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The Town of the XXI Century
Series of reports on ecological situation in Central Asia

RADIOACTIVE WASTE

The Town of XXI Century is hoping to attract attention of specialists and ordinary people to ecological problems, to try to determine the way of our future development

A few decades ago scientists promised that thanks to the use of nuclear energy the heaven on Earth would come quite soon. Some time later the rosy impressions were replaced by common sense. Western public opinion drastically changed after the publication of the book of a famous British economist E. Shumascher, who warned that th way toward nuclear synthesis was the terrible way leading to the death of the humanity. Large scale use of nucleus division reactions is definitely the most dangerous and fundamental of all changes in the environment that have ever been made by human. As a result of this ionizing radiation has become the most serious factor of environmental pollution and the greatest threat to life on Earth.

The results of the influence of alpha, beta and gamma rays on living tissues are quite well known: the radiated particles cut into organisms like bullets. The damage caused by these particles first of all depends on the doze and the type of cells, which are affected.

In 1927 an American biologist, G. Muller published his famous work dvoted to mutations of the gens caused by X-rays and since the beginning of 1930s the danger of such influence on human genes has been recognized by other scientists. This hides the unprecedented scale hazard, which threatens not only those who can be directly affected by radiation, but also to their descendants.

The time "cures", but there is no safe spot

While people create radioactive elements, they do not have any methods to reduce their radioactivity. Only time is capable of doing so. For example, the period of semi-disintegration of carbon - 14 is 5900 years. The period of semi-disintegration of strontium - 90 is 28 years. But some parts of radiation remain forever. And it is not possible to do anything with this, except to bury the radioactive substances in a safe place. But where is it possible to find this safe place for the huge amounts of radioactive wastes, produced as a result of the production activities of the people?

No place on Earth can be considered safe enough for such kind of activity. Some time ago people thought that it was possible to place these wastes into the deepest places of the oceans, suggesting that life is not possible in those areas. But then this idea was refuted by deep underwater research done by Soviet scientists. Everywhere, where life is present radioactive substances join the biological cycle. A few hours after these materials were placed under water it is possible to trace them in living organisms. Sea-weeds and many sea animals accumulate radioactive substances in concentrations, which are thousands of times higher than concentrations of the same substances in the surrounding water. And since some of the organisms serve as food for other ones, radioactive substances gradually come back to humans.

Some scientific and research centers study the "maximum limits of concentration" (MLC) and "maximum admissible levels" (MAL) of various radioactive elements. MLC implies certain amounts of the given radioactive substance, which may be accumulated inside human bodies without causing any harm to the health of the person. But it is well-known that any accumulation eventually causes damage. In Western countries attempts were made to determine, which dozes of radiation are tolerable and even the "maximum admissible levels" were developed, but they did not by any means solve the problem.

The international agreement on radioactive wastes burial has not yet been reached. The 1959 Monaco Conference of the International Nuclear Energy Agency lead only to disagreements among participating countries and objections to the American and British methods of nuclear wastes burial in the seas. "Highly radioactive" wastes are continuously thrown into the ocean, "maoderately" and "low" radioactive wastes are dumped into rivers or just on the ground.

International Nuclear Energy Agency has developed recommendations concerning burial of radioactive wastes. The majority of specialists support the French approach to this issue. French specialists divide radioactive wastes into long living (period of semi-disintegration - several hundreds of years) and short-living (period of semi-disintegration - 30 years). The French take into consideration the specifics of semi-disintegration of the elements and prepare the burial spots in accordance with the findings. In France the spots of radioactive wastes are designed to serve for several hundreds of years, while the wastes are accumulated in the burial spots, they are looked after and only after 300 years the spot, where the wastes were buried, is considered to be relatively safe. There are several There are several of such places on the territory of France. By the way, in France 70% of the energy are produced by nuclear power plants.

In Sweden about 50 percent of all energy are produced on nuclear power plants. The main objective here is to safely bury the production wastes. This problem is reviewed by Swedish nuclear fuel companies and nuclear wastes storage companies. Scientific and technical ways to solve this problem are continuously developing since 1970s. Nuclear wastes are stored in very firm copper tanks, which are placed into vertical wells, drilled in rocks at the depth of 500 meters. For additional protection the walls of the tunnels are covered with concrete. The surrounding territory is also protected from the influence of the radioactive wastes. In Sweden burial of the nuclear wastes is regulated by state legislative acts, which are based on the fact that producer of the wastes has full technical and financial responsibility for the safe storage of industrial wastes.

"The top secret" sphere

Kazakhstan is not unaffected by radioactive pollution. Accumulation of radioactive wastes is associated with multi year activities of the uranium extracting industry, nuclear weapons testing, activities of organization using isotopes, work of the plants using raw materials containing high levels of radio nuclides, work of nuclear energy producing devices.

In Kazakhstan radioactive wastes have their specific traits and are divided into several groups:

  1. the largest one is represented by wastes of the uranium extracting industry (up to 90% of the total amount of radioactive wastes);
  2. wastes of the ore extracting and processing industries, which contain radioactive materials;
  3. used capsule sources employed by various industries, medicine, geology, households;
  4. wastes of nuclear reactors;
  5. wastes resulting from nuclear explosions.

Each kind of wastes requires a special kind of disposal procedures. For example, wastes of ore extracting and processing industries containing radioactive materials are buried in firm thick rocks, layers of salt and clay. Wastes of the uranium extracting industry are stored in mines.

