No to Nuclear Waste in Texas September 5, 2020

Letter to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, by Elliot J. Trester MD, Texas PSR board of directors

As a board member of Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Texas Chapter of National PSR, I am writing this on behalf of the Texas Chapter. National PSR states on its home page, “We must prevent what we cannot cure.”  The use of nuclear power has created a massive amount of radioactive waste that poses a threat to humans, something we didn’t think much about when building these plants.  That is one of the reasons that PSR does not support the use of this power source for energy production.”

Holtec and WCS are asking for 40 year “temporary” sites in New Mexico and Texas for spent nuclear waste.  This is an example of kicking the radioactive can down the street so you don’t have to worry about it.  This high-level nuclear waste is going to be around for tens of thousands of years if not millions.  (Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years,  and uranium 235, 700 million years – both produced in reactors).  Human beings don’t work in those numbers.  Even a few hundred years change the climate of an area, both physically and how people live in a place.  For example, there is an increase in seismic activity in West Texas.

Let’s consider the harmful health effects of radioactive producing materials that will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.  Certainly, certain radioactive isotopes have made medical care more effective, but most of these are short-lived elements.  However, long term exposure to radioactivity (or even short term at higher doses) has profound effects.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that “High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour – far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once.

In an accident where high doses of radioactivity are released, the immediate effects would include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, destruction of the intestinal lining, and often death.  In children and pregnant women, DNA damage can give rise to cancers.  In fetuses, miscarriage, birth defects, and premature death all occur.  Long term effects of even low doses of radiation increase all cancers, and especially leukemias in children, tumors of the brain and central nervous system, thyroid disease, and cataracts.  

Unfortunately, we are stuck with a great quantity of spent nuclear waste.

Part of the problem with nuclear waste is transporting it.  While trains are fairly safe, there are of course accidents, and many of the routes are near large cities.  In Texas, we will certainly be placed at risk by the proposed sites.

Besides accidents, in this ever increasingly fractious world, the risk of high-level nuclear waste as a target for terrorists is clear.  This could occur at the source of the waste, along the trajectory to a storage site, or at the site.  By having material transported for hundreds of miles, the possibility of theft increases.

Once the material is stored not only would theft be a threat, but as I noted already, the geology of a region would change in the long run and make an area become very unsafe after a number of millennia.  

Finally, we are dealing with sparsely populated areas for storage, but people still live there.  All Texans and New Mexicans must have more real input into decisions that will affect them for many years.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but I think that the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) needs help in developing sound policy for nuclear waste.  On their logo, under their title, the NRC has as its mandate “protecting people and the environment.”  Congress needs to seriously discuss what to do with the nuclear waste that we have and to prevent more from being produced.