In a previous post I was banging on about what appears to be quite a serious radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Program (WIPP), in the New Mexico desert. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a Department of Energy (DoE) ‘experimental’ nuclear waste dump (mostly the crap left over from the manufacture of nuclear weapons). The waste is stored 2000 feet below ground in vast salt mine caverns. The WIPP has been in operation for 15 years now, apparently without any incidents. Then, on 5th February, dense black smoke was seen coming from a mine ventilation shaft. It was announced that one of the vehicles in the mine had caught fire, which seemed plausible at the time. However, the plot thickened when it was announced that on 14th February a “puff” of unfiltered radiation came up one of the mine’s vent shafts, and contained isotopes of plutonium and americium. Apparently no one was in the mine at the time, although a number of workers above ground were contaminated. Since then things have become very confused. It would seem that no one has been down the mine since the vehicle fire on 5th February, and that there is a continuous release of radiation.
Much of the stuff stored at WIPP is transuranic waste (‘TRU’), which consists of man-made radionuclides, alpha emitters like plutonium. It’s lethal stuff, both at a chemicle level and an atomic level, which is why they have to put it half a mile underground. Ever since the 14th February radiation release, to allay concerns the Department of Energy and the WIPP have been holding a public meeting every week in the town of Carlsbad, which is 26 miles to the west of WIPP and the nearest large population centre. Fran Williams is a WIPP technical advisor. At a 6th March public meeting she came out with the following quite astounding statement…
You can find the complete meeting here.
To try and explain why Ms Williams’ statement is somewhat astounding, let’s take two of the better known isotopes: cesium-137 and plutonium-239. Imagine if you were sitting at your dining table, and a pea-sized piece of plutonium-239 was placed in the centre of the table. You’d be relatively safe because plutonium-239 is an alpha emitter, and alpha rays can’t penetrate very far; a sheet of paper or clothing or your skin will stop them. If we replace the plutonium-239 with a pea-sized piece of cesium-137 you’d be in trouble, because cesium-137 is a beta emitter and beta rays can penetrate much further than alpha rays, and can certainly go through a sheet of paper and clothing and skin, thus doing damage inside the body.
So, as an external source of ionising radiation, cesium-137 is much more dangerous than plutonium-239; but when it comes to internal ionising radiation (ie, if this stuff gets inside your body) the opposite is the case, because alpha rays, whilst they don’t penetrate very far, are much more energetic than beta rays, and in the case of plutonium-239 are very long lasting (plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, making it dangerous for 240,000 years). Cesium-137 has a decay energy of 1.2 electron volts, whilst plutonium-239 has a decay energy almost five times higher at 5.2 electron volts. This decay energy translates into damage done to body cells. To put it simply, plutonium-239 is much more carcinogenic than cesium-137; although don’t underestimate cesium-137, because it’s a nasty as well. So, when man-made radionuclides are released into the environment they get into the food chain and water supplies, and thus into living creatures, including us. This is by far the biggest health concern (and remember, many of these isotopes remain lethal for thousands or millions of years).
Now, getting back to the public meeting in Carlsbad, there’s two scenarios here: either these officials are complete ignoramuses, or else they are fully aware of how dangerous transuranic waste is and are deliberately misleading the public. Either way, you have to call into question the psychology of these people, and whether they should be allowed to hold the positions they do. Likewise, there’s now more than 80,000 cubic meters of nuclear waste at WIPP (here) and you have to question whether it’s sensible to put all this crap together in one place, because if anything goes wrong you could be in big trouble (I could also add that there’s oil and gas drilling right up to the boundries of WIPP; fracking as well – here). WIPP is designed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years, but much of these radionuclides have very long half-lives and need to be stored safely and securely for hundreds of thousands of years. No one really knows how to do this; and worldwide there are more than 400 nuclear reactors, and each year they produce tons and tons of nuclear waste. Remind me again, what’s the definition of insanity…
But getting back to WIPP, these last few weeks there’s been hardly any news at all. The latest comprehensive stuff I can find is a Nuclear Hotseat podcast from 1st April. Incidentally, also in the last few weeks many of the anti-nuke web sites have been hacked, including Nuclear Hotseat –
More about WIPP can be found in my previous post