Friday Flotsam: Another rumbling Russian and tossing nuclear waste into volcanoes

Long week, quick news:

Tiatia in Russia erupting in an undated photo.

  • The latest USGS/Smithsonian Institution _blank">Weekly Volcano Activity Report is up. One interesting bit in the report is a thermal anomaly at _blank">Tiatia in Russia (just north of Japan in the Kuril Islands) - a volcano for which I am unfamiliar. However, it sounds great according to the _blank">GVP: "Tiatia volcano, one of the most impressive of the Kuril Islands, consists of a beautifully symmetrical cone that rises above the broad rim of an erosionally furrowed, 2.1 x 2.4 km wide caldera. The volcano last erupted in 1981-82.
  • I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, but Popular Science has an article talking about the _blank">prospect of disposing of nuclear waste ... by throwing it into a volcano. Lets see, putting nuclear waste in system that could potentially explode and send ash (now potentially radioactive) around the world or flow down the volcano as doubly hot lava? Sounds like a great plan to me!
  • Hawai`i 24/7's Volcano Watch series talks about _blank">the use of paleomagnetism (the remnant alignment of magnetic minerals in rocks, based on the polarity and position of the Earth's magnetic field relative to the site) in studying volcanoes.

More like this

The image used in the Popular Science article is nice though ^_^ .

By Gijs de Reijke (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Okay, so maybe in the volcano, but I had this idea a while ago and wanted to ask someone with some actual knowledge of the how-to.

What about subduction zones, could we not put the radioactive waste in there? It might be technically difficult, but once in there, would the waste be dangerous?

By Martin in A2 (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

You want to keep the stuff away from water. Although water is very low on the corrosion scale, its very persistant. Eventually it gets into everything.

Once the stuff gets wet, the clock is ticking for it to get into the groundwater, ocean or some hydrologic cycle and start killing things.

As has been stated, putting it into a volcano risks it being blown out, and scattered to the wind. Now, scattering is good, but it tends to get re-concentrated by creeks and rivers.

Finding a place where it'll be covered soon by lava is tricky. You'd think, just set it in front of some flowing lava in Hawaii and its gone the next day. But Hawaii has a lot of slides, slumps and quick erosion. And you cant guarentee a new vent wont open in just the wrong spot.

The best place now for the stuff is in a salt mine. Salt has to be dry and geologically stable, or it'd be salt water.

@2 Martin, I think the subduction zone idea was floated a long time ago, obviously by someone not familiar with the gritty details of subduction. Unlike the nice textbook cartoons, things do not easily slide down under a plate along a single well defined surface. Moreover the only thing that usually subducts in entirely is the crust in the downgoing plate,a good portion of the sediment gets scraped off into a melange called the accretionary prism. Plus there is all sorts of fun seismic activity and uplift that goes along with subduction. Plus, the water issue, pressure, expense, difficulty monitoring etc.
As for tossing it in a volcano - does Popular "Science" have comic book writers or 12 year olds on its staff?
I think the concept is worthy for a spot on Colbert's "That's the Craziest F#?cking Thing I ever Heard" segment.

radioactive ovlcanoes. remind to not to go anyhwere near any of thsoe. If I see mushromm clouds coming out of a volcano now I know why. stupid idea and one I hope no one would ever think of doing.

By Chance Metz (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Re. radioactive waste disposal, whether we put it in salt mines, drop it into the deep ocean entombed in ceramic blocks or heave it out into space, the highest risks aren't so much associated with its final depository but rather, with all the complicated handling, processing and transportation that occurs between the source reactor and the final destination. For example, an accident at a waste glassification site in Idaho or eastern washington could disperse relatively young materials (with respect to their radioactive half life) into the air, which is both more likely and consequential than escape by diffusion through salt mine moisture over a scale of 10s of thousands of years. Rigorous science and good engineering will reduce the risks, but science and engineering are still human processes and as such, imperfect. Also, reactor waste disposal involves a lot of corporations and government agencies, with all the financial, political and other influences that that tend to compromise safety and reliability. One of the advantages to solar and wind power is that the risks are mostly in the present, without generating legacy liabilities like nuclear and fossil fuel based systems.

