in the atmosphere until we put it there. The Windscale plant will release over 15 million curies per year thus adding some 230 million curies to the environment: that is about 20 million times natural background levels.

Bowen points out that “all of the low level releases to the environment currently occurring contain long lived radio-isotopes which are being discharged at a rate exceeding the rate at which their radioactivity is decaying. In consequence there is a gradual and insidious build-up of environmental radioactivity, and there is a very real risk of irreversible contamination of our planet to a degree that will impose a severe burden of human suffering.” So much for our responsibility to future generations.

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2.9. Synergy

Nor do any of the authorising bodies take account of synergistic effects between radiation and other carcinogens to which industrial populations are exposed. As Blacksmith points out, uranium miners who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day have a much higher rate of lung cancer (13.3 cases per 1,000) than would be expected if the cancer rate from working in a uranium mine and that from smoking 20 cigarettes a day were additive (3.91 cases per 1,000). Selikoff also found that of 283 asbestos workers who smoked cigarettes 24 died from bronchogenic cancer compared with the expected number of 2.98. A considerable proportion of adults in industrial cities have been found on autopsy to have asbestos particles in their lungs. Synergic effects are very widespread and it must be remembered that we are subjects to an increasing amount of toxins, of which plutonium is only one.

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2.10. Critical Groups, Critical Pathways

British policy towards authorised discharges from Windscale is governed largely by their assessment of the exposure to radiation of a critical group, that is a section of the public which through its activities and its location is most exposed to radiation. The philosophy behind this approach is that so long as the dose rates to the critical group remain within permissible levels then the public at large will be safeguarded. That assumption is dependent on our understanding not only of the behaviour patterns of the critical group how long they spend where and when – but also on a full understanding of the physical and biological behaviour of radionuclides discharged from the Windscale works.

Only those radionuclides considered relevant to a critical pathway are examined. Thus the uptake of ruthenium by porphyra seaweed is followed because the seaweed is used for making laver bread in South Wales. Another critical group is made up of adults who may walk on the mud flats of the Ravenglass estuary. So long as they do not spend more than 300 hours a year on the mud flats, we are told, they will be safe.

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