Cancer institutes under the lens: radioactive waste

Please read article, cited after the quote. Articles open in a new window.

When we talk of garbage not being disposed off well, we do not think about garbage other than the regular kitchen waste and plastic. One major type of waste that we hardly talk about is radioactive waste, produced at cancer hospitals. While our kitchen waste may not be so harmful, radioactive waste can be hazardous. On a casual inquiry, I found out that the cancer hospitals in Bengaluru were apparently disposing residual radioactive waste into the public sewerage and garbage.

This sounds alarming, but this is what they are supposed when the radioactive material (used for treatment) is ‘fully used’. On matters of radioactive waste disposal, cancer hospitals in India are governed by guidelines issued by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). According to radiotherapy physicists (doctors), once the radioactive material is fully used (or spent) and decayed, it does not remain harmful.


Utah left out of loop with radioactive waste buried here


Utah left out of loop with radioactive waste buried here
October 28th, 2008 @ 1:07pm
By Tom Callan

Nuclear waste from Canada and Mexico is buried in Utah, and state regulators didn’t even know.

Gov. Huntsman says the shipment of low-level nuclear waste into Utah by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is shameful. Today he’s vowing it won’t happen again.

Federal regulators granted two waste disposal licenses to a Mexican nuclear power plant and one for Canadian waste between 2004 and 2006, but no one bothered to notify Utah.

The feds say the amounts were “insignificant”, so they didn’t feel they needed to notify the state. The Mexican waste was more than 1,000 cubic feet, and the Canadian waste was more than 6,000 tons. Utah authorities want to know how much would be “significant.”

Gov. Huntsman said, “This is unacceptable, and it always will be unacceptable. The fact that we didn’t know about it in years gone by, I think is unacceptable.”

But could the feds be sneaking in more radio-active waste now? Huntsman doesn’t think so. “Our people are very, very good in working with the Northwest Compact, which regulates all of this,” he said.

The governor vows never again.


Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines

Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines

from the top 10 Worst Pollution Problems


Radioactive Materials and Wastes covers materials from a wide range of sources that emit radiation of different types, at levels that impact human health. Radioactive materials are used for power generation, military purposes, for treatment and analyses in the medical sector, for material control and treatment in industry, products of daily life and in scientific applications.

Radioactivity is the sign that matter is decaying in order to reach, according to the law of physics, a better energetical state. As materials decay, they emit radiation, eventually disintegrating entirely and becoming innocuous. For some materials, this process can happen in a fraction of a second. For others however, it can take as long as millions of years. There are four basic types of radioactivity that affect human health: Alpha, Beta and Gammy decay and Neutron radiation. Each poses a particular type of threat to human health1.


Radioactive waste is categorized broadly as high or low level waste. The former results primarily from fuel used in civilian or military reactors, and the latter from a range of processes including reactors, and industrial and commercial uses.

High-Level Waste typically refers to ‘spent’ fuel from a nuclear reactor. Most reactors are powered by uranium fuel rods, which is at the beginning only slightly radioactive. However, when the fuel rod is ‘spent,’ or used, it is both highly radioactive and thermally hot. Radioactive materials will reduce their activity with a so-called half-life time. The half-life time is the time required for reducing the activity to half of its initial value. Radioactive half-life times can span from fractions of a second to millions of years.

Radioactive materials cannot be treated, but only become harmless when they have finished their decay. Because this can take millennia, these materials must be stored appropriately. There are worldwide efforts to find ways that high-level wastes can be reliably sealed off from the biosphere for at least a million years in so-called final repositories. The issues surrounding the long term storage of high level waste are complex and often controversial. Given the levels of hazard involved, this matter is essentially a government responsibility.

Low-Level Waste includes material that has only a small decay activity or has become contaminated with or activated by nuclear materials. This can be clothing used in nuclear industry, medical materials, spent radiation sources or materials from inside of reactors.

