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Biophile Magazine -- » Nuclear emissions

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

Nuclear emissions

by Dr Helen Caldicott

FILED IN: Energy and Fuels · Issue 19


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As a physician I see the extraordinary efforts that I and my colleagues pursue to save the lives of our patients suffering from cancer and genetic diseases, let alone the amount of money allocated to find the cure to cancer. Yet here we have an industry that is actively promoting and incurring massive increases in these disastrous diseases, and society has not yet called their bluff. It is beyond time that we did.

Uranium Mining

Uranium mining began in Europe in the late part of the 19th century when Madam Curie was refining pitch blend from uranium ore and discovering the wonders of radiation. Large scale mining commenced 65 years ago specifically to provide fuel for nuclear weapons. Much of the uranium was located on Navajo and Pueblo tribal land. The mining continued unabated for many decades thereafter and large numbers of Native Americans were employed as below-ground and aboveground miners.

People who mine uranium below the ground are at great risk because they are exposed to a high concentration of radioactive gas called radon 220 which accumulates in the air of the mine. Radon is a daughter or decay product of uranium, and is a highly carcinogenic alpha emitter which if inhaled, deposits in the air passages of the lung irradiating cells which then become malignant. As a result, uranium miners have suffered from a very high incidence of lung cancer. One fifth to one half of the uranium miners in North America, many of whom were Native Americans, have died and are continuing to die of lung cancer. Records reveal that uranium miners in other countries including Germany, Namibia and Russia suffer a similar fate.

Another lethal uranium daughter is radium 226, which is an alpha emitter with a half life of 1600 years. This radioactive element is notorious in the medical literature. In the early part of the 20th century women painted numbers on watch dials with radium enriched paint, so that the numbers glowed in the dark with radioactivity. To make the figures precise, they licked the tips of the paint brushes thereby swallowing large amounts of radium. Because radium is a calcium analogue it deposited in their bones. Many of these women subsequently died of osteogenic sarcoma – a highly malignant bone cancer, affecting their facial bones while others succumbed to leukemia, because white blood cells which were mutated are manufactured in the bone marrow.

Uranium miners are exposed to a similar risk because radium is an integral component of uranium dust in the mine. When they swallow the dust, radium is absorbed from the gut and deposits in their bones. Uranium ore also emits gamma radiation which emanates from the ore face, so the miners are also exposed to a constant whole-body radiation exposure (like X-rays) emitted by other uranium daughters, which irradiates their bodies and continuously exposes their testicles. As the uranium ore is mined, and the uranium is extracted, large quantities of radioactive dirt and soil are discarded and left lying in huge heaps adjacent to the mine exposed to the air and the rain. This material is called tailings.

Most tailings in North America are situated on indigenous tribal land of the Navajo nation and the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, and on the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, Canada. Millions of tons of radioactive dirt constantly leak radon 220 into the air exposing the indigenous populations who live nearby in their pueblos and settlements. As they inhale the radon, many of these people have and are developing lung cancer. Rain also leaches soluble radium 226 through the tailings piles into the underground water which often is the source of drinking water for these people.

When radium enters streams and rivers it bio-concentrates thousands of times at each step in the food chain of the aquatic life and terrestrial plants. Because it is tasteless and odourless, people in these contaminated populations cannot tell whether they are drinking radioactive water, breathing radioactive air or eating fish or food containing radium 226 which induces bone cancer or leukemia. Hundreds of mines and tailings heaps lie exposed to the air and wind on Navajo land. Thousands of Navajos are still affected by uranium induced cancers, and will continue to be so for thousands of years unless remediation takes place. In total 265 million tons of uranium tailings pollute the American South West.

Ecological Racism

There has never been any attempt by the government or the nuclear industry to clean up this massive radioactive pollution which contaminates tribal land. It would be hard to imagine that the nuclear industry would be permitted to leave millions of tons of radioactive tailings lying adjacent to the well-heeled town of New Canaan Connecticut or near the Rockefeller estate in the Adirondacks.

Uranium Milling

The US federal government covers the cost of milling uranium. The ore is crushed and chemically treated at the milling plant in the American South West where it is converted to yellow cake. As in the mining process, the waste ore is discarded on the ground. These mill tailings contain radium and a dangerous radioactive element called thorium – a uranium daughter and a high energy gamma emitter with a half life of 80,000 years. Thorium is used in colour television sets. Over the last 40 years over 100 million tons of mill tailings have accumulated in the American South West Human cost is again important in the energy discussion.

To illustrate the dangers of loose unguarded nuclear material, in the mid 1960s, local contractors at Grand Junction in Colorado discovered acres of discarded mill tailings. Not knowing they were radioactive they used them for cheap landfill and concrete mix. Schools, hospitals, private homes roads, an airport and shopping mall were constructed from this material. In 1970, local paediatricians noticed an increased incidence of cleft lip, palate and other congenital anomalies amongst newborn babies born to parents who lived in these radioactive structures, which continually emitted gamma radiation and radon gas. The EPA allocated monies to the University of Colorado Medial Centre to study the correlation between the birth defects and the radioactive dwellings. However one year into the study, funds were abolished because, the government said, it had to save money for budgetary purposes.

