Category Archives: nuclear weapons

Why Texas Loves Nuclear Waste

A proposal to take in more out-of-state waste at a West Texas radioactive waste disposal site has encountered an unlikely argument against it: that it can harm the booming oil and gas industry.  Waste Control Specialists is asking state lawmakers for permission to take in more low-level radioactive waste — such as rags, syringes and protective clothing from nuclear plants or hospitals — from outside of Texas for disposal at its Andrews County facility near the Texas-New Mexico border.

Environmental groups have long opposed radioactive waste at the site, which they say could jeopardize groundwater.  Environmentalists at the hearing were joined by Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch, which operates in Andrews County.  Quoting from a handbook of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Taylor said radioactive waste dumps should be sited away from “land with exportable minerals and energy resources.”  “Don’t put it in an oilfield,” he said. “The oil and gas resources of the Permian Basin are too important for the security of the state of Texas and the United States to put it at risk with storing spent fuel rod casks in this region.”

Spent fuel is not designated as low-level waste, but he said he worried that designation could change.  It’s unusual for a representative of an oil and gas company to publicly criticize at the Capitol another segment of the energy industry…

But If Waste Control Specialists becomes insolvent the state might have to take control of the facility.  The legislation poposed by Texas lawmakers lifts the cap on the amount of out-of-state, low-level waste the company can accept at the 8.9 million cubic feet-capacity site from 30 percent to 60 percent.  The company currently pays six Austin lobbyists as much as $240,000 to persuade lawmakers of the wisdom of its plans….Waste Control Specialists’ partnership with Orano USA, called Interim Storage Partners LLC, has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to accept used nuclear fuel — high-level waste — at the Andrews facility.  Waste Control Specialists, which already disposes of other kinds of radioactive waste at its site in Andrews County, has been trying to position itself as a short-term alternative to Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site long ago selected by the federal government for storage of radioactive waste. Yucca had been bedeviled by decades of political quarrels, even as radioactive waste has piled up at the country’s nuclear power plants.

Excerpt from Asher Price, Radioactive waste site seeks more out-of-state material, Statesman, Mar. 30, 2019

How Iranian Oil Escapes US Sanctions

 At least two tankers have ferried Iranian fuel oil to Asia in February 2019 despite U.S. sanctions against such shipments, according to a Reuters analysis of ship-tracking data and port information, as well as interviews with brokers and traders.  The shipments were loaded onto tankers with documents showing the fuel oil was Iraqi. But three Iraqi oil industry sources and Prakash Vakkayil, a manager at United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipping services firm Yacht International Co, said the papers were forged.  The people said they did not know who forged the documents, nor when.

“Some buyers…will want Iranian oil regardless of U.S. strategic objectives to deny Tehran oil revenue, and Iran will find a way to keep some volumes flowing,” said Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.  While the United States has granted eight countries temporary waivers allowing limited purchases of Iranian crude oil, these exemptions do not cover products refined from crude, including fuel oil, mainly used to power the engines of large ships. Documents forwarded to Reuters by ship owners say a 300,000 tonne-supertanker, the Grace 1, took on fuel oil at Basra, Iraq, between Dec. 10 and 12, 2018. But Basra port loading schedules reviewed by Reuters do not list the Grace 1 as being in port during those dates.  One Iraqi industry source with knowledge of the port’s operations confirmed there were no records of the Grace 1 at Basra during this period. 

Grace 1 oil tanker

Reuters examined data from four ship-tracking information providers – Refinitiv, Kpler, IHS Markit and Vessel Finder – to locate the Grace 1 during that time. All four showed that the Grace 1 had its Automatic Identification System (AIS), or transponder, switched off between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2018, meaning its location could not be tracked.  The Grace 1 then re-appeared in waters near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh, fully loaded, data showed. The cargo was transferred onto two smaller ships in UAE waters in January, from where one ship delivered fuel oil to Singapore in February 2019.  Shipping documents showed about 284,000 tonnes of fuel oil were transferred in the cargoes tracked by Reuters, worth about $120 million at current prices…

One of those vessels, the 130,000 tonne-capacity Kriti Island, offloaded fuel oil into a storage terminal in Singapore around Feb. 5 to 7. Reuters was unable to determine who purchased the fuel oil for storage in Singapore.  The Kriti Island is managed by Greece’s Avin International SA… Avin International’s Chief Executive Officer George Mylonas told Reuters. Mylonas confirmed the Kriti Island took on fuel oil from the Grace 1.There is no indication that Avin International knowingly shipped Iranian fuel oil. Mylonas said his firm had conducted all necessary due diligence to ensure the cargo’s legitimate origin….

