The Week That Was
March 25, 2000

The Week That Was March 25, 2000 brought to you by SEPP


Science magazine [Oct. 15, 1999] featured a quite pessimistic appraisal of the government's plan for geological containment of spent nuclear fuel in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 requires such disposal and provided for the investigation of three sites in different rock types [bedded salt, basalt, and volcanic tuff]. In 1987, Congress amended the act to focus on a single site, Yucca Mountain. And in the 1992 Energy Policy Act, Congress directed EPA to prepare standards specific to Yucca. Approximately three billion dollars have been spent on studies on the proposed Yucca Mountain site, and work proceeds towards a license application in 2001.

The article by Rodney Ewing, a nuclear engineer at the University of Michigan, appraises risk factors and barriers, and whether one can guarantee their competence and adequacy for more than 10,000 years. We believe that it would be much better to focus on how EPA is developing the radioactivity standards for the repository. A more realistic attitude on the standards could have a much larger impact on the plans than any other factor.

In our view, as expressed quite frequently over the last 15 years, the whole effort of geologic isolation is misguided. Storing the spent fuel at or near the reactor site would avoid great expense as well as the psychic risk of transporting the spent fuel to Nevada from reactor locations around the country. After a few decades, when fission products have decayed to a level comparable to that of natural uranium, the spent fuel elements could be handled more safely and are likely to yield valuable materials after we process them. Simple principles of conservation demand that reprocessing be considered at least as an option.

And talking about recycling of spent nuclear fuel: Russia just announced its Minatom project, to take in spent fuel from other nations, store it, and start a recycling operation after 2020. They think there is money to be made here - and we would agree. Isn't it ironic that the US has not yet caught on to such a basically capitalistic scheme?


In Tokimura, Japan, the site of Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident last year, the technician who received the highest dose of radiation is still alive and undergoing an experimental procedure using blood stem cells. He was exposed to more than three times the standard lethal dose, or more than 5,000 times the normal background radiation.

The incident on September 30, 1999, occurred at a nuclear fuel processing facility and was caused by carelessness of workers who inadvertently set off a nuclear chain reaction. They broke procedure in a number of ways, and also overloaded the sedimentation tank with seven times the approved amount of uranium. The chain reaction was prolonged by the cooling system surrounding the tank and lasted 18 hours.

Meanwhile, in a nuclear safety conference in France last year, a senior researcher from the Moscow-based Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy discussed two accidents that took place in the early 1970s. Although two technicians were killed, no radioactivity was released over the city.

Again, the result was human error, with technicians not following the prescribed procedure. A flash of radiation, lasting only milliseconds, delivered a dose well over the accepted lethal value to four technicians. Two died, but two survived after extensive medical treatment.

Food irradiation is a coming battlefield between enviro-freaks and those who want to protect public health. Irradiation of meat products would destroy bacteria that caused more than 2.6 million illnesses per year and could eliminate a particularly hazardous variant of E.Coli. It would also reduce salmonella by factors measured in the trillions, as documented in a 1999 report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The World Health Organization states that "food irradiation is perhaps the most thoroughly investigated aspect of food technology." But in spite of the well-established benefits, federal regulations now permit irradiation only for poultry and spices. Approvals for seafood, pre-cooked meats, and eggs are years away.

Unfortunately, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines irradiation as a "food additive" and focuses the attention of the FDA on whether irradiation is safe rather than whether it reduces risks to public health. A large part of the problem also are the "public interest groups," like Food and Water. Others, like Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, have been neutral; but by requiring conspicuous labeling, they raise radiation fears among consumers. There has been a complete lack of leadership by the White House on this important health issue. In an article in Science magazine, Randall Lutter suggests that the White House serve irradiated turkey at the next state dinner.

SIMPLIFIED CLIMATE SCIENCE (as contributed by a reader)

SUBJECT: Glacier stuff from Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (Feb 15, 2000).
Abstract of article "As climate changes, so do glaciers" by Thomas V. Lowell, Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati.

"Understanding abrupt climate changes requires detailed spatial/temporal records of such changes, and to make these records, we need rapidly responding, geographically widespread climate trackers. Glacial systems are such trackers, and recent additions to the stratigraphic record show overall synchronous response of glacial systems to climate change reflecting global atmosphere conditions."

WHAT WAS DONE: They observed glaciers melting. (Side note: the author also likes to watch grass grow and paint drying.)

WHAT THEY FOUND: When it's hot, glaciers melt. When it gets even hotter, they melt even more. And coincidentally, when it's cold they grow larger.

WHAT IT MEANS: Worldwide glacial retreat would suggest that the balance of evidence would support the factual statement that the assumption could be made that considering all factors it is reasonable to presume that the preponderance of documentation might actually be interpreted to mean that although others might conclude contrarian but not with absolute reassurance and most likely somewhat incorrectly that it is most likely suggestive of a discernible reasonable implication that indeed ... ITS WARMING.

[And so it is. It's warmer now than 100 years ago, mainly because of the pre-1940 temperature increase when the Earth recovered from the "Little Ice Age"]

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