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Radioactive Clean-up

Radioactive, nuclear, or radiation clean-up is considered as the most dangerous, difficult, and costly remediation activity after a nuclear disaster or accident.  The contamination may be found in the air, water, and soil, as wells as equipment and buildings (USEPA, 2010). Radioactive material is unstable, while the nuclei of radioactive atoms emit ionizing radiation (i.e., alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays). Under certain circumstances, any of the three can harm humans, stealing electrons from atoms and destroying chemical bonds (Atteberry, 2011). Unlike alpha and beta particles, however, gamma rays can pass directly through the body, wreaking havoc in the process and faulty attempts by the body to repair that damage can lead to cancerous cells (Atteberry, 2011). Scientists and engineers are still studying the process and the period of treating the environment contaminated with radioactive materials.

Content Table

Historical Overview of Radioactive Contamination

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Meltdown

One of the most infamous symbols of life-threatening pollution is the Chernobyl meltdown in April 26, 1986 as shown in Figure 1 (Blacksmith Institute, 2011). To this day, the settlements closest to the reactor site remain depopulated ghost towns; however, the explosion sent a radioactive cloud over most of Europe, and many regions received a fallout level that, while not quite serious enough to require permanent evacuation, is still more than enough to blight local ecosystems and human communities with radiation poisoning (see Figure 2)(Blacksmith Institute, 2011). 110 miles away is the region of Bryansk, of which nearly 2 million acres received a heavy dose of fallout pollution, primarily Cesium-137 (Blacksmith Institute, 2011).  In 1989, the World Health Organization (WHO) first raised concerns that local medical scientists had incorrectly attributed various biological and health effects to radiation exposure (ICP, 1991).  Following this, the Government of the USSR requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to coordinate an international experts' assessment of accident's radiological, environmental and health consequences in selected towns of the most heavily contaminated areas in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (WNA, 2011).The environmental pathways of human radiation exposure is depicted in Figure 3.

Lessons Learned from the Chernobyl Disaster

While no-one in the West was under any illusion about the safety of early Soviet reactor designs, some lessons learned have also been applicable to Western plants (WNA, 2011a). Certainly the safety of all Soviet-designed reactors has improved vastly (WNA, 2011a). This is due largely to the development of a culture of safety encouraged by increased collaboration between East and West, and substantial investment in improving the reactors (WNA, 2011a). Many other international programs were initiated following Chernobyl. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety review projects for each particular type of Soviet reactor are noteworthy, bringing together operators and Western engineers to focus on safety improvements (WNA, 2011a). The accident has shown the importance of strict compliance with the basic and technical safety principles for nuclear power plants, of continuous safety analysis of operating nuclear power plants and of their early upgrading in order to eliminate deviations, of active study and the introduction of leading world experience, and of taking thorough account of the human factor (ECTS, 2011). The scale of the material losses and the financial cost of mitigating the consequences of the Chernobyl accident provide compelling evidence of the extremely high price of errors and shortcomings when ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and of the need for strict compliance with international safety requirements during their design, construction and operation. The accident has demonstrated the need to establish and support a high-level national emergency response system in case of man-made accidents (ECTS, 2011).

Figure 1. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster (UPI, 2011)

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Figure 2.  Map of Cesium 137 deposition levels in Belarus, The  Russian Federation and Ukraine as of December 1989 (Source: International Advisory Committee, 1991)

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Figure 3. Main Environmental Pathways of Human Radiation Exposure (Source: IAEA Technical Report, 1991)

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Three Mile Island Disaster

The worst nuclear power plant accident in the United States occurred on March 28, 1978 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania  (see Figure 4).  An airborne radiological contamination alarm sounded about 4 p.m. Saturday in the Unit 1 containment building, according to a statement from Exelon Nuclear, which operates the Three Mile Island plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania (CNN, 2009)(see Figure 5). The unit had been shut down since October 26 for refueling, maintenance and steam generator replacement, the company said (CNN, 2009).  The Three Mile Island accident caused concerns about the possibility of radiation-induced health effects, principally cancer, in the area surrounding the plant. Because of those concerns, the Pennsylvania Department of Health for 18 years maintained a registry of more than 30,000 people who lived within five miles of Three Mile Island at the time of the accident (WNA, 2011b). The state's registry was discontinued in mid 1997, without any evidence of unusual health trends in the area (WNA, 2011b).

The Three Mile Island Clean-up

A cleanup plan was developed and carried out safely and successfully by a team of more than 1000 skilled workers (WNA, 2011b). According to the World Nuclear Association (2011b), it began in August 1979, with the first shipments of accident-generated low-level radiological waste to Richland, Washington. In the cleanup's closing phases, in 1991, final measurements were taken of the fuel remaining in inaccessible parts of the reactor vessel. The cleanup ended in December 1993, when Unit 2 received a license from the NRC to enter Post Defueling Monitored Storage (PDMS) (WNA, 2011b).

