Tritium Leak and Waste Packaged in Plastic Bags: Questions about the Nuclear Cemetery
Disorganized documentation of the packaging and storage of waste deposited before the fall of socialism, high background radiation and harmful substances leaking into the groundwater – there are several frightening rumors circulating around the nuclear waste repository at the Hungarian village of Püspökszilágy. Paksi Riot, the investigative team of Átlátszó and Energiaklub Association, decided to dig deep into the subject and follow up on these rumors. We examined official documents, visited the village and the waste repository as well.
Püspökszilágy is a quiet, friendly village just shy of 800 inhabitants, located 50 kilometers from Budapest. Few people have heard of the village, in spite of the fact that it is quite special: it is the only near-surface nuclear waste repository in Hungary.
This means that the radioactive waste is stored close to the surface, at about 15-30 meters deep. The nuclear graveyard, officially called Radioactive Waste Processing and Storage Facility (RHFT), was built in the 1970s to accommodate nuclear waste of small and medium-level radioactivity generated in Hungary. Since 1996, RHFT only receives radioactive waste from institutions, not from nuclear power plants.
Radioactive waste may be generated in many fields: healing, research, agriculture and industry. Examples of low and intermediate level radioactive waste include protective clothing, tools and gloves contaminated with radioactivity. All of these are hazardous waste, as radioactive radiation – depending on its strength and type – is harmful to humans and the environment.
The Püspöszilágy facility came to the attention of Energiaklub when the Association received messages that there had been problems around the RHFT. Energiaklub and Átlátszó then identified a number of issues based on official documents and background discussions.
We collected and processed hundreds of pages of official reports, minutes, decisions in our investigation. Some of the documents were publicly available, some were requested by local residents from the authorities, and we also filed several freedom of information requests.
First of all, we found that there is a level of uncertainty about, whether the waste entering the Püspökszilágy facility has been properly documented in the last 30-40 years, that is, whether the inventory accurately represents the materials actually stored in the repository.
We also learned that there are waste products with long half-lives in the pools which products should have been only taken in for temporary storage under today’s safety standards.
Besides these, there may be problems with the packaging of radioactive waste. Official documents revealed that earlier some of the waste was packaged into nylon bags, which is not a very durable or modern method of packaging radioactive waste.
The documents also revealed that the tritium levels of groundwater in the wells of the area of the repository have increased since the beginning of the 2000s, and that elevated levels of radiocarbon have been measured on the site in the recent years. This is confirmed, among other things, by the latest test material requested by our team, which the company operating the storage facility at Püspökszilágy had to submit to the National Atomic Energy Authority by 31 December 2018.
Tritium is practically hydrogen with the mass number of 3 instead of 1. Radiocarbon, as its name implies, is carbon, but with a mass number of 14 instead of 12. Both are radioactive; the half-life of tritium (3H) is 12.3 years, whereas that of radiocarbon (14C) is 5.730 years.
The level of background radiation the locals are exposed to is unknown
It is strange that there is no background radiation detector in the village that would show the radiation dose to the inhabitants of the village. On Earth, people are exposed to some radioactive radiation everywhere; on the one hand to natural radiation from the Earth’s crust and from space, and on the other hand, to radiation emitted by building materials, nuclear explosions or nuclear facilities.
In Hungary, background radiation detectors are installed in about 60 towns including the ones with a nearby nuclear facility.
Not in Püspökszilágy, however; the background radiation is measured at the facility, but the data is not readily accessible by the locals.
Moreover, several issues have been raised in connection with an accident in the radioactive waste storage facility 5 years ago, during which 3 workers were exposed to elevated levels of radiation. The workers opened a barrel containing radioactive material, and breathed in the fumes, which resulted in high doses of internal radiation:
- The first worker was exposed to 286 mSv,
- the second one to 101 mSv,
- whereas the third one was exposed to 54 mSv.
The acceptable limit values for workers exposed to radiation are set out in Government Decree 487 of 2015 (XII. 30.). According to the Decree, the effective dose limit for occupational exposure is 20 mSv per year. Under duly justified circumstances, the National Atomic Energy Authority ‘may authorize a larger effective dose, up to 50 mSv per year, provided that the annual average dose does not exceed 20 mSv for any consecutive five-year-period, including the years in which the limit is exceeded’. It means a total of 100 mSv over five years.