Ekoh: Even given the problem you describe, dropping the waste into a trench has its attractions; provided that there is fairly rapid burial by sediments avalanching off the walls of the trench by turbidity currents. Even if it reappears in a forearc melange, the time involved, literally geological, will be enough to considerably reduce its hazard potential. However, there is another difficulty; transporting the stuff to just the right spot where it will be rapidly buried. The thought of ships loaded with radioactive waste heading for the Aleutian trench (the logical destination for waste from the USA) is a terrifying one, given (for example) the atrocious weather round there.

The middle of a Pre-Cambrian shield -remote, virtually uninhabited, and the most geologically stable regions on the planet- would seem a viable alternative. Possibly.

But I agree, dropping the stuff into an active volcano is about the worst possible option anyone could come up with.

Nuclear waste should be thrown into volcanoes that erupt coal.

They have already dumped some pretty bad stuff in a lot worse places.....but I agree that wouldn't be a great place for them to dump radioactive waste. By the way here is a short list of what might be just offshore from you;)

Nerve Gas was sunk by the US, encased in concrete, in the Gulf of Mexico. The British sunk 40,000 tons of Germany's mustard, phosgene and tabun gases in the Baltic during 1946 and 1947 They sunk some 34 ships, filled with gas and conventional ammunition totaling 152,000 tons, in the Skagerrak at a depth of 650 meters. A large amount was also dumped about 15 miles Northeast of the Island of Bornholm. East German Stasi (Security Police) archive records reveal massive amounts of toxic gasses dumped into the Baltic around Gotland and Bornholm and in the Little Belt area near the Island of Aeroe. According to Danish records the Soviet Union dumped 50,000 tons of gas ammunition of Gotland and Bornholm after WW2. It is also alleged 170,000 metric tons of nerve gas grenades are rusting away on the ocean floor off Arendal, Norway in the rusting hulls of 40 vessels. These wrecks are believed to contain German bombs and grenades of mustard gas, tabu, sarin, forgen and lewisite. It is believed the last check on these Baltic wrecks was in 1989. British dumping sites are also in the Irish and North Seas which were not encased. 24 vessels were scuttled during Operation Sandcastle in deep water off the Hebrides and off Lands End. These 24 vessels had been loaded with 120,000 tons of mustard gas from the British Army and 17,000 tons of the German nerve gas Tabun. Other vessels were used to simply jettison minitions in various places and even nuclear material. This continued up till 1976. The Beaufort Dyke is a trench between Scotland and Ireland and about 30 miles in length, This trench is now the home to 1.17 million tonnes of munitions and about 2 tons of radioactive material. British authorities have denied ever dumping the nerve gas Sarin. Fishermen bring up the odd shell from these areas. During 1945 and 1946 the Americans dumped hcn, phosgene and mustard gas encased in concrete coffins into the Adriatic Sea. After WW2 4,900 tons of mustard and phosgene gasses were dumped in Japanese coastal waters and inland lakes. The Chinese have found 18 Japanese Japanese dump sites off Mongolia, and it is believed vessels have been scuttled in the Mediterranean and Red Seas and the Arctic. There were rules, it had to be dumped 10 n/miles offshore and 3,000 ft deep. These rules were not followed in several cases."

Taken from the International Registry of Sunken Ships
International Registry of Sunken Ships

@ llewelly: touché ^_^ !

By Gijs de Reijke (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

RN, Thank you for the list of sunken treasures. I think the Mongolians will be surprised to learn that ships were sunk just off their sea coasts, but not nearly as surprised as learning that they have sea coasts!

Finally an area in my line of work! Nope can't believe Popular Science would float an idea like this one. Yes the heavy nuclides that decay would melt and disperse through the magma, but they since they last for awhile (half-life in the hundreds or thousands of years), if the volcano erupts, it surfaces again. Yes, it owuld be confined to the area of the eruption, but if it was an explosive eruption you would have an airborne problem similar to a bomb detonation. Remember the explosive effect of an atomic weapon is actually a "small" problem compared to the after effects of radiation and contaminated fallout. (Thumbrule; contamination is the crap, radiation is the smell.) There are alot more variables, however this is a terrible idea that should never have been floated by any reasonable scientist.

While I'd agree that tossing nuclear waste into volcanoes seems more than a little short sighted, and over confident in our understanding of just what 'domant' or 'extinct' means, burial at subduction zones, despite some of the possible drawbacks pointed out here, still has some appeal to me, especially in so far as our nuclear technology is still primitive with regard to our current fission-based energy systems, and the production of what we are calling waste is reminiscent in my mind of the problem that the Spaniards had while they were extracting silver from certain deposits in the Andes only to find that some kinds of the silver was 'no good'. It wouldn't melt and was impossible to work and screwed up their smelting processes, so they just dumped it as waste in big piles. It wasn't until after the birth of the industrial age that they discovered that platinum was really valuable.
Waste is almost always a term that indicates the incompleteness of our comprehension of the problem.
The radioactive materials we call waste are potentially extractable for their valuable components, though it's also possible that fusion technology will make transmutiation easy enough to not need the waste material while simultaneously making it possible to transmute particularly dangerous and problematic isotopes into less hazardous elements. It's possible now but impossibly expensive due to prohibitive energy costs, but one day nuclear technologies will do for energy what computers have done for what was onnce a very expensive commodity: digital memory.
Do we know how long it would be, by the way, before a cylinder of vitrified nuclear 'waste' would reside deep (hundreds of feet?) in the ooze at the bottom of a subduction zone before it was brought to the surface by known tectonic forces? Geological time scales, I'm guessing. We're talking about several miles in oceanic depth, aren't we? As for monitoring the deposit sites, sounds like it wouldn't be that hard and furthermore it would seem that any group that was technologically capable of operating recovery of these so-called waste cylinders would probably find it a lot easier to get their radioactive materials directly from the sea water since radioactive elements already exist there and are far easier to process.
I wonder what Stephen Chu would say about this?

Subdustion zones: Remembering that only a fraction of a unit of magma is ever erupted, it follows that a fraction of a unit of radioactive waste will ever make it to the atmosphere. Then consider magma ascent rates.

I have my doubts, however, that matter could be 'injected' for lack of a better word, in a subducting slab.

But, assuming all worked as planned, a drum of bad stuff sunk now will help form something similar to a glow-in-the-dark Stone Mountain--in at least 250my!

I think with this nuclear waste stuff, we've created ourselves a bit of a dilemma. Someone once likened this to having invented a fast-speeding car, without yet inventing brakes. Ah, the dreams of men and their grandeur.
As for things purely volcanic, after the Reykjanes seismic swarm in Iceland a few days ago, now there seems to be some movement under the Vatnajökull icecap, more precisely in its northwestern portion that was the site of the great 1996 Gjálp eruption:

@doug.. I'm with you. While being a long-term conservationist and very distrustful of the nuclear industry the claims that are being made for 4-gen reactors are pretty impressive (if they really are true, but unfortunately I can't judge that!):

1. there is enough nuclear material already around to run them for about 1000 years without requiring any new mining.
2. the waste they produce will be highly radioactive with a very short half-life (like 200 years) which is manageable using vitrified storage or low-level waste with an extremely long half life that will hardly be more dangerous than the background radition anyway..
3. they can burn most of what we currently call "waste", which kind of makes this dumping problem redundant.

as for dumping it in a volcano, sheesh, who thought that up?!:lol:

By bruce stout (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

ps here's the wikipedia entry on them fwiw.

By bruce stout (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

With the publication about nuclear disposal treatment by throwing the waste into volcano's, Popular Science really lives up to it's ruined reputation.

After 10 years of publishing Global Warming Anti Science my expectations were at the lowest possible level anyhow.

This magazine is not worth the paper it's printed on.

By Ron de Haan (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

The whole "throwing nuclear waste in a volcano" scenario sounds like the plot of a bad SciFi Channel movie.

