Surviving on Nuclear Waste

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Written November 22, 2002

Updated May 2005

On May 11, 2005, Romania hosted a two-day exercise simulating a nuclear accident. It was conducted at the Cernavoda nuclear power plant. But the real radiological emergency is already at hand and unfolding.

Nuclear waste is both an environmental problem and an economic solution in the countries of east Europe and central Asia. Kazakhstan announced in November 2002 that it plans to import other countries' nuclear waste - and get paid for its shoddy disposal-by-burial, contrary to international conventions.

Ironically, the money thus generated is earmarked for ridding of Kazakhstan of its own pile of fissionable trash. This emulates a similar scheme floated five years ago in Russia. The Atomic Energy Ministry planned to import 20,000 tons of nuclear waste to earn $21 billion in the process.

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact left many countries in the former Soviet block with an ageing and prohibitively expensive to maintain nuclear arsenal. Dismantling the war heads - often with American and European Union Euratom funding - yielded mounds of lethal radioactive materials.

Abandoned nuclear test sites - such as the USSR's central facility in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan - contain thousands of tons of radioactive leftovers. Add to this the network of decrepit, Chernobyl-like, reactors strewn throughout the region and their refuse and the gargantuan dimensions of the threat emerge.

Take, again, Kazakhstan. According to Mukhtar Dzakishev, then president of Kazatomprom, the country's national nuclear agency, the country is immersed in 230,000 tons of waste. It would cost more than $1 billion to clean. The country should earn this amount in a single year of imports of nuclear litter.

The going rate in Europe is c. $3-5000 per 200-liter barrel, only a fifth of which is spent on its burial in old mines or specially constructed depositories. This translates to a profit of $80-140 per cubic meter of uranium buried - compared to less than $10 per cubic meter of uranium extracted. The countries of east Europe have entered the fray with relish. In 2001, president Putin rushed through the Duma a much-debated law that allows for the importation and disposal of nuclear waste.

Getting rid of nuclear waste and dismantling nuclear facilities - both military and peacetime - do not come cheap.

According to the ELTA news agency, Lithuania's decommissioning of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant would require 30 years and should cost $90 million in 2008 alone. In October 2002, Russia's Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov pegged the cost of a USA-Russian agreement to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium at $750 million. Russia plans to resell the end product, mixed oxide (MOX), to various countries in Europe and to Japan. MOX can be used to fuel specially-fitted power plants.

The European Commissions, alarmed by these developments in its backyard, announced, according to, that it "gives priority to geological burial of dangerous material as the safest disposal method to date. Member states will be required to establish national burial sites for the disposal of radioactive waste by 2018. Research for waste management will also be stepped up."

Even private NGO's got into the act. In August 2002, Russia reclaimed from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade, Yugoslavia 45 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based NGO established by Ted Turner of CNN fame and former Senator Sam Nunn, was instrumental in arranging the air transport of the sensitive substance. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Vinca Institute conditioned its surrender of the uranium rods on financial aid to dispose of 2.5 tons of spent nuclear fuel. NTI provided the $5 million needed to accomplish the cleanup.

A donor conference, in the framework of the Northern Dimension Environmental partnership (NDEP) pledged in November 2002 c. $110 million to tackle environmental and nuclear waste in northwest Russia. This fund will supplement loans from international financial institutions. Yet, according to the BBC, of the twelve priority projects worth $1.3 billion that have been agreed - not one concerns atomic trash.

The NDEP, set up in 1997, is a partnership of the European Commission, Russia, the European Regional Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Nordic Bank and the World Bank. But it is predicated on a crucial document - the Multilateral Nuclear Environment Programme in Russia (MNEPR) - which Russia for long evaded signing.

The sorry state of underfunded efforts to cope with the aftermath of nuclear power and weaponry and the blatant venality that often accompanies shady waste deals provoked a green backlash throughout the otherwise docile region. The Guardian quoted courageous Kazakh environmental activists as saying:

"The same is repeated again and again. It is just another money-making venture ... The World Bank is worried about corruption in Kazakhstan. In our current situation there is no guarantee of public safety, no system for compensation, no confidence in the ability of customs to deal with these cargoes. Everyone has a human right to a safe environment - but apparently not here."

Similar sentiments are expressed by groups in Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Poland and elsewhere. Being "environmentally correct" is so important that Tanjug, the Yugoslav news agency, in its relentless campaign against NATO, implausibly accused Germany of storing its waste in the mines of Kosovo.