Uranium Mining and Processing Wastes are a special category of (normally) low level wastes, which are of major concern because of the volumes of radiating materials concentrated in usually a small area, thus creating an overall hazard. While uranium is mined around the world, some of the biggest producers are low-income countries. Indeed, of the ten largest producers of uranium, seven are in areas where industrial safety standards do not always correspond to the best industrial practices: Kazakhstan, Russia, Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and China2.

Typically uranium concentrations can be as low as 0.1 to 0.2% in mined ore, meaning that well over 99% of what is mined is rejected after processing. Once mined, ore must be milled to produce useful uranium concentrate. Milling is the process of grinding the ore and adding chemicals, usually sulfuric acid, to extract the uranium it contains. During milling, other constituents of the ore are released as well, including toxics like arsenic and lead. The byproduct of milling is a toxic sludge of tailings.

Because of the low concentration of uranium in ore, nearly as much sludge is produced as ore is mined. This leftover sludge contains a high amount of radioactivity – as much as 85% of the initial radioactivity of the ore. The tailings contain low-grade radioactivity but can be dangerous because of the very large quantities that are stored in rather small areas. Additionally, ground or surface water that is pumped away from the site during mining operations can also contain low levels of radiation and therefore contaminate local rivers and lakes.

Unless properly managed for long term stability and security, mining waste and milling tailings present a serious threat to human health, mostly through seepage and leaking of radioactive material. In this context, such mines have all the hazards of any poorly controlled hard rock mine, plus the special hazards of radioactivity. In the worst cases, mines have been developed in areas where seismic fault lines make tailings are particularly vulnerable to leakage3. And at some sites, tailings have been used in home construction. Unfortunately, because so much uranium mining happens in the developing world and often under the control of agencies whose objectives are production rather than safety, large amounts of toxic tailings continue to pose a threat to humans daily.

Exposure Pathways

Exposure pathways are multiple. Contaminated water and food dusted with fine materials carried by the air can result in ingestion of Alpha and Beta particles, which are dangerous when taken into the body through food, water or air. Proximity to radioactive materials – not only loosely secured dumps but also roads or other structures built with mining wastes – can result in exposure to Gamma particles and neutron radiation.

Health Effects

Radioactivity impacts the human metabolism in a wide variety of ways. Its effects can be dramatic, attacking all body functions in cases of severe exposure but more commonly seen as causing a range of cancers from exposure over a period of time or impacting the genetic code, which can result in health problems transmitted to the following generations.

There is no ‘safe’ level of radiation exposure. High exposures can result in death within hours to days to weeks. Individuals exposed to non-lethal doses may experience changes in blood chemistry, nausea, fatigue, vomiting or genetic modifications. Children are particularly vulnerable. Radiation has an effect on the cellular level. As children grow they divide more and more cells. There is therefore more opportunity for that process to be interfered with by radiation. Fetuses exposed to radiation can result in smaller head or brain size, poorly formed eyes, abnormal or slow growth and mental retardation4.

Some sites that have been noted as examples of the problem

Plutonium breeding and chemical processing facilities like Hanford Site, USA, or Mayak, Russia
Nuclear bomb test sites (worldwide) Nuclear power plants and reprocessing facilities (worldwide)
Uranium mining tailings in e.g. Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan

What is Being Done

Some countries have well regulated industries and manage radioactive waste appropriately. In particular, there are regimes in place, nationally and internationally, for managing high-level radioactive wastes. However, in others, especially the poorer ones there is little appreciation of the scale of the hazards related to uranium mining and processing wastes and little or no industry or government effort to deal with the problem. The approaches to dealing with some mining wastes are similar to those required to contain and stabilize any mining waste, with the additional need for much increased effort to reduce or eliminate critical pathways such as use of contaminated water sources or food production on polluted soils. Given the very poor and remote areas where uranium mining is often located, the options for the local population may be very limited. In these places, Green Cross Switzerland and Blacksmith Institute try to identify local partners and where possible implement projects to address some of the highest priority challenges.