Boris I didn't mean to worry you....Why you know our goverment officals would never take any chances with the public's safety;D

Boris would that be Vonarskarð, Hágöngur, Bárðarbunga, Hamarinn, Ãórðarhyrna or GrÃmsvötn caldera under the ice where the earthquake swarms are located? Also do you think the magma chambers of Hágöngur, Hamarinn and Ãórðarhyrna may be connected? If they are and one of them decided to erupt then what are the chances of a 1783-1784 Laki type eruption?

The frequent activity in the Kuriles and Kamchatka only reinforce what a dumb idea it would be to kill off KVERT.

I do know there has been serious consideration of dumping decommissioned naval reactors and waste on the abyssal plains. The selling point was that these areas are supposed to be geologically stable and the currents supposedly are very weak. The latter though ignores the fact that deep water upwells in several places near continents, i.e. major fisheries. I guess all of these ideas are based on primitive yet unshakable notion that oceans are great places to get rid of anything: out of sight, out of mind.
Maybe dump it all on the far side of the moon instead, hmmmm...seems familiar, like the plot for a pilot of bad sci-fi series.

I suppose if we knew everything that has been dumped, we would be worried, but that doesn't help.

I have a question for anyone who has an answer. Let's say the nuclear waste was dumped in the deepest trenches of subduction. Depending on the concentrations, would the possibility of the radioactive material drifting to the surface be any worse than people who have radon seeping into their homes from the soil under them? That has become a major problem in itself and high concentrations of it are dangerous.

Just a side note, I had a chemistry prof that wanted to work at a reactor, but since he had to have radiation for cancer, he ended up teaching. He told us (back before the so called end of cold war) that there would not be a nuclear war because both sides had what they called the "poor loosers bomb" which was made with plutonium. Set one of those off and everything in the world would eventually die within the time it would take for it to circle the globe, plus about six months, because of the poisionous plutonium. I have no idea if these things still exist, but I wouldn't be surprised if they do. Fun thought, eh?

@Randall, I was half joking of course - only half indeed because we've really created a lot of stuff that's no good at all, and I wonder how we and our children and grandchildren are going to live through its effects. That includes global warning - @Ron de Haan, I'm not sure what influence mankind may have on climate, whether it's cooling or warming; I just think that when there's the least little bit of a chance that we may have an adverse influence, we should be extremely careful with it. I remember a saying that was much "en vogue" in Germany when I was young, which went "we're behaving as though we had a spare Earth in the trunk of our car", and I see more than a little grain of truth in that. If you think about it, Earth does not need us, but we absolutely need this planet and its ecosystem as it is. If we go, Earth will go on - maybe even better than now. If the Earth goes, we're done. I'm not that much worried about the environment, it has gone through much worse. I'm worried about us, because we'd be the first to pay the price of our stupidity.

Diane The radon thing is not that big of a threat to the general public except in certain areas and in unvented basements of buildings in those areas where the gas can build up.

I really don't think placing it in a subduction zone will work either...for one thing too many earthquakes. Boris or Erik can correct me on this if I am wrong but the subduction of land doesn't work quite as smooth as those graphics in the books would have you believe. One day in the future someone could be drilling down the line and might set off a mud/radioactive volcano.

Also the problem with putting it in the ocean is that little critters will eat it....then the bigger critters will eat them...the next thing you know your seafood platter at Red Lobster will be hot in more ways than one;)

As for the "poor loosers bomb" Your Prof may have been talking about MAD mutually assured destruction....where if one bomb goes off...all bombs would go off...the world would have been shrouded in fallout and a nuclear winter in which case both sides would be poor losers.

@Randall, thanks for answering my question and also for posting that cool pic.

I hope no one was thinking I was for dumping the junk in the trenches. I'm not. I just posed the question to learn something about the radon situation by comparison to what might happen if it was dumped in subductions zones.

BTW, most of the milk these days has strontium 90 in it so all of us are probably glowing in the dark a bit. And Chernoble certainly did a number all over the world. A lot of people died because of that disaster. It is too bad that nuclear energy is so dangerous because it works so well.

