Category Archives: hazardous waste

A Huge Headache: the Radioactive Water at Fukushima

What to do with the enormous amount of radioactive  water, which grows by around 150 tons a day at Fukushima, is a thorny question, with controversy surrounding a long-standing proposal to discharge it into the sea, after extensive decontamination.  The water comes from several different sources: Some is used for cooling at the plant, which suffered a meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in March 2011.  Groundwater that seeps into the plant daily, along with rainwater, add to the problem.

A thousand, towering tanks have now replaced many of the cherry trees that once dotted the plant’s ground. Each can hold 1,200 tons, and most of them are already full.  “We will build more on the site until the end of 2020, and we think all the tanks will be full by around the summer of 2022,” said Junichi Matsumoto, an official with the unit of plant operator TEPCO in charge of dismantling the site.

TEPCO has been struggling with the problem for years, taking various measures to limit the amount of groundwater entering the site.  There is also an extensive pumping and filtration system, that each day brings up tons of newly contaminated water and filters out as many of the radioactive elements as possible.

The hangar where the decontamination system runs is designated “Zone Y” — a danger zone requiring special protections.  All those entering must wear elaborate protection: a full body suit, three layers of socks, three layers of gloves, a double cap topped by a helmet, a vest with a pocket carrying a dosimeter, a full-face respirator mask and special shoes.  Most of the outfit has to burned after use.

“The machinery filters contain radionuclides, so you have to be very protected here, just like with the buildings where the reactors are,” explained TEPCO risk communicator Katsutoshi Oyama.  TEPCO has been filtering newly contaminated water for years, but much of it needs to go through the process again because early versions of the filtration process did not fully remove some dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium 90.

The current process is more effective, removing or reducing around 60 radionuclides to levels accepted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for water being discharged.  But there is one that remains, which cannot be removed with the current technology: tritium.

Tritium is naturally present in the environment, and has also been discharged in its artificial form into the environment by the nuclear industry around the world.  There is little evidence that it causes harm to humans except in very high concentrations and the IAEA argues that properly filtered Fukushima water could be diluted with seawater and then safely released into the ocean without causing environmental problems.

But those assurances are of little comfort to many in the region, particularly Fukushima’s fishing industry which, like local farmers, has suffered from the outside perception that food from the region is unsafe.

Karyn Nishimura, At Fukushima plant, a million-ton headache: radioactive water, Japan Times, Oct. 7, 2019

The Impact of Oil Spills on the Deep Sea: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Louisiana University Marine Consortium (LUMCON) published in September 2019 a study on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Royal Society Open Science.  The BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers.  The subsequent cleanup and restoration had cost nearly $65 billion..but while while we can burn off and disperse oil on the surface, but we don’t have the technology to get rid of oil on the seafloor. So approximately 10 million gallons of it settled there….In 2017 , the The LUMCON surveyed the site surrounding the wreck of the rig, and another one 1,640 feet north. There were no giant isopods, glass sponges, or whip corals that would have jumped (metaphorically) at the chance to colonize the hard substrate of the rig, such as discarded sections of pipe…..But]  crabs were just about everywhere. The researchers were shocked by the sheer number of crustaceans and other arthropods that had colonized the spill site. According to rough estimates, Atlantic deep sea red crabs, red shrimp, and white caridean shrimp were nearly eight times more populous at the Deepwater site than at other spots in the Gulf. “Everywhere there were crabs just kicking up black plumes of mud, laden with oil,” Nunnally says. But abundance does not mean the site was recovering, or even friendly to life. Particularly eerie was the crab’s achingly slow movement. “Normally, they scatter when they see the ROV lights,” he says. But these crabs seemed unbothered, or unaware of the robot’s presence.