Uranium Enrichment

The uranium 235 isotope is enriched from a low concentration of 0.7% to 3% for fuel in nuclear power plants. If uranium 235 is enriched above a concentration of 50% it can be used as nuclear weapons fuel. Workers at all stages of the enrichment process are exposed to whole body gamma radiation from daughters in the uranium. But the most serious aspect of enrichment is the material that is discarded, and that is uranium 238. This is called “depleted uranium” (DU) because it has been depleted of its uranium 235. But it is not depleted radioactively. DU is lying around in hundreds of thousands of leaking disintegrating barrels at the enrichment facilities in Paducah Kentucky, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Portsmouth Ohio.

At Padacah alone, some 38,000 cylinders of DU await disposal. DU has contaminated the ground water, forcing the government to provide But the Pentagon, in its wisdom has found a nifty use for this radioactive waste. Because uranium 238 is 1.7 times more dense than lead it has been found to be the ideal antitank weapon. When shot out of a cannon at great speed its ten pound mass develops great momentum, so the solid uranium antitank shell cuts through the steel on the other fellow’s tank like a hot knife through butter.

But DU has several unfortunate properties. It is pyrophoric, which means that it bursts into flame upon impact and up to 80% disintegrates into finely powdered aerosol which is distributed to the four winds. It is radioactive, and it has a half life of 4.5 billion years.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon is very keen on weapon. In the 1991 Gulf war invasion they used 360 tons of it in the form of anti-tank shells. In the 2002 invasion they already have deployed well over 2000 tons, in cities such as Baghdad where half the population of five million people is children who play in the burned out tanks and on the sandy dusty ground. Children are ten to twenty times more susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults. My paediatric colleagues in Basra where this ordinance was used in 1991 report a seven fold increase in childhood cancer and a seven fold increase in gross congenital abnormalities.

Uranium is a heavy metal. It enters the body via inhalation into the lung or via ingestion into the GI tract. It is excreted by the kidney where, if the dose is high enough, it can induce renal failure. It can induce kidney cancer. As a calcium analogue, it lodges in bones where like plutonium, it causes bone cancer and leukaemia. Last but not least it is excreted in the semen where it mutates genes in the sperm. This may be one of the causes of the huge increase in congenital disease reported in Basra.

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Studies performed on the effects of exposure
to the noble gases xenon and krypton

This is a grave deficit in the study of radiation biology because these gases are so ubiquitous around nuclear reactors, and are released with irresponsible impunity. But many noble gases decay to other more dangerous isotopes, all of which have different metabolic pathways in the body. I will describe several of the more dangerous.

Xenon 137 with a half life of 3.9 minutes converts almost immediately to the notoriously dangerous cesium 137 with a half life of 30 years.

Krypton 90 , half life of 33 seconds, decays to rubidium 90, half life of 2.9 minutes, then to the medically toxic strontium 90, half life 28 of years.

Xenon 135 decays to cesium 135 with an incredibly long half life of 3 million years. Large amounts of xenon 133 are released at operating reactors, and although it has a relatively short half life of 5.3 days, it remains radioactive for 106 days.

Krypton 85 which has a half life of 10.4 years is a powerful gamma emitter.

Argon 39 has a 265 year half life.

Other dangerous noble gases include xenon 141, 143 and 144 which decay to cerium 141, 143 and 144. According to the National Council on Radiation protection (NCRP Report No 60) these three cerium isotopes, which are beta emitters, are abundant products of nuclear fission reactions and have moderately long half lives. They bio-concentrate in the food chain and they irradiate the lung, liver, skeleton and gastrointestinal tract where they act as potent carcinogens.


A very important and little discussed isotope that is routinely emitted in large quantities into the air and waste water from nuclear power plants is tritium, (H3) a radioactive isotope of hydrogen which is composed of one proton and two neutrons. Tritium has a half life of 12.4 years and as such is radioactive for 248 years. H3 combines readily with oxygen to form tritiated water (H3O). Because it is impossible to remove tritium gas or tritiated water via filters, it is released continuously from reactors into the air and into lakes, rivers or seas – depending upon the reactor location. At least 1360 curies of tritium are released annually from each reactor.

Tritium gas is an interesting radioactive material which is utilized extensively in exit signs, runway signs at airports and on watch faces. But it is very reactive and tends to chemically bind with any material in which it is enclosed.

Tritiated water in particular is scary material. If one is immersed in a cloud of tritiated water on a foggy day near a reactor it is absorbed straight through the skin. It is also readily absorbed through the lungs and the GI tract. Because tritium is a soft energy beta emitter, all the radiation it gives off is readily absorbed by the surrounding cells, hence it is biologically very mutagenic. There is a vast literature on the biological effects of tritium demonstrating that it is highly mutagenic and causes chromosomal breaks and aberrations. In animal experiments it has been shown to induce a five fold increase in ovarian tumours in offspring of exposed parents while also causing testicular atrophy and shrinkage of the ovaries. It causes decreased brain weight in the exposed offspring and mental retardation with an increased incidence of brain tumours in some animals. Increased perinatal mortality was observed in these experiments as well as a high incidence of stunted and deformed foetuses. These effects were observed with surprisingly low concentrations of tritium, becoming three times more dangerous biologically at very low doses.

