The Brief Wondrous Life (and Long Dangerous Half-Life) of Strontium-90

Tooth to Science button2At roughly 5:30 in the morning on July 16, 1945, an implosion-design plutonium device, codenamed “the gadget,” exploded over the Jornada del Muerto desert in south-central New Mexico with a force equivalent to about 20,000 tons of TNT. It was the world’s first test of an atomic bomb, and as witnesses at base camp some ten miles away would soon relay to US President Harry Truman, the results were “satisfactory” and exceeded expectations. Within weeks, the United States would use a uranium bomb of a different design on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and three days after that, a plutonium device similar to the gadget was dropped on Nagasaki, about 200 miles to the southwest.

Though Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only instances where atomic weapons were used against a wartime enemy, between 1945 and 1963, the world experienced hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons tests, the great majority of which were above ground or in the sea–in other words, in the atmosphere. The US tested atom and hydrogen bombs in Nevada, at the Nevada Test Site, and in the Pacific Ocean, on and around the Marshall Islands, in an area known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. After the Soviet Union developed its own atomic weapon in 1949, it carried out hundreds of similar explosions, primarily in Kazakhstan, and the UK performed more than 20 of its own atmospheric nuclear tests, mostly in Australia and the South Pacific, between 1952 and 1958.

Though military authorities and officials with the US Atomic Energy Commission initially downplayed the dispersal and dangers of fallout from these atmospheric tests, by the early 1950s, scientists in nuclear and non-nuclear countries alike began to raise concerns. Fallout from atmospheric tests was not contained simply to the blast radius or a region near the explosion, instead the products of fission and un-fissioned nuclear residue were essentially vaporized by the heat and carried up into the stratosphere, sweeping across the globe, and eventually returning to earth in precipitation. A host of radioactive isotopes contaminated land and surface water, entering the food chain through farms and dairies.

The tale of the teeth

In order to demonstrate that fallout was widespread and had worked its way into the population, a group of researchers, headed by Dr. Barry Commoner and Drs. Louise and Eric Reiss, founded the Baby Tooth Survey under the auspices of Washington University (where Commoner then taught) and the St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information. The tooth survey sought to track strontium-90 (Sr-90), a radioactive isotope of the alkaline earth metal strontium, which occurs as a result–and only as a result–of nuclear fission. Sr-90 is structurally similar to calcium, and so, once in the body, works its way into bones and teeth.

While harvesting human bones was impractical, researchers realized that baby teeth should be readily available. Most strontium in baby teeth would transfer from mother to fetus during pregnancy, and so birth records would provide accurate data about where and when those teeth were formed. The tooth survey collected baby teeth, initially from the St. Louis area, eventually from around the globe, and analyzed them for strontium.

By the early ’60s, the program had collected well over a quarter-million teeth, and ultimately found that children in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times more Sr-90 in them than children born in 1950. Armed with preliminary results from this survey and a petition signed by thousands of scientists worldwide, Dr. Commoner successfully lobbied President John F. Kennedy to negotiate and sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, halting atmospheric nuclear tests by the US, UK and USSR. By the end of the decade, strontium-90 levels in newly collected baby teeth were substantially lower than the ’63 samples.

The initial survey, which ended in 1970, continues to have relevance today. Some 85,000 teeth not used in the original project were turned over to researchers at the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) in 2001. The RPHP study, released in 2010, found that donors from the Baby Tooth Survey who had died of cancer before age 50 averaged over twice the Sr-90 in their samples compared with those who had lived past their 50th birthday.

But the perils of strontium-90–or, indeed, a host of radioactive isotopes that are strontium’s travel companions–did not cease with the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. Many of the hazards of fallout could also be associated with the radiological pollution that is part-and-parcel of nuclear power generation. The controlled fission in a nuclear reactor produces all of the elements created in the uncontrolled fission of a nuclear explosion. This point was brought home by the RPHP work, when it found strontium-90 was 30- to 50-percent higher in baby teeth collected from children born in “nuclear counties,” (PDF) the roughly 40 percent of US counties situated within 100 miles of a nuclear power plant or weapons lab.

