★ DISCLAIMER ★ March 20, 2015 ★ Belgium★
I spent part of this Tuesday some 750 feet / 225 meters deep underground in the HADES (High-Activity Disposal Experimental Site)’s research tunnels of ESV EURIDICE (European Underground Research Infrastructure for Disposal of Nuclear Waste in Clay Environment) on the grounds of the SCK-CEN, a world-renowned top-notch Belgian Nuclear Research Center. Another world. I continue to appreciate the sci-fi elements in the unfolding of my life. ;-)
★ In this blog post: Since the above links can tell you all about the lab and its many projects, I’ll only touch on some basics, and present my nuclear facility visit as more of a travel journey, “a day in Belgium” if you will, with my impressions and reflections, with a couple somewhat-related side-tracks as well.
A glimpse into a very different world than where I spent most of my time… The contrast with walking around Tibetan Stupas in Crestone or camping in a Southern Colorado wilderness could barely be starker:
Journey Into The Underworld
I got up early to catch a bus to catch an early train to be well on time for my pick-up to make it to my scheduled visit to the tunnels under the ‘SCK-CEN’, the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre, a long-time corner stone of this planet’s leading nuclear research labs.
Hades… Oh that funny fascination with hell… ;-) You got to appreciate these folks’ almost morbid sense of humor. Not only do beers carry names like Duvel, Judas, Satan, Lucifer and Forbidden Fruit, now the High-Activity Disposal Experimental Site, HADES, is named after the ancient Greek god of the underworld and abode of the dead.
According to Greek mythology [borrowing here from Wikipedia], Hades was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him. Since precious minerals come from under the earth too (i.e., the “underworld” ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well, and was referred to as Πλούτων (Plouton, related to the word for “wealth”), Latinized as Pluto, after which the planet/rock Pluto is named, and later the fission material Plutonium.
Hades strictly forbade his subjects, the dead, to leave his domain and would become quite enraged when anyone tried to leave, or if someone tried to steal the souls from his realm. He’s often depicted with Cerberus, a multi-headed (usually three-headed) dog, or “hellhound” with a serpent’s tail, a mane of snakes, and a lion’s claws. He guards the entrance of the underworld to prevent the dead from escaping and the living from entering.
A strange multi-headed beast… (a type of such unfortunate genetic mutation recently actually happened to a grey whale…), deadly stuff that must remain well-guarded in the depths for ever,… You can easily see why this name appealed.
In a similar vein, in the 2013 action thriller movie, ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, “the Cerberus Code was a fail-safe device which, when activated via three different access codes being entered, would help unleash a nationwide nuclear meltdown.” In the movie it’s also used to deactivate launched ICBM missiles from reaching their targets.
Mol train station, where I got picked up.
Someone in my family works at the research center and, through following the necessary steps, I managed to get a tour on short notice. Site security is tight, with no photography allowed, so photos from inside the nuclear site itself are not mine. Most are SCK’s, used with permission. (Bummer, ’cause I could easily have snapped hundreds of photos, which could have been more artsy or shown more specific details… Maybe next time I’ll arrange for this specifically. Staff was very friendly and, certainly for a site of that caliber, quite accommodating, imo.)
Why my interest? One of the main reasons I arrived at an “anti-nuclear” opinion decades ago has been my impression that there is still no real solution for dealing with the nuclear industry’s long-lived highly radioactive wastes. Besides just ordinary intrigue, I figured that the least I should do is find out how far they’ve come to find a solution. Reading websites is one thing, but actually visiting a site always gives impressions and know-how that would otherwise be missed. Reality always trumps concept in my book. I wanted to check it out.
The facilities and various ongoing experiments and high tech research and development projects are quite interesting, but I also found my visit sobering, not particularly easing my concerns. More about that further below.
- Location of the town of Mol, in Western Europe:
Part of my concerns stem not from what is going on at the lab per se, but more so from the Belgian government’s irresponsible delays to tackle key decisions, such as giving the green light and allocate the needed funds to start the search for an actual waste deposit site. Unbelievable: Although scheduled, thát actually hasn’t even started yet…
The radioactive waste is simply accumulating in spent fuel pools and bunkers. No long-term disposal site is even under construction yet. They have NO IDEA YET where they’ll put it! HADES, as it is now, is only an underground laboratory. Belgium has been researching the waste disposal issue longer than most other countries, but is currently (2015) near the end of the line for implementation (2035?).