Crabs on the seabed of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The researchers hypothesize that degrading hydrocarbons are what’s luring unwitting crabs from the surrounding seafloor to the deep-sea equivalent of a toxic dump. “The chemical makeup of oil is similar to the oils naturally present on crustaceans,” Nunnally says. “They’re attracted to the oil site, but everything goes downhill for them once they’re in the area.” A similar kind of chemical confusion occurred at an oil spill in Buzzards Bay in New England in 2003, which attracted hordes of American lobsters. The researchers liken the death trap to the La Brea Tar Pits: Once lured in, the crabs lose their ability to leave. With no other species able to thrive in the area, the crabs have no food source—except each other. And as one might imagine, consuming the flesh of a toxin-riddled crab or starving to death in a deep-sea tar pit is sort of a lose/lose situation.

The crabs also looked anything but normal: some claws shrunken, some swollen, shriveled legs, a dusting of parasites. “There were deformities, but mostly things were missing,” Nunnally says. “You come in with eight legs and try to get away on four or five.” The researchers have yet to ascertain what specific toxins led to these maladies. The shrimp looked just as awful as the crabs. “They didn’t look like shrimp from other sites,” Nunnally says, adding that many of the small crustaceans had humps in their backs—tumors, perhaps.

Excerpts from SABRINA IMBLERS, A Decade Later, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Has Left an Abyssal Wasteland, Atlas Obscura, Sept. 18, 2019

Free Markets? No! Subsidies for Nuclear Industry

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced on Aug. 15, 2019 the launch of the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). The new initiative will assist with the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies by harnessing the world-class capabilities of the DOE national laboratory system.  Authorized by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, NRIC will provide private sector technology developers the necessary support to test and demonstrate their reactor concepts and assess their performance. This will help accelerate the licensing and commercialization of these new nuclear energy systems.

“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners, we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear innovation.”  NRIC will be led by Idaho National Laboratory and builds upon the successes of DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative… 

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act was signed into law in 2018 by President Donald J. Trump and eliminates some of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation. It directs DOE to facilitate the siting of advanced reactor research demonstration facilities through partnerships between DOE and private industry. The House Energy and Water Development committee has allocated $5 million in the FY2020 budget for NRIC, which plans to demonstrate small modular reactor and micro-reactor concepts within the next five years.

Excerpts from DOE,  Energy Department Launches New Demonstration Center for Advanced Nuclear Technologies, Press Release, Aug. 15, 2019

The Rolls Royce Nuclear Reactor

Small modular nuclear  reactors (SMRs) are relatively small and flexible: they have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) and their output can fluctuate in line with demand. This makes them particularly attractive for remote regions with less developed grids, but also for use as a complement to renewables and for non-electric applications of nuclear power. SMRs can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, so they are expected to be more affordable to build.

The Rolls Royce SMR is small enough to be transported by truck.

Globally, there are about 50 SMR designs and concepts at different stages of development. Three SMR plants are in advanced stages of construction or commissioning in Argentina, China and Russia, which are all scheduled to start operation between 2019 and 2022…Some SMR designs have features that could reduce the tasks associated with spent fuel management. Power plants based on these designs require less frequent refuelling, every 3 to 7 years, in comparison to between 1 and 2 years for conventional plants, and some are even designed to operate for up to 30 years without refuelling. Nevertheless, even in such cases, there will be some spent fuel left, which will have to be properly managed.

Excerpts from Small Modular Reactors: A Challenge for Spent Fuel Management? IAEA News, Aug. 8, 2019

Where to Go? 1 Million Tons Radioactive Water at Fukushima

In August 2019, Tepco projected that storage of radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear plant would reach full capacity by around summer 2022 even after the expansion — the first time it has issued such a precise estimate.  According to Tepco, the Fukushima No. 1 plant had 960 massive tanks containing 1.15 million tons of treated water as of July 18, 2019. Water that has touched the highly radioactive melted fuel debris has been cleaned up through water treatment machines and is stored in the tanks, but the high-tech treatment machines are able to remove most radionuclides except tritium. The plant currently sees an increase of contaminated water by 170 tons a day, Tepco says.

Releasing tritium-tainted water into the sea in a controlled manner is common practice at nuclear power plants around the world, and it was generally considered the most viable option as it could be done quickly and would cost the least.  The head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Toyoshi Fuketa, has long said that releasing the treated water into the sea is the most reasonable option, but people in Fukushima, especially fishermen, fear it will damage the region’s reputation.