Similar baby teeth research has been conducted over the last 30 years in Denmark, Japan and Germany, with measurably similar results. While Sr-90 levels continued to decrease in babies born through the mid 1970s, as the use of nuclear power starts to spread worldwide, that trend flattens. Of particular note, a study conducted by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize) found ten-times more strontium-90 in the teeth of children born after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster when compared with samples from 1983.

While radioactive strontium itself can be linked to several diseases, including leukemia and bone cancers, Sr-90, as mentioned above, is but one of the most measurable of many dangerous isotopes released into the environment by the normal, everyday operation of nuclear reactors, even without the catastrophic discharges that come with accidents and meltdowns. Tritium, along with radioactive variants of iodine, cesium and xenon (to name just a few) can often be detected in elevated levels in areas around nuclear facilities.

Epidemiological studies have shown higher risks of breast and prostate cancers for those living in US nuclear counties. But while the Environmental Protection Agency collects sporadic data on the presence of radioactive isotopes such as Sr-90, the exact locations of the sampling sites are not part of the data made available to the general public. Further, while “unusual” venting of radioactive vapor or the dumping of contaminated water from a nuclear plant has to be reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (and even then, it is the event that is reported, not the exact composition of the discharge), the radio-isotopes that are introduced into the environment by the typical operation of a reactor meet with far less scrutiny. In the absence of better EPA data and more stringent NRC oversight, studies like the Baby Tooth Survey and its contemporary brethren are central to the public understanding of the dangers posed by the nuclear power industry.

June and Sr-90: busting out all over

As if to underscore the point, strontium-90 served as the marker for troubling developments on both sides of the Pacific just this June.

In Japan, TEPCO–still the official operator of Fukushima Daiichi–revealed it had found Sr-90 in groundwater surrounding the crippled nuclear plant at “very high” levels. Between December 2012 and May 2013, levels of strontium-90 increased over 100-fold, to 1,000 becquerels per liter–33 times the Japanese limit for the radioactive isotope.

The samples were taken less than 100 feet from the coast. From that point, reports say, the water usually flows out to the Pacific Ocean.

Beyond the concerns raised by the affects of the strontium-90 (and the dangerously high amounts of tritium detected along with it) when the radioactive contamination enters the food chain, the rising levels of Sr-90 likely indicate other serious problems at Fukushima. Most obviously, there is now little doubt that TEPCO has failed to contain contaminated water leaking from the damaged reactor buildings–contrary to the narrative preferred by company officials.

But skyrocketing levels of strontium-90 could also suggest that the isotope is still being produced–that nuclear fission is still occurring in one or more of the damaged reactor cores. Or even, perhaps, outside the reactors, as the corium (the term for the molten, lava-like nuclear fuel after a meltdown) in as many as three units is believed to have melted through the steel reactor containment and possibly eroded the concrete floor, as well.

An ocean away, in Washington state, radiological waste, some of which dates back to the manufacture of those first atom bombs, sits in aging storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation–and some of those tanks are leaking.

In truth, tanks at Hanford, considered by many the United States’ most contaminated nuclear site, have been leaking for some time. But the high-level radioactive waste in some of the old, single-wall tanks had been transferred to newer, double-walled storage, which was supposed to provide better containment. On June 20, however, the US Department of Energy reported that workers at Hanford detected radioactive contamination–specifically Sr-90–outside one of the double-walled tanks, possibly suggesting a breach. The predominant radionuclides in the 850,000-gallon tank are reported to be strontium-90 and cesium-137.

The tank, along with hundreds of others, sits about five miles from the Columbia River, water source for much of the region. Once contamination leaks from the tanks, it mixes with ground water, and, in time, should make its way to the river. “I view this as a crisis,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, “These tanks are not supposed to fail for 50 years.”

Destroyer of worlds

In a 1965 interview, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s science director who was in charge of the Los Alamos facility that developed the first atomic bombs, looked back twenty years to that July New Mexico morning:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

“We knew the world would not be the same.” Oppenheimer was most likely speaking figuratively, but, as it turns out, he also reported a literal truth. Before July 16, 1945, there was no strontium-90 or cesium-137 in the atmosphere–it simply did not exist in nature. But ever since that first atomic explosion, these anthropogenic radioactive isotopes have been part of earth’s every turn.