If they could just come up with an affordable wind generater for individual homes for where there is a lot of wind, ie., the mid west, we might be able to cut down on a lot of the need for fossil fuels and uranium. I do know there is a wind generator out there now that can be put on a roof and turn with about 2mph. It is not yet affordable for everybody to use, but it would be nice to have something like that. I think it might work better than solar, but both can help with the usage. Here in CA, we have a tendency to get blackouts and brownouts in the summer if it gets really hot for long periods. Fortunately we don't have the high humidities. But sometimes it can get very hot. I am talking 112 at six in the evening in Sacramento! One year where I live it got up to 115! I mean you would think I lived in Death Valley! Luckily, those temps only lasted a week. Whew!!

Diane, No I never thought you would advocate dumping the stuff in the sea. Nuclear power works ok on a small scale like in a submarine but when you scale it up to a large reactor you run into all kinds of other problems. Strontium 90 is just one of our little gifts from the Cold War that just keeps on giving.....but hey the good news is that it only has a half life of 29 years;)

@Randall, comforting thought...^_^

All of us old folks have more radiation in us due to the 1963 test ban treaty. That year was the peak year for man made background radiation, about 7% above normal.
I think if a mine could be built just above a subduction zone. As the crust descends the direction of the mantle it would dilute the radioactive material so much no harm would be released. This I think would be technically very difficult at this time. Try building a mine 23000 feet under the surface of the ocean in the Aleutian trench then stuffing it full of the bad stuff. Not gonna happen, but it would probably work. If it doesn't "The Deadliest Catch" would have a new meaning.

By Dasnowskier (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

Never type in the dark. Oye

By Dasnowskier (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

2 ideas:
to bury it in a volcano - encase the waste in bombs, and drop them from high altitude B-2s into the flowing vents of Kilauea. Heres the trick - the bombs have to be twice as dense as the dacitic magma so that they sink. Lead would melt quickly, so some sort of kryptonite alloy steel would be needed. If thats not dense enough, add the writers from Popular Science. Some sort of vibrating device would assist it in burrowing past the upswelling magma. They can use my washing machine.
-- another idea, make paint out of it, and use it on toys we can sell to the Chinese. OK bad idea. The B-2s flying over the volcano is pretty cool tho, and maybe CNN would pay for the footage.

By Fitzpatrick (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

@Randall, I forgot to respond to the second part of your question yesterday ... From the look of it the area affected by the seismic activity was rather Bárðarbunga, but who knows how much those volcanic systems are connected. It seems that GrÃmsvötn is strongly linked to the Laki fissure system, but it also seems that eruptions the size of Laki's 1783-1784 eruption are relatively rare, the previous similar-sized eruption having occurred in about 930 in the Katla-Eldgjá system. It seems that as of today (21 February 2010) the seismic activity in Iceland has significantly decreased, but I wouldn't be too surprised to see something happen in that country this year.

Actually Nuclear Power is one of the cleanest, safest and most economical energy options available to us now. Wind and Solar Power will never generate the level of power the US requires and run about 25-30 dollars per KWH, versus the 10 to 15 cents most of us pay. Chernobyl was a 1950's design reactor that lacked pretty much any safety features. Without discussing any specifics, Chernobyl was a horrible design that was a ticking time bomb. Anyway, the best thing we can do with our waste is Yucca Mountain. Not necessarily a popular idea, but a safe one nontheless. Until Nuclear Fusion becomes a reality and not a pipe dream, we are going to have to deal with waste products the production of which is going to rise in this country over the next several years as more plants are built.

Lots of interesting thoughts here! There is, however, one aspect that to my mind is missing and that's a mineralogical/chemistry one. If nuclear waste could be injected into a subduction zone, it would sooner or later be exposed to a high-pressure, moderate temperature hydrated environment. In such an environment, water acts as a very strong dissolvent which makes the high melting point of zirconium containers irrelevant. They will be chemically dissolved. From there on, the contents will react in accordance with their chemical properties creating minerals. Which minerals are created will vary according to the temperature and pressure of the flux a.k.a "magma". For uranium, the most likely mineralisation would be pechblende which, as far as I know is very rarely erupted. Other elements would form different minerals but they all would have one thing in common: they would be of high density and thus for the greater part not be near the top of any pluton or magma chamber. The question to our vulcanologists is: "Since the Earth's crust naturally contains radioactive minerals, how much is released through stratovolcanic eruptions?"