Tritium is also more dangerous when it becomes organically bound in molecules of food. As such it is incorporated into molecules including DNA within bodily cells. Chronic exposure to contaminated food causes 10% of the tritium to become organically bound within the body where it has a biological half life of 21 to 550 days - meaning that it can reside in the body from one year to twenty five years. When tritium is released to the environment it is taken up by plants and trees, partially incorporating into the ecosystem. Trees constantly transpire water vapour into the air it has been found that higher concentrations of tritium occur at night at breathing height in a forest that has incorporated tritium from a nearby reactor.

Let’s look again at the reactor

The primary coolant water becomes extremely radioactive over time because the fuel rods leak. But to add fuel to the fire, the NRC is now allowing nuclear operators to retain uranium fuel in reactors for six years instead of three, lengthening the “burnup” time and substantially increasing the radiation levels in the fuel. As well the NRC is allowing a concentration of 4.5% uranium enrichment in the fuel instead of the previously approved maximum of 3.5%. This policy will also substantially increase the amount of radioactivity produced in the fuel rods.

The longer the time that the zirconium fuel cladding is exposed to high levels of radiation, and the higher the radiation levels, the greater the damage to the cladding subsequent leakage of radioactive materials into the primary coolant. Radioactive corrosion or activation products not the result of uranium fission are produced as neutrons bombard the metal piping and the reactor containment. These elements which are powerfully radioactive include cobolt 60, iron 55, nickel 63, radioactive manganese, niobium, zinc and chromium. These materials slough off from the pipes into the primary coolant.

Officially called CRUD (Chalk River Unidentified Deposits), this material is so intensely radioactive that it poses a severe hazard to maintenance workers and inspectors in certain areas of the reactor. According to David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, during shutdowns of reactors, the utilities not uncommonly flush out pipes, heat exchangers etc to remove highly radioactive CRUD build-up. Some of the CRUD is sent to radioactive waste dumps while some is released to the river, lake or sea on which the reactor is located. The utilities admit that about 12 gallons of intensely radioactive primary coolant leaks daily into the secondary coolant via the steam generator through breaks in the pipes which is then released to the air. Some of these emissions are not even monitored.

Likewise about 4,000 gallons of primary coolant water are intentionally released to the environment on a daily basis while some just leaks out unplanned. Many other emissions are simply not monitored. In summary, radioactive gases, radioactive water, and CRUD particulates are intentionally released in daily batches, some in continuous streams and some during accidents. Very radioactive primary coolant filters which frequently contain often contain intensely carcinogenic plutonium 238, 239, 241, americium and curium are shipped to nuclear waste facilities.

Other dangerous elements in the filters include technetium 99 with a 211,100 year half life, iodine 129 with 15,700,000 year half life, carbon 14 with a 5700 year half life, nickel with a 100.1 year half life, and plutonium 241 with a 14.29 year half life.

Almost certainly these extraordinarily dangerous materials which are present in the primary coolant are escaping also in small quantities via the gaseous or liquid effluents into the environment at the nuclear power plant where they will bio-concentrate in the food chain, there to enter human bodies! It is instructive to note that most of the data of radiation releases are not real measurements but are only estimates made by computerized mathematical models based on data generated from operational reactors, field and laboratory tests and plant specific design calculations.

Hence the nuclear industry is consistently guessing about its radioactive releases and has no real idea what specific isotopes are escaping from its radioactive mausoleums. They even admit that when their operating data is non existent, information that was confabulated – made up and drawn from laboratory and field tests and from engineering judgement! The reference for this material is dated 1985, the last such document published by the NRC available for the public scrutiny.

Also note that this last document was published when reactors were relatively young and plagued with fewer corrosion and maintenance problems. In other words, all the releases are done in secret, they are at best guesstimates, and the general public is kept in the dark. Reports indicating gaseous and liquid radioactive releases vary enormously.

For instance, the Millstone One reactor in Connecticut alone released a remarkable 2.97 million curies of noble gases in 1975, while Nine Mile Point One released 1.3 million curies in 1975. In 1974, the total release from all reactors in the US was 6.48 million curies while in 1993 it ranged between 96,600 curies to 214,000 curies. Some years the nuclear industry is collectively releasing millions of curies annually. But remember that the nuclear industry claims it is “emission” free and they are gearing up to build a new generation of nuclear power plants!

The Lesson?

Do not live near a nuclear power plant, otherwise you will never know what you are breathing, eating and drinking.

[extracted from Chapter Four of Nuclear Power is Not the Answer]

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ABOUT BIOPHILE

Biophile magazine is published every two months by Biophile cc. The magazine is edited by Chris Lautenbach, while subscriptions and advertising are managed by Lindsay Mitchell.
The telephone number is 076 9055 004 and you can send faxes to 086 514 9668.

ECOTELLY

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AWARD

Award Web

Biophile recently received recognition for its contribution to the print & internet category at the 20th SAB Environmentalist & Environmental Journalists of the year Awards. Congratulations to a dedicated team!

SPONSOR