Category Archives: Nuclear Energy

$400 Billion and Up: Cleaning Up Pollution from Nuclear Weapons

The cost of cleaning up pollution from nuclear weapons manufacturing is estimated to be  $377 billion.  This reflects cleanup cost estimates for 16 sites across the United States. Two of these, the Hanford site in Washington and Savannah River site in South Carolina, have most of  nuclear waste stored in tanks, which is particularly costly and complicated to treat.

family type bomb shelter (picture 1958)

These clean up costs  grew by $214 billion between 2011 and 2018 and they will continue to grow for several reasons including the lack of a program-wide cleanup strategy and reliance primarily on individual sites to locally negotiate cleanup activities and establish priorities. For example, the Hanford and Savannah River sites plan to treat similar radioactive tank waste differently, with Hanford’s efforts possibly costing tens of billions more than Savannah River’s. In addition, the government manages most of its cleanup work as operations activities, under less stringent requirements than other environmental remediation projects. For example, operations activities are not subject to independent oversight.

Excerpts adapted from GAO, Environmental Liability Continues to Grow, and Significant Management Challenges Remain for Cleanup Effort, May 1, 2019.

How to Kill the Tsetse Fly: Use Nuclear Energy

The tsetse fly’s toxic bite kills an estimated 3 million livestock annually in sub-Saharan Africa.  Farmers here used to count on losing pounds of valuable beef to the fingernail-size pest. Then veterinarians in the West African country teamed up with researchers in Austria, who work on a little-known project funded entirely by the United States.  The United States has poured about $5 million into the effort of sterilizing the male tsetse files with gamma rays.   This has led to the eradication of 99 percent of those files

Cows, Senegale. (source IAEA)

Farmer income in Niayes, Senegale,  is expected to jump by 30 percent, officials say, as more cows survive at a healthy weight. Farms, meanwhile, can now afford to buy hundreds of European dairy cows, which produce 20 times as much milkthan native breeds.  The fortune reversal sprouts from a global collaboration at the intersection of agriculture and nuclear technology

Since 2010, America has funneled roughly $379 million to Senegal’s partner in the tsetse fly fight: the International Atomic Energy Agency,…The United States earmarked an additional $560,000 this month for upkeep of the group’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria.

Rather, Jeffrey Eberhardt, whom President Trump has nominated to serve as his special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said in a May statement that the United States has maintained its backing to “expand the benefits of peaceful nuclear uses” and expressed “a firm commitment to continuing this legacy.”

The peaceful use in Senegal is called nuclear insect sterilization.  First, scientists hatch thousands of tsetse flies in an artificial habitat about 870 miles away, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso.   Next, they send the bugs to the lab in Seibersdorf, where researchers place them in tiny ionization chambers and blast them with gamma rays, rendering the males unable to pass on a healthy seed.   Finally, they chill the flies to sleep — broken wings from panicked thrashing would sabotage the mission — before tucking them into biodegradable paper boxes and shipping them to Senegal.

Excerpts from A U.S.-funded nuclear project to zap a killer fly into extinction is saving West Africa’s cows, Washington Post, May 31, 2019
 

How to Make Money out of the Nuclear Waste Mess

Companies specializing in the handling of radioactive material are buying retired U.S. nuclear reactors from utilities and promising to clean them up and demolish them in dramatically less time than usual — eight years instead of 60, in some cases.  Turning nuclear plants over to outside companies and decommissioning them on such a fast track represents a completely new approach in the United States, never before carried to completion in this country, and involves new technology as well…

Once a reactor is shut down, the radioactive mess must be cleaned up, spent nuclear fuel packed for long-term storage and the plant itself dismantled. The most common approach can last decades, with the plant placed in a long period of dormancy while radioactive elements slowly decay.  Spent fuel rods that can no longer sustain a nuclear reaction remain radioactive and still generate substantial heat. They are typically placed in pools of water to cool, staying there for at least five years, with 10 years the industry norm, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After that, they are removed and placed in giant cylindrical casks, typically made of steel and encased in concrete.