Strontium-90–like cesium-137 and a catalog of other hazardous byproducts of nuclear fission–takes a long time to decay. The detritus of past detonations and other nuclear disasters will be quite literally with us–in our water and soil, in our tissue and bone–for generations. These radioactive isotopes have already been linked to significant suffering, disease and death. Their danger was acknowledged by the United States when JFK signed the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. Now would be a good time to acknowledge the perspicacity of that president, phase out today’s largest contributors of atmospheric Sr-90, nuclear reactors, and let the sun set on this toxic metal’s life.


A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

The Thing That Couldn’t Die: Yucca Battle Continues in Congress and in the Courts

(low resolution movie poster reproduction via wikipedia)

In the 1958 cult horror classic The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a young lass out water-witching (of all things) discovers a curious and ancient box–one that, whether you follow the conventions of the genre or the entreaties of the film’s internal expert, should obviously remain closed.

But, as these things are wont to go, greed and ambition get the better of a few mere mortals, and the box is breached, revealing the intact–and living!–head of a sorcerer executed hundreds of years earlier. The wayward wizard then uses his telepathic powers to manipulate some of the more foolish, godless humans to unearth the rest of his body so that it might be reunited with the head and realize the full force of its destructive powers.

It is hard not to think of this black and white bubbe meise while reviewing the most recent chapters in the battle over the future of the partially excavated, purportedly moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in southwestern Nevada.

As noted here last month, the life and death of the Yucca project was at the center of a public face off between President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who just happens to hail from–and represent–the Silver State. Although the administration has sided with Reid on cancelling work on Yucca Mountain, Obama’s move to re-appoint Kristine Svinicki to another term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–over the vocal objections of the Majority Leader–registered with Yucca watchers like stirrings from the grave. Svinicki, after all, has been a staunch proponent of the Yucca project since she worked at the Department of Energy. . . writing the support documents for the Yucca nuclear waste repository. This week’s official re-nomination of Svinicki by the White House seems to say that rumors of Yucca’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.

Or at least that is what the nuclear industry and its army of lobbyists, captured regulators, and purchased politicians would have you believe.

As Republican members of Congress try to exert pressure on Reid and Senator Barbara Boxer (whose committee has jurisdiction over the NRC) to quickly confirm Svinicki, two states with heaping helpings of nuclear waste have gone to court to make sure that the Yucca repository is kept, if not on track, at least on life support.

Last week, lawyers for South Carolina and Washington State went before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing that while the government hadn’t allocated any more money for Yucca, there was still some money in the project’s budget, and even though it wasn’t going to get anything anywhere close to finished, the NRC and the Department of Energy were obligated to spend it. Congress had, after all, passed measures designating Nevada as the future home of the country’s high-level radioactive waste, and the law is the law.

The government, in turn, has argued that not only would it be throwing “good money after bad,” since the DoE has withdrawn the licensing request for Yucca Mountain and the White House has not put any funding for completing the facility in the next budget, the roughly $10 million remaining would not be enough to again wrap up the project when no more money is allocated.

The leftover $10 million, it should be noted, is not only a drop in the bucket when compared with the $90 billion projected cost of developing Yucca Mountain or the $10 billion already spent, it is only half the $20 million it cost to fund the project each month it was active.

As previously examined, the nuclear industry desperately needs Yucca Mountain, or some answer to long-term waste storage, if it ever hopes to expand, or, realistically, even continue to operate its existing fleet of antique reactors. Current moves reveal the strategy of atomic energy advocates to try to keep Yucca alive, however tenuously, in expectation that the political climate might change enough to revivify the cash-hungry corpse that is not just the Nevada dump, but the entire US nuclear power industry.

House Republicans–and some Democrats, too–are playing their part. In April, a majority of the House Appropriations Committee concluded that the Obama administration’s moves to shutter Yucca were “counter to the law,” and then they put your money where their mouths were:

The committee bill [provides] DOE with $25 million to work on a solution to storing commercial nuclear waste, but only if it is directed at Yucca Mountain. Also, the bill would bar DOE from spending any funds to eliminate the option of Yucca Mountain as a waste site.

So, you’re saying you want the radioactive waste to go where now?

