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Exploding Radioactive Waste Warning: Keep it Above Ground

Early on Sunday Oct. 25, an underground fire caused an explosion in a low-level nuclear waste site in the desert 10 miles from Beatty, Nevada, and 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The explosion and fire followed flash flooding that shut down Beatty’s escape routes: US 95 and State Highway 373. The 80-acre dumping ground, closed since 1992, is run by — get this — “US Ecology.” The private dump 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.

Certain types of radioactive material are known to catch fire when in contact with water, so the flooding that struck prior to the explosion may have been its cause. Unfortunately authorities don’t know what sorts of radioactive isotopes are buried in the trenches there. Nor does anyone know either how the fire started or how much radioactive waste burned.

Rusty Harris-Bishop, spokesman for the US EPA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco said in a prepared statement, “No gamma radiation has been detected at this time.” This nuanced remark does not indicate that gamma radiation wasn’t detected. It also artfully dodges questions about alpha and beta radiation.

With the EPA, the Nevada National Guard, Nye County officials and Energy Department all involved, highly nuanced public safety assurances are guaranteed. “Radiation wasn’t immediately detected during fly-overs of a burned trench … state and federal officials said Monday,” Oct. 26. But radiation monitoring was initiated well after the plume of smoke and debris from the blast and fire had dispersed. Then, “The Nevada Department of Public Safety said tests of the area around the fire site near Beatty returned negative readings for radiation,” KVVU TV reported. Well, sure. But were any positive readings returned?

See video footage here.

Buried Waste Theoretically and Literally Explosive

In February 2014, at a deep underground dump in New Mexico where the Pentagon is burying plutonium-contaminated wastes, at least one barrel “burst after it arrived at the dump, releasing radioactive uranium, plutonium and americium throughout the underground facility,” according to NPR. NPR’s March 26, 2015 update concerned the Energy Department’s 277-page report about the explosion. The report said in part, “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’s term-of-art for this “self-heat” explosion was “thermal runaway.” This runaway explosion contaminated 22 workers internally, and it has shut down the operation, possibly forever.

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.

Only 20 miles away from the Beatty Nevada explosion is the now-cancelled Yucca Mountain high-level dump project, where such waste explosions were forecast by expert investigators 20 years ago.

In 1995, government physicists Charles Bowman and Francesco Venneri at Los Alamos National Laboratory predicted that wastes might erupt in a nuclear explosion and scatter radioactivity to the winds or into groundwater, or both. (Washington Post, Dec. 15, 1998; New York Times, Mar. 5, 1995.) 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 Energy Dept. geologist Jerry Szymanski said, “You’re talking about an unimaginable catastrophe. Chernobyl would be small potatoes.” (Joby Warrick, “At Nevada Nuclear Waste Site: The Issue is One of Liquidity,” Washington Post, Dec. 15, 1998)

In expert hearings held in southern Ontario in Sept. 2014, Dr. Frank Greening made identical warnings about the potential explosiveness of Canadian radioactive waste if they were to be buried next to Lake Huron under plans made by Ontario Power Generation.

October’s waste explosion and fire shows we don’t have to wait thousands of years for disaster to strike. Nevada’s “self-heating” radioactive “thermal runaway” is just the latest warning not to bury radioactive waste. Putting the deadly stuff out-of-sight and out-of-mind won’t keep us (or the water) safe. For radioactive waste, only above-ground, monitored, hardened, retrievable storage can come close to that goal. Ceasing nuclear waste production is the only path to potential sustainable solutions.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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