Yet, also true, since disposal can’t even start until a couple more decades anyhow (during which the spent fuel and other wastes need to cool down more), ongoing research should help with making better decisions when that time has come. Anyhow… “We’ll see.” is the very attitude of kicking the can onto the next generation…
And then there’s the more hope-inducing prospect of transmuting the most-highly-radioactive longest-living radioactive wastes into short-lived less radioactive isotopes. This is one of the promising possibilities for the particle-accelerator-driven liquid-metal-cooled MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications), currently under construction in Mol as well.
Once operational, MYRRHA is said to be able to reduce the length for which nuclear wastes need to be stored safely from hundreds of thousands of years to just thousands of years, or less than 1,000 years.
Though “I’d like to be opposed” to the construction of ANY new nuclear reactors, IF, however, they are 1) incapable of containment breach, even when safety measures fail (Incapable of meltdown & you can walk away from them and they’ll be fine, no matter what. That’s the level of safety I ultimately want to see. Like a solar panel, basically;) and , 2) they significantly reduce the radioactivity of the current waste piles, and 3) are part of a multi-century timeline of dismantling the toxic legacy, weaponry and infrastructures of the 20th & 21st century nuclear era; and 4) are only allowed to be constructed in the context of a ban on both conventional reactors as well as nuclear weapons, THEN I would be more inclined to compromise on that stance.
The first and last point are unlikely to be reached any time soon. But, similar to certain Thorium reactors, there is a possibility that innovative reactor designs like MYRRHA could assist in the transition from the extremely irresponsible era of currently used nuclear technologies towards a viable post-nuclear era. (Problem is that fans of such new technologies seem just Gung ho about continuing the nuclear era, period, usually while downplaying cleaner alternatives, ánd accompanied with spewing nuclear propaganda, including belittling the effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as current nuclear waste disposal issues, and thus end up ultimately undermining their own credibility… The shameful propaganda-shit-movie, Pandora’s Promise, was such a horrid feat of deception, for example. Many fell for its deceptive nonsense.) Breakthroughs in much cleaner sustainable energy are already making nuclear obsolete as far as energy production goes. Nuclear is not even economically interesting anymore, not even remotely if you also incorporate the mining damage mitigation, cancer treatments, and waste disposal challenges (let alone disaster clean-up) in the price tag. Yet nuclear high-tech is likely to continue to play a significant role in clean-up and hazard containment for at least a millennium. Breakthroughs in nutrition science and magnetic resonance imaging and such might also make even nuclear medicine obsolete by the 22nd century.
In any case, best-case scenario, I foresee (and, in my personal fantasy land, ambitiously aim for ;-) ) a factual end of the nuclear era by the year 3000 CE at the latest. (How’s that for striking a balance between unicorn optimism and pragmatic realism?) But, perhaps an ironic environmental opinion, to accomplish this, nuclear research funding MUST be dramatically increased. There is a need for an ambitious multidisciplinary global multi-century “Reverse Manhattan Project”, that can maintain continuity of operations regardless of financial, climate or social disruptions.
To get there, I sense that the nuclear crisis (of which the ongoing Fukushima disaster, growing mountains of nuclear wastes, fission material proliferation, the threat of nuclear terrorism/war, and the current worsening cancer epidemic affecting ever younger ages, etc. are but ‘early symptoms’), demands a complete epistemological socio-cultural reconfiguring of the global modern financial system’s underlying semiotic architecture. The breaking point, which we are already in, DEMANDS a dramatic cultural and perceptual shift. As things look now, however, my impression is that that has not quite become obvious to the bureaucrats dwelling in the upper echelons of the business world.
Must note: Unlike my visit to Reactor B on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, where Plutonium was manufactured for the atom bomb used on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, as well as the war heads for thousands more of those heinous weapons of mass destruction, here in Belgium I have actually never encountered someone who glorifies weapons of mass destruction or who takes pride in making the incinerating of innocent people in a nuclear blast possible. There is a lot more interest in actually manifesting a functioning democracy here in Europe (compared to the States where I spent most of my time). You can even have a civil debate here, or an exchange of ideas, while holding completely different opinions, ánd remain best of friends. (Good luck with thát in the US…) Meanwhile the US gov. is increasing its budget for nuclear weapons again… Talk about a country that has lost its moral ground… Anyways… .
Although the overlap between civilian and military has always been blurry in the Post-WW2 nuclear industry, the focus at SCK-CEN, is and has been for long, only geared towards peaceful applications, including nuclear medicine & finding solutions to the immense challenges nuclear researchers and engineers created over the past almost-century.
This current visit to Belgium is too short and packed, but I would love to take courses here some day to learn more about what is currently known about ‘nuclear waste management’, for instance, or how ‘radiation experts’ are trained to respond to nuclear emergencies.
