With Nuclear Waste, Science Matters

Guest editorial by Dr. James Conca

The following is a guest editorial written by Dr. James Conca in response to an Op-Ed that appeared in the Voice of OC by an anti-nuclear activist.

Dr. James Conca

I read with interest an Op-Ed this month in the Voice of OC on nuclear energy and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). Having recently retired from 35 years in nuclear, mainly as a research professor at New Mexico State University and Washington State University, and as a scientist at National Laboratories like Los Alamos, Pacific Northwest National Lab, and Lawrence Livermore, I was struck by the technical errors in her discussion. I was also impressed by how well she understands and executes obfuscation. In the following discussion, my references and links will not be to anti-nuclear activists or YouTube videos, but from the scientific literature and official reports from CDC, IEA, EIA, IAEA, UN, EU, DOE and NRC.

Repeated claims that nuclear energy and its waste is dangerous are not true, these claims from another anti-nuclear activist notwithstanding. No one has ever been harmed by nuclear energy or nuclear waste in this country (1,2,3,4). No one was harmed by Three Mile Island. No one was killed from radiation from Fukushima (5), though Fukushima was listed as the cause of death for a worker who, sadly, died from a lifetime of heavy smoking. Few remember that Chernobyl was a weapons reactor that could also produce lots of power, and that was the reason for its failure (the reactor had no containment structure like Western reactors).

Nuclear workers throughout history have had a lower cancer rate than the general population (6,7,8,9). People living near nuclear plants show no effects from living near them (10,11). This really says it all about safety.

Further, nuclear is the safest form of energy. Its death print is the same as wind and solar (12) which are very low globally (0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity production for wind, 0.03 for nuclear, 0.02 for solar). In the U.S., nuclear and hydro are the lowest (13).

I have handled and disposed of nuclear waste for 35 years. Disposing of nuclear waste of any kind is simple and safe. We are just not allowed to do it, in large part because of the fear generated by anti-nuclear activists, case in point the piece in the Voice of OC. Contrary to its assertions, there are no technical hurdles to disposal of spent nuclear fuel, only political ones.

In fact, we have an operating deep geologic nuclear waste repository in New Mexico, called WIPP, that has shown it is safe and cost-effective to dispose of nuclear waste. It takes both high and low-radioactivity waste. WIPP was designed and built to dispose of all nuclear waste from any source. Later, it was only permitted to dispose of nuclear weapons waste, called TRU, and that was because of politics. WIPP is ten years ahead of schedule and a billion dollars under budget, a testament to how well this facility is working and how thoughtfully the host rock was selected.

In its 23-year history, there was only one event, in 2014, not caused by WIPP itself, that released the Am-241 equivalent of 100 smoke detectors. SONGS' waste should eventually go to WIPP or a WIPP-like repository, we’ve already designed it. But no politician wants to touch this issue. These activists' efforts should be to champion WIPP or a WIPP-like repository so that SONGS waste could be removed from California, as it was always intended. Instead, they are slowing that process down.

Examining the “Facts”

Most facts presented by the writer are not facts, but rather anti-nuclear dogma. The claim that “Inhaling just a tiny speck of dust containing plutonium can kill you” is absurd. I have worked with many scientists who have inhaled many particles of Pu, and U, and many other radionuclides. They never showed any effects, and many have died of old age from health issues irrelevant to radiation. The others are still alive. I was Director of the CEMRC facilities near WIPP for six years. We had the instrumentation to track inhaled radioactive particles and detect them in the body, and we often detected them, including Pu, Am, U, Cs and Sr.

Harold McCluskey, nicknamed the “Atomic Man” up here at the Hanford Site in Washington state, is the person who has inhaled the most radioactivity in history. In 1976, he was blasted by an enormous amount of Am-241, which is much more dangerous than Pu, breathing in so much he had to be handled by medical personnel in rad suits. But he lived to a ripe old age and died of a heart attack, something radiation does not cause. It just takes a huge amount of radiation to kill anyone.

But even minor facts presented in that Op-Ed were off. The claim that the water table is 18 inches below the waste pad at SONGS is incorrect. It’s twice that. Maybe that’s minor, but it is an easily-obtainable number from the SONGS website if one had bothered to look.

Similarly for their claims of thin-walled canisters at SONGS. These are the thickest-walled canisters in the industry. They were definitely designed for long-term storage and are not easily susceptible to stress corrosion. The writer continues to confuse these with France’s recycling canisters, which are thicker but built for a completely different purpose, that of storing waste prior to reprocessing.

The most egregious claim is that there was “the blockbuster joint statement issued in January by nuclear authorities from the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain detailing strong opposition to any expansion of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change.” First, the people cited were not nuclear authorities from these countries. They are avowed anti-nuclear activists. I know Greg Jaczko, he was put on the NRC by the late Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada expressly to kill the Yucca Mountain Project. The same with the others: they do not represent the nuclear authorities nor the governments in those countries, as cleverly implied by the author.

And all leading climate scientists from Jim Hansen and Kerry Emanuel on down, forcefully speak for nuclear, saying we cannot achieve our climate goals without it. Plus, the European Union just categorized nuclear as clean in order to meet its climate goals.

Finally, the health effects from radiation are not cumulative. Again, the writer can be forgiven for not doing her homework, but she confuses global regulations developed during the Cold War, primarily to stop America’s above ground nuclear tests, with actual science. We adopted LNT, ALARA and Cumulative Effects to be conservative, not to reflect the scientific knowledge, even at that time. Those hypotheses assumed we did not have an immune system. But our immune system effectively repairs all radiation damage up to about 20 rem (0.2 Sv) acute. Radiation does not cause inheritable genetic effects, it is not a mutagen.

For clarity, radiation acts as an oxidant in biological systems. Either as a gamma ray, a beta particle or an alpha particle, radiation acts exactly as oxygen in the body, by knocking an electron off a molecule, usually water as that is what we are mostly made of. But oxygen is a thousand times more effective at oxidizing than radiation, so our immune system can handle it easily since our cells (as with all eukaryotic cells) evolved about 2.3 billion years ago when oxygen first entered the atmosphere and background radiation levels were ten times what they are today. This is why we have become focused on anti-oxidants in our foods.

And this is why it takes an acute dose of over 20 rem (0.2 Sv) to have any health effects—our immune system is very efficient—until it is overwhelmed.

But the idea of cumulative effective dose is especially weird and has been used in areas outside of radiation, such as in medicinal drugs. Cumulative effective dose states that the risk of death from one person taking 100 aspirins a day is the same as 100 persons taking one aspirin a day. Anyone knows this is absurd, but it is ingrained in our radiation regulatory institutions, along with the false assumption that we don’t have a functioning immune system.

Again, this is not intuitive stuff, and takes years of study in these areas of science. Absent that, one gets what one would expect: unsupported claims not based in science.

Dr. James Conca is Trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, Richland, Wash. He is a retired scientist and research professor with a master’s and PhD. from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

The opinions expressed are those of the author.

(Posted July 26, 2022)