Figure 4. Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant (Source: news.com.au, 2011)

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Figure 5.  Nuclear Power Plant Melt Down (Source: Associate Press Laser Photo; Osif, Baratta and Conkling, 2004)

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Fukushima, Japan Nuclear Disaster

The devastation in Japan caused by the earthquake-tsunami double disaster and, in particular, the damage done to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma (Joyner, 2011) (see Figure 6). For decades, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have served as shorthand for the nightmare of nuclear power generation gone awry (National Geographic, 2011). In the wake of Japan's deadly earthquake and tsunami last week, the still-unfolding disaster of Fukushima Daiichi has come closer than any nuclear crisis in history to making it a fearsome trio (National Geographic, 2011).  Based on the National Geographic investigation report, Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, which began operating in the 1970s, is made up of six boiling-water reactors, or BWRs—a type of "Light Water Reactor." (Using ordinary water, it is distinguished from "heavy water reactors," which use deuterium oxide, or D2O, instead of H2O.) Three Mile Island used another type of Light Water Reactor known as a pressurized-water reactor (PWR) (National Geographic, 2011).  PWR means that the water temperature can increase compared to the boiling point of water. While, BWR is much simpler to control the temperature.  A meltdown occurs when the control rods fail to contain the neutron emission and the heat levels inside the reactor thus rise to a point that the fuel itself melts, generally temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing uncontrolled radiation-generating reactions and making approaching the reactor incredibly hazardous (see Figure 7)(Joyner, 2011).  The Japanese Government told people living within 20- kilometer to evacuate as shown on Figure 8.  According to Joyner (2011), radiation exposure for the average individual is 620 millirems per year, split about evenly between manmade and natural sources. The firefighters who served at the Chernobyl plant were exposed to between 80,000 and 1.6 million millirems (Joyner, 2011). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that exposure to 375,000 to 500,000 millirems would be sufficient to cause death within three months for half of those exposed. A 30-kilometer-radius (19 miles) no-go zone remains at Chernobyl to this day (Joyner, 2011).

There are two critical risks: direct contamination from the radioactive fallout, like water supplies; or indirectly, when consumers eat foods from livestock consuming contaminated grasses or feed (Fox News, 2011).  Workers have pumped water into reactor cores and fuel rod pools, leaving more than 100,000 tonnes of contaminated water in basements, drains and ditches, some of which has leaked into the ocean  (France International News, 2011). The groundwater contamination was found in concentrations 10,000 times higher than the government standard for the plant. The iodine-131, a radioactive substance that decays quickly, was nearly 50 feet (15 meters) below one of the reactors, according to TEPCO spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo (Nakashima and Yuasa, 2011).

Figure 6.  Aerial Photographic Map of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Source: Washington post, 2011).

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Figure 7. The General Electric in Fukushima Daiichi (Source:Washington post, 2011)

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Figure 8. The Japanese Government told People living within 20 Kilometers to Evacuate (Source: New York Times, 2011)

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Fukushima Water Clean-up

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) approved in early June the startup of a centralized radioactive waste treatment facility (CRWTF) capable of processing up to 12,000 tonnes per day (WNN, 2011).  In the week of 29 June, the CRWTF treated 6380 cubic tonnes contaminated water, bringing the cumulative treated volume to date to 13,610 tonnes as shown in Figure 9 (WNN, 2011). On June 18, 2011, operators of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant have suspended an operation to clean contaminated water hours after it began due to a rapid rise in radiation (BBC News, 2011).

On the later part of June 2011, Tepco pronounced water clean-up begins to operate.  Tepco, a Tokyo Electric Power Company, with assistance from a French chief organisation Areva, a US organisation Kurion and other companies, has been test-running a complement decontaminating hot water and reusing it to cold a reactors (WBN, 2011). But in a reversal that behind a devise by about a week, water leaked from a trickery used to catch caesium (WBN, 2011).

Figure 9. Japan Radiation in Water (Source: Big Haber, 2011)

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Lessons from the Fukushima Disaster

The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant had multiple levels of provision for backup power (Goldring, 2011). But the emergency plan assumed that the infrastructure in the surrounding community would be undamaged, which was not the case (Goldring, 2011).  Nuclear power plants pose other threats to humanity and to the human future (FE, 2011). The large amounts of radioactive wastes that are created by nuclear power generation will remain highly toxic for many times longer than human civilization has existed, and there is currently no long-term solution to dealing with the threats these radioactive wastes pose to the environment and human health (FE, 2011).

Radioactive Waste Contamination in Water

Major sources of drinking water remain at risk of serious contamination from the nation's nuclear weapons complexes, despite billions in federal spending to clean up hazardous waste produced at these sites, according to a new report (Bivins and Wright, 2004).  The seepage of radioactive and toxic byproducts into vital water resources pose grave health dangers to the tens of thousands of workers at these nuclear facilities, area residents and people who live dozens of miles away (Bivins and Wright, 2004).  According to a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, it will take 3 million years for radioactive waste stored in the United States as of 1983 to decay to background levels (Thinkquest, 2011). So, presently, the only solution is to store the waste in a place so that the environment won't be contaminated (Thinkquest, 2011) .

