Dolan, Kazakhstan

In the shadow of the Cold War

Mark Harris visits the towns that still live with the aftermaths of nuclear arms race on both sides of the now-defunct Iron Curtain

It has been 18 months since the advent of the Fukishima plant disaster, when a cataclysmic sequence of natural events descended upon an ageing nuclear power station, sweeping away all safety measures and back-up systems, and sending several of its reactors into meltdown. But what are the prospects and dangers that remain for the residents of Fukushima? After the headlines and the donation pledges have subsided, how successfully have other disaster zones managed to recover from nuclear catastrophe?

The lessons for this unfortunate eastern city may well be stretched across the northern hemisphere, where thousands of people in America and the former Soviet Union still live in the shadow of nuclear devastation. The threat in the north does not currently come from runaway reactors - nor from the much-feared missiles and bombs - but from decades of unsafe weapons research and manufacture.

America is home to 500 million litres of high-level waste, 40 billion litres of hazardous soil or debris and nearly 10 trillion litres of contaminated water from its military programmes. In Russia, the situation is even worse, with around four times as much solid waste and spent nuclear fuel awaiting permanent disposal.

The planet is now facing a clean-up effort that includes humanity's largest ever engineering project in the USA, public health issues affecting tens of thousands in Russia and Kazakhstan, and international dithering over permanent storage for the most dangerous waste.

It all began with a letter from the world's most famous scientist to the world's most powerful man. Einstein's plea to President Roosevelt in 1939 brought together some of the world's greatest scientists – Fermi, Teller, Bohr and Oppenheimer – in a race to beat Nazi Germany to the bomb.

The Manhattan Project also launched nuclear traditions that continue to this day: extreme secrecy and unbridled expense. Children born in the secret lab town of Los Alamos had their births recorded as a post office box in nearby Santa Fe, and it's said that fewer than 1 per cent of Manhattan Project workers realised they were building an atomic weapon.

Hanford challenge

A remote town in the south of Washington state, Hanford, was chosen as the location for the world's first plutonium production reactor. Reactor B went on to produce the plutonium for the Trinity 'gadget' and the bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Hanford became America's plutonium production line, with up to nine reactors working at once.

Safety and the environment were of little concern, says Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, an environmental pressure group. "The military gave little thought to remediation or cleaning," he says. "They were throwing the waste in the underground waste tanks or directly to the soil. The name of the game was to make plutonium."

And make plutonium they did. Hanford Site produced the vast majority of the 70,000 warheads ever made in the US, in the process filling 177 storage tanks with over 210 million litres of high level waste. By the time production halted at Hanford in the late 1980s, America was awash with plutonium and decades of neglect had taken their toll on the waste tanks.

"Back then, the budget for environmental remediation within the Department of Energy, which owns the site, was only $1m – for the largest inventory of nuclear waste in the country," says Carpenter. Although the budget has since exploded to $7bn, Hanford's concrete and carbon steel tanks have continued to decay. One-third of them have already failed, releasing 3.5 million litres of waste, and the rest are well beyond their design life.

Everything about Hanford's cocktail of sludgy waste is dangerous. If left in the tanks, further leaks could dump waste into the soil and eventually the nearby Columbia River, contaminating land hundreds of miles downstream. If the waste is moved, it could generate hydrogen gas and cause explosions similar to the ones suffered by the Fukushima reactors in Japan.

The safest solution seems to be to vitrify the waste: combine it with molten glass at 1,150°C and pour it into steel tubes to cool. The solid tubes will then be transported to a secure, geologically inert location (still to be decided) for the next 100,000 years or so.

Waste treatment plant

In 2000, after three previous efforts to build a vitrification plant at Hanford had failed, the US Department of Energy (DOE) awarded Bechtel National a $4.3bn 11-year contract to treat the waste. The Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) is nothing if not technically ambitious.

"This is a first-of-a-kind machine, primarily due to its scale," says Dale Knutson, project director. "The basic technology is well understood but what's different is that the plant is approximately ten times the scale of any prior facility."

When complete, the 26-hectare WTP will contain nearly 200 miles of piping, 900 miles of cabling and enough structural steel to build three Eiffel Towers.

"This is the largest engineering project ever undertaken," says Tom Carpenter. "This is more expensive, more complicated, more challenging and more dangerous than any other project we've taken on."

It is also a bit of a mess. Originally intended to begin operation in 2007, the sprawling Waste Treatment Plant is now a decade behind schedule and $8bn over budget. More worryingly, it may also be cutting corners with safety, says Walter Tamosaitis, a former research and technology manager at the plant. "We raised an issue in 2003 that took six years to get the attention of engineering," he says. "There are design and cultural issues affecting safety and performance in the plan."

Some US authorities agree. The US Government Accountability Office has serious questions about the long-term viability of the underground storage tanks, and notes "the DOE's milestone for emptying some tanks is 19 years later than the date agreed to with regulators". The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent US government oversight agency, has expressed concern over Bechtel's intention to permit flammable gases and even criticalities – localised fission reactions releasing bursts of heat and radioactivity – within the waste plant's pipes and vessels.

The Board recommended extra testing that Bechtel is now carrying out. However, the company claims to have already demonstrated that its design can withstand the strongest internal hydrogen blasts. Bechtel considers the issue of controlling criticalities an operational issue for whomever ends up running the plant.