But Holtec International, which in the past year has been buying up several retired or soon-to-be-retired nuclear plants in the U.S., has designed a cask it says can accept spent fuel after only two years of cooling.  Holtec struck a deal last year to buy Oyster Creek in Forked River, New Jersey, from its owner, Exelon Generation.  It also has deals in place to buy several plants owned by Entergy Corp., including: Pilgrim, in historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, closing May 31; Palisades, in Covert, Michigan, set to shut down in 2022 ; and two reactors expected to close within two years at Indian Point in Buchanan, New York….  NorthStar Group Services, a specialist in nuclear demolition, completed the purchase of Vermont Yankee from Entergy with plans for its accelerated decommissioning.

The companies jumping into the business believe they can make in profit….Holtec will inherit the multibillion-dollar decommissioning trust funds set up by the utilities for the plants’ eventual retirement. , The company would be able to keep anything left over in each fund after the plant’s cleanup. By Holtec’s accounting, for instance, the Pilgrim decommissioning will cost an estimated $1.13 billion, leaving $3.6 million in the fund.  Holtec and Northstar are also banking on the prospect of recouping money from the federal government for storing spent fuel during and after the decommissioning, because there is no national disposal site for high-level nuclear waste…

Holtec has come under scrutiny over its role in a mishap in August 2018 during the somewhat less aggressive decommissioning of the San Onofre plant in Southern California, where two reactors were retired in 2013 and the estimated completion date is 2030….Holtec contractors were lowering a 45-ton spent fuel cask into an underground storage vault at San Onofre when it became misaligned and nearly plunged 18 feet, investigators said. No radiation was released.  Federal regulators fined Southern California Edison, the plant’s owner, $116,000, and an investigation found that some Holtec procedures had been inadequate or not properly followed.

BOB SALSBERG , Speedy reactor cleanups may carry both risks and rewards, Associated Press, May 21, 2019

Institutions Go Way But Not Nuclear Waste

The Trump administration  is asking Congress for money to resume work on the Yucca Mountain nulcear waste storage in Nevada.  But that may not end local opposition or a longstanding political stalemate. And in the meantime, nuclear plants are running out of room to store spent fuel….As the waste piles up, private companies are stepping in with their own solutions for the nation’s radioactive spent fuel. One is proposing a temporary storage site in New Mexico, and another is seeking a license for a site in Texas.

Most experts agree that what’s needed is a permanent site, like Yucca Mountain, that doesn’t require humans to manage it.  “Institutions go away,” says Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s no guarantee the owner will still be around for the duration of time when that waste remains dangerous, which is tens or hundreds of thousands of years.”

A California company says it has a viable plan for permanent storage. Deep Isolation wants to store spent fuel in holes drilled at least 1,000 feet underground in stable rock formations. The company says the waste would be separate from groundwater and in a place where it can’t hurt people.  “I like to imagine having a playground at the top of the Deep Isolation bore hole where my kids and I can go play,” says CEO Elizabeth Muller.  In November 2018, Muller’s company conducted a test north of Austin, Texas. Crews lowered an 80-pound canister into a drilled hole. It was a simulation, so no radioactive substances were involved. The goal was to determine whether they could also retrieve the canister.  The test was successful, and that’s important. Regulators require retrieval, because new technology could develop to better deal with the spent fuel. And the public is less likely to accept disposal programs that can’t be reversed, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Proving the waste can be retrieved may be the easy part. The bigger challenge is federal law, which doesn’t allow private companies to permanently store nuclear waste from power plants.  Current law also says all the waste should end up at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. By contrast, Deep Isolation’s technology would store waste at sites around the country, likely near existing nuclear power plants.

