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Enough to finish us off

Written By: - Date published: 10:20 am, October 30th, 2011 - 58 comments
Categories: accountability, Economy, Environment, greens - Tags: , ,

Five million kilos of radioactive yellow cake uranium are being shipped through New Zealand ports every year. ERMA was unaware this practice has been going on for the last 15 years and only learned of it in 2009, but not to worry, according to John Key’s spokesperson the yellow cake is “Australian dirt, which is essentially harmless”.

So can the Government assure the New Zealand public that none of this “harmless [radioactive uranium concentrate] dirt” is aboard the Rena? Gareth Hughs wants an immediate independent inquiry. If Nuclear Free New Zealand ports are playing host to five million kilos of yellow cake uranium concentrate each year, I want to know more about it. I also want to know what’s on the Rena’s cargo register.

You think oil spills are a problem for our tourism and 100% Pure food exports image? Try a few tonnes of yellow cake washing up on Mt Maunganui and Papamoa - especially when the Tauranga Habourmaster confirms that the Port of Tauranga has no equipment to even detect, let alone contain, radioactive material.

If we get another Rena-like disaster with a yellow cake carrier and it leads to widespread dispersal of the cargo, then kiss good bye to our agricultural exports sector – and with it, pretty much our entire economy as we know it.

58 comments on “Enough to finish us off”

  1. jimmy 1

    There won’t be any radioactive material on the Rena or they would have made a song and dance about it when the manifest was examined. Instead we learnt of the “hazardous” goods; ferrosilicate, which is effectively dirt.

    That said; this incident highlights the risk of shipping any hazardous material via New Zealand.

    On the filpside, what’s good for the economy is good for all New Zealand (tui)

    • Colonial Viper 1.1

      There won’t be any radioactive material on the Rena or they would have made a song and dance about it when the manifest was examined.

      Given that the practice of shipping yellowcake had gone on secretly for years without authorities admitting it, I wouldn’t assume its as clean cut as all this.

      especially when the Tauranga Habourmaster confirms that the Port of Tauranga has no equipment to even detect, let alone contain, radioactive material.

      Two things. This means all kinds of radioactive shit can get shipped through Tauranga and no one would know. Secondly were’nt major ports supposed to have gear installed in the name of anti-terrorism (or something) after 9/11?

      On another note 5000 tonnes of yellow cake =! 5000 tonnes of uranium.

    • thejackal 1.2

      Here is the preliminary list of hazardous substances and their quantities the Rena is known to be carrying… buried in the Maritime New Zealand website.

      MNZ are now saying that it is a container of Alkysulphonic Acid UN2856 that has gone overboard. It is important to note that the United Nations recommended maximum transportation quantity is 5 litres, while the Rena was carrying 23,240 kgs.

      Now you tell me if these substances with high aqautic ecotoxicity are just dirt Jimmy?

  2. One Anonymous Bloke 2

    You can tell there’s no yellowcake on Rena because she hasn’t visited either of the Aussie ports that export the stuff recently. Unless the Aussies are illegally exporting un-reported yellowcake that is. Good luck down that rabbit hole.

  3. lprent 3

    It is yellowcake, which will usually have minute amounts of U235 which is radioactive over the short term, and mostly U238 which has lower radioactivity than most iron ores – most common isotopes of which have shorter halflifes. You have to concentrate the U235 in uranium before it is of any radioactive danger.

    Depending on the source and processing, I’d expect that yellowcake from Aussie will probably be less radioactive than a typical iron balustrade. It will certainly be less of a radioactive risk than building on top of granite.

    Uranium isn’t even that good a heavy metal poison – its outer electron shell is pretty full. It simply isn’t promiscuous like plutonium or mercury. The oxides in yellowcake make it nearly inert and nonsoluble.

    Hughes is acting like an idiot. But I have come to not expect too much actual science knowledge from the Green party MP’s. Some are more into chicken little labelling without thinking enough.

    Mind you, John Key’s spokesperson is also either ignorant or a liar. Yellowcake is the resulting product of some highly intensive industrial processing. It could never be described as dirt. Mind you he could just be channelling his boss, who also tends to be a bit vague about just about everything….

    The only thing of interest is the level of reporting to ERMA. That is something I haven’t thought about and I will have to dig into a bit.