1 “Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Last Updated April 12, 2007. Available at
2 “Uranium Mining” Information Papers. World Nuclear Association. Last Updated July 2008. Available at
3 Diehl, Peter. “Uranium Mining and Milling Wastes: An Introduction” World Information Service on Energy: WISE Uranium Project. Last Updated August 15, 2004. Available at
4 “Radiation Protection: Health Effects” Radition. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last Updated August 28, 2008. Available at

Additional Resources

Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines (word doc)

Additional Photos


Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines Calculating the level of radiation. Muslyumova, Russia. Photo by Blacksmith Institute.
Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines Radioactive Slag. Russia.  Photo by Blacksmith Institute.
Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines Geiger counter. Russia. Photo by Blacksmith Institute.
Radioactive Waste and Uranium Mines

Deactivating Radioactive Waste

Deactivating Radioactive Waste
Mag. Werner Sommer, PR und Kommunikation
Technische Universität Wien

Helmut Leeb
Photo 1: Helmut Leeb
Erwin Jericha
Photo 2: Erwin Jericha
The disposal of radioactive waste is often mentioned as an unsolved problem when it comes to using nuclear energy. A particular subject matter of many controversies and discussions is the isolation from the environment, an isolation that should be guaranteed for millions of years. If the duration of the necessary isolation can be diminished, we could this way “eliminate” the waste. Nuclear physicists of the Vienna University of Technology (TU) are researching, as part of a consortium represented in the entire Europe, the interaction of neutrons with relevant materials for the purpose of building an appropriate facility for the transmutation of dangerous residues. These results are the necessary basis for the development of facilities that would process radioactive waste. At the end of September 2008, the operations at the upgraded n_TOF facility at CERN will be resumed.
Vienna (TU) – In order to decrease the isolation time for radioactive waste, first of all, the actinides – elements whose nuclei are heavier than uranium (i.e. curium, actinium) – must be removed from the waste by processing (transmutation) into short-lived nuclei. “The core concept of transmutation – which was formulated as early as mid 20th century – consists of irradiating the actinides by fast neutrons. The highly stimulated nuclei that are generated this way suffer a fission, which leads to relatively short-lived nuclei, which in turn rapidly disintegrate into stable isotopes. Then, they cease to be radioactive,” explains Professor Helmut Leeb from the Atomic Institute of the Austrian Universities. Thus, the required radioactive waste isolation time of several millions years could be decreased to 300 and up to 500 years. The technological progress made in the last decades has made the transmutation possible at the industrial level.

An efficient transmutation of radioactive waste requires the development of new facilities. In addition to specially designed fast reactors, the Accelerator-Driven Systems (ADS) present a new potential concept. This is an undercritical reactor, which cannot sustain any chain reaction. The neutrons necessary for stationary operations are supplied by a proton accelerator with a spallation target located in the reactor core. “During the spallation, the atomic nuclei of the target (mainly lead) are broken with high-energy protons, while a large number of neutrons are normally released, neutrons which are necessary for the stationary operation of the reactor. If the accelerator is turned off, the chain reaction ceases,” added Leeb. Worldwide studies are based on the assumption that at least two decades will be necessary to transfer this concept to the industrial level, a concept which is fully understood at the scientific level.

An essential prerequisite for this development is a thorough knowledge of the neutrons’ interaction and reactions with other materials as available to date. Therefore, in the year 2000, the n_Tof facility became operative at CERN (Genf), which is a unique facility in the world, suitable especially for measuring the reactions of radioactive materials when bombarded with neutrons. Between 2002 and 2005, a large number of radiative captures and fission reactions, previously insufficiently known, were measured as part of an EU project, in which nuclear physicists from TU Vienna were considerably involved. After the conditional pause occasioned by the construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, now at the end of September 2008, the consortium will start the operations at the upgraded n_TOF facility with a new target. The first series of experiments are neutron radiative captures on iron and nickel, which are analyzed by Viennese nuclear physicists (from TU Vienna and the University of Vienna). In addition to accurate reaction data for transmutation facilities, the results are also of interest for Astrophysics.