The radiation exposure of two of the workers of the Püspökszilágy storage facility (286 and 101 mSv respectively) exceeded both legal limits: the annual 50 mSv and the five-year limit of 100 mSv. The radiation exposure of the third worker, at 54 mSv, was ‘only’ higher than the annual permitted dose. By comparison, an average Hungarian resident receives a radiation dose of 3 mSv a year.
The locals are concerned
We first visited Püspökszilágy at the beginning of January in order to gather information about the above cases on the spot. We arrived in the village at noon. The streets were completely empty, we did not meet anyone for a long time. It had been almost an hour before we finally met someone: the postman. He said that we should not expect people here during the day: many of the locals worked in the nuclear storage facility, but their shift would end only at 2:30 in the afternoon.
We ended up going into a local bar in a village nearby, in Kisnémedi. The only guest in the facility told us that he used to work in the waste repository before he retired.
According to this man, the day of the accident we mentioned above was busy: civil defense forces arrived in the village, visited the homes of all three men injured. They took clothes and bedlinen with them. They even wanted to take the cat with them, and measured the radioactivity of its fur’ he said.
About the waste stored in the repository, he said that before the fall of communism records were not properly kept thus nobody exactly know what lies in some of the pools.
However, he does not consider tritium leakage to be a particular problem. In his opinion ‘it is nothing’, because tritium is present everywhere.
At our next visit to Püspükszilágy we were luckier; we were able to talk to other locals, who agreed to the publication of their names as well. One of them was Katalin Rottenhoffer, who welcomed us at her home and talked about her fears about the facility. She had also heard that no regular records were kept during socialism about the different types of wastes stored at the facility.
‘Other materials might have ended up there’, she said. She also said that she would be glad if there were a background radiation detector in the village but her requests had been rejected by RFHT.
‘I wrote to the site manager, Ferenc Kereki, telling him that they might also benefit from a detector in the village, as it might calm those who are worried. I wrote him an e-mail and he promised that they would install a detector in the village. But they haven’t’. She emphasized, though, that it had only been six months since he wrote the email.
His neighbor, Vendel Demény, used to work in the repository for 24 years, initially as an energy expert, later as a lorry driver. The retired man gladly talked to us, though his wife fiddled around us during the interview, as if to ensure that her husband does not say anything that could cause a problem later.
‘This is a repository for low and medium-level radioactive waste, but there are some higher-level materials there. (…) How do I know this? I participated in delivering them. I delivered some materials that should not have been stored there’, Demény said.
The mayor gave us an interview, then he revoked his consent to its publication
Having interviewed the locals, we called Mayor Sándor Tordai on the phone. Unlike the residents, it took a long time to persuade him to give us an interview. When we arrived, he immediately produced a document stating, among other things, that if the interview is edited, it could be published only after his prior consent. He wanted us to sign the document.
To obtain the interview, we agreed to this and talked to him for about thirty minutes. He answered all of our questions. However, he eventually decided not to let us publish his words, even though we did not alter his answers in any way.
The repository from the inside
After the interview with the mayor, we were allowed to visit the storage facility, which is on a hill near Püspökszilágy. From the outside it feels like entering a cemetery: there is complete silence all around. The only sound is the whistle of the wind. The only living creature we saw was a stray cat.
From the inside, the waste storage facility resembles a factory. Employees in white lab coats welcomed us and handed over protective gear: cloaks and plastic bags for the shoes, similar to the ones seen in hospitals. Then we went down to the storage vault, where the radiation detector that we received from RHFT showed extremely high values. The experts quickly reassured us that although radiation was really high in there, we would only be in danger if we stayed there for a long time.
In some halls, the barrels used for the transportation of the radioactive waste are stacked to the ceiling. The incoming waste is sorted, repackaged, compressed, and then placed in storage pools or wells.