Jeff Brady, As Nuclear Waste Piles Up, Private Companies Pitch New Ways To Store It, NPR, Apr. 30, 2019

From Nuclear Powerhouse to Nuclear Mafia: South Korea

South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana, eventually became the most reactor-dense country in the world, with 23 reactors providing about 30% of the country’s total electricity generation…. South Korea’s reactors…are mostly packed into a narrow strip along the densely populated southeastern coast. The density was a way of cutting costs on administration and land acquisition. But putting reactors close to one another—and to large cities—was risky. … 

In December 2009, the UAE had awarded a coalition led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) a $20 billion bid to build the first nuclear power plant in the UAE. Barakah was chosen as the site to build four APR-1400nuclear reactors successively.  In 2012 to Park Geunhye the newly elected president pledged to increase South Korea’s reactor fleet to 39 units by 2035 and making sales trips to potential client states such as the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia bulding on prior success like the UAE deal mentioned above. …


Barakah under construction in UAE

But on September 21, 2012, officials at Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), a subsidiary of the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO),  received an outside tip about illegal activity among the company’s parts suppliers. Eventually, an internal probe had become a full-blown criminal investigation. Prosecutors discovered that thousands of counterfeit parts had made their way into nuclear reactors across the South Korea, backed up with forged safety documents. KHNP insisted the reactors were still safe, but the question remained: was corner-cutting the real reason they were so cheap?

Park Jong-woon, a former manager who worked on reactors at KEPCO and KHNP until the early 2000s, believed so. He had seen that taking shortcuts was precisely how South Korea’s headline reactor, the APR1400, had been built…After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, most reactor builders had tacked on a slew of new safety features.KHNP followed suit but later realized that the astronomical cost of these features would make the APR1400 much too expensive to attract foreign clients.“They eventually removed most of them,” says Park, who now teaches nuclear engineering at Dongguk University. “Only about 10% to 20% of the original safety additions were kept.”  Most significant was the decision to abandon adding an extra wall in the reactor containment building—a feature designed to increase protection against radiation in the event of an accident. “They packaged the APR1400 as ‘new’ and safer, but the so-called optimization was essentially a regression to older standards,” says Park. “Because there were so few design changes compared to previous models, [KHNP] was able to build so many of them so quickly.”

Having shed most of the costly additional safety features, KEPCO was able to dramatically undercut its competition in the UAE bid, a strategy that hadn’t gone unnoticed. After losing Barakah to KEPCO, Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon likened the Korean nuclear plant to a car without airbags and seat belts. At the time Lauvergeon’s comments were dismissed as sour words from a struggling rival.

By the time it was completed in 2014, the KHNP inquiry had escalated into a far-reaching investigation of graft, collusion, and warranty forgery; in total, 68 people were sentenced and the courts dispensed a cumulative 253 years of jail time. Guilty parties included KHNP president Kim Jong-shin, a Kepco lifer, and President Lee Myung-bak’s close aide Park Young-joon, whom Kim had bribed in exchange for “favorable treatment” from the government.

Several faulty parts had also found their way into the UAE plants, angering Emirati officials. “It’s still creating a problem to this day,” Neilson-Sewell, the Canadian advisor to Barakah, told me. “They lost complete faith in the Korean supply chain.”

Excerpts from Max S. Kim,  How greed and corruption blew up South Korea’s nuclear industry, MIT Technology Review, April 22, 2019

Getting Rid of Nuclear Waste for Good: A Dream Coming True?

Gerard Mourou—one of the three winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics—claims that the lifespan of radioactive waste could potentially be cut to minutes from thousands of years. Although Mourou, 74, is quick to say that the laser option for nuclear waste that he and Irvine, California-based Professor Toshiki Tajima are working on may be years away, its promise has created a flurry of excitement for the sector in France.

 Environmental group Greenpeace estimates that there’s a global stockpile of about 250,000 tons of toxic spent fuel spread across 14 countries, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of that, 22,000 cubic meters—roughly equivalent to a three-meter tall building covering an area the size of a soccer pitch—is hazardous, according to the IAEA. A 2015 report by GE-Hitachi put the cost of disposing nuclear waste—outside of China, Russia and India—at well over $100 billion.  France produces more nuclear waste per-capita than any other country. With almost 72 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy—the most in the world—it generates 2 kilograms of radioactive waste per person each year. And although only a fraction of that is highly toxic, more than 60 years after getting into nuclear energy, the country still has no definitive way to cope with it.

In April 2019, France opened its third national debate on nuclear waste, bringing together policy makers, advocacy groups and scientists to discuss handling an estimated 10,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste collectively produced by the country’s 58 reactors over their lifespan. And that doesn’t include atomic material generated by the military and medical sectors.

