By Dave Elliott
“There is no habitat that benefits from coal pollution”, says David Roberts, commenting on an article in New Yorker last year by Jonathan Franzen, who was worried that, in the rush to deal with climate change by using renewables, local impacts on birds would get ignored, given the argument that global climate change due to fossil fuel use would hurt them much more than wind farms or whatever: http://grist.org/living/jonathan-franzen-is-confused-about-climate-change-but-then-lots-of-people-are/
Everyone usually likes animal stories and I couldn’t resist this news item from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7 Oct., as part recycled by http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/
A helicopter equipped with radiation detecting equipment has been used to scan almost 4000 hectares of the USA’s Hanford nuclear site in search of radioactive rabbit droppings. The helicopter was able to map each of the slightly radioactive stools with GPS coordinates. Liquid wastes containing radioactive caesium and strontium salts were stored in underground tanks at Hanford, which rabbits routinely burrowed into. They developed an appetite for the radioactive salts, which resulted in slightly radioactive droppings. Hanford was a plutonium production complex with nine nuclear reactors and associated processing facilities which played a pivotal role in US defence for more than 40 years starting. An estimated 50 million gallons of liquid wastes from Cold War plutonium production processes- laced with radioactive caesium and strontium salts- were dumped in a 13.7 sq. mile area south of central Hanford’s 177 underground radioactive waste tanks. That dumping ended more than 40 years ago. The site is now undergoing environmental cleanup managed by the US DoE. The droppings will be put into landfill at the Hanford site.
The UK also has had problems- at Sellafield in Cumbria. At one point I recall it had to employ a marksman to dispatch birds that picked up doses and were at risk of contaminating local gardens. But now, perhaps more seriously, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) and the Environment Agency are worried about the potential for a ‘major event’ arising from part of Sellafield’s ‘high hazard, high risk’ area. One of the high risk plants is B30, the original fuel storage pond which is open and known among workers as ‘Dirty 30’. NII inspector Mark Foy told the Whitehaven News (7/10/9) ‘we are concerned that the risk of a major event caused by further degradation of legacy plants, or increased time at risk due to deferrals, is far too high. We have written to Sellafield Ltd to advise that every effort should be given to addressing and reducing the risks at the earliest opportunity’. Let’s hope that while they are sorting it out the birds stay away.
Moreover, even if they or other species don’t live in that area, there are still evidently risks from the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster back in 1986, which famously contaminated land in Cumbria and Wales. In all, the UK Dept. of Health issued control orders covering more than 200,000 sheep. Sheep with higher than the permitted level of radiation had to be marked with a special dye that did not wash off in the rain, and had to spend months grazing on uncontaminated grass before being passed as fit to go into the food chain. But even now problems remain. The Council of the EU recently noted that ‘Radioactive caesium contamination of certain [agricultural] products originating in the third countries most affected by the Chernobyl accident still exceeds the maximum permitted levels of radioactivity laid down in Regulation (EC) No 733/2008.’ http://register.consilium.europa.eu/pdf/en/09/st13/st13606.en09.pdf
The half-life of Caesium-137 is around 30 years, so we still have some time to go before the activity level has fallen off to half what is was initially. As far as is known, the risks from this type of low level contamination are small, but as we contemplate on one hand trying to clear up all the old nuclear sites, and on the other, building new plants, it may be wise to think about the long term implications of relying on nuclear energy. Particularly since there have been continuing worries that the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate does not have the staff to deal with the proposed nuclear expansion programme.
According to a report in the Observer (21/6/09) the NII evidently has had enough problems responding to the 1,767 safety incidents that occurred between 20001-8, about half of which were subsequently judged by inspectors as serious enough ‘to have had the potential to challenge a nuclear safety system’. Clearly it’s not just animals that have problems with nuclear power…
Of course, we and animals can also have problems with other energy technologies – for example, as I explored in an earlier Blog, birds and bats sometimes collide with wind turbine blades. I’ll be looking at recent developments in relation to that in a new Blog soon.