Perhaps the most terrifying sight was that of the old pools. The cemetery analogy applies again: the pools looked like hundred-year-old tombs. They were covered by light brown dust that looks so powdery that it would have flowed through our fingers had we touched it.
We also made a video about the visit. We could not use our own camera because of the safety regulations, but RHFT provided us with a small, non-professional camera. The recordings were made with that, which explains their quality.
According to the repository experts, there is no problem, just a certain situation
We had the opportunity to interview RHFT staff during the visit. The discussion was attended by Ferenc Kereki, the director of the company operating the repository, site manager Viktor Hák and technical director Bálint Nős. They, like the mayor, tried to us and the general public
On the topic of background radiation, Ferenc Kereki said that a measuring instrument is planned to be installed in the village this year.
The RHFT staff also described the accident or, as they called it, the ‘malfunction’, in which three workers were exposed to internal radiation.
As Kereki explained: the workers opened a barrel and took a bag out if it. But the bag tore open, and its contents spilled on the ground. The workers did not leave the spot, but started to sweep the dust. It was a violation of the rules and RHFT management admitted that the workers made a mistake there.
Another cause of the problem was the packaging, but RHFT staff said that it was not their responsibility. The barrel had been placed in the storage facility a long time before when the waste was not yet collected by RHFT.
‘We inherited this form of packaging (…). In the past, the producers of the waste were responsible for packaging it’ said Kereki, adding that now it is the task of RHFT to transport the waste, in order to avoid similar surprises.
‘Now we can see the contents of the barrel at the originator’s site, and we can check compliance with the requirements, or we package the waste, if necessary’ he added.
Regarding the documentation of waste deposited in the era of socialism, Kereki claimed that inventory had to be taken at that time as well, ‘so, in principle, they had to do it’.
We asked whether it was possible that waste is stored in the facility in nylon bags. Kereki said that there definitely were nylon bags, but he added that the one involved in the accident was not a nylon bag, but a bag coated with canvas, which had decayed over the decades.
‘We have to be prepared for this, and we are. Obviously, we will not find the waste packages in the same condition as they were originally placed in the barrels. But as of now, we do not know exactly what their condition will be when we open them. We are preparing to remove these types of waste in the safest way possible and measure their radiation’.
By that, he referred to the current Safety Improvement Program, in which old waste is collected, recorded and repackaged.
‘As soon as we take note of an old, non-conventional package, we stop and develop an instruction on what to do with it, according to a well-prepared procedure,’ Kereki added.
The experts of RHFT also confirmed that there are types of waste in the pools that should not have been placed there according to the current regulations, but the regulations at that time allowed that. Specifically, 35 percent of the four pools examined so far had waste products with long half-lives.
However, according to RHFT officials, people incorrectly assume that highly radioactive materials have been deposited in the storage areas. In reality, there is a certain proportion of low and medium-level waste products with long half-lives.
They said that those types of waste should not be there, but they are allowed to be placed in the temporary stores on the site – officially permitted by the authorities. Therefore they have transferred and are transferring the waste products with long half-lives there.
The RHFT experts also admitted that there was a tritium leak, but they thought it was ‘not a problem, only a situation’ that was, for the time being, within the normal operation of the repository. The tritium has not leaked outside the controlled zone for the more than 40-year operation of the repository, but the process has to be monitored nonetheless.
‘We can prove that there is no danger to the population or the environment at the moment,’ said Ferenc Kereki, who said that, according to their models, tritium would reach the first creek in about 150 years, but by then it would completely decay.
In response to our question whether that can be caused by obsolete packaging, Kereki said: ‘We cannot state that with certainty now, because obviously, we have not opened the waste packages. But your logic is sound, which is exactly why we want to implement the Safety Improvement Program. Not haphazardly, thoughtlessly, but with thorough preparation.’
As for radiocarbons, they reported that they had measured a slight increase compared the normal background radiation in two groundwater monitoring wells in the controlled zone of the RHFT.
‘We increased the frequency of measurements in 2017 in order to determine whether the increase in concentration was not a measurement error or a temporary phenomenon, but something permanent and what future trend it may indicate. So far, we have not seen any significant changes beyond the margin of error, so we will closely monitor the measurement results’, they said.
