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Hanau, the particles mystery and illegal dumping in Sweden

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#568
17/05/2002
Article

(May 17, 2002) The mystery of radioactive particles in the Elbmarsch in northern Germany has broadened with the discovery of additional particles near the former German MOX plant Hanau. Meanwhile, the Swedish authorities fail to prosecute Westinghouse for illegal dumping of plutonium-containing waste from Hanau on a municipal dumpsite in Sweden.

(568.5406) WISE Amsterdam - The particle story was featured on the German TV program "Report Mainz" on 6 May and was the lead story in the Tageszeitung on 7 May. Spherical radioactive particles have been found in soil samples from the surroundings of the Hanau nuclear fuel plants, according to the TV program. The particles with a diameter of approximately 1 mm were found at a depth of 15 cm.

What the particles are, and how they came to be there, is still a matter of controversy. The roots of this controversy go right back to the discovery of a leukemia cluster in the 1980s in a different part of Germany.

Germany's - and possibly Western Europe's - most significant cluster of leukemia cases near nuclear installations is probably in the Elbmarsch (see WISE News Communique 389.3788, "Leukaemia around Krümmel"). This is an area around the banks of the river Elbe in northern Germany, and is home to the nuclear power station Krümmel and the research center GKSS, which had two old research reactors.

Independent radiation measurements carried out after the discovery of the leukemia cluster put into question the accuracy of radiation monitoring (see WISE News Communique 435.4300, "False radiation measuring in Germany?")

In December 1997, the Leukemia Commission of Schleswig-Holstein concluded that the cause of this was probably radioactive releases from Krümmel (see WISE News Communique 487.4835, "German leukemia commission: Krümmel NPP cause of high leukemia rate"). However, this raised the question of why a nuclear power station with just one reactor should give rise to so many leukemia cases.

The controversy continued after the discovery of strange spherical radioactive particles in the area. The German section of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) arranged for these particles to be analyzed by a group called ARGE PhAM (working group on physical analysis and measurement techniques).

This group, whose leader Heinz Werner Gabriel describes himself as a "supporter of nuclear energy", says that the Elbmarsch particles contain plutonium, enriched uranium, curium, and americium. They claim that the particles are an experimental type of nuclear fuel known as "PAC fuel", and that they were released after an accident on 12 September 1986 at GKSS.

After these claims were made, staff of the Federal Radiation Protection Authority, the ecology department of the State of Lower Saxony and the Jülich nuclear research center all tried to find more particles, but without success. Some months ago, the state attorney for Schleswig-Holstein ordered seizure of the soil samples taken by ARGE PhAM in order to investigate them "very officially". (Note: in the Elbmarsch, one bank of the river Elbe is in Schleswig-Holstein and the other is in Lower Saxony).

Particles at Hanau
The mystery then broadened after the discovery of particles near the Nukem nuclear fuel production plant at Hanau, 500 km (300 miles) to the south. Although the TV program "Report Mainz" reported that these particles also contained plutonium and uranium, it turned out that they had not yet been analyzed - they merely "looked" similar to those from Geesthacht under the electron microscope.

Others have suggested that the whole affair is merely a media hoax, and the particles could be earthworm casts (!) or industrial slag. Industrial slag commonly contains naturally occurring radioactive materials such as uranium, radium, thorium and potassium.

Illegal dumping in Sweden
While speculation on the particles in Germany continues, Swedish authorities are refusing to prosecute Westinghouse for illegal dumping of plutonium-containing waste from Hanau, which ended up on a municipal dumpsite in Sweden.

40 metric tons of material have been delivered from Siemens to Ranstad Mineral AB. At Ranstad Mineral AB's uranium-processing plant (a former uranium mill), residual uranium was recovered from the Hanau material. After the extraction of the uranium, the material was dumped on the nearby municipal Risängen dump site which is located in the community of Skövde.

According to a Swedish parliament resolution, the import of radioactive waste into the country is prohibited in principle, but the Hanau material escapes this because it is classified as "useful residues."

In April 2000 it was found that the plutonium concentrations in samples from dumped waste originating from treated Hanau material exceeded the admissible limit of 100 Bq/kg tenfold. The Swedish Radiation Protection Institute (SSI) then prohibited further dumping of this material.
In December 2000 however, Westinghouse Atom AB, the licensee for the dumping, illegally continued dumping of at least five further batches of the material.

SSI then investigated whether Westinghouse Atom AB might have penal responsibility for breaching the Radiation Protection Law. According to the law, a minor breach does not imply penal responsibility. And, SSI considered the breach "minor", claiming that no hazards to humans or the environment had occurred.

Irradiation: sooner or later?
The particle controversy and the Sweden dumping incident illustrate the hollowness of the nuclear industry's claim to keep radioactive material isolated from the environment. Sooner or later, some of it always seems to escape. Whether unintentionally, as in the alleged incidents in Germany, or intentionally - and even illegally - as in the Sweden dumping incident, the industry just seems to keep spreading its waste around.

Sources:

  • tageszeitung, 7 May 2002
  • WISE Uranium web site
  • Main Echo, 10 May 2002
  • Frankfurter Rundschau, 16 May 2002

Contact: WISE Uranium