Nuclear Accidents and Cleanup
an article by our site
In the United States nuclear accidents are reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as "abnormal occurrences," defined as "an unscheduled incident or event which the Commission determines is significant from the standpoint of public health or safety."
(Source: List of civilian nuclear accidents)
Of course, there were also 63 military nuclear accidents from the 1940s to the 2000s.
List of worldwide reported military nuclear accidents.
- 4,000 fatalities (? 56 direct deaths, thousands of indirect deaths) – Chernobyl disaster
- 1,000 fatalities (? Long-term cancer possibilities increased slightly for millions of people near the accident) – Fukushima disaster in Japan
- 33 fatalities – Windscale reactor fire
- 130 other fatalities plus lots of injuries from various other nuclear accidents
- Total=5163 fatalities and millions of people with negatively affected health
“The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found safety equipment problems and security shortcomings in a dozen nuclear plants across the country, according to a report the group released last week. While none of the issues resulted in injury to plant workers or the public, UCS says the frequency of the incidents are the result of lapses by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency charged with overseeing the nuclear industry. ‘It’s evident the NRC is capable of being an effective watchdog,’ Dave Lochbaum, director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project and author of the report, said in a statement. ‘But too often the agency does not live up to its potential, and we are still finding significant problems at nuclear plants that could trigger a serious accident.’” (Source: Fukushima two years later: How safe are US nuclear plants?)
Perhaps more daunting than the danger of nuclear accidents is the task of cleaning up 68-plus years of radioactive and toxic contamination. Not only have cleanup studies run millions of dollars over their original costs estimates, many parts of them are seriously flawed.
The U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear site cleanup efforts amount to little more than a clown show
The U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for the safe cleanup and long-term stewardship of the nation’s nuclear weapons production and research facilities. Radioactive and chemical waste, contaminated soil and water, and other hazardous materials at these sites pose significant risks to humans and the environment. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management is primarily responsible for initial cleanup of these federal facilities. After the Environmental Management cleanup is complete, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management oversees long-term surveillance and maintenance of the sites.
Nuclear power plant—apparently the D.O.E. is falling down on their clean-up oversight job
Currently, the U.S. Department of Energy oversees 23 Environmental Management sites in 14 states and 90 Legacy Management sites in 29 states. Of course, saying all this isn't DOING all this. So far, there's mostly just been meetings, speeches, committees, and bureaucratic stalling. Not to mention presentations. Apparently, no one wants to get near the toxic, radioactive messes!
In the case of the Department of Energy's (DOE) 66 sites, engineers have discovered (because of such poor record keeping by the companies that operated the DOE plants), that far more contamination exists than previously believed. The labs that analyze the soil and water samples have poor quality control and inexperienced staffs. And at some sites no procedures were developed for handling the radioactive sludge that was drilled up during the studies. In 1989 James Watkins pledged to clean up the DOE's contaminated plants; he set up a $150 billion plan that he believed would take 30 years. Unfortunately it seems that the first necessary step in Watkins' plan was to expose the problems in the original contamination assessments as well as estimate the cleanup needed at each weapons plant.
These Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Studies (RIFS), exposed the omission of 12 contaminated areas at Rocky Flats (CO); where five years ago officials reported 11 disposal areas needing attention, while the EPA said in 1990 that 178 contaminated sites had been identified; at the Feed Materials Production Center in Ohio the costs of the RIFS, originally estimated at $1.7 million has reached $30.9 million and was estimated to go as high as $54 million by completion; other sites reported over-budget runs of 77 percent to 372 percent. With 15 percent of the RIFS work completed (in 1990) most are running well over their original estimates. And these are just the studies; any actual cleanup has barely begun.
Radioactive waste disposal is a huge problem
Oak Ridge was the first weapons production site to admit the extent of the problem in 1984. It had concealed 47 years of radioactive and toxic contamination of fields, lakes, woods and streams. The DOE, faced with overwhelming regulations and technology, is itself a major part of the problem. In fact, part of Watkins' $150 billion plan was a 10-step plan to fix the DOE. Despite realizing in the early 80s that it had been ruining the environment, the DOE dragged its feet in complying with new environmental laws. Serious cleanup did not begin until Congress forced the agency to comply in 1986.
Despite realizing in the early 80s that it had been ruining the environment, the DOE dragged its feet in complying with new environmental laws. Serious cleanup did not begin until Congress forced the agency to comply in 1986
Not surprisingly there is a great deal of money to be made in the cleanup process and Oak Ridge has become the "Wall Street of Waste Management." Over 50 businesses opened up in the area making it a new boom town. And interestingly enough, these businesses do not compete with each other for contracts, but team up—promising to hire each other if they win the contract. As the projects get more costly and late, the contractors blame the DOE for indecision and disorganization, while the DOE complains of contractor problems like a $26 million hazardous-waste incinerator which was supposed to start operating in 1987 but hadn't met state air standards by 1990. Another example is 80,000 fifty-five gallon drums of toxic metals and slightly radioactive uranium. The DOE wants to ship them to a disposal site, and the EPA hasn't agreed to "delist" them as hazardous—which won't happen until the EPA is convinced the drums won't leak. Meanwhile the containers are corroding.
The D.O.E. drags its feet in complying with environmental laws so cleanup is stalled
Although the DOE is considering prohibiting companies that operate its plants from managing the cleanups and is researching other less-costly cleanup methods, cleanup is barely in the embryonic stage, and until the DOE is willing to listen to the bad news (something it has avoided in the past) and will support innovation or change (something it's never really done), the DOE cleanup will never get off the ground. Business as usual. Politics as usual. Bureaucracy as usual. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). (Sigh . . . . . . . . . . . )
Until the DOE is willing to listen to the bad news (something it has avoided in the past) and will support innovation or change (something it's never really done), the DOE cleanup will never get off the ground