An alternative nuclear fuel, which leads to a reduced incidence of radioactive waste, is the “thorium-uranium cycle.” Leeb: “Thorium is a potential nuclear fuel, which may be incubated into a light uranium isotope, whose fission generates basically no actinide. Furthermore, thorium can be found approximately five times more often than uranium. However, special reactors must be still developed for this, reactors that would be appropriate for the reaction pattern and for the somewhat harder gamma radiation. India is one of the countries that already host experiments with thorium in reactor cores.

For further inquiries, you may contact:
Associate Professor Dipl.-Ing. Dr. Helmut Leeb
The Atomic Institute of Austrian Universities
Vienna University of Technology
Wiedner Hauptstrasse 8-10/E141, A-1040 Vienna
Telephone: +43/1/58801-14258
Fax: +43/1/58801-14299

Mag. Daniela Hallegger
TU Vienna – PR and Communication
Karlsplatz 13/E011, A-1040 Vienna
Telephone: +43/1/58801-41027
Fax: +43/1/58801-41093

Nuclear authority “right” to withold report on radioactive waste

Nuclear authority “right” to withold report on radioactive waste

Nuclear authority
The government says underground waste storage like this facility in Sweden is the “realistic” approach for nuclear waste disposal

As the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority launched a fresh consultation last week on how best to communicate with the public on a new radioactive waste disposal site, it was been told it does not have to publish a draft report on possible locations.

The NDA was asked for an earlier, draft version of the 2006 report “Potential Areas of Future Geosphere Research” , which identified geological factors requiring research regarding the possibility of locating an underground disposal facility for nuclear waste.

But despite agreeing that releasing the report could have helped improve public confidence in the “thoroughness” of the NDA’s work preparing for a nuclear waste disposal facility, the Information Commissioner refused a requested to release the document under the Environmental Information Regulations.

The government issued a white paper earlier this summer stating that geological disposal was the “realistic” option for Britain’s radioactive waste – having considered alternatives like dumping it at sea, at the ice caps, or even blasting it into space.

The NDA last week published two consultation documents on how to communicate with the public regarding its plans for the geological storage facility, and also on the process for carrying out strategic environmental assessments on any potential storage sites put forward.

Both consultations close on November 30, and should result in a new communications strategy for the NDA on the geological disposal, as well as a strategy on sustainability appraisals and environmental assessments for a disposal facility.

Friday saw the Information Commissioner telling the NDA it was right to withhold from publication a 2004 draft of the report on geological research behind possible sites for a geological storage facility for Britain’s nuclear waste.

The decision came in response to a request under the Environmental Information Regulations to release the draft report.

Despite agreeing that releasing the document would “increase public confidence in the quality of scientific research and consideration on this issue” – the Commissioner Gerrard Tracey refused to order its publication, saying that the document had not been the final “settled” view of the NDA.

The document represented internal staff communications, Mr Tracey said, and also a “dated” view of the issues, since it was not the final report.

Commenting on his judgement, the Commissioner conceded that “if those who were compiling such research were aware of the fact that it was possible that their draft reports or early research would be disclosed in the future, this may in fact improve the level of argument or debate contained in the drafts because the authors would know that their initial research may be disclosed at some point and therefore open to public scrutiny.”

However, the Commissioner concluded that the draft report had effectively been a personal view of the civil servant drawing it up, rather than the established view of the Authority itself, which was subsequently published in 2006 as the report “Potential Areas of Future Geosphere Research”.

Although the Commissioner said he was not usually of the opinion that civil servants would be easily deterred from offering “candid opinion” on subjects by it publication.

But under the special circumstances concerning the geological disposal project, “the Commissioner accepts that if this particular draft report was disclosed it is reasonable to argue that authors of such reports in the future may be less willing to be equally candid when compiling similar studies because of concerns that their comments may be placed in the public domain.”

As a result, disclosure of such a report might mean researchers in future being “less willing to be open and honest” in forming future policy in controversial areas.