I suspect that radioactive wastes contain very little uranium or plutonium, they're too useful (unfortunately) to discard and will mostly be recovered in reprocessing. As to your question, although I should really leave this to the professionals, it's my belief that radioactives constitute a very small part of volcanic products. Probably the main one will be potassium-40 (familiar from K-Ar dating) and very small quantities of radon -trace levels- particularly in highly silicic magma.

However, if wastes were injected deeply enough into a subducted plate to reach magma-forming depths, (a near-impossible engineering problem) the timescale is such that the most dangerous isotopes would long since have decayed before there was any chance of them re-emerging like last night's curry

@James, I know nuclear energy is very clean. The problem is the waste from it. The solar idea or wind generators I was thinking about was for individual residences. It will work in some areas for that. There are people living on solar or wind energy right now. Even if people only use solar or wind for their hot water usage it would help. Of course, on demand natural gas or propane units are another idea for hot water. I am thinking mostly of home savings of electricity, etc. It works much better for new home building.

BTW, I am not they type to go overboard on enviornmental issues. Just common sense and if an affordable wind generater could save a family money in the long run, I am all for it. I think solar and wind generation does work for individual homes. It does not work so well for an entire country. Here in CA we have had the Central Valley Project which generated power from Shasta Dam. I am not sure how much they are using that now, but I do know of other dams that are in use for power. We do have a power problem here, as I mentioned before, especially in the summer. There are times when they have rotating outages to help with the load. For those who don't live here, that means they shut the power off for about 15min in a given area to cut the load. Then they rotate to another area and do the same thing.

There also is an area in N CA north of SF that is generating electricity by using geothermal power. That can work, too, in the right condidions. Idon't know how much energy they create, but it is working. Of course, they generate a lot of quakes pumping the water back into the system. They have really been at work over there because there have been a lot of quakes lately.

Interesting subjects and ideas here. And what the "blip" do you do with all the garbage that has been dumped in the oceans already?! Nuthin'.

Boris, Thanks for the info...Iceland is not an area I have read a lot of books or papers on, except for when there was some reference in them to Yellowstone;) I had read a few in the past having to do with Laki since it had such an effect on the weather in 1783-1784. After I saw your first post about the Iceland quakes, I found a couple of papers which talked about how GrÃmsvötn and several of the volcanoes in that area were maybe linked through the same fissure(s) to Laki.

Ok lets assume you put waste into the Aleutian trench (at the bottom of the trench). Most likley it will get swept up into the melange at the inner edge of the trench, which will take at a minimum hundreds of thousands of years. By that time the radiation will have decayed to a much lower level. Even if the fluids dissolve the stuff over that time frame the concentration would be very low. More likley the time frame for serious burial is in the millions of years, at which time its not an issue, whice for example arsenic is forever toxic.

@Lyle: "arsenic is forever toxic" True. So is plutonium.

If radioactive contamination is forever depends upon the definition of forever. For human life scales possibly but not in a geological time scale. In the Chernobyl region they talk about reoccupation of everywhere but the reactor site in 100s of years, which is a long way short of forever in terms of the history of life on earth. The trench idea relies on this, put the wastes onto the bottom of the Challenger deep, and it will be millions of years before they come up if at all. By that time they will be safe.

There are some impressive possibilities for the Thorium reactors such as LFTR - well worth watching & supporting I think. Would be great to be able to make power while getting rid of existing nuclear waste in a system that can't melt down or be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Nuclear waste should be packaged, contained and protected like never before, and until the day that the Space Elevator is functioning, we can launch it on a gravity-assisted trajectory directly from Earth's orbit toward the sun. Simpler than you may think. Just get the launch containment right and eventually you have a waste-free world. Earth-to-orbit transfer technologies will eventually make this more and more achievable, and eventually safer too someday. All the nuclear waste on Earth launched into the sun will amount to much less than a pimple on a gnat's behind for our giant solar partner. Think it over.

By JayCee The Red (not verified) on 24 Apr 2010 #permalink