Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2015-2016
By John LaForge
On Sunday, Oct. 18, an underground fire caused a string of at least five explosions in a long-closed-down low-level radioactive waste dump in the desert, 10 miles from Beatty, Nevada. The fire and explosions, which produced plumes of debris and white smoke, were caught on a 40-second cellphone video.* The Associated Press reported that debris from the dump was blown up to 190 feet by the explosions. Officials closed 140 miles of US Highway 95 for almost 24 hours because of the rad-waste explosions and fire, and because heavy flooding damaged roads in Nye County the same day.
Neighbors complained later that they were not told of the fire or why the highway, their only escape route, had been closed. Beatty resident Cindy Craig said to CBS News, “We didn’t even get told about it until the next day.” In an Oct. 20 conference call with reporters, Nevada State Fire Marshal Peter Mulvihill said, “We don’t know exactly what caught fire. We’re not exactly sure what was burning in that pit.”
Because the fire and explosions were caught on video, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Nevada National Guard, the US Departments of Energy and Homeland Security, and even the National Nuclear Security Administration all became involved in the emergency. After some fly-over radiation testing Oct. 19, Rusty Harris-Bishop, spokesman for the EPA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco, said, “No gamma radiation has been detected at this time.” However, monitoring above the area of the fire and explosions was initiated well after plumes of smoke from the explosions had dispersed.
Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly said that US 95 was reopened at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 19, after air testing found no contamination.
The state National Guard later sent a four-member team to the scene to test ground-level contamination. They reported Oct. 21 not having detected alpha or beta radiation on the ground after walking within six feet of the burned trench.
Closed for 23 years, the 80-acre dumping ground was run from 1962 until 1993 by US Ecology, earlier known as Nuclear Engineering Co. US Ecology still operates a 40-acre hazardous waste dump adjacent to the radioactive waste site. A 1997 New York Times report about an earlier nuclear waste explosion said these accidents illustrate “how even a long-shut weapons plant can hide unknown dangers, and raise questions about what lies ahead.”
The low-level radioactive waste dump, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, consists of 22 trenches up to 800 feet long and 50 feet deep, and its older trenches have radioactive waste within three feet of the surface, the Las Vegas Sun reported. The accident took place in what is called Trench 14, which is part of a stadium-sized pit that was filled with rad-waste in the 1970s, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Certain radioactive materials are known to catch fire when in contact with water, so the flooding that struck prior to the fiery explosions may have caused them. Unfortunately authorities do not know what sorts of radioactive isotopes are buried in the trenches there. Nor does anyone know how much radioactive waste burned in the fire.
Management of the dump was transferred from US Ecology to the state of Nevada in 1993. Asked by the Review Journal if an independent investigation should be conducted to validate the integrity of the probe given that the state is conducting an investigation of an incident that happened on its own land, Department of Public Safety Director James Wright told the paper that “at this point we feel we have to get the initial findings.”
Judy Treichel, head of the nonprofit Nuclear Waste Task Force, also questioned whether Nevada state officials should be conducting the investigation. “I wonder if the state environmental department is smart, skilled and motivated to really dig through this thing,” she told the Review Journal. “The state is the property owner. The state is on the hook if there are big costs.”
Waste buried at the Beatty site does not include used fuel from nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons programs, but contaminated tools, clothing, medical and laboratory wastes and hardware such as steam generators from power reactors.
Buried Waste Theoretically and Literally Explosive
The history of self-igniting wastes is frightening, and warnings about the likelihood of further explosions are as recent as last year.
- In February 2014, at a deep underground dump in New Mexico, a barrel of military rad-waste “burst after it arrived at the dump, releasing radioactive uranium, plutonium and americium throughout the underground facility,” according to National Public Radio. The so-called Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is an experimental project inside a deep salt deposit where the Pentagon is burying plutonium-contaminated wastes left from decades of nuclear weapons production. NPR’s March 26, 2015 story concerned the Department of Energy’s (DOE) 277-page report about the February explosion. The report says, “Experiments showed that various combinations of nitrate salt, Swheat Scoop® [cat litter], nitric acid, and oxalate self-heat at temperatures below 100°C.” The DOE report used the terms “thermal runaway” and “self-heat” rather than the word “explosion.” The underground accident contaminated 22 workers internally, spread plutonium contamination throughout the deep underground chambers, and shut down the operation. For almost two years, the DOE has been working to reopen the facility.