"There's a conflict going on between these agencies and it's going to be interesting to see who comes out on top," says Carpenter. "One potential outcome is that we've got another expensive white elephant in the desert. At some point, the technical issues and the cost could simply overwhelm the project."

That is not going to happen, says Bechtel. In fact, vitrifying low-level waste could begin as soon as 2016, three years before the high-level process. "The low-level waste facility and the balance of the plant's infrastructure will be completed by about 2014," says Knutson. "Anything we can do that gives us a jump on the treatment of the low-level waste ultimately reduces the overall lifecycle of the whole plant."

Semipalatinsk

The lesson here for Japan, then, is that the best laid plans can drift, and that clean-up plans, costs and deadlines can become extremely elastic. Perhaps they – and the beleaguered Americans – can learn from the one-time Soviets? After all, in 2008, Kazakhstan announced that 80 per cent of the area used for Cold War Soviet bomb tests would be safe for farming by now.

Between 1949 and 1989, the 7,500ha Semipalatinsk Test Site on the steppes near the Chinese border witnessed over 450 mid-air and underground explosions. The local Kazakh population was given little advice or protection, with one village receiving up to 1,400 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation during the first year alone. 1,000mSv causes sickness, decreases the white blood cell count and increases the risk of fatal cancers by about 5 per cent.

Japanese scientists have calculated that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation from Semipalatinsk, and the cancer rate in eastern Kazakhstan remains over 25 per cent higher than elsewhere in the country. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Semipalatinsk's residual radioactivity would deliver an annual dose of 140mSv – 60 times the global average and certainly unsafe for farming.

Mayak

At least Semipalatinsk is now recovering, albeit slowly. In the Ural mountains near Chelyabinsk is Russia's equivalent of Hanford – the plutonium production facility of Mayak. Like Hanford, Mayak was built under a cloak of secrecy in the 1940s and expanded during the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate multiple reactors making weapons-grade plutonium.

For the first five years of Mayak's life, its main reactor was cooled with water from the nearby Techa River – which was then returned directly to the river. After the local population began to fall sick, 20 villages were evacuated and razed to the ground.

In 1957, Mayak was the scene of the world's worst nuclear accident at the time, and still the worst ever involving nuclear waste. The Level 6 event saw a waste tank cooling system fail, resulting in a massive hydrogen explosion that poisoned up to 400,000 people. Ten years later, a hot summer and high winds dried up a lake where nuclear waste had been dumped, spreading radioactive dust over more than 25,000km2. According to Greenpeace Russia, cancer rates around Mayak are five times the all-Russia level.

Unlike Hanford, Mayak did not close down at the end of the Cold War. The facility was first used to reprocess plutonium from decommissioned weapons and today makes tritium and radioisotopes. Incredibly, far from cleaning up Mayak's toxic legacy, Russian authorities are now planning to import even more nuclear waste there.

In January 2011, the US-Russia 123 Agreement came into force, a 30-year treaty to facilitate the exchange of nuclear technology and material. While the agreement contains laudable provisions for controlling the proliferation of nuclear material and cooperation on the next generation of reactors, it also clears the way for America to export high-level nuclear waste to its old foe.

The treaty could not come at a better time for the US. In December, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission doubled the period that waste is permitted to remain at domestic reactors from 30 years to 60 years, largely because there is nowhere else for it to go. President Obama cancelled funding for a permanent US repository, in the depths of Nevada's Yucca Mountain, in 2010 as part of budget cuts. Around four-fifths of the nuclear waste worldwide is obligated to the US, as the originator of much of the world's reactor fuel.

The dangers of leaving nuclear waste at reactor sites were clearly demonstrated at Fukushima, where over 11,000 spent fuel-rod assemblies were stored in semi-permanent cooling pools. As the cooling systems failed after the earthquake and tsunami, those rods began to melt and release high levels of radiation.

Nuclear hangover

Russia now expects to earn '13bn over the next 10 years taking in high-level waste from the US for reprocessing or long-term storage. This prospect has some experts aghast. "It is the height of irresponsibility to hand nuclear waste to Russia and expect them to do anything ethical with it," says Tom Carpenter. "It's like paying the Mafia, they'll just go dump it in a stream somewhere."

Carpenter may be forgiven his frankness: in the early 1990s, the Russian Navy disposed of up to 15 damaged ship and submarine reactors, some still containing fuel, by simply dumping them into the Kara Sea in the Arctic. Millions of litres of liquid and solid waste were also dumped into the Sea of Japan, the Barents Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Possibly the most bizarre solution for disposing of nuclear waste was suggested by senior army and energy officials in a letter to Boris Yeltsin in 1994. They proposed burying the waste 600m underground, 100 tonnes at time, then vitrifying it instantly with a tactical nuclear explosion. Although a presidential task-force concluded that the process would be two-thirds cheaper than storing waste traditionally, the idea was rejected as breaching Russia's commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

No one can doubt that the Fukushima tragedy joins a long and troubled list of nuclear truths. But given the examples from abroad, perhaps the Japanese will set about teaching the rest of us a lesson: how to develop the ethics, discipline and motivation to take on such a weighty responsibility as nuclear contamination. 

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