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Trust us : Comments

By Tilman Ruff, published 17/11/2006

The Federal Government is asking us to trust flawed safeguards regarding the most dangerous of materials - uranium.

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The obvious response to this is that Australia should enrich all its uranium here and take back the waste for outback burial next to where it came from. Any customer who failed to return the correct amount of material would be blacklisted. Apart from making diversions harder it would be a lucrative form of value adding. An Australian developed laser enrichment process could then find a home market.

Some perspective is needed on waste volumes. Nuclear waste can be measured in cubic metres per year; CO2 from fossil fuel plants can be measured in cubic kilometres per day. If we don't curtail that we are likely to face greater peril than from a localised nuclear incident.
Posted by Taswegian, Friday, 17 November 2006 11:53:29 AM
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your specious proposal ignores the fact that, while we should know exactly how much fuel we've exported, the exact volumes and composition (particularly plutonium content) of the resulting waste is dependant on a range of factors which are dangerously out of our control.

Now, clearly a stringent inspectiou regime, closely monitoring every single reactor and reprocessing facility around the world, could attempt to redress this shortcoming.

But unfortunately this ideal is far from our present reality.
IAEA Director General, Dr. El Baradei, describes the frustration of operating on what he terms a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department". El Baradei admits that inspection rights are "fairly limited" and that the safeguards regime "clearly needs reinforcement"

In this regime, a higher-perecentage yield of plutonium could be figuratively skimmed off the top of any waste before it is returned. Certain reactor designs could allow extra nuclear material to be generated beyond that which must be sent back.

Sure, with an astronomical budget, and an international army of nuclear 'police', we might begin to address these challenges, but we'd still be left with our hands on the nuclear industry's other unresolved problem. Just as challenging as the ballooning international proliferation of nuclear weapons materials and capabilities, are the ballooning global stockpiles of nuclear waste. Here in the NT, we're acutely aware that there is currently no reliable long term management strategy for this growing, glowing problem.

Once again we see that, if you think you have a simple solution to the nuclear industry's unsightly baggage of weapons and waste, you're probably wrong. Solutions to the dilemmas of weapons and waste have been promised to be 'just around the corner' for half a century now. Many are now beginning to realise that these problems will be with us for a long time, and that the only sensible course of action is to turn off the tap, stop the poison at its source, and end uranium mining.
Posted by justin b., Friday, 17 November 2006 4:37:49 PM
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Trust us? No way!

Many of us already know just how shabby regulations are within the uranium mining industry.

Class V waste is deemed as hazardous and should be disposed of at a facility for "intractable" wastes where wastes are permanently buried. Yet many of us have copies of industry licences where Class V waste is being dumped at a Class II/III landfill and condoned and approved by government agencies!

How on earth could we trust these critters to monitor the proper use of Australian radioactive waste overseas?

In Australia, governments are bent on the "self-regulation" method which puts more funds in to government coffers whilst governments turn a blind eye to unethical practices.

To claim that we could "trust" our government to force other countries (with abominable records on the containment of plutonium)to adhere to ethical practices is another inane attempt at duping the public.

Some proponents of all things nuclear claim Australia is a mile in front since we have Synroc, a ceramic invented in the 70's, which supposedly immobilises high level RA waste for safe burial.

It is of concern that ANSTO, along with companies such as Pangea are extremely enthusiastic about the potential for this rock to safely contain HLW. I doubt these experiments are conducted purely to contain our own ILW/HLW wastes from Lucas Heights

The US have conducted experiments with Synroc to immobilise the fall-out of waste from their military activities but I suspect that our very own ANSTO would be looking to market Synroc as part of its magical waste disposal facility capable of accepting international waste to be interred on Australian territory. Wow! Think of the profits!

So I'd say we're damned if we do trust them and damned if we don't!
Posted by dickie, Sunday, 19 November 2006 7:13:56 PM
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Justin B,

If we stopped all uranium mining, how would we do x-rays, CT Scans, radiotherapy? Even the smoke detector in your house has a small amount of americium - a very nasty actinide that emitts alpha particles and in larger quantities gamma radiation. You are generally safe from this though, unless you break open the internal casing, pulverise the .02 grams of americium and then inhale or swallow it


Synroc has some very serious limitations which makes it impractical to store High Level Waste for anything more than about 500 years. It fails to imobilise all actinides, including Uranium, Americium and Radium. It also is prone to criticality events {Bang}! Although neutron absorbtion materials can be built in, they will eventually be depleted.

Tilmun - the longer a substances half-life the less radioactive it is. Take for instance Co90. It's half life is 5 years or so. It's decay rate is faster than Pu therefore it is more radioactive.
Posted by Narcissist, Monday, 20 November 2006 12:05:04 PM
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Narcisist, thanks for your important questions about applications of atomic sources of radiation. Of course, some of these sources (such as actinium, by far the most common medically applied isotope) were first created in the laboratory, rather than derived from uranium mining. But I recognise that we currently do use atomic sources derived from nuclear reactors in a range of applications.

Fortunately, we needn't prolong the nuclear industry on these grounds.

If we stopped all uranium mining, of course there would be no impact on our access to x-rays. Medically applied x-rays are produced from an electronic source - flick a button and it's on, flick it back and its off. Unlike atomic sources of radiation, there is nothing to worry about when it's not in use, and there's no resulting waste.
Similar for CT scans, mamograms, etc.

Radio-therapy is a bit more complicated - this is reliant upon atomic sources of radiation. Now fortunately, most therapies can employ analogues which are produced in a cyclotron, rather than in a reactor. This means we can use standard elements (not uranium derivatives) and apply them to either a neutron beam or a particle accelerator (Australia already has 3 cyclotrons, and only one reactor) to create the positron-rich analogues which can be used in therapy.

That said, there remain some rare forms of palliative treatment for very specific less-common cases of cancer, where uranium-derived atomic sources does remain one good option for pain management. I'm pleased to know, then, that the Medical Association for the Prevention of War has confirmed, in their publication 'A new clear direction'
that we don't have to ransom ourselves to the nuclear industry
to ensure we maintain a first class health system.

As for smoke detectors, some cynics suggest that selling off americium as a component of these devices is a devious method for the industry to wash their hands of some nuclear waste ;{)} but certainly, you can buy smoke detectors in the stupid-market, or hardware shop, that don't rely on radiation.
Posted by justin b., Monday, 20 November 2006 12:44:43 PM
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Thanks Justin,

No matter how hard you try, you're not going to make medical isotopes such as technetium or the less reliable molybdenum in a cyclotron (with halves lives of a few hours and days respectively). You need a uranium reactor otherwise you can't do accurate soft x-rays/CT Scans etc that require these isotopes.

Off topic a bit - for a comparison of radiation doses from some medical scans see

Lucas Heights is tiny, with a fuel load of less than 10kgs compared with a power reactor with a fuel load of 3-5 tonnes. Not only does it provide all Australia's medical isotopes but also provides valuable nuclear physics research and commercial applications like irradiating silicon for use in computers.

Can we import these isotopes? - probably not reliably. Do we need them? - only if we want to treat/diagnose the sick.

Nuclear power is a present wasteful in the extreme. Most of the Strong Nuclear Force goes to waste - it takes the equivilent of 10^40 (1 with 40 zeros after it) tonnes of energy to split an atom! The Weak Nuclear force that is responsible for decay is accelerated but wasted as the only portion is used as heat energy to boil water. Imagine the energy if we could properly harness E=MC^2
Posted by Narcissist, Monday, 20 November 2006 2:08:33 PM
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