A full copy of the decision notice is available on the Information Commission website

Idaho slated for radioactive waste: Idaho Slated to be Navy Dumping Ground

Idaho slated for radioactive waste: Idaho Slated to be Navy Dumping Ground

By Sharon Fisher,
Thursday, August 07, 2008

Still dealing with the fallout of being a repository for contaminated sand from Kuwait, Idaho is reportedly slated to be the dumping ground for literal fallout: radioactive remnants from a World War II-era Navy shipyard, according to a San Francisco alternative newsweekly.

“Currently, the Navy is proposing to excavate soil from IR-07 and IR-18, including known mercury and methane spots, and ship it to dumps in Idaho and Utah,” said the San Francisco Bay Guardian, in a July 16 story.

IR-07 and IR-18 are two plots of land identified by a 2004 Navy report as being dumps for radioluminescent devices and, perhaps, debris from sandblasting dry docks at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard that had been used to decontaminate 79 ships that had been exposed to a 1946 nuclear test.
“[C]esium-137, cobalt-60, plutonium-239, radium-226 (from radioactive decay of uranium-238) and strontium-90 could be present in underground drains and sewers,” the article read.

Environmental activists in the Bay Area are protesting the move, suggesting instead that the parcel be capped to prevent migration of the contamination.

“Pamela Calvert, deputy director of Literacy for Environmental Justice, told the Guardian she’s worried about shipping the contamination elsewhere,” the article continued. “‘I’m really concerned that we don’t solve problems in Bayview by creating ones for another community,’ Calvert said. ‘It’s best to deal with it here. There is no such thing as “away.” It’s someone else’s backyard.’”


Tullytown fights to keep radioactive waste out of landfill

Tullytown fights to keep radioactive waste out of landfill
The Tullytown Landfill glows green in this photo illustration inspired by careless cartoon nuclear worker Homer Simpson. Tullytown Council President Ed Armstrong (left) and Councilman Joe Shellenberger, who met in the shadow of the dump last week, are opposed to the National Waste plan to bury low-level radioactive sludge in the landfill.
The Tullytown Landfill glows green in this photo illustration inspired by careless cartoon nuclear worker Homer Simpson. Tullytown Council President Ed Armstrong (left) and Councilman Joe Shellenberger, who met in the shadow of the dump last week, are opposed to the National Waste plan to bury low-level radioactive sludge in the landfill.

TULLYTOWN, Pa. – Borough leaders want “Trash Mountain” to grow green, not glow green. Thats why they’re fighting a plan to bring radioactive sludge to the Tullytown Landfill.

Ten stories high, the greening mound of buried rubbish casts a literal and figurative shadow over Tullytown Cove and this town of 2,100, where taxpayers get annual home improvement “gifts” of $5,000 funded by fees from the state-of-the-art dump.

The situation is the result of an agreement a past generation of leaders made in 1988 with the owner of the dump, Waste Management Inc., America’s leading disposer of trash and the operator of two other landfills and an incinerator within a mile of the Tullytown mountain.

Borough council and other local leaders meet tomorrow evening at 7 to discuss the Waste Management appeal, already approved by state and federal regulators, to bring in more than 50 truckloads of sludge laced with traces of radioactive material from the uniforms of nuclear plant workers for burial in the Tullytown mountain.

Officials aren’t as worried about the mountain glowing green as they are about radioactivity reaching the nearby Delaware River and the intake for the water piped from there to homes and businesses in Tullytown and neighboring Bristol Township.

“Radioactive material that might leach out into the river right where the intake for drinking water is. That’s too close for comfort for me,” said Council President Ed Armstrong, whose top ally in the fight is Councilman Joe Shellenberger, the Iraq War vet.

Borough Clerk Beth Pirolli is also concerned: “I think it’s asking too much of the river, putting it under too much stress.” She also said Tullytown’s might be the first dump in the state being asked to take so-called “low-level” radioactive waste.

“The state and federal government have been trying to find a way to dispose of this stuff and it looks like we’re supposed to be the test case,” Pirolli said.

She, the councilmen and Borough Manager Andrew Warren also agree that Tullytown could face disposal questions like these long into the future. Said Shellenberger, who brought his 11-year-old son to a photo shoot: “We’ve got to be vigilant – and diligent about it.”