A prime example of activism involved a Russian scientific expedition which found a nuclear submarine dumped, with spent radioactive fuel, in the northern Kara Sea. According to news agencies, quoting environmental groups, dumping nuclear waste, hundreds of submarines and decommissioned nuclear reactors into Arctic waters was common practice in the Soviet Union.

In late 2002, the governor of the Murmansk region, bordering on Norway, has announced a 6-year cleansing program of the Kola peninsula, designed to assuage the worried Scandinavians. The Norwegians built a waste recycling facility in the area, constructed a special train to ferry the waste away and invested in renovating a storage dump.

Many east European countries do not store nuclear waste but serve merely as transit routes. The waste the Kazakhs plan to dispose of, for instance, should cross Russian territory. Yet, the Russians are the easy part. In 1998, they have agreed to continue to store in east Siberia fission by-products from Bulgaria's controversial Soviet-built Kozloduy nuclear power plant. Russia also stores waste from Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. Waste disposal was part of the standard construction contracts of Soviet reactors abroad.

But getting the waste to Russia often requires permission from other, a lot less forthcoming, countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Romania. By the beginning of 2003, according to the Bulgarian reactor's management, the old storage pits were exhausted and the plant had to close down.

According to the Regional Environmental Center, the transit countries cite ill-equipped railways, antiquated containers and other environmental concerns as the reasons for their reluctance. In reality, they are under pressure by the European Union and the USA to collaborate with waste transport and disposal companies in the West, such as British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), or Cogema. In the wastelands that constitute large swathes of the post-communist world, nuclear waste, it seems, is a growth industry.

Note: Nuclear Technology and our Future Energy Mix

More than 70% of contracts for new nuclear power plants were cancelled between 1970 and 1990. Nuclear energy has proven to be by far too expensive, partly the outcome of meager investment in research and development. But why didn't this promising industry seek efficiency and productivity gains? Why didn't it increase its capacity to remove production bottlenecks (for instance of containment vessels)? Why did the entire civilian nuclear sector capitulate even in the face of volatile oil prices which should have rendered it more of an attractive energy option? The short answer is: the malignantly romantic (not to mention highly lucrative) cult known as "environmentalism".

Nuclear energy is a prime example of how environmental hype and spin can and does become self-defeating. Chernobyl aside, nuclear power is by far the safest and cleanest of sustainable energy sources. Yet, instead of embracing it wholeheartedly, well-paid and self-promoting activists used a lethal cocktail of data - both wrong and misinterpreted - to derail its deployment with scare tactics and apocalyptic, headline-grabbing "analyses", sometimes even maliciously or erroneously conflating nuclear power with atomic weapons!

Their egos sated with media exposure and their wallets fattened by grants and contributions from gullible governments and individuals, environmental "scholars" then proceeded to leverage public ignorance, prejudices, and superstitions to press for legislation (often via litigation) that has retarded the industry, stunted its growth, and indirectly enhanced emissions of greenhouse gases. Today, less than one seventh of the world's electricity (and 2.5% of total energy consumed) is produced by nuclear fission. The environmental conspiracy theorists have prevailed yet again.

Happily, this is fast changing. Electricity shortages, brownouts and blackouts have grown increasingly common in many developing countries; the prices of fossil fuels - even after the recent precipitous fall - are still expensive; global warming is real; even more ominously, our atmosphere is suffused with heavy metals emitted by burning coal and oil. All these conspire in favor of the nuclear option. So do new safety and green radiation technologies (e.g.,  passively safe plants and, in the near future, fourth generation reactors); rising concerns regarding national energy security; and commercial by-products of nuclear power generation which render it more feasible (examples being: desalination; heating; and the production of hydrogen).

Countries like France and Japan (and, to a lesser extent, the United States) serve as role models. Thanks to its nuclear policy, according to various media, France has the cleanest air of any industrialized country and the cheapest electricity in Europe. Nuclear power plants are in operation or being constructed in 43 countries. Nuclear energy produced by 2015 (in the pipeline) will exceed 400 GW (and 800 GW by 2030). Europe is the continent most open to nuclear technology, though some members of the European Union have yet to overcome their environmental propaganda hangover.

Still, it is a steep incline. Even under the most optimistic of scenarios, four years hence (in 2013), the nuclear power generation segment in North America is likely to amount to a fraction (less than 20%) of the gas and coal industries, not to mention the petroleum complexes. Wind energy may surpass nuclear sources within 20 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency predicted, in 2008, that the share of nuclear-generated power in the global energy mix will remain stable in the next 20 years, even under the most optimistic assumptions.

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