The most toxic parts are stored right now in short-term facilities in La Hague in Normandy, in Marcoule and Cadarache in southern France and in Valduc, near Dijon. At the facility in La Hague, an hour’s drive from the D-Day beaches, specially designed robots cast the most radioactive nuclear waste into glass casings before putting them in inox containers. Already the world’s largest facility for processing atomic waste, it is constantly being expanded—making a long-term solution urgent.

State-controlled nuclear entities Electricite de France SA and Orano SA, charged with nuclear waste management, and CEA, France’s Atomic Energy Agency, have spent billions on the toxic material. At least another 25 billion euros ($28 billion) is set to be plowed into an underground maze of tunnels near the village of Bure in northeastern France that could be the final resting place for the highly toxic waste starting in 2025.  Like with other deep storage sites in place, under construction or being considered in countries including the U.S., Japan, Finland and Sweden, the Bure plan has drawn protests. Greenpeace has pointed to several risks, not least of which being the chance of the toxic material seeping into the groundwater or a fire releasing radioactive gases.

Enter Mourou, with his high-intensity laser option. The physicist’s work has paved the way for the shortest and most-intense laser pulses ever created. In his Nobel Lecture on Dec. 8, Mourou laid out his vision for using his “passion for extreme light” to address the nuclear-waste problem.  The process he and Tajima are working on is called transmutation, which involves changing the composition of an atom’s nucleus by bombarding it with a laser. “It’s like karate—you deliver a very strong force in a very, very brief moment,” said Mourou…Transmutation research has been going on for three decades, with efforts in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, U.S. and Japan either failing or in various stages of study…“I can imagine that the physics might work, but the transmutation of high-level nuclear waste requires a number of challenging steps, such as the separation of individual radionuclides, the fabrication of targets on a large scale, and finally, their irradiation and disposal,” said Rodney C. Ewing, a professor in nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University. A radionuclide is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable.

Excerpts from Zapping Nuclear Waste in Minutes Is Nobel Winner’s Holy Grail Quest, Bloomberg, Apr. 2, 2019

How to Clean a Multibillion-Dollar Radioactive Mess: WIPP

Twenty years and more than 12,380 shipments later, tons of Cold War-era waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research across the U.S. have been stashed in the salt caverns that make up the underground facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant  (WIPP) in New Mexico. Each week, several shipments of special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements are trucked to the site.

But the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has not been without issues.  A 2014 radiation leak forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure, delayed the federal government’s cleanup program and prompted policy changes at national laboratories and defense-related sites across the U.S. More recently, the U.S. Department of Energy said it would investigate reports that workers may have been exposed last year to hazardous chemicals.

Still, supporters consider the repository a success, saying it provides a viable option for dealing with a multibillion-dollar mess that stretches from a decommissioned nuclear weapons production site in Washington state to one of the nation’s top nuclear research labs, in Idaho, and locations as far east as South Carolina… Overall 22 sites around the nation that have been cleaned up as a result of having somewhere to put the waste — including Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant outside Denver that had a history of leaks, spills and other violations.

For critics, that success is checkered at best since the repository is far from fulfilling its mission.  “It’s 80 percent through its lifetime, and it has disposed of less than 40 percent of the waste and has cost more than twice as much as it was supposed to,” said Don Hancock with the watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center. “How great of a success is that?” Officials initially thought the facility would operate for about 25 years. Rather than wrapping up in the next few years, managers have bumped the timeline to 2050….

With some areas permanently sealed off due to contamination, more mining will have to be done to expand capacity. The federal government also is spending more than a half-billion dollars to install a new ventilation system, sink more shafts and make other upgrades aimed at returning to “normal business.”..,.

Toney Anaya, who served as New Mexico governor in the 1980s, remembers the heated debates about bringing more radioactive waste to the state. He said there were concerns about safety, but the promise of jobs was attractive. Some also argued New Mexico had a moral obligation given its legacy of uranium mining and its role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Excerpts First-of-its-kind US nuclear waste dump marks 20 years, Associated Press, Mar. 23, 2019