- In expert hearings held in southern Ontario in Sepember 2014, Dr. Frank Greening made identical warnings about the potential explosiveness of Canadian radioactive waste if it were to be buried next to Lake Huron under plans made by Ontario Power Generation. (See p. 7)
- In May 1997, an explosion ruptured a water line, and blew out windows and a door in the defunct Plutonium Reclamation Facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, which for 40 years was the site of plutonium production for nuclear weapons. While no longer in operation, “plutonium-bearing material still remains” the DOE said at the time. Four months later the New York Times reported that the explosion “sent the lid of a big steel tank flying into the ceiling, cracking open the roof of the airtight building, and releasing a brown cloud of noxious, but not radioactive chemicals.” Eight workers, outside the building when the explosion took place, were sent for medical exams after reporting sore throats, headaches, and a metallic taste in their mouths.
- In May 1996, a welding spark caused a waste cask explosion at Wisconsin’s Point Beach reactor on Lake Michigan. The blast of hydrogen gas was “powerful enough to up-end the three-ton lid while it was atop a storage cask filled with high-level waste.” The reactor’s owner called that accident merely a “gaseous ignition event,” but was later fined $325,000.
- In 1995, government physicists Charles Bowman and Francesco Venneri at Los Alamos National Laboratory predicted that wastes buried at the (now-cancelled) Yucca Mountain high-level dump, 20 miles from Beatty, Neveda waste fire, might erupt in a nuclear explosion and scatter radioactivity to the winds or into groundwater, or both. Bowman and Venneri found that the explosion dangers will arise thousands of years from now—after steel waste containers dissolve and plutonium begins to disperse into surrounding rock. Former DOE geologist Jerry Szymanski said, “You’re talking about an unimaginable catastrophe. Chernobyl would be small potatoes.”
- During the 1980s and 1990s the DOE reported that tanks holding high-level liquid radioactive waste at the Hanford Reservation and at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina could catch fire or explode from the build-up of hydrogen gas. According to the Seattle Times, twice in six months the DOE warned that 20 of 177 waste tanks could explode under certain conditions. The huge underground tanks store about 56 million gallons of the waste at Hanford. Likewise at the Savannah River Site, the Environmental Policy Institute reported in 1987 that tanks holding millions of gallons of liquid high-level wastes were at “substantial risk of exploding”—also from the combustion of either hydrogen gas or organic vapors. The chances of a tank explosion at Savannah River were reportedly as high as one in 50. Fifty-one large tanks there each hold between 750,000 and 1.3 million gallons of the unstable, thermally hot and highly radioactive liquids. At the two highly contaminated government sites, decades have been devoted to attempts at draining the tanks and solidifying the liquid wastes to prevent them from further contaminating groundwater. At Hanford alone, where 10 of 177 tanks had been emptied as of June 2013, the project has already cost $36 billion.
- The worst known tank explosion took place at Chelyablinsk, in Russia’s Ural Mountains, the site of plutoniumproduction. On September 29, 1957 a high-level liquid-waste storage tank exploded—throwing a 160-ton lid off of the container, and spreading mainly strontium-90 across more than 64 square miles. The tank held 70 to 80 tons of highly radioactive waste, all of which was dispersed. The plume of radiation further contaminated the Techa River, fourteen lakes, and travelled at least 300 kilometers northeast from the explosion. At least 34,000 people were exposed to radiation—externally and internally—for one to three years before 10,700 were relocated from their homes. At least 200 people died from radiation sickness, and later the names of 30 small towns and a few larger ones were permanently removed from maps of the area.
The caustic, radioactive “self-heating thermal runaway” in Beatty, Nevada is only the latest warning not to bury radioactive waste. Putting the materials that act like explosive nuclear time bombs out-of-sight and out-of-mind will not keep us safe.
For such wastes, only above-ground, monitored, hardened, retrievable storage can ever come close to protecting the environment and human health. A halt to the on-going mass production of radioactive waste is the only economical path to finding improved and sustainable means of waste management.
Sources: Associated Press, Oct. 19, 20, 21 & 26; Boston Herald, Oct. 19; Las Vegas Review-Journal, Oct. 19, 20, 21 & 22; FoxReportDaily, Oct. 20; Las Vegas Sun, Oct. 21 & 22; and CBS Las Vegas, Oct. 22, 2015