Which is not easy under the current system for alerting the public and local authorities about plans like Waste Management’s to bring in truckloads of “super sack” polyethylene bags holding sludge from the Royersford sewage treatment plant that services the cleaner which launders the uniforms of workers at Montgomery County’s Limerick and other nuclear plants in the region.

Trucks were slated to start delivery in mid July when a newspaper report put the kibosh on it, at least temporarily. It turns out someone tipped off a reporter to the official notice of the radioactive dumping plan after it appeared in an obscure legislative newspaper published in Harrisburg.

Once the radioactive story broke, Warren explained, “we realized their technical notification was in one of those many volumes of information Waste Management sends into us every month.”

As she displayed the four-foot stack of binders and booklets and notices and permits and technical data sent in so far this year by Waste Management, Pirolli said “you could look at it and maybe guess what it all means. But we’d have to hire three scientists and keep them reading full time to keep track of it all.”

Even with its $54 million surplus, the Tullytown government is unlikely to spring for the scientists. But it was able to buy an outdoor shed for storage of all the paperwork Waste Management has sent it over the years. It’s 18 feet deep, 15 feet high and 10 feet across.

Notification is another problem Shellenberger wants to tackle in its discussions with Waste Management. But first they’ll have to tackle fear of radioactive waste, which Waste Management contends is wildly overblown in this case.

Its dumping plan exposes no one to radiation at any time, National Waste said in a statement that noted everyone is exposed to a harmless amount of radiation flying an airliner or getting an x-rays or CAT scan.

National Waste said its landfill liners and other environmental protections made a radiation leak impossible. In a “worst-case” accident scenario ordered by federal regulators it said people in Lower Bucks County would be exposed to 0.0000000053 of one millirem, or nothing compared with the 350 a year everyone takes in from the sun, household appliances and medical sources.

Still, Shellenberger and the others are wary of the waste: “They say it has a half life of 30 years, meaning it loses half its potency every 30 years. Well, what about all those years it is potent? And if it somehow leaks out and gets in the river, everyone’s going to end up drinking it.”

It might be trace, Shellenberger said, but there was enough radioactive waste for federal regulators to be able to track it from the uniforms, through the Royersford cleaners and on to the municipal treatment plant and its sludge bins.

And the councilman noted that local sewage authorities and National Waste, for all its expertise in disposal, still haven’t come up an operational plan for getting rid of all the rainwater that has trickled through the dump over the years and been siphoned out of the bottom as a foul slurry called leachate.

There’s so much ammonia in the leachate, Waste Management is able to siphon that off in commercial amounts. Until only recent times, when the Morrisville sewage plant started taking it in, the lechate was stored in giant containers or was simply poured back over the dump to trickle down again, Shellenberger said.

“All kinds of things trickle down in the water, basically everything you throw out. God only knows what goes in there,” said Pirolli. And it’s much more than water laced with wasted milk and soda or squished foodstuffs. Household cleaners and chemicals and roadway oils and greases also end up in the trash stream in violation of recycling laws.

Warren, an old political hand who was a Bucks County supervisor and the regional state transportation commissioner, said the radioactive dispute might come down to the what the lawyers for both sides work out and tell their clients to do – based on the language in the inch-thick agreement Tullytown made with Waste Management two decades ago.

“To me it’s pretty clear, right there on page two of the agreement,” said Warren. “There shall be no radioactive material. But we’ll see what the lawyers say about that and what else they’re reading in there.”

A National Waste spokeswoman, Geri Rush, said the agreement permits the company to bring in household waste, including sludge from municipal waste treatment plants, and that the trace amounts of radioactive material in the Royersford sludge slated for disposal in Tullytown were deemed safe by state and federal regulators.

So tomorrow’s council discussion of Tullytown’s 20-year-old deal with Waste Management is high stakes: Does the town want peace of mind? Or the $25 million it’s in for over the next three years while the company completes the project dumping on the opposite side of the mound overlooking Tullytown Cove today?

©The Trentonian 2008