Addressing those concerns, the government panel, launched in November 2016, has been looking for the best option in terms of guarding against reputational damage. Injecting it into the ground, discharging it as steam or hydrogen, or solidification followed by underground burial have all been on the table. Under the current plan, Tepco is set to increase the tank space to store 1.37 million tons of water a total, but estimates show that will only last until summer 2022.  But the more space it creates, the bigger the decommissioning headache becomes.

Excerpts from KAZUAKI NAGAT, Fukushima nuclear plant to run out of tanks to store tritium-laced water in three years, Tepco says, Japan Times, Aug. 9, 2019

From Streets into Drains into Seas: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts, the most littered items in the world, are posing an intractable trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies: Throwing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers.  Regulators are taking a tougher stance on cigarette filter pollution amid concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Butts for decades have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to break down. Studies show that butts—which often wash from sidewalks into drains and then waterways—can be toxic to fish.

About 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are littered, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit whose cigarette litter prevention program is funded by the tobacco industry.  “That whole habit is so ingrained it becomes part of the ritual of taking the cigarette out of the pack, lighting it, smoking it, putting it on the ground,” said Christopher Proctor, chief scientific officer at British American Tobacco (BAT), whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel. “Changing ingrained behavior is a really difficult thing to do.”

The European Union in May adopted new rules under which members must pass laws within two years requiring tobacco companies to fund the cleanup of filter litter as part of a broader crackdown on single-use plastics. A bill proposing banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.  In response, BAT and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris International Inc. is assessing the appetite for portable ashtrays. Companies also are tapping behavioral psychologists to understand what propels smokers to litter, hoping to forestall stricter regulation…

he World Health Organization says that when filters do break down they leach out some of the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, many of which are environmentally toxic.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, The World’s Most Littered Item Comes Under Fire, WSJ, July 31, 2019

A Dirty Business: Recycling Other People’s Waste

Across India, from poor villages to expensive residential areas of cities, millions of trash pickers are at work to collect what other people dispose. They are called raddiwalas, ragpickers, scavengers and waste managers. Some go door-to-door, others gather iron rebar and used bricks on construction sites, still others clean parks and city streets. There are even specialists who gather hair, which is exported in bulk for wigs.  They’re the starting point of a multilayered, $25 billion industry in India that advances through increasingly specialized middlemen and industrialists to eventually turn garbage into new objects. The work is a moneymaker for conglomerates as well as a route out of poverty for some of India’s poorest people.

All of that has been upended by a crash in a global garbage market dominated by two players: China, which buys most of the world’s garbage, and the U.S., which sells the most. Last year, China dramatically cut the amount of garbage it buys. The reduced demand from China and continued supply from the U.S. flooded the world trash market and drove down the price of garbage everywhere….Indian recycling companies took advantage of the deep discounts and started importing more trash from the U.S. and elsewhere. In 2018, the imports of mixed scrap plastic to India rose 33%.  The jump in supply pushed prices down for the low-end Indian workers who pick through mountains of locally produced trash for raw materials to sell.

That’s impacting an Indian trash economy powerful enough to have prompted its own migration pattern: thousands of families left their rural villages to collect garbage in cities. Now, with their garbage hauls worth less, many are returning home.  For the pickers, the going price for a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of plastic water bottles, which used to bring around 45 rupees—roughly 65 cents—is now worth only about 25 rupees—or 36 cents.The trash glut also lowered profits for industrial recycling companies who turn the trash into usable materials. Plastic pellets, the end-product after processing some plastic scrap, went from 80 rupees to 45 rupees a kilo.

China  ratcheted up restrictions on imports of recyclable materials to force its recycling industry to absorb more of the waste generated within the country. China also is nudging the country away from the role of accepting others’ garbage, which is viewed as a dirty industryThe global trash glut means India’s own trash is worth less to its domestic recyclers.

Excerpts from By Eric Bellman and  Vibhuti Agarwal, ‘We Are Swamped’: How a Global Trash Glut Hurt a $25 Billion Industry, July 28, 2019