Preventing the Massive Release of Radioactive Material

From the Foundation's 1994 Annual Report

Nuclear war is not the only way in which radioactive materials can cause massive damage to human health and the environment. Sustainability can be threatened in a variety of ways, through accidents at nuclear power plants, by improperly handling and storing radioactive waste, or through the diversion of plutonium or radiological materials into weapons. Ionizing radiation released through these operations can harm people and the environment through direct exposure, or by the migration of radionuclides through the air, soil, surface water, and groundwater. The Foundation has identified four particular ways in which to address this threat.

Nuclear accidents

Were a major accident to occur at a nuclear power reactor, the scale of damage to human health, the environment, and the surrounding economy could be tremendous. Millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians were exposed to radiation from the accident at Chernobyl in 1986. Almost a decade later, hundreds of thousands of people live on territory and consume food contaminated with radiation and heavy metals. The rates of cancer, congenital malformations, and related illness have been rising since the accident, especially among children. Billions of dollars will continue to be allocated to meet the health care needs of the people affected by the accident and to clean up areas around the site.

Altogether, there are about sixty Soviet-designed reactors operating throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including two at Chernobyl. The risk of a major nuclear accident at any one of these facilities remains unacceptably high since many of these plants contain fundamental design flaws, suffer from poor and irregular maintenance, and experience weak regulatory oversight.

The danger is not isolated to the post-Soviet states. India's large nuclear power establishment has also been beset by accidents, inefficiency and dangerous operating practices, worsened by isolation from international assistance. The flawed operating record of India's nuclear power industry suggests the real possibility of a large-scale accident which could profoundly affect the well-being of the Indian population, environment and economy, with reverberations around the world.

The point here is not to single out Ukraine and India, or to argue that a major Chernobyl-scale accident is imminent. Rather, the Foundation's concern is that major nuclear accidents remain highly possible. The potential damage from such accidents is so great that governments and international financial institutions which can persuade hard-pressed countries to shut down unsafe reactors and convert to more benign energy sources must be driven to act, and advised on which actions to take.

Preventing nuclear accidents is a recent priority of the Foundation, and work thus far has been modest. Grants have been made to assess which reactors in which countries pose the greatest risks of accident, and to begin to develop a strategy to draw major sources of capital into providing alternatives to these dangerous reactors. In coming years, a more comprehensive strategy will be pursued to foreclose the possibility of nuclear accidents by shifting reliance away from nuclear reactors.

Hostile use of radiation

The second major danger identified by the Foundation is the possibility that hostile forces -- terrorists or criminal organizations -- could use radioactive materials as weapons. Sinister techniques -- such as slipping radioactive isotopes into a country's water supply, or dispersing plutonium dust into the atmosphere where it could be ingested -- might have an insidious appeal to potential terrorists. To date very few organizations have applied themselves specifically to analyzing and preventing the hostile use of radioactive materials. Accordingly, the Foundation has not yet carried out major grantmaking in this area.

Disposition of nuclear waste

Nuclear waste poses a third major risk of large-scale contamination by radioactive materials. In the U.S., the Department of Energy has been under great pressure to dispose of accumulating waste since the 1970s. Today, a geologic repository slated for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is the legally designated method for disposing of these materials. Efforts to determine the suitability of this site have been beset by formidable technical, economic, and political challenges which may further delay the repository or doom the project entirely. Meanwhile, a handful of nuclear reactors are pushing the limits of their available temporary spent-fuel storage space. These reactors may be forced to cease operations if additional storage options and the repository are not approved soon.

The failure of industry and government to deal with waste problems at the beginning of the nuclear power "boom" may now have the unintended consequence of blocking or delaying the disposal of defense-related nuclear materials, including excess weapons plutonium. In the absence of a clear alternative for the disposal of this material, the U.S. may resume reprocessing of plutonium, creating a host of different environmental and proliferation problems.

Differences among citizen groups, industry and government must be overcome to address successfully the serious dangers of nuclear waste. In developing a new initiative in this area, the Foundation will place a premium on bringing grassroots and national actors together to explore the possibilities of cooperative strategies to develop acceptable and practical long-term policies to manage nuclear waste safely and securely while minimizing the threat these wastes will pose to the environment and future generations.

Eliminate plutonium

About ten pounds of weapon-grade plutonium are enough to make a nuclear weapon. Reactor-grade plutonium, separated from civilian spent nuclear fuel, can also be fashioned into crude but powerful weapons. The environmental and health implications of mishandling this material are serious. The most common plutonium isotope, plutonium-239, has a lethal half-life of 24,000 years. Even a few particles of this material ingested into a human lung will almost certainly cause cancer. At the end of 1994, about 270 metric tons of military plutonium and 180 tons of plutonium separated from civilian spent fuel existed worldwide. An additional 750 tons of plutonium remained unseparated from commercial spent fuel around the globe. The global stockpile increases by 60 to 70 tons each year.

A handful of countries around the world are pursuing civilian plutonium fuel programs with varying degrees of commitment. Japan and France have enthusiastically explored civil-use plutonium programs, and Russia is aggressively seeking to expand its civil reprocessing program. There are some slight shades of optimism, however, even in nations exploring plutonium fuel options. Although Japan continues to experiment with fast-breeder technology, the government also recently abandoned development of another plutonium-burning reactor after spending billions on it. Likewise, France's once ambitious plans to build and operate a series of breeder reactors have been cast into doubt by technical and economic shortcomings of the Superphenix breeder reactor. German utilities have recently broken reprocessing contracts in a move away from a plutonium fuel cycle. Nevertheless, the powerful bureaucracies and industries in these countries that have invested huge sums of capital into their plutonium operations will not easily relent.

Recognizing the scale and potency of plutonium's danger, the Foundation will continue to support efforts to end the accretion of still more stockpiles of plutonium around the world, and to promote the most secure and environmentally sound ways of disposing of plutonium already on hand.
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