Burying Radium and your head in the sand

Not too far from Edinburgh, on the East coast of Scotland in Fife lies Dalgety Bay, a area of some beauty which is close to many residences of people who work in Edinburgh. It lies on the North side of the Firth of Forth. The beach is a wonderful place and in summer children can play on it, older folk can catch the sum there and you can even fish from the shore. But underneath the sands lies danger.

After the Second World War the aircraft of the Royal Air Force were, over a period of time, broken down and scraped. For reasons that are unclear now, but probably relate to money, the scrap was buried under Dalgety Bay beach. Nothing lasts forever and beaches are made of sand and pebbles which shift as time goes by. Now, more than sixty years later the Environment Agency has found increasing strong readings showing radioactive radium under the beach. The radium was used to provide luminous aircraft dials and was not specially separated when the planes were scrapped, but simply buried. There seems to be enough radium that if it were exposed through the shifting sands and by the natural forces of erosion that occur on all beach, there would be a danger to beach users.

There are a number of authorities that are involved in what happens next – Fife Council, the Ministry of Defence, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency. As well as the NHS and local people and maybe even Uncle Tom Cobbly and all. They are all talking and might even draw up a plan and dispose of the radium safely and promptly. I rather suspect that if the presence of these quantities of radium was found under the House of Commons in London, the radium there would have been disposed of, long before news of it leaked out.

The risk posed by the radium is not in the short term, but only in the long term, if it becomes exposed, but the presence of radium has been known for many years and only now, when the readings become threatening, are the authorities taking the matter seriously. Doing nothing is not an option. The radium will decay eventually, but as it has a half life of 1,600 years, waiting for the stuff to decay is not an option.

If radium on aircraft dials buried sixty years ago can pose a present danger, it makes you wonder what future dangers will exist in the tons of spent nuclear power station radioactive uranium. It also points out the danger of burying old aircraft in the sand, which is akin to burying your head in the sand.

 

One Response

  1. The radium in some ways is worse than used nuclear fuel. A used nuclear fuel contains Cs-137, Sr-90, some actinides and a selection of other nasties. The good news about the used fuel is that the majority of the radioisotopes are not very mobile in soil. If spent fuel is placed in a waste store like the Swedish one then a series of layers of protection will prevent the release of radioactivity into the biosphere thus protecting future generations.

    When oxygen is absent (like in the planned Swedish waste store) the uranium dioxide spent fuel is less soluble in water than pyrex glass. This means that even if water gets into a damaged waste package the rate at which the fuel dissolves is so low that the vast majority of the radioactivity will decay before the used fuel dissolves.

    The vast majority of the radioactive elements in the used fuel will form cations (ions with positive charges on them) these will stick like glue to the surfaces of minerals in the clay used for packing around the waste cans, the rocks and finally the soil. As a result even if the used fuel cans leak the radioactivity will not be able to get out quickly.

    The bad news about radium-226 is that it forms a very mobile daughter (Radon-222) which does not absorb onto mineral surfaces. Radon is even mobile in cement. One of the best ways to deal with radium waste is to put it into a cement with some form of layer added to stop the radon diffusing through the cement.

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