In summary, there is no reason to worry according to RHFT experts: there is no problem, it is just a situation, and there are or will be solutions for every concern.
Experts say there is no reason to worry
After the interviews with the RHFT staff, we contacted a number of experts on tritium and radiocarbons.
Mihály Molnár, a senior research fellow at the Department of Environmental Sciences at the Nuclear Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said that tritium and radiocarbon are so-called cosmogenic isotopes; they are present in nature and in our environment. Both isotopes are constantly produced in our environment by cosmic radiation in the stratosphere and then brought down by atmospheric phenomena. Tritium is naturally present in water.
Both are soft beta-radiant isotopes with negligible health risks at levels below the regulatory limits. The amount matters, of course, but when atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were conducted some 50 years ago, the amount of tritium was hundreds of times higher than the natural level for years, and the amount of radiocarbon was the double of the normal level on the whole planet, but it did not seem to cause any significant health damage to the population.
‘Today, the state-of-the-art measurement technology, also available in Hungary, enables the detection of a change amounting to a mere 1% of the natural levels of tritium and radiocarbon, so the slightest disturbance can be detected at the earliest occurrence when it is still harmless. It gives us enough time to take the proper measures’ Molnár added.
András Alexin, a specialist at the Izotóp Intézet Kft, said that both substances are used very often; they are injected into living organisms like plants and animals for experimental purposes.
According to Alexin, it indicates that neither tritium nor radiocarbon is considered hazardous isotopes. Their energy level and permeability are very low, they are virtually harmless as external radiation sources and they both can be easily removed from the skin. He said that it is only harmful when it enters the body, when one inhales, eats or drinks it in some form, in a very large dose. He also made an example: one should drink hectolitres of water with tritium content to reach the tritium concentration that the RHFT measured at the storage facility.
Regarding the tritium leak, András Alexin said that the RHFT measurements showed twice the limit defined for drinking water, but it was present only in the controlled area of the site, and did not reach the surface waters. Neither material is harmful to the environment, their doses are so small that they have practically no effect on the environment.
We asked a third expert, who did not want his name published; he said that National Atomic Energy Agency concealed the names of the writers of the relevant RHFT document, so he was reluctant to use it as a credible reference. He said that it could not be supposed that the occasionally increased tritium and radiocarbon concentrations in monitoring wells would have a detrimental effect on health.
It will take another 15-20 years to conduct a thorough examination of the waste products
However, the members of Energiaklub were not satisfied with the outcome of the interviews. According to them, it is a welcome measure that an inventory is being taken in the Safety Improvement Program and the inappropriate waste is repackaged and transferred to a suitable location. However, they think it is not very reassuring that everyone has some uncertainty about the condition of the packaging in the storage areas and that there are some questions about tritium and radiocarbon that remain unanswered.
‘The Safety Improvement Program is expected to alleviate the problems, but they do not rush to implement it: it will take at least 15-20 years to collect, examine, repackage, and store the waste. Our opinion is that no one can predict with any level of certainty what will happen with the tritium until that time. According to our December 2018 report, RHFT does not have accurate information on exactly where the materials leaking from the repository will end up in the area – in the nearby creek, for example – and in what period of time’, said professional director Orsolya Fülöp. She also expressed her concern that radiocarbon also appeared in the environment a few years ago, which is a bigger problem than tritium, since radiocarbon is radioactive for a much longer time, thousands of years.
‘No material from a waste repository should be released into the environment’, said the director.
Investigative Journalists Team Up with Experts To Uncover Details About Nuclear Plants And Radioactive Waste Sites
Hungary is home to a number of nuclear facilities. While the Paks nuclear power plant is known to everybody, the nuclear disposal site in Püspökszilágy is less recognized. Besides, there are several other nuclear projects in the making, including the Paks II nuclear plant or a high-level radioactive waste site in the Mecsek mountains.
Written by Babett Oroszi
Video by Gabriella Dohi; Orsolya Fülöp and Eszter Mátyás of Energiaklub contributed reporting to this story.
You can read the original, Hungarian-language story here.
Cover photo: one of the waste repository pools at the Püspökszilágy facility