(I wonder sometimes… Are they actually being trained to tell people about ‘bananas and plane flights’ in the midst of dangerous fallout just to befuddle the public? Or what? Why does that keep happening? [Here’s a press example from 2014.] Anyhow… More rebuttal attempts of some commonly spewed ‘top shelve expert nonsense’ can be found in my blog posts, ‘The Dose Deception‘ and ‘Cs-137 vs K-40‘.)
Another side-note: One can also have samples analyzed here for radioisotope content. In 2014, I used EMSL on the US East coast for my samples from California (my data here) and Japan (my data here). Greenpeace had their Fukushima samples analyzed here at SCK-CEN [See blog post from way back then, May 27, 2011].
Heat & Radiation Waste Challenges
At the current state of waste management, it’s a pretty dire picture. The fact that 20th century-style nuclear fission reactors aren’t banned yet is utter insanity, as far as I’m concerned. The worst Class C waste remains hot for a millennium, as well as highly radioactive for literally hundreds of thousands of years. In human terms, ‘forever’.
So here we are now… Decisions that got us into this mess were made by a handful of people, completely outside any democratic process. By sociopaths, really, when you think about it. All this happened on the side-lines of a horrible war and within an economic context that nowadays ultimately looks at ‘quarter earnings’ and short-term profitability for its guidance. And yet the physical reality of the consequences literally span geologic time, many thousands, even hundreds of thousands, up to millions of years. No civilization has remained in existence, let alone stable and prosperous, for that long. (The Egyptian Empire lasted less than 4,000 years, at most.)
Waiting for the heat to cool is the easy part:
The radioactive particles are a much greater problem. Experiments revealed the speed at which radionuclides diffuse in clay: It slows down and decreases with distance and time, which means clay can effectively help contain a leaking nuclear waste container.
Even with current state-of-the-art technologies, no material or construction can be guaranteed to remain perfectly sealed for tens of thousands of years, and certainly not for these chemically volatile, still-warm and very radioactive wastes. Although much is done to design special containers to prevent leakage, it is assumed ‘possible’, even ‘likely’ that in as little as a few thousand years, or less, the containers might start leaking.
Early results from experiments in the clay environment suggest it would take 100,000 to 1,000,000 years for health-hazardous radioisotopes to reach the surface. By that time, their radioactivity would only constitute a small fraction of their current danger. That’s the calculated guess, and hope.
Thus the idea is considered ‘feasible’ and ‘safe’.
I can be as “anti-nuclear” as I want to be, but the long-term radioactive waste issues are not affected by my opinion. I’m most interested in being effective. Failure to adequately respond to these challenges we’re faced with could ruin the quality of life for future generations for thousands of years to come, and that’s putting it lightly. That’s why I think a pragmatic approach is going to include retrievable geological disposal and new nuclear technologies, and -again- to move this forward, much more targeted funding and education (not deceptive PR campaigns) is what seems called for.
Maybe not all it’s made out to be…
More skepticism wouldn’t hurt either, though.
Regardless of scientific feats and research fame, the center’s history includes plenty of darker chapters too, including dumping some of its nuclear waste into the Atlantic Ocean [=> Source in Dutch] in the 1970s and 1980s. Belgium’s total waste dumped that way amounts to 55,324 containers with a total of 23,000 tons of (mainly low-level) wastes, dumped at 6 sites in the NE Atlantic. Much of came from Doel NPP, but a part of it also came from this research site in Mol. Many other countries did the same.
If you consider that the few active permanent disposal sites in the world came about somewhat similarly: through a period of various experiments, then modeling, and then convincing people of the merits of the specific underground disposal site, then it’s worth looking at how things are going at these already-operational sites.
WIPP it real good… – We’re only less than a few decades into the intended hundreds of thousands of years, and at already one of three, things are clearly not as predictable and safe as they were made to sound…
In 2014, at WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, USA, (included in a presentation panel at EURIDICE in Mol, see above, center), where military “legacy” nuclear waste is stored in a geologically stable salt layer, intended to remain undesturbed for at least 10,000 years, within only 15 years of operation various mishaps have already underscored unknown dangers: true human error, sloppiness, miscalculations, etc., issues can sneak in long BEFORE the waste actually enters a site, only to show their explosive consequences many years later. WIPP ended up leaking Americium and Plutonium above-ground already (2014)! “The leak contaminated 22 workers and forced the indefinite closure of the nuclear waste repository. Resuming full operations could take years, at a cost estimated at more than $500 million.” (See WIPP link above.) Thát just as one example of things not always working out as rosy as presented.