Interesting little side note: the Appropriations Committee is chaired by Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the state that is home to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the nation’s only operating uranium enrichment facility providing fuel for commercial nuclear reactors (oh, and a contaminated, toxic mess). And the Ranking Democrat on the committee (who also supported the Yucca provision) is Norm Dicks, whose great state of Washington is a litigant in the Yucca Mountain lawsuit (described above) and the address of Hanford, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

The Senate, as those who have read this far might have guessed, has a different take on the Yucca line item. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s Energy and Water Development Subcommittee didn’t include Yucca Mountain in its appropriations bill. Instead, Feinstein’s language directs the DoE to explore moving nuclear waste to temporary, aboveground storage sites.

Of course, the porous, dank Yucca repository and unstable, vulnerable aboveground casks are both unsuitable solutions to the existing and long-term high-level radioactive waste storage crisis, but with the House in GOP hands and the Senate under Democratic control, the assumption might be that neither option will ever come to fruition. And the assumption might be that the story ends there.

But it doesn’t. Not even temporarily.

Again, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” depends on a place to move the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste generated every year. The way it is stored now is expensive, the way it is stored now is dangerous, and, perhaps most urgent to the industry, the way it is stored now is pretty much full. Something has to give.

While some states hit the courts and the House moves to restart Yucca, the president has picked a fight with Harry Reid on what is generally recognized as the Senator’s signature issue. And House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R CA-49, a district that includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) continues to fan the flames under Gregory Jaczko, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman who was once a Reid staffer and has sided with the Senator and the White House (at least as its position was delineated prior to last month) in the battle to close Yucca Mountain.

Should attempts to unseat Jaczko succeed, he will almost certainly be replaced by a commissioner more friendly to the industry and, thus, to the Yucca site. Should the Democrats lose control of the Senate in November, Reid will lose his Majority Leader post, and with that will go the power to control the budget and the fate of Yucca Mountain. But even if the Democrats hold on to a Senate majority, Reid’s position as its leader is not guaranteed, and Obama’s willingness to challenge him on the Svinicki nomination underscores that uncertainty.

And without Reid in power, there is serious question as to how long president Obama would stand by Reid’s protégé Jaczko.

And there is yet another wrinkle–there is actually a second pot of money set aside for development of a radioactive waste storage facility. It is money collected by the nuclear industry in the form of surcharges on electricity consumers’ utility bills. It is estimated to now total about $21 billion (or maybe as high as $29 billion)–again, not enough to finish building the Yucca repository, but more than enough to keep hope alive, as they say.

But if Yucca is not going to be built, then state regulators, in a lawsuit separate from the one previously described, say that the government should stop collecting the surcharge. And Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has introduced legislation to give back to nuclear energy consumers most of the money collected.

It shapes up as a potential win-win for the nuclear industry. On the one hand, it is one more pressure point on the federal government to, shall we say, shit on Nevada or get off the pot–to restart Yucca or lose a good chunk of money needed for any permanent waste facility. On the other hand, if money is refunded, and if future surcharges are cancelled, it is another way to artificially deflate the price of electricity generated by nuclear plants, and another way to hide the true cost of nuclear power.

Hiding the true cost of nuclear power is, of course, essential to perpetuating the myth of a nuclear renaissance–in fact, it is essential to sustaining the industry as it limps along now. The price of long-term high-level waste storage is but one part of the equation–one part almost always ignored by nuclear adherents–but it is a crucial one. The cost of storing waste at the various nuclear power plants is not only noticeable to the industry’s fragile bottom line, the potential dangers inherent in on-site storage are problems plant operators would rather belonged to someone else.

Yucca Mountain would seem the easiest prescription for this headache. One could say the industry needs Yucca to sustain its influence the way the evil sorcerer head needed a body to fully exercise its powers. But unlike the case of the torso-less thaumaturge (spoiler alert!), nuclear waste does not disintegrate when it comes in contact with a crucifix. The roughly 300,000 tons of high-level radioactive garbage that lies scattered across the US will remain deadly dangerous for at least another 100 millennia–and each operating nuclear plant adds to that terrifying total by about 20 tons each year. Without a government-funded waste repository, nuclear power simply could not continue to live–and that is why, to the nuclear industry, Yucca Mountain is something that cannot die.