From BBC Learning English: Come out in the wash. The first meaning of the phrase is “everything will be OK.” The phrase can also be used to mean “the truth about something will become clear over time.”
Opponents of nuclear energy have made various arguments to convince the public that there is no simple burial solution for nuclear waste. It cannot be neutralized and there is no way to assure that it will be kept out of contact with the ecosystem long into the future. One effective way to illustrate this is to simply look at the existing record of how less problematic non-radioactive toxic wastes have been handled. They also present enormous, costly challenges, and unlike nuclear waste management projects, they have a longer record that can be examined for indications of how nuclear waste disposal is likely to proceed. Mines are often abandoned after companies finish exploiting them and declare a planned “bankruptcy.” Tailing pond dams, which were supposed to be a permanent solution, collapse after one or two decades and contaminate large territories (see two recent disasters: this one in Brazil, or and the other in Canada). In the best case scenario, there are plans to bury the waste in an apparently responsible manner, but even these efforts are often a charade meant to dispose of protest as cheaply as possible while ignoring flaws in the plan.
French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Petit (former director of Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique) has spoken on this issue of conventional and radiological waste treatment on several occasions. In an interview he gave in 2014 he stated:
In the year 2000, they began to store various types of waste, one of which was mercury, underground at a mine in Alsace. In 2002, a fire broke out. They wanted to get everything out, but they realized it could never be recovered… A fire in a mine is more complicated to manage than a fire above ground. It’s like an oven. The heat has no way out. A small fire can quickly result in elevated temperatures at which the containers begin to melt.
In Bure [site of a nuclear waste facility under construction], a fire would be catastrophic. The wastes are vitrified (in a glass-like state), but glass is not really a solid. It’s a very viscous fluid. At ordinary temperatures, it can do the job for thousands of years. It is not soluble. But the weak point of glass is its low resistance to heat. At 600°C, the glass will flow and liberate its contents. Underground, this temperature could be reached very quickly. In the mine there are also support structures made of metal and reinforced concrete. Concrete melts above 1100°. The clay in Bure is also saturated with water. It couldn’t withstand being heated above 70°. The creators of the CIGEO project have great faith in a material called bentonite with which they hope to seal the caverns. It’s a particular type of clay that can absorb water and dilate, but it has the same problem as clay in terms of heat resistance.
Fire hazards come not only from the concern about hydrogen explosions. The plan at Bure is to deposit some elements treated with bitumen, but bitumen becomes fluid at 60° and flammable at 300°. Any way you look at it, this project [Bure] is absurd.[i]
See the full interview about French nuclear waste disposal plans here (this a translation of the article in French listed in the notes)
Recently, the site in Alsace was back in the news in France as environmental groups reported on the failure, and likely the long-intended failure, of their local waste disposal site called Stocamine. The story there has obvious implications for how civilization will rise to the challenge of long-term management of nuclear wastes. France and many other nations are now on the verge of civil war over working class struggles for a decent standard of living. When governments declare that they cannot afford to give their citizens housing, education, retirement benefits, and health care, it is hard to take seriously their claims that they have everything under control when it comes to the long-term management of toxic wastes.
The following is a translation of a short report about Stocamine by France Nature Environnement.
The State reneges on assurances given to Alsace regarding environmental protection
Translation of :
Stocamine : l’Etat renonce à assurer la sécurité sanitaire et environnementale de l’Alsace, France Nature Environnement, 2019/01/22
In 1999, the end of potash mining in Alsace and the necessity of managing the dangerous wastes led the State to open Stocamine, a storage site for the waste products of former mines, situated below one of the largest groundwater tables in Europe. This was done despite all the objections made by local opponents. The choice was made at the time purely for economic reasons without any knowledge of how to manage the wastes, and this has had some serious consequences according to the organizations France Nature Environnement, FNE Grand Est, and Alsace Nature.
Stocamine, a failure foretold
At first, Stocamine was supposed to contain dangerous industrial wastes for 30 years, with “reversibility” being a key word. With this plan, the State waved away the concerns of local opponents (environmentalists, consumers): no fires, no subsidence, no floods would be possible—the site would be controlled, and reversibility would be guaranteed. Yet, in less than five years of operation, there was a fire, unauthorized materials had been stored, and the walls and ceilings were collapsing slowly on the stored wastes. In 2017, the State decided to prolong storage authorization with no limits imposed, and this revealed the difficulty the State had in hiding its real intention: this temporary storage site was to become permanent.
Collectively all groups opposed have always pressured the State to remove the waste products from Stocamine
Right from the start different groups concerned raised the alarm about the risks associated with storing 44,000 tons of dangerous wastes 500 meters underground. These were local elected officials, parliamentarians, and citizens groups who came together to stress the flaws in the proposed solution, but their warnings were never taken into account. Meanwhile, despite a critical parliamentary report published in 2018, the minister has made a unilateral decision to keep the materials in place. This decision was motivated by purely budgetary reasons and it ignores the demonstrated risks of collapse and the flow of pollutants into the groundwater. In order to cut costs this year, the State has decided to leave 44,000 tons of waste underground, leaving an immense burden of debt to future generations.
Tectonic plates are the reason for the stubbornness of the State
Over time, movements of the earth will inexorably deform the galleries and release mercury and other substances into the groundwater. The container seals, the integrity of which cannot be guaranteed, will not suffice to protect the water. This groundwater source is precious, one of the most important in Europe that provides drinking water to France, Germany and Switzerland. Its quality is already greatly reduced from industrial and agricultural wastes, and if France wants to achieve the goal stated by the Water Resource Directive (Directive Cadre Eau), it is imperative to remove the wastes stored in Stocamine.
For Daniel Reininger, president of Alsace Nature, the bipolarity of the State has reached its paroxysm because on the one hand it has signed the Contract for Solutions for Alsacian groundwater with the ambitious goal of distributing pure drinking water that doesn’t require treatment, and on the other hand it has buried these dangerous wastes below the groundwater source.
For Michel Dubromel, president of France Nature Environnement, Stocamine reveals a great deal about the inability of the State to guarantee safe storage of dangerous wastes. If in ten years it has not been able to guarantee the storage of dangerous wastes, it cannot guarantee the safety of nuclear waste disposal in Bure where storage is planned for at least 120 years. It is irresponsible. The protection of health of the population should take priority over purely economic reasons.
[i] J-P. Petit : « Les déchets nucléaires, bombe à retardement planétaire » (Partie 1), Sputnik, February 17, 2014.