Kriti Island oil tanker

Excerpts from Roslan Khasawneh et al, Exclusive: How Iran fuel oil exports beat U.S. sanctions in tanker odyssey to Asia, Reuters, Mar. 20, 2019

Cleaning Up the US Nuclear Weapons Complex

A report from the National Academies of Sciences published in March 2019 recommends changes in the way that the U.S. Department of Energy manages science and technology (S&T) development in order to accelerate the cleanup of radioactive waste and contaminated soil, groundwater, and facilities at U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

A portion of DOE’s technology development should focus on breakthrough solutions and technologies that can substantially reduce schedules, risks, and uncertainties in the cleanup, says Independent Assessment of Science and Technology for the Department of Energy’s Defense Environmental Cleanup Program. This effort should be managed by ARPA-E, a DOE division that has a record of investing in innovative solutions for complex technical challenges; it would require substantial new funding…DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM) is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites in 31 states and one territory that were used for nuclear weapons development, testing, and related activities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The cleanup program began in 1989 and has, over the past three decades, cleaned up 91 sites at a cost of about $170 billion. DOE-EM projects that it will spend at least another 50 years and $377 billion to complete its cleanup of the 16 remaining sites.

The new report says that these time and cost estimates are highly uncertain – and probably low – because of significant remaining technical challenges and uncertainties, and also because additional sites and facilities may be added to the cleanup program in the future. ..Currently, DOE-EM’s management of S&T development is ad hoc and uncoordinated, the report says. Most DOE-EM-related S&T development activities are focused on individual sites, are driven and managed by contractors, and have a short-term emphasis on addressing technical challenges in existing cleanup projects…The successful cleanup of the large, complex Rocky Flats site near Denver showed that technology development and deployment can have major impacts in accelerating schedules and reducing costs, the report notes. The remaining cleanup sites – which include large, complex sites such as Hanford in Washington state, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee – provide an opportunity for S&T to have similar impacts.

The report identifies seven examples of technologies and alternative approaches that could substantially reduce costs and speed cleanup schedules – these include changes in waste chemistry and nuclear properties to facilitate treatment and disposal, and changes in human involvement in cleanup activities to increase efficiencies and reduce worker risks. 

Excerpts from Breakthrough Solutions and Technologies Needed to Speed Cleanup of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites, National Academies Press Release, Mar. 4, 2019

Worse than the Dirty Bomb? Mobile Nuclear Military Reactors

In January 2019, the Defense Department issued a call for information in support of the aptly titled Project Dilithium. It seeks to develop a tiny, readily transportable, yet virtually indestructible nuclear power reactor for use at forward operating bases, the military facilities that provide logistical and troop support to the front-lines of conflict zones.

To be sure, the type of reactor it is seeking could be a great military asset: all the benefits of nuclear energy with none of the risks. The costly and dangerous process of trucking diesel fuel to bases, sometimes through hostile territory, may eventually be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the need to store and ship irradiated nuclear fuel in a war zone will introduce different problems. And the odds that a meltdown-proof reactor could be successfully developed any time soon are vanishingly small.

The Defense Department…is seeking a nuclear reactor capable of producing 1 to 10 megawatts of electricity. …The reactor, at a minimum, should be less than 40 tons total weight; small enough to be transported by truck, ship, and aircraft; able to run for at least three years without refueling; and capable of semi-autonomous operation… The reactor should have an “inherently safe design” that ensures “a meltdown is physically impossible in various complete failure scenarios;” cause “no net increase in risk to public safety … by contamination with breach of primary core;” and have “minimized consequences to nearby personnel in case of adversary attack.

 An Octrober 2018 report commissioned by the army’s Deputy Chief of Staff admits, quite reasonably, that exposed mobile nuclear plants would “not be expected to survive a direct kinetic attack.” If commanders need to expend significant resources to protect the reactors or their support systems from military strikes, such reactors could become burdens rather than assets.  Can one really invent a reactor robust enough to suffer such a strike without causing unacceptable consequences? …If a severe accident or sabotage attack were to induce more extreme conditions than the reactor was designed to withstand, all bets are off. How long would passive airflow keep nuclear fuel safely cool if, say, an adversary threw an insulating blanket over a small reactor? Or if the reactor were buried under a pile of debris?

Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a direct explosive breach of the reactor core would not result in dispersal of some radioactive contamination. An operating nuclear reactor is essentially a can filled with concentrated radioactive material, including some highly volatile radionuclides, under conditions of high pressure and/or temperature. Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137—a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts. 

At best a release of radioactivity would be a costly disruption, and at worst it would cause immediate harm to personnel, render the base unusable for years, and alienate the host country. For any reactor and fuel design, extensive experimental and analytical work would be needed to understand how much radioactivity could actually escape after an attack and how far it would disperse. This is also true for spent fuel being stored or transported.

The 2018 report describes several existing reactor concepts that it thinks might meet its needs. One is the 2 megawatt-electric “Megapower” reactor being designed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. But a 2017 INL study of the design iden­­tified several major safety concerns, including vulnerabilities to seismic and flooding events. The study also found that the reactor lacked sufficient barriers to prevent fission product release in an accident. INL quickly developed two variants of the original Los Alamos design, but a subsequent review found that those shared many of the safety flaws of the original and introduced some new ones.

Building Mobile Nuclear Reactor LANL

The other designs are high-temperature gas-cooled reactors that use TRISO (“tristructural isotropic”) fuel, which was originally developed decades ago for use in reactors such as the now-decommissioned Fort St. Vrain plant in Colorado. TRISO fuel consists of small particles of uranium coated with layers of different materials designed to retain most fission products at temperatures up to 1,600 degrees Celsius.

TRISO fuel enthusiasts have long claimed that reactors utilizing it do not need containments because each particle essentially has its own. This would seem to make TRISO an ideal fuel for small, mobile reactors, which can’t be equipped with the large, leak-tight containment structures typical of commercial power reactors. The army report buys into the notion that these “encapsulated” nuclear fuels can “avoid the release of radioactive volatile elements” and prevent contamination of the surrounding area, either during normal operations or accidents.

TRISO fuel contained in pebble

TRISO fuel’s actual performance has been inconsistent, however, and much is still not known. The Energy Department has been carrying out a program for more than a decade to try to improve TRISO fuel, but final results are not expected for years. In addition, if the fuel temperature rises above 1,600 degrees Celsius, fission product release can rapidly increase, making it vulnerable to incendiary weapons that burn hotter, such as thermite. The Defense Department may have already realized that TRISO fuel is not as miraculous as it first thought.

The RFI also specifies that the reactor should be capable of being transported within seven days after shutdown, presumably with the irradiated nuclear fuel still inside. While this requirement is understandable—if forces need to retreat in a hurry, they would not want to leave the reactor behind—it is unrealistic to expect this could be met while ensuring safety. Typically, spent nuclear fuel is stored for many months to years after discharge from a reactor before regulators allow it to be shipped, to allow for both thermal cooling and decay of short-lived, intensely radioactive fission products. Moving a reactor and its irradiated fuel so soon after shutdown could be a risky business.

Finally, the proliferation risks of these reactors and their fuel is a concern. The original RFI stipulated that the reactor fuel had to be high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which is uranium enriched to levels above the 5 percent uranium-235 concentration of conventional power reactors, but still below the 20 percent that marks the lower limit for highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is usable in nuclear weapons….If the Defense Department goes forward with Project Dilithium, other nations, including US adversaries, may be prompted to start producing HALEU and building their own military power reactors.

Excerptsf rom Edwin Lyman The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won’t work, Feb. 22, 2019

A Theshold Nuclear Weapon State: Brazil

Brazil’s government is struggling to attract investors to restart construction on its Angra 3 nuclear plant, where work has been halted since 2015…The government continues to talk to potential investors, including Russian and Chinese companies, but remains far from a dea.

State-controlled Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras SA is building what would be Brazil’s third nuclear plant. Through its Eletronuclear unit, Eletrobras has already invested 5 billion reais ($1.56 billion) in the facility, which is two-thirds complete, and has contracted equipment from foreign and domestic suppliers.  The company now needs 13 billion reais to finish the project, and the proposed price of electricity produced would need to increase, according to the sources….Eletronuclear said a new business plan for Angra 3 should be ready by June 2019, with an aim to complete the plant by 2025…Construction of Angra 3 halted in 2015 amid a financial crisis at Eletrobras and allegations of corruption in handing out contracts for the project.  Work on the project had started in the 1980s but quickly stalled due to lack of resources before resuming in 2009.

Excerpts fromLuciano Costa, Rodrigo Viga Gaier, Brazil Struggles to Find Investors in on-again, off-again Nuclear Project, Reuters, Jan. