Radioactive waste at the Olympic site

This is fun:

The development of the Olympic site in east London after the Games have finished could be in jeopardy because of radioactive waste buried beneath the site, experts have warned.

The actual thing seems to be:

In July 2008, the ODA told the Environment Agency that it had found 40 cubic metres, about 50 tonnes, of waste that showed radioactive readings up to three times higher than the levels at which waste is treated as exempt. But it argued that when put together with 1,500 cubic metres of material that was \”definitely exempt\” this would bring the whole waste into the exempt category.


Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules reveal that, contrary to government guidelines, waste from thorium and radium has been mixed with very low-level waste and buried in a so-called disposal cell under, or close, to the Olympic stadium.

OK. So, there was some lightly radioactive waste then. The rules are a little more complex than I\’ll make them out to be but roughly speaking, if there\’s less than 500 parts per million thorium then this is \”exempt\” waste. For we\’re talking about stuff that is less radioactive than various granite outcrops around the country like half of Cornwall or Arthur\’s Seat in Edinburgh.

It\’s also true that thorium really isn\’t that radioactive. I once sold a 15 lb bar to a customer and he could have it on a shelf, right next to his computer, for a year and it wouldn\’t even fog his dosimeter at all.

Radium is a slightly different kettle of fish. Much more dangerous….however, there will only be tiny, tiny, quantities there. You tend to find both together when you\’ve got the decay products from uranium and you get hundreds of times more thorium than you do radium.

Of course, when you\’re measuring the Th and Rd together, you tend to measure by the radiation being given off. And the way you do that is measure how much you\’re getting from, say, a kilo, or a litre, of the stuff. Which means that if you do mix stuff which is on the borderline of being exempt with stuff which is definitely exempt then you will get something which will pass these tests. Because you\’ve diluted the radioactive components and brought the total material under the level for exemption.

It\’s possible that these peeps have used the regulations in a way they weren\’t supposed to be used. However, dilution of the radioactive particles to bring them down to under the exempt level seems reasonable enough. We are still talking about stuff which is about as radioactive as general bits of rock lying about the countryside.

Now why they did this is a matter of money, yes. If you\’ve got exempt material you can, as they have done, bury it onsite. You can also send it to standard landfill and pay, perhaps £200 a tonne all told. However, if you\’ve got non-exempt material, but still low level radioactive, then you\’ve got to send it off to the low level waste depositary at West Drigg. There it\’s put into barrels sheathed in concrete and then stored….you can imagine that this is much more expensive.

There\’s a third thing you can do: process that waste and take the thorium and radium out of it. You\’ve then definitely got stuff which is exempt which you can use to level off the site. You\’re talking about 5oo grammes of thorium per tonne waste here (assuming the very top level of exempt material, even after they\’ve mixed it all up) and 7,500 tonnes of mixed material: 4 odd tonnes of thorium (and it would actually be much lower than this: they won\’t have done the mixing to leave it right on the upper limit). The radium would be, at a guess, somewhere around a kew kilos. It\’s not difficult (although boring and expensive) to process all of that with acid and to lift out the actinides (ie, the radioactives) and send them off to the high level repositary at Sellafield and be left with dirt on site. Leaving aside the cost of depositing in that repositary (for unfortunately, no one in the western world uses thorium for anything much anymore: that 15lb bar I sold was something like 80% of all trade in thorium in the US that year) you could do that processing for a few million £. Easily.

So why didn\’t they do that?

Because diluting the radioactive parts is just fine. In fact, if you go looking you can find the guidance to schools which might want to dispose of any thorium they have lying around (used to be reasonably common in chemistry labs). Pour it down the sink with the tap running is the advice. Because you\’ll dilute it sufficiently that you\’re getting to or even below general background radioactivity.

What we\’ve really got here is a bit of that good old hysteria about radiation. The amount in that soil is almost certainly less than you can find by going digging in various parts of the country. But because we\’ve got all wound up about dangerous levels of radioactivity (strangely, much more so about the very little that comes from nuclear power plants than the hugely greater amounts that come from coal fired power stations) wetherefore seem to have absolutely no societal tolerance for amounts equal to what you might find in a vegetable patch near Padstow.

10 thoughts on “Radioactive waste at the Olympic site”

  1. I hereby offer the field behind my back garden as a site for low level radioactive waste disposal. A wee bit of thorium would be a far better neighbour than the town-sized “development” that the owners want to build.

  2. Is this not a case of someone finding a convenient reason to wriggle out of a committment to redevelop the site after the Games are done?

    Kind of like where Sainsbury’s (to pick a purely random example) get to demolish your neighbourhood ice rink and build a supermarket on land that’s zoned for Leisure use, in return they promise to build football fields for the kiddies, but then – surprise! – the land they were going to use turns out to have some microscopic amount of asbestos contamination, so the football fields never get built but somehow the planning permission for the supermarket remains.

  3. For more hysteria about radiation, check out the comments in this post
    at Pajamas Media
    Yes, I think Iran getting The Bomb is bad – but the statements here about “making Israel uninhabitable for years and years” are just silly. As is the idea that an M80 firecracker plus enriched uranium dust would actually be an effective dirty bomb.

  4. The other scare about “radiation” is the equating of electromagnetic radiation with radioactive radiation. So mobile phone masts now have the same fear factor as the nuclear bomb.

  5. Hysteria about radiation?! How easily Mr Worstall rubbishes this article.

    He makes jokey references to radon, which is the stuff lying around the country in places like Cornwall and Arthur’s Seat, as if this is of no consequence.

    According to the US National Cancer Institute Radon causes between 15-20,000 deaths a year in the US.
    ‘Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer. Radon represents a far smaller risk for this disease, but it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Scientists estimate that approximately 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths per year are related to radon.’

    Whether something is described as ‘exempt’ or ‘non-exempt’ depends on the regulations at the time. Exempt material can still be dangerous. Stuff which is ruled exempt today may well become non-exempt tomorrow as regulations have a tendency to get tighter. At one time there were no regulations on radioactive material and it was dumped on landfill sites without any concern. Maybe Mr Worstall would advocate a return to this kind of relaxed approach to these materials. You can take it that if the authorities describe something as non-exempt, in this context, that they consider it dangerous. As such it should not be mixed with exempt material.

    Mr Worstall also seems to have completely missed the point of the article which is that those responsible for London 2012 hope to recoup costs by selling land on the Olympic Park to developers. One of the justifications of the Games was that it would clean up a large area of contaminated land and thus make it suitable for future development. Failing to do this simply reduces the chances of making the hoped for profit from those sales.

    Tim adds: Just a small thing but if you’re going to try and critique a piece of mine please do manage to know something about the subject before trying to do so.

    I do not mention Radon. I mention Radium. Radon is a gas, a noble gas. And it is indeed dangerous and the reason why houses in certain areas should take care with ventilation, especially of cellars. Radium is an entirely different element, a metal. It is also radioactive, this is true, it is also dangerous, this is true. But given that I mentioned radium I addressed myself to the dangers (and possible removal of) radium, not radon.

    There’s only 90 odd naturally occuring elements, you’d think people would manage to recall which are which, wouldn’t you?

  6. ‘For we’re talking about stuff that is less radioactive than various granite outcrops around the country like half of Cornwall or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.’

    ‘Radon comes from minute amounts of uranium present in all earth materials. It is the largest source of natural radiation that we encounter and accounts for around 50% of all the radiation we are exposed to.

    When radon enters our homes and either the ventilation is poor or excessively large amounts are present, it can build up to high concentrations. If we live with these high concentrations over a long period of time, we face an increased risk of lung cancer.

    Although radon is thought by many to be only associated with areas built on granite, it is in fact present in most parts of the UK. It is true to say however that the South West is the most affected area. In the West of Cornwall and North Cornwall areas there have recently been radon rollout programmes in operation. These programmes have included free testing and advice. Radon is also found in other countries including Sweden, the other Nordic Countries, Germany and USA.’

    I am fully aware that Radon is a gas. You chose to refer to granite areas like Cornwall.

    As far as thorium goes it is most certainly dangerous if ingested and a lot of dust has been created and will be created from construcion sites on the Olympic Park.

  7. Tim your assessment is a bit off the mark though much of what you say is correct.

    Having looked at almost all information that’s available about this matter I have to say your guesswork does not tally with the reality – though the way the Guardian article appeared makes this understandable as key bits of info disappeared in the editing.

    In fact thorium was a relatively minor component of what was found.
    From the report %20Stadium%20Radiation%20(14343).doc :

    “The contamination derived from a number of discrete processes. Some included the full natural uranium (U238) series, some derived from the truncated natural chain, based upon radium (Ra226), some derived from a truncated uranium U235 chain, based upon Pa231 (protactinium), and some included the full natural thorium (Th232) chain.
    Samples of these wastes were also sent for laboratory analyses. The maximum concentrations measured in samples were:
    40 Bq/g for 226 Ra
    15 Bq/g for 232 Th
    16 Bq/g for 231 Pa
    72 Bq/g for 238 U.

    To put this in perspective, the Environment Agency state that granitic rocks of SW England may have uranium & thorium levels “of the order of 0.15Bq/g” . So these measurements from the Olympic Stadium are 100 to 500 times the levels you would encounter from natural sources in the UK. These are unusually high even for an interwar landfill.

    You are incorrect in stating that “exempt” waste is less radioactive than granite outcrops. The Phosphatic Substances and Rare Earths Exemption Order used on the Olympic site allows a maximum of 14.8 Bq/g of uranium or thorium, ie. 100 times the concentrations in UK granite.

    A lot more radioactive than general bits of rock lying about the countryside, unless you’ve stumbled into a uranium mine.

    Your theory about it being a good idea to simply solve the problem by ‘diluting’ the material has one flaw – it’s illegal though it may seem reasonable at first thought. It is definitely not just fine! It would be regarded as unauthorised disposal.
    When you’ve ‘accumulated’ radioactive waste by digging it out of the ground there’s no going back – if it’s not covered by an exemption order it has to disposed of through approved means – ie. Drigg. as no landfill in the country is currently accepting such material.

    The fundamental principle of management of radioactive waste is ‘concentrate and contain’ not ‘dilute and disperse’. It would also be much harder to achieve than you make out – to get one builders bag of Olympic LLW and dilute it down to the typical levels found in soil it would need to be mixed efficiently with 1000 tonnes of clean material, not easy in practice even it was permitted.

    And it is not what happened on the Olympic site. The EA say “There should be no ‘dilution’ of contaminated waste with uncontaminated waste. In line with this guidance there was no mixing at the Olympic site of contaminated material with non-contaminated material to get the average concentration below the exemption threshold.”

  8. Current models use saharan sun anology of baking radiation dosages,which is a shame because the sand is radioactive too…but is missed out completely,leaving a X 1,000 factor error. A tiny bit of alpha emitter in your gut or lung does you no good at all 10-20 years later…so hope you are all old or don’t ever win this little lottery.Profits with plausible deniability via epidemiological frauds with narcissitic psychopathy…..classical economics!

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