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents show that Pennsylvania’s drinking water has been contaminated with radioactive waste from natural gas drilling (HSNW, 2011). Energy companies have been extracting natural gas with a new drilling technique called high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking (HSNW, 2011). This technique involves blasting large amounts of highly pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals at rock formations to break them up and release the gas. This process results in millions of gallons of wastewater that is contaminated with dangerous chemicals like highly corrosive salts, carcinogens, and radioactive elements (HSNW, 2011). According to Homeland Security Newswire (2011),the amount of radioactive wastewater is projected to increase as more than 50,000 new wells are expected to be drilled over the next twenty years in Pennsylvania.

In Canada, nuclear facilities and power plants are contaminating local Canadian food and water with radioactive waste that increases risks of cancer and birth defects (De Souza, 2011).  Although Canadian guidelines have suggested that the existing levels of tritium in the water are safe, the report cites recent peer-reviewed studies, including a recent review by the UK’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters, that suggest the opposite (De Souza, 2011).

Radiation from Japan has been detected in drinking water in 13 more American cities, and cesium-137 has been found in American milk—in Montpelier, Vermont—for the first time since the Japan nuclear disaster began, according to data released by the Environmental Protection Agency (Forbes, 2011).   The cesium-137 found in milk in Vermont is the first cesium detected in milk since the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear accident occurred last month. The sample contained 1.9 picoCuries per liter of cesium-137, which falls under the same 3.0 standard (Forbes, 2011).

The levels of radioactive iodine found in seawater near Japan's stricken nuclear power plant have reached more than 4,385 times the legal limit, the nuclear safety agency said (Aljazeera, 2011). The level was the highest recorded since the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency Deputy Director-General Hidehiko Nishiyama told a news briefing (Aljazeera, 2011).

Technologies and Tools for Radioactive Clean-up

The application of nanotechnology or nano-enabled processes to remediate waste sites has the potential to provide more rapid, cost-effective cleanup than do conventional approaches. For the purposes of this document, Nano-Enabled Environmental Applications for Radionuclides, the phrase,"nano-enabled technologies and/or processes," refers to the use and incorporation of nano systems, i.e., tools, materials, functions, scales, etc. (USEPA, 2011a). The United States Evironmental Protection Agency provided guidelines for Radiation Cleanup through the following manuals: "Potential Nano-Enabled Environmental Applications for Radionuclides" and "Inventory of Radiological Methodologies."

EPA's uses the best available science to develop risk assessment tools and guidance for cleaning up sites that are contaminated with radioactive materials USEPA, 2011b):

MARSSIM
 contains current and historical versions of the Multi-Agency Radiation Site Survey and Investigation Manual, training and meeting information, and workgroup contacts. (Obtain a copy of MARSSIM).

MARLAP
 provides the current and historical draft versions of the Multi-Agency Radiological Laboratory Analytical Protocols manual and meeting information. (Obtain a manual of MARLAP)

MARSAME
 provides the current and historical draft versions of the Multi-Agency Radiological Survey and Assessment of Materials and Equipment manual. (Obtain a copy of MARSAME)

Further Reading

1. Health Effects of Chernobyl (German Affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 2011)

2. Environmental Remediation of Radioactive Contamination

3. Chernobyl: The Event and Its Aftermath (Berkowitz, Berkowitz, and Patrick, 2006)

4. Radiation Cleanup Standards in the United States (U.S. Department of Energy)

5. Radiation Protection (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

6. The Accident at Three Mile Island (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

7. Radioactive Waste Contamination of Soil and Groundwater at the Hanford Site (Hanson, L., University of Idaho)

8. Radioactive Waste Management (USNRC)

9. Nuclear Waste Dumping in the Oceans: Has the Cold War Taught Us Anything? 

10. Public Protests against Nuclear Power in Germany

11. Disposal of Nuclear Wastes and Reactor Decommissioning

12. Status of Environmental Management Initiatives

13.Technologies for Remediation of Radioactively Contaminated Sites (International Atomic Energy Agency)

14. Nuclear Waste: DOE Needs a Comprehensive Strategy and Guidance Models that Support Environmental Cleanup Decisions (U.S. Governmental Accountability Office)

Related Articles

Disaster Management
Disaster Recovery

Related Publications

Research Digest: Decision Analysis/Implementation Guidance Asset Management Tools Development - Duncan Rose 
Publication Date: Apr 2013 - ISBN - 9781780400495

Water Services Management and Governance - Tapio Katko, Petri S. Juuti, and Klaas Schwartz
 Publication Date: Oct 2012 - ISBN - 9781780400228

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Aljazeera. 2011. Radiation Levels Soar in Japan Sea Water.http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia-pacific/2011/03/20113304449336317.html (Accessed on July 9, 2011).

BBC News. 2011.  Japan Nuclear: Radiation Halts Water Clean-up. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13819767 (Accessed on July 9, 2011).

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Homeland Security Newswire (HSNW). 2011. Radioactive Waste Contaminates Drinking Water, EPA Does Nothing.  http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/radioactive-waste-contaminates-drinking-water-epa-does-nothing(Accessed on July 9, 2011)

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Worst Man-Made Environmental Disaster
Nuclear Waste Found to Move with Groundwater
Radiation Remediation:Publications, Technical Documents, and Guidelines by United States Environmental Protection Agency.

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