    • Lanthanide 3.1

      “Hughes is acting like an idiot. But I have come to not expect too much actual science knowledge from the Green party MP’s. Some are more into chicken little labelling without thinking enough.”

      Yes, like their own goal about Happy Feet. Asking the National ministers about the possibility that Happy Feet had been caught in a fishing net from a trawler, and how there was a boat not far away from Happy Feet’s last known position. The National minister responded that that closest boat was the DOC one that had let Happy Feet go, and the most likely explanation was that Happy Feet had become a Happy Meal.

    • Alwyn 3.2

      If I can remember my decades ago chemistry all the naturally occurring isotopes of iron, except Fe54 are stable and not radioactive at all. FE54 has a half life of about 3.1*10e22, which is about 10 billion billion times the age of the earth.

      Uranium 235 has a half life of about 800 million years which is a bit more than being radioactive in the short term.

      On the other hand I agree with the general gist of this comment. The Greens are scientific idiots.

      ps I like your comment on Uranium not being “promiscuous”, unlike mercury. I can’t get out of my head the image of yellowcake shrinking back from any passing crewman and protesting that “I’m not one of those girls” whilst a vial of mercury whistles and asks “looking for a good time sailor”. Yes I know I have a weird imagination.

      • Ari 3.2.1

        It certainly would be nice if the Greens at least began fact-checking a bit more extensively before they launched off on this stuff. On some parts of science they can be really thorough, but when it comes to nuclear issues, genetic modification, or alternative medicine, there’s a tendancy to shoot from the hip which is embarrassing and not parliamentary behaviour at all. (Not that National haven’t tried their hardest to lower the standards in that regard)

    • Draco T Bastard 3.3

      You have to concentrate the U235 in uranium before it is of any radioactive danger.

      There is some doubt about that.

      Rokke, a health physicist who became the Pentagon’s most senior DU expert during the first Gulf War, became convinced it had contaminated the battlefield and could be a factor in Gulf War Syndrome, the mysterious mix of illnesses that have afflicted returning soldiers. Rokke acknowledges DU’s brilliance as a weapon – because it is an extremely dense metal that sharpens and burns as it hits its target, it is used on the ends of tank shells and missiles to penetrate steel and concrete much more easily than conventional weapons. But he also believes that he and the research team became contaminated. “Everybody is sick,” he says. “We’ve all got rashes, respiratory and kidney problems. It’s there; there are no two ways about it.”

      That said, you’re probably right about yellowcake which isn’t solid uranium but is a mixture of chemical compounds which contain uranium.

    • Rich 3.4

      Maybe it’s relatively harmless in it’s natural state – though it’s many times more concentrated than any “dirt” found in nature.

      But put it in a reactor, and you’ve got plutonium and fission products. When there’s an accident (like Fukushima) these escape. The other risk is proliferation – any state which has an evolved nuclear industry is a few years away from making a bomb, should it choose to do so.

      Uranium’s a commodity – the more gets mined, the cheaper it becomes and the more attractive it is to countries to use nuclear power. By participating, even in a small way, in the supply chain, we’re contributing to nuclear accidents and bombs.

    • QoT 3.5

      lprent, I take your word on the science, but here’s the thing: do you think our trade partners and tourism industry are going to sit down and say “righto, let’s establish the actual scientific situation here” or are they going to go “MOTHERFUCKING URANIUM IN NZ WATERS, BURN ALL YOUR MERINO!”?

      • KJT 3.5.1

        Part of the problem here is, the Greens are the party of the environment. The media expect unscientific ideological brain farts from other parties and largely give them a free pass.

        Greens do not have that Luxury.

        Agreed that a “Nuclear free” country participating in the Nuclear industry., like NZ investments in Nuclear power, is not good PR.

        P.S. M F–king is a derogatory gendered insult. Black marks. :-)

      • the sprout 3.5.2

        are going to sit down and say “righto, let’s establish the actual scientific situation here” or are they going to go “MOTHERFUCKING URANIUM IN NZ WATERS, BURN ALL YOUR MERINO!”?

        exactly

        • lprent 3.5.2.1

          Honest mistakes I can live with. Deliberately and knowingly screwing with the science for purely political purposes just annoys me

          Which leads to the question of responsibility. I like to assign it where I can see it. Somehow I can just see a post with the title of “[insert MP]: ldiot or liar?”, “New Zealand Greens lie about yellowcake”, or “Green lies” in my future – frequently. I am sure that I can get that repeated around science and engineering blogs for an added google effect. Hell if I make the words simple enough, the right may be able to understand it and repeat it.

