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PUBLISHED : Letter of the Day | Clearing Misconceptions about Radioactive Waste


As an energy and instrumentation physicist with expertise in nuclear energy and radiation safety, I am writing to clarify and correct a misconception regarding radioactive waste and radiation exposure published by a Discus blogger, ‘Guest’, responding to a Sunday Gleaner column by Ambassador Byron Blake.

‘Guest’ compared radioactive waste from medical facilities to waste from nuclear power stations, suggesting that both types of waste pose dangers of similar magnitude, all things considered. However, his comparison is fundamentally inaccurate and misleading.

Radioactive waste from medical facilities consists of isotopes with short half-lives, meaning that their radioactivity diminishes over a short time – hours or days. For example, annual radiation exposure for individuals working with medical radioactive waste is typically 0.1 to 10 millisieverts per year.

Though gully drainage and marine tidal action have been washing up sizeable amounts of mildly hazardous medical wastes for decades on the beaches of Kingston and St Andrew, as well as some St Catherine beaches particularly at Half Moon Bay, less than 100 metres south of Three Sisters Cave.

On the other hand, radioactive waste from nuclear power stations contains isotopes with long half-lives, lasting thousands of years. This presents a challenge in safe storage and disposal due to the potential long-term environmental and health hazards. Spent fuel rods and beads from nuclear power stations are intense emitters of ionizing radiation. If mishandled, they can release vast amounts of radiation and be acutely sickening and often fatal to most life-forms, including humans.

The long half-lives of isotopes in nuclear waste from power reactors means that they will continue to emit radiation for thousands of years. This makes it unbelievably difficult to find a safe and permanent way to dispose of them.

I worry that people may underestimate the dangers of nuclear waste from power plants, which can pose a health threat to humanity for thousands of years.

Though nuclear energy can be a reliable source of electricity, it is important to have an informed public discourse about the risks and benefits of yet unproven SMR technology. SMRs are planned to be smaller and less expensive to build than traditional nuclear power plants, but they will still produce radioactive waste with long half-lives. I believe that we should develop energy sources that do not produce any radioactive waste.


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