The Chicago Tribune and numerous other publications reported that today marked the 20th anniversary of WIPP… also known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, NM.
“WIPP was constructed for disposal of defense-generated TRU waste from DOE sites around the country. TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. The waste is permanently disposed of in rooms mined in an underground salt bed layer over 2000 feet from the surface. “
Most of this TRU waste was generated from the Cold War production of nuclear bomb materials. Although controversial to this day, WIPP has afforded the US government with a secure, safe place to house DOE/DOD TRU waste.
While WIPP does not hold the “extra-crispy” high level radioactive waste that currently resides at many DOE sites, many of these materials and their isotopes will remain hazardous for a long time. Here’s an interesting article on radioactive decay:
Some H-Bomb test & reactor-borne isotopes, their radioactive half-lives & radioactive emissions
In the far-distant future, all the
long-lived radioactive material, even that now stored and trapped, will mix
with the biosphere unless each generation repackages it.
–Dr. Rosalie Bertell, No Immediate Danger.
Radiation is insidious, because it cannot be detected by the senses. We are not biologically equipped to feel its power, or see, hear, touch or smell it. Yet gamma radiation can penetrate our bodies if we are exposed to radioactive substances. Beta particles can pass through the skin to damage living cells, although, like alpha particles, which are unable to penetrate this barrier, their most serious and irreparable damage is done when we ingest food or water–or inhale air–contaminated with particles of radioactive matter.
|Uranium-238||alpha||4.5 billion years||used in new depleted uranium weapons and tank armor; contaminates 50 million tons of U.S. uranium mine wastes left in open piles|
|Uranium-235||alpha||700 million years||used in atomic weapons, poisoning fabrication factories|
|Uranium-234||alpha & gamma||245,000 years||left from uranium ore milling and enrichment|
|Plutonium-239||alpha||24,300 years||used in hydrogen bombs; seeks liver, lung, bone|
|Cesium-137||beta & gamma||30.2 years||left in large quantities from bomb production and in reactor wastes; contaminates whole body & muscle|
|Strontium-90||beta||28 years||spewed by accidents at Three Miles Island & Chernobyl–and vented in routine “allowable” releases by all operating nuclear power reactors; seeks bone|
|Cobalt-60||beta & gamma||5 years||left from H-bomb production & used in food irradiation; contaminates whole body|
|Iodine-125 & 131||beta & gamma||8.1 days||spewed in large quantities during reactor accidents and in fallout from above-ground bomb testing; contaminates the thyroid gland|
RADIATION SIGNIFICANCE REGULARLY FOUND IN “LOW LEVEL” NUCLEAR WASTE
Source: Radioactive Waste Management Associates, 526 W. 26th St., Room 517, New York, NY 10001
|Radionuclide||Half Life||Radiation||Critical Organs|
|Americium-241||430 years||alpha, gamma||bone & lung|
|Cerium-144||280 days||beta, gamma||GI tract, lung|
|Ruthenium-106||1 year||beta, gamma||GI tract, lung|
|Tritium||12 years||beta||whole body|
Alpha radiation, the nucleus of a helium atom, is a positively charged particle. It is larger in size than a beta particle, like a cannon-ball relative to a bullet, having correspondingly less penetrating power but more impact. Alpha radiation will travel about one millimeter in human tissue before stopping. It can be stopped by a single sheet of paper. Great damage can result from ingestion or inhalation where nearby cells are irradiated, because alpha and beta particles penetrate cell membranes. Plutonium is an alpha emitter and no quantity has been found to be too small to induce lung cancer in animals.
Beta radiation (almost 2,000 times smaller than an alpha particle) can penetrate several centimeters in human tissue. Stopped by metal or even thick cardboard. Beta passes through live tissue ripping electrons from atoms leaving positively charged ions that in turn ionize (irradiate) other atoms.
Gamma radiation are photons, i.e. high-energy light-waves and “pack a wallop” traveling in straight lines, knocking loose electrons, causing ionization, and leave a track of ionized particles in their wake. Gamma radiation is identical to X-rays of high energy. No radiation remains in the body after an X-ray picture is taken. It is like light passing through a window. The damage it may have caused on the way through, however remains. Gamma is the most penetrating form of radiation.
Background radiation is a vague term that includes emissions from radioactive chemicals which occur naturally and those which result from the nuclear fission process (nuclear reactor systems). Radioactive chemicals released from a nuclear power plant are called “background” after one year.
Rad and millirad: A radiation measure that refers to a unit of dose equal to the deposition of 100 ergs of energy per gram of material being irradiated; or the energy absorbed per gram of tissue which is equal to about 83% of the Roentgen value. A millirad is a thousandth of a rad.
Rem and millirem: A radiation measure that reflects the difference in biological damage of the radiation dose produced by different particles. The relation between rad and rem depends on the kind of particle emitting the radiation: for gamma rays, 1 rad = 1 rem; for beta, 1 rad = 1 rem; for alpha, 1 rad = 30 rem.
Roentgen: The original term used for measuring the amount of ionizing gamma radiation incident on the body. It is equal to .94 rads.
* Radioactive Heaven & Earth, Int’l Physicians for the prevention of Nuclear War, New York, The Apex Press, 1991.
* Nuclear Madness, Helen Caldicott, revised edition, NY, Norton, 1994.
* No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Rosalie Bertell, London, the Women’s Press, 1985.
* Nuclear Power, Walter Patterson, Baltimore, MD, Penguine Books, 1976.
* Secret Fallout: Low-Level Radiation from Hiroshima to Three-Mile Island, Ernest Sternglass, NY, McGraw-Hill, 1972.