The largest portion of radioactive wastes is concentrated at uranium extracting and uranium processing plants, which are located in Mangystau (Joint-stock company "Kaskor"), Kokshetau, Torgai, Akmola (Zelinni Ore producing plant), Zhezkazgan, Jambyl (Production Union "Uzhpolymetal"), South-Kazakhstan (Stepnoe and Central ore extracting divisions), Kyzyl-Orda (ore extracting division-6 "Vostcredmet"), East-Kazakhstan (Ulbinskii mechanical plant and Irtish mechanical plant) regions.

There is a lack of appropriate storage facilities on the territory of the Republic. The appropriate plants have their own storage places serving only their needs.

In accordance with the information provided by the specialists, there are about 100 temporary storage places in the Republic. In te Republic the amount of low radioactive wastes is about 230 million tons (total activity of more than 230 thousand curie), medium-active - about 10 thousand tons.

Currently many plants are transferred to foreign management. He new owners openly state that they are not willing to solve the problems remaining from the old owners. Kazakhstani plants because of the economic difficulties do not have funds to solve the problem of radioactive wastes burial. So, it is not possible to rely on anyone; the state has to take care of the radioactive wastes.

Specialists consider that the situation with the radioactive wastes of the mining industry can not be viewed as favorable. There are no radiation security services capabale of monitoring the wastes. Radioactive wastes can be found among other wastes or under water. This problem was first faced in the Soviet Union in 1990s, when radioactive wastes started to appear at the oil wells. Specialists noticed the fact that oil pipelines, after a while to started to "light". In some cases such tubes were used for household purposes (for example, for construction of water supply systems). Ministry of ecology and biological resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan together with the Ministry of health care and Nuclear energy Agency often raised the issue of the importance of liquidation of the difficult situation with the production leftovers remaining after the end of work done by mining companies, however, this issue remains unsolved. The majority of the mining industry wastes are not monitored. Under the influence of atmospheric precipitation radioactive substances migrate into the ground and into the underground waters. Sometimes people use the mining industry wastes to construct roads and houses. The influence of radioactive leftovers of the mining industry on the environment has not been researched. The current situation existing at the places of mining industry wastes accumulation is potentially dangerous for the health of the people.

Currently in the Republic there are more than 200 plants using about 80000 sources of ionizing radiation (total activity of more than 250 thousand curie). Out of the total number about 20000 sources (activity of 80 thousand curie) must be written off and buried.

In Kazakhstan there is no special storage place for the capsule sources. The temporary storage place for capsule sources works at he Semipalatinsk testing range.

The Republic lacks the state system of monitoring and control of the capsule sources. As a result the unregistered sources are used, there are cases of losses of the capsule sources. For example, in accordance with the official information of the state environmental protection agencies, on November 11, 1995 a neutron source disappeared from the water measuring device located at the Joint-stock company "Nodfos" in Jambyl region and the source still has not been found.

In North-Kazakhstan region uranium measuring devices with two non-registered sources of ionizing radiation were found on the territory of an elevator in Smirnovo village. They were placed into a secure storage place.

In Karaganda region plants do not have the necessary equipment (Ispat Karmet, KarGRES-2, "Karagandaugol" etc.), used sources of ionizing radiation are not monitored and not sent to the storage places ("karagandaugol"Ispat-Karmet, geologic organizations, regional cancer-treatment center and others).

Disposal of the used nuclear fuel also represents and acute issue. In the world there is a lack of storage places for nuclear fuel. The opportunities for creation of the storage place for used nuclear fuel are currently researched in the United States. Specialists express an opinion that several countries having identical economies can jointly built such a storage place. But the main question in this case is: on which territory will this storage place be located? Nobody wants to have a storage place for used nuclear fuel close to his home. For example, several years ago none of the regions of Kazakhstan agreed to built a nation-wide storage place for used nuclear fuel on its territory.

Currently several nuclear reactors work in the Republic: in Aktau (BM-350), close to Almaty (1 research-oriented reactor), on the territory of the former Semipalatinsk nuclear testing range (3 research-oriented reactors) By 2005 because of discontinued use of the nuclear reactor (BM-350) Kazakhstan will need a long-term underground storage place for highly radioactive wastes. Specialized storage places for low- and medium radioactive wastes must be built in each of the regions of Kazakhstan. The preliminary estimates for each of the storage places run into tens of millions of tenge.

Specialists consider that in Kazakhstan there are several places where it is possible to build a storage place for burial of wastes of the nuclear reactors. But construction of such an object must be justified by appropriate research. Specialists of the Agency have an idea to create a laboratory for carrying out such kinds of research, and to use the experience of foreign specialists. But the projects can not be implemented because of the money factor.

A large problem is represented by the wastes of nuclear explosions. 500 nuclear explosions (on-the-ground and underground) were carried out on the territory of Kazakhstan. As a reslt of the explosions 5,8 million tons of low radioactive wastes with total activity of 11,6 thousand curie have been accumulated on the territory of Semipalatinsk testing range. Currently the majority of the territory of the range is polluted by radio nuclides. The complete research of the radioactive conditions of the testing range has not been carried out.

Until 1989 30 underground nuclear explosions were carried out on the territory of Kazakhstan to solve various economic issues, particularly to probe the seismic conditions of the Earth's core and to create the underground storage spaces (mainly in the layers of salt).

In accordance with the Environmental protection law of Kazakhstan since 1991 radioactive wastes can not be carried to the territory of the Republic with the purpose of burying them. However, specialists consider that there are cases of illegal transportation of the wastes on the territory of the Republic.

Customs check points equipped with appropriate devices are carrying out the radioactive control. The other issue is how adequate this equipment is.

Unfortunately, there are examples of radioactively polluted products being carried into the territory and out of the territory of the republic. In Mangistau region specialists of the environmental protection services discovered radioactively polluted scrap metal, which was shipped to Iran. In Semipalatinsk region 3 cases of shipment of radioactively polluted cables were detected.

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