Some more Belgian Nuclear History
By some history, Belgium’s nuclear involvements are also infamous [=> See Panorama’s documentary, “Kernmacht België” (in Dutch)], including well-founded allegations that Pakistan’s nuclear program probably would never have gotten off the ground without shared expertise from Mol.
Scandals abound… (Click excerpts below for more on Germany’s late 1980s “Transnuklear Affair”, in which Mol was implicated as well.
And if you go back to the middle of the 20th century, not directly related to SCK, just to ‘Belgium’: Belgian industrialist Edgar Sengier inadvertently supplied the Uranium (from Katanda, Congo in what was then still a repressive Belgian colony) used in the Manhattan project of WW2, with which hundreds of nuclear bombs were made, including for the nuclear war crimes committed by the US in Japan in 1945. (That Mr. Sengier also supplied the Nazis with Uranium ore for theír atom bomb research program is generally not highlighted…)
Closer to the present, the Mox fuel in Reactor 3 at the molten-down Fukushima-Dai-ichi disaster site was ‘Made in Mol, Belgium’, just across the street from the research site, at Belgonucleaire. (See also Het Nieuwsblad (April 23, 2011), “Splijtstof in Fukushima is Belgisch“)
SCK-CEN immediately offered Japan expert assistance when the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster struck, but the offer was turned down by the Japanese government at the time. Some exchanges did occur since, though, so I was told.
Because Belgium remains on the forefront of new developments in nuclear science, including nuclear safety, it’s also no coincidence that the infamous micro-cracks (which aren’t so “micro” at all) in the reactor vessels of Doel and Tinhange, Belgium were discovered here, as reactor inspection methods are being refined here.
The process of vitrification, where nuclear waste is mixed in glass to isolate it from corrosion processes (for safer long-term storage), was reportedly developed here as well. For Europe, the industrial application of that is now done at the Areva plant near Le Havre on the Northern France coast.
A bit Sad… A bit Skeptical…
Part of what just doesn’t feel quite right about these scientific proposals is that they hold the vibration of having arisen from minds that do not understand themselves as being part of Mother Earth. In the minds of nuclear scientists, or geologists for that matter, the clay layer itself is not even considered part of the biosphere. They call it “the geosphere” and apparently don’t see an issue in badly polluting it with radioactive wastes. Never mind that clean ancient clay layers may some day be considered more precious than oil and gas are now, or that they may have functions not yet known. The common modern attitude undoubtedly comes from a reductionist belief that only biological life is considered ‘alive’.
Bottom line, though, is that there was something about the clay layer itself, a deep peace, a sensing that left me with an indirect impression that adding nuclear waste to it may have subtle-energetic effects on water flows or aspects on the surface that will not be anticipated until science better understands the planet as a living organism.
As if digging a hole, throwing everything we don’t want to face in it, covering it over, can somehow help us pretend that no terrible disrespect happened, that no restoration in our relation with the living Cosmos is called for. As if…
To some degree, this can be framed as essentially an issue of culture clash, a bit like the theme in the movie, “Avatar”, with cultures aligned with an alienated biosphere-objectifying technosphere culture on the one hand, and ‘indigenous’ biosphere-aligned cultures on the other hand…
Meditation retreats and various other approaches that can help people to rediscover who they are, what our place is in the Universe, and to stand in right relation to all our relations, and such, may all be gaining popularity; globally seen, however, it feels like it all remains a rather marginal phenomenon…
And, of course: Do I have an alternative proposal? Got a better idea? I’ll sit with that. … For now I must concede that I don’t know and that what they’re working on deserves support. This is why I insist (right here on my little blog, yes) on increasing the scientific research budgets, especially in the nuclear field.
When I reflect on what I’ve seen, what’s proposed, and what people in politics, science and business are saying about where they envision taking this world… when I center and relax within the experience of being in my body, part of the Earth…
I’m left speechless.
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My concerns not reduced at all, I arrived back in Leuven by train…
I stopped at a bar in the city center on my walk home, read a newspaper, including an article highlighting how the nuclear regulators and the nuclear power company are too intertwined, the very same situation that eroded the safety standards and safety culture in Japan that lead to the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Disaster… It’s true. And it’s extremely serious. All the ingredients are here for a similar mess to take place here in Belgium… All it takes is some “unanticipated event”. As far as I know that’s actually the case in EVERY country with nuclear energy.
I had a Trappist from Westmalle. The intention to stick to the health-focused alcohol-free roll I had been on in Colorado broke down quickly here in the land of chocolate and beer… I didn’t feel like walking the rest, so I waited for a bus by the side of the Saint Peter’s Church and headed home…
Grateful for yet another interesting day…
Ready for bed…
… while the beds are still burning…
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[Except for minor typos last edited: April 2, 2015]