          Where do people look up information from afar? Begins with a G…

          If the greens want an issue then they should find one of the real ones. Something like this is just easily disprovable bullshit and will simply irritate every tech orientated around. It simply makes it harder to convince hard nosed engineers that there are actual environmental problems that need looking at.

          Ultimately the greens need techs working for fixes earlier rather than after disasters strt striking. Damaging the greens credibility is not useful.

          • *_* 3.5.2.1.1

            Tetchy aren’t we?

            Since the transportation also took place during a Labour administration then you’d have no problems in defending it while belittling the Greens.

            • lprent 3.5.2.1.1.1

              Nope. I think that the science that Hughes pushed not only crap – I suspect that he knew it was crap.

              I notice that you are not supporting his science – I wonder why? Gutless wonder or just too pig-ignorant to understand the issue?

              • incorrect. it was not known about by the Labour Govt,
                ERMA became aware of the practice in 2009 – under National

                • lprent

                  I guess that was a reply for the punctuation puppet from context

                  What concerns me with ERMA is that they should be tracking the transport of any heavy metal over water as a matter of course. Many can have some pretty severe consequences if they get dumped in a corrosive seawater environment. They tend to be pretty evil in enclosed waters because the sediments get a lot of rework by local flora and therefore fauna.

      • lprent 3.5.3

        Yeah, but also they ignore dangerous radioactive waste transfers from Japan to the UK that have actual dangers. What makes you think that they will notice something that is not dangerous. Ummm because our local morons of science tell them right?

        Quite frankly I prefer to deal with the local idiots. Starting with this Green MP who needs a lower high school education in basic science. I seem to remember he is on my Facebook.

        • QoT 3.5.3.1

          I assume they’ll ignore anything right up to the point there’s a pageview-generating story in it.

        • KDV 3.5.3.2

          If a ton of yellow cake washed up on our beaches then, regardless of its actual toxicity, our tourism industry would be decimated for decades. We might still be able to sell food products overseas, but only at knock down prices, never again at premium prices.

          If authorities told you the food was safe, but you had the choice of an alternative, would you choose to eat food from somewhere washed with yellow cake? No, me neither.

          • NickS 3.5.3.2.1

            You’ve got no idea how sparing soluble yellowcake is do you?

            • KDV 3.5.3.2.1.1

              I assume you mean ‘sparingly soluble’? You seem to have a literalist disposition but perhaps I should have used the more literary ‘awash’ rather than ‘washed’.
              Whether the shit disolves or is dispersed as a solid is immaterial. Of course it doesn’t even have to disperse. As long as it’s lost in the sea close to our coast it will have an enormously serious economic impact via denigration of our export image. Actual toxicity is immaterial.
              Get it now?

              • NickS

                What I get is that you have absolutely no idea about the relative non-toxicity (inhalation problematic for the same reasons inhaling silica is problematic, otherwise only UO2 in the 2+ state is a problem, but it’s not generally found in yellowcake) of uranium oxides in that it’s only highly toxic once it’s reduced to uranium salts which the uranium cation(s) in which ever oxidisation state (aka is it +1, +2, +3 etc, etc) it’s in can then co-ordinate with organic molecules and gum things up. And because uranium oxides are very sparingly soluble, environmental impacts would only be seen when dumping more a couple of tonnes of the stuff, and even then you have to take into account ocean currents diluting any spills, along with it being locked up in marine mud or buried via other means.

                Uranyl is another thing entirely and prone to bio-accumulating due to it’s affinity for coordinating with phosphates (see DNA and RNA for what that’s “fun”). However, environmental impact as noted before will depend on environmental factors and amount dumped.

                On the radioactivity front, U238 is less radioactive than granite, and the proportion of U235 in yellowcake is far too low to make it a significant radiation risk until enrichment processing.

                But hey, why fact check when you can just be ignorant instead?

                As for tourism impacts, well, I can’t be fucked caring about the opinions of stupid idiots who can’t be bothered checking out stuff properly.

                • KDV

                  It’s a shame your reading comprehension skills aren’t as developed as your trumpet blowing.
                  So one more time, but with fewer words for you to read: Actual toxicity is immaterial.
                  Get it now?

                  • NickS

                    As for tourism impacts, well, I can’t be fucked caring about the opinions of stupid idiots who can’t be bothered checking out stuff properly.

                    What part of “I can’t be fucked…” do you not understand? If people are too stupid too understand risks properly based off the science than I really couldn’t care what they think, especially as, unlike with the Rena disaster, you’d still be able to eat sea food post the spill of yellowcake (provided uranyl levels are at WHO guidelines off course).

                    As for trading partners, they’ll be basing risks off toxicity data, not public opinion, making your quip about toxicity being immaterial rather braindead.

                    • Colonial Viper

                      As for trading partners, they’ll be basing risks off toxicity data, not public opinion, making your quip about toxicity being immaterial rather braindead.

                      Nah, once consumers in those countries hear of a spill of radioactive material they’ll start turning away from NZ produce immediately. And they won’t be looking at toxicity data.

                      Effect will probably last for months.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 3.5.4

        “lprent, I take your word on the science”

        No offense to lprent, but the only way to be sure of scientific pronouncements is to check the source.

        • lprent 3.5.4.1

          As you should. There is a Wikipedia link in my earlier comment that on links to other references. If you hunt around the net you will find unreferenced sources that talk about it’s radioactivity – by few with actual levels or comparisons too other substances. Ones that do tend to compare it to granite as a good reference level.

          Like heavy metals, I would get concerned about the release of large quantities into the environment. However it is transported as a stable oxide and sulphate rather than as a metal. But it is innocuous compared to even a tiny shipment of batteries with its cohort of lead, cadmium, and every other nasty heavy metal in an metallic form. I would be interested to see if ERMA tracks those.

          • One Anonymous Bloke 3.5.4.1.1

            If you really want to give yourself nightmares, Maritime rules part 24A is a good place to start.

          • Bob 3.5.4.1.2

            You mean like the toxic tailings dump just outside of Waihi ? Which is full of heavy metals associated with gold mining from hard rock sources .
            Once NGW leave the area , the rate payers of the waikato get to look after these tailings dams in perpetuity , there is a bond but as the Tui mine tailings clean up showed, it costs a lot of money to try and remediate problems .

  4. What is even more terrifying is that Tauranga is not testing anything for radioactive material coming from Japan (as it does not have the equipment to do so) which has still got four full meltdowns going on and we are importing Cars and food from that country!

  5. NickS 5

    @Llyn (reply fail)

    Uranium isn’t even that good a heavy metal poison – its outer electron shell is pretty full. It simply isn’t promiscuous like plutonium or mercury. The oxides in yellowcake make it nearly inert and nonsoluble.

    Toxicity in the case of yellow cake is more of a function of how damn much has been spilled, as that will determine how much potentially of a small fraction will form far more toxic soluble uranium salts*. But then you’ve also got to take into account where it’s been spilled, water currents, depth, temperature to get a fuller picture of any potential risks.

    Hughes is acting like an idiot. But I have come to not expect too much actual science knowledge from the Green party MP’s. Some are more into chicken little labelling without thinking enough.

    This +1

    And yeah, the Greens really need someone with a fucking background in modern molecular biology and genetics on board, as they’re still not so smart on genetic modification risk assessment + the uses of GMO’s.

    The only thing of interest is the level of reporting to ERMA. That is something I haven’t thought about and I will have to dig into a bit.

    It is slightly weird, especially considering NZ’s known anti-nuclear stance, which would make shipping it through rather stupid from a PR perspective.

    From the post:

    “Australian dirt, which is essentially harmless”

    That’s not dirt, as if you tried growing plants in it, they’d die from lack of nutrients and It’s fucking processed uranium ore you chemically illiterate PR hack.

    ______________________
    *Statistical thermodynamics + probability fun, aka shit will happen even if it has a small probability of happening…

    • lprent 5.1

      The ERMA side I need to look at more closely. For instance do they track shipments of batteries. Imagine the effect of a container of nicad batteries on a seafloor harbor ecosystem. If they missed a type of processed heavy metal shipment, then what others have they missed. That is a question worth asking.

  6. Rich 6

    the Greens really need someone with a fucking background in modern molecular biology and genetics on board

    Could you detail who in other parties has such a background? Paula Bennett?

  7. locus 7

    Public belief in scare stories is sometimes helpful sometimes disastrous. You can’t blame anyone for not buying a 2nd hand car just imported from Japan if they think it might be radioactive. But the damage done to people’s health and livelihoods from erroneous beliefs can be irrepairable, e.g. local fishing industry decimated not by an oil spill but by belief that their catches are contaminated; children possibly getting damaged by or dying from measles as not vaccinated following the MMR autism con. Before people with a public profile go out with scare stories you’d think that they would consult with experts – or in some cases just talk to someone with a School C in the subject..

    • Colonial Viper 7.1

      Thing is, consulting with the experts is often worse than useless, at the time. Think Sellafield, think dioxin in New Plymouth, think thalidomide.

      No problem! Its safe! Then 20 years later you find out.

      • locus 7.1.1

        True, and so even more important that politicians and others with public profile do the best they can to research a subject and tackle the root causes of risk, and avoid pronouncements on presumed consequences.

      • One Anonymous Bloke 7.1.2

        I know what you mean, but I think you’ll find it isn’t so much the experts saying “it’s safe”. They’ll be saying “we have 95% confidence…” It’s the politicians and lawyers and marketing people who repackage science into press-releases.
        Unfortunately it appears that unless this repackaging occurs, people (for the most part) will not engage with scientific findings at all.
        This makes it doubly important (as NickS says above) that parties employ scientifically literate people to help them get it right.
        As for the rest of us, the baloney detection kit is a good place to start.

        • Rich 7.1.2.1

          Some scientists are the ones pushing that ‘evidence based policy’ means that you ask the appropriately learned people and a policy pops out fully formed that will be Correct.

          But all science will usually give us is a range of facts – that gets conditioned by a bunch of subjective settings:
          - how important do we consider the preservation of ecosystems?
          - how important is low cost transport for imports and exports?
          - how much do we want to maintain friendship with ‘traditional allies’ like the UK and US?
          - how much are we morally complicit in events which our government’s actions influence?

          These are just some of the questions that drive a decision here. If you’re on one side of the scale (stuff the ecosystem, cheap freight, suck up to the us, what’s a moral) then you’ll possibly take a hazard level at the high end, or ignore any hazard. If you’re the other way, the immediate risk might be a bit irrelevant.

          • NickS 7.1.2.1.1

            the ecosystem one you can cost on the basis of ecosystem services and estimated replacement costs, which is pretty much well formed at present (bar a few stupid economists who can’t grok ecosystem services), so it’s not really subjective unless you’re an idiot blinded by ideology or greed.

            • Rich 7.1.2.1.1.1

              Take an incident or practice that leads to the destruction of a minor non-food species with no economic impact. Slime, for instance, or dolphins.

              Is it a problem? Depends on how much you value that ecosystem, which is a value judgment.

              • NickS

                /facepalm

                Why thank you for showing your lack of knowledge about food webs, as dolphins are important predators and thus have significant impacts on community assemblages, while slime oft provides important microhabitats and food for various micro and macro-fauna, those presence of absence can have knock on effects throughout the ecosystem.

                Basically, go take 2nd and 3rd year uni ecology courses, then get back to me.

                • Rich

                  Not until you’ve taken 3rd year maths and can explain Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem using only high-school concepts.

                  • NickS

                    What the fuck?

                    Wiles’ proof is utterly inconsequential to this discussion, which centres on your ignorance of ecology, of which the maths involve in ecology barely rises to 3rd year maths levels and primarily involves statistical modelling. Heck for the most part first year calculus is all that’s needed unless you branch out into network topology stuff to do with foodwebs.

                    The Goalposts, you have failed to move them. Please try again.

          • One Anonymous Bloke 7.1.2.1.2

            “..evidence-based policy…science will usually give us is a range of facts ”

            So what? Policy must take account of those facts, as distinct from anecdotes or advocacy.

            So, for example, the assertion that you can attribute a “value” to a member of an ecosystem and make sound judgements on policy based on that value is an example of advocacy, whereas NickS points you to the evidence that annihilates your argument.

            What do we want?

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