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Nuclear Update Mar99

Dead careless New Sci 9 Jan 99 5

Employers are failing to protect workers from radiation

EXPOSURE to the radioactive isotopes used in medicine and industry can, in extreme cases, lead to leukaemia within a few months, warn scientists in Russia and Britain. The discovery adds to growing concern about procedures for handling radioactive sources in the workplace. It comes shortly after a senior official of the Intemational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused the agency of failing to protect workers from millions of the radioactive sources used in factories, hospitals and laboratories around the world. A study by the Institute of Biophysics in Moscow and the National Radiological Protecfion Board (NRPB) in Didcot, Oxfordshire, found signs of leukaemia in the blood of a man just five months after he was first exposed to a portable radioactive source (Radiation Protection Dosimetry, vol 81, p 85). The man, an unnamed Russian, had been driving about with unshielded caesium-137 in the door of his truck. The isotope, thought to be from an industrial gauge, was emitting 48 gigabecquerels of radioactivity. When the man was admitted to hospital in Moscow in July 1995 with fatigue and hair loss, doctors noticed that he had up to 35 times the normal levels of the immature white blood cells known as band neutrophils. At first they thought this was a sign that his bone marrow was starting to recover from the radiation exposure, but 15 months later he was diagnosed with leukaemia. He died in April 1997. David Lloyd of the NRPB, one of the paper's authors, says that the raised levels of neutrophils now appear to have been an early indication of cancer. "It is a unique and very instructive case," he says. The Russian case is exceptional, but experts in radiation protection are worried about blas6 attitudes to the dangers posed by radioactive sources. Abel Gonzales, the radiation safety director of the IAEA, has accused the agency of having an "apparent lack of interest" in the hazards of radioactive sources in the past. In place of genuine guidance, it had offered no more than "motherhood and apple pie", he said at a conference in Dijon, France, in September. Since 1986, at least a dozen deaths have been caused by the mishandling of similar radioactive sources. They include four people contaminated by a medical isotope in Brazil, a man who stole a caesium-137 source from a scrap yard in Estonia, and a soldier exposed to a source left in Georgia by Soviet forces. The IAEA says that as many as 110 countries lack a proper system for licensing and inspecting the radioactive sources used in industry and medicine. Fifty of those are members of the IAEA, and the agency is working with them to establish safeguards by the end of 2000. It can do nothing, however, about the 60 that do not belong to the agency. The problem is not confined to the developing world and the former Soviet Union. US officials are concemed that they have no effective control over most of the 2 million sources licensed for use in the US. Rob Edwards

Certified: many Russians suffer from radiation

Nuclear dilemma New Sci. 16 Jan 99 12

Will treating foreign waste really fund Russia's nuclear cleanup?

RUSSIA could soon be reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from countries outside the former communist bloc. The controversial move, which will involve a change in Russian law and will be debated by the country's parliament this month, would result in Russia competing with Britain and France for lucrative reprocessing contracts from around the world.

Because of safety concerns, Russia's nuclear laws restrict it to storing and treating waste from the former Soviet states or from countries such as Bulgaria and Hungary with whom it has contracts dating back to the Soviet era. The new amendment, drawn up by the atomic energy ministry, would allow spent fuel from anywhere to be stored for long periods before being returned to its country of origin, according to Vladistav Petrov, spokesman for the atomic energy ministry. But the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is still fresh in Russian minds and any amendments to the law that would lead to the handling and transportation of more nuclear material are likely to be fiercely opposed. A national opinion poll carried out by a presidential commission in December found that 33 per cent of Russians believe that the government is failing to protect them from dangerous pollutants such as radioactive waste. Atomic energy @ster Yevgeny Adamov claims that any profits from the reprocessing and storage of foreign waste would go towards tackling pollution and improving safety at nuclear plants. At a recent meeting with environmentalists, Adamov was quoted as saying that he would be setting the price for foreign reprocessing at $1000 per kilogram, excluding transportation. This is significantly less than that charged by French and British firms. However, envirorunentalists are sceptical of his claims that the money will be used to fight pollution. They say any profits are more likely to go towards expanding Russia's reprocessing capabilities, such as completing the RT-2 reprocessing plant in the city of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Work on the plant, which would treat waste from VVER-1000 light water reactors, has been sus pended since 1989 due to lack of funds. There are also concerns that accepting foreign waste will only add to the backlog of untreated material that has built up at Russia's reprocessing plants. At Krasnoyarsk, for example, 3400 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from VVER-1000 reactors are stored in water reservoirs. Vitaly Kizhnyak, an activist based in Krasnoyarsk, describes the ministry's plans to change the law to allow the import of foreign waste as "an ecological crime". Adamov is already struggling to convince the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Alexandr Lebed, to continue accepting waste shipments from Ukraine. Lebed claims that at $258 per kilogram, Ukraine is paying too little for reprocessing. The atomic energy ministry denies that there are plans to use foreign income to complete the RT-2, and says opposing the new law would ensure that Russia remains an "atomic dump". Without the income from foreign contracts, there will be no money to clean up the country's nuclear pollution. Russia, he maintains, should not miss the opportunity to compete for reprocessing contracts on the world market. Bronwyn McLaren, Moscow

Radiation and Wildlife NS Oct98-Jan99

RADIATION may harm wildlife even at emission levels considered safe for people, say scientists who are launching an investigation aimed at establishing nuclear safety standards that will protect the natural environment. The current safety regime, fashioned over the past 50 years by the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) in Vienna, controls only human exposure to radiation. There are no limits for plants and animals because the protection of humans "will ensure that other species are not put at risk", says the ICRP. This view is being challenged by an influential group of radiation scientists. Next month, the International Union of Radioecologists (IUR) is setting up a project to develop worldwide guidelines on the impact of radiation on the environment.

"The idea that protecting people ensures the safety of nature is now clearly tenuous and in desperate need of revision," says Per Strand, the IUR's new general secretary and a senior research scientist with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. He argues that guidelines on radiation are lagging behind those on pollutants such as heavy metals and organic chemicals, for which detailed environmental standards are already in force. Strand is compiling evidence that the. health of wildlife has been harmed by contamination from the Sellafield nuclear plant in England, Chernobyl in Ukraine and the Mayak complex in Russia. He points out that levels of technetium-99 found in lobsters and seaweed near Sellafield-which have accumulated through legal emissions-could be high enough to affect their growth. Most other studies, however, have involved radiation that breaches existing safety limits. Research carried out for the IUR shows that pine trees around Chernobyl have become stunted since a reactor exploded there in 1986. The number of resin ducts in the trees has increased, showing that they are fighting disease. The most dramatic evidence of the ecological effect of radiation comes from Russian studies following an explosion in 1957 of a tank of high-level waste at Mayak in the Urals, which created a plume of radioactivity hundreds of kilometres long.

In the years after the accident, pine needles yellowed, birch leaves failed to grow and plant leaves became twisted. Russian scientists found a higher death rate among rodents and invertebrates in the most contaminated areas. The idea of developing standards to protect the environment from radiation is backed by Jan Pentreath, chief scientist at Britain's Environment Agency. While dumping radioactive waste at sea ensures that people are not harmed, he says, it exposes marine life to dangerously high levels of radiation (Radiation Protection [email protected], vol 75, p 175). Rob Edwards

Hot seafood New Sci 31 Oct 98 10

Fish are more radioactive than anyone suspected

FLOUNDER, sole and mussels in Britain's largest estuary are contaminated with levels of radioactive tritium hundreds of times higher than expected. Tritium is discharged into the Severn Estuary by a factory in Cardiff run by Nycomed Amersham to make isotopes for the pharmaceuticals industry. Scientists working for the British government had assumed, based on advice from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, that the concentrations of tritium per kilogram of fish in the area would be roughly the same as those in each litre of seawater. But scientists at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) have found that this assumption was mistaken. Although levels of tritium in the seawater are less than 100 becquerels per litre, those in flounder, sole and mussels were hundreds of times higher. Flounder contained 37 800 becquerels per kilogram earlier this year. "Obviously these results called into question the previous assumptions made regarding tritium in the marine environment," says Mike Segal, MAFF's head of radiological safety. Recent surveys by the Environment Agency have also found high levels of tritium in sediment and molluscs at the bottom of the Severn Estuary. Although the reasons for the high levels of contamination are still under investigation, MAFF and Environment Agency scientists suspect that the precise chemical composition of some of the 700 tritium compounds manufactured at the Cardiff plant somehow made it more likely that fish would eat them. MAFF was alerted to the problem last year by Barry Lambert, a radiobiologist at St Bartholomew's medical school in London who has been studying tritium emissions. He says that people eating large quantities of fish from the Sevem Estuary could receive a quarter or more of intemationally accepted dose limits from this source alone. But Nycomed Amersham insists that even people who eat large quantities of contaminated fish will not be exposed to dangerous radiation levels. And Graham Guilford, director of site services in Cardiff, says the company has never exceeded any of its assigned limits for radioactive discharges. Rob Edwards

Trouble in Store NS Dec 98

MORE than half of the 70 000 cubic metres of radioactive waste stored at 22 sites throughout Britain is in danger of leaking, an official report claims. It warns that the stores are crumbling and that some of the waste could explode. There is even a risk of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The study is the first comprehensive review of radioactive waste by Britain's safety watchdog, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII). Due to be published in January, it says that to make the waste safe the nuclear industry must "condition" it-dry it and mix it with concrete before sealing it in drums-and build 20 additional secure waste stores within the next 20 years. The worst problems are at the Sellafield complex in Cumbria, where the bulk of the waste is stored; the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire; and eight magnox power stations around the country. Over 40 000 cubic metres of raw intermediate-level waste at these sites is in a hazardous condition, warns the NII. At Sellafield, waste storage buildings are "in poor structural condition". There are also risks that plutonium could escape from drums or come together in a critical mass in crates. The study warns of a "significant potential hazard" from large volumes of combustible radioactive solvent in steel tanks.

Zapping Exports Food for Thought redrafted from NZ Herald 1 Mar 99

The topic of irradiated food has again hit the national headlines after a report from ANZFA proposed a general ban on irradiated foods with exceptions granted for specific foods and an evaluation of likely nutritional impact of individual foods on diet. An effective moratorium has been in place since 1989. Outrage has been expressed by consumer groups after Gillian Durham admitted irradiated spices had been imported in violation of the moratorium. Agricultural sector proponents remain interested in the technology for export.

In a report Radiation and the New Zealand Community it was claimed that irradiation was a safe and effective way of killing microbes, but noted a loss of senstivive vitamins comparable to other forms of processing, as well as objectionable changes in flavour, odour and colour, particularly in dairy products, even at low doses.

Irradiation invloves using a strong cobalt 60 gamma ray source to provide doses up to three million times the strength of an x-ray. Irradiation fragments DNA killing organisms but also chemically fractures all molecules, leading to oxidation of fats, flavour changes and nutrient loss. Irradiation is also known to produce ions and free-radicals as a result of molecular fracture, leading to chemicals not not originally present called radiolytic products. Free radicals are frequantly associated with potential cancer risks. Proponent claim irradiation is a desirable technology for export industries because of its use overseas and claim a ban could be chalenged as a technical barrier to trade under the World Trade Organization. Sue Kedgley was appalled at the threat to trade being used as a ploy. Opponents say irradiation is inconsistent with New Zealand's clean green anti-nuclear image.

The US has permitted irradiation of beef and poultry. It is also used in spices and can be used with fruit to sterilize or to delay ripening.

Nuclear Link in Sickness Survey NZ Herald

More than half of 475 children of New Zealand servicemen who witnessed British nuclear bomb tests are suffering suspected genetic illnesses a Government committee of inquiry heard yesterday. A survey by the Nuclear Test Veteran's Association found only 209 alive and well of those born to 282 crew members on navy frigates sent to Christmas Island for the atmospheric blasts 40 years ago. There had been 145 misscarriages and 18 still births said research officer Ruth McKenzie who noted only 2.5 percent of the general population could expect to be impaired genetically. Of those born to nuclear veterans 25 died in childhood, 15 had severe heart problems, 18 cancer, 25 skeletal deformities, 11 deformed internal organs, 23 intellectual handicaps or psychiatric disorders, and 54 serious skin ailments.

Agent Orange victims also listed significant concerns about genetic damage.

Bug May Trigger Nuclear Exchange NZ Herald 6 Feb 99

Millennium bug induced failures in communications systems and early warning radar might set off anuclear exchange within hours of clocks striking midnight at the end of this year say experts. Few people expect exploding silos or automatic launches but rather communications and warning failures.

US Deputy Defence Secretary John Hamre has acknowledged "some nervousness" in Washington about potential computer problems in Russia. Russia need $3 billion to tackle the bug. In China more than half the most crucial enterprises did not even know how to detect the computer glitch in their systems.

"The dangers of a Y2K (Year 2000) meltdown even if restricted to a few key systems are intensified by the Russian and American policy of launch on warning" said Michael Craig of the Britich American Security Council. "If Y2K breakdowns produce inaccurate early-warning data, or if communications and command channels are compromised, the combination of hair-trigger force postures and Y2K failures could be disastrous."

The Washington Post reported that Russia had only three active early warning satellites , four fewer than needed to provide full coverage. For about three hours out of 24 the system could not detect a US missile launch adding to the risk that a Russian early-warning commander would not wait to decide if a warning was real or not.

In September 1983 sun reflected off clouds mimicking five US missiles nearly led to a disastrous launch when commander Stanislav Petrov instead decided that five missile was too few to constitute a real attack.

As noted in the above figure a similar mistake nearly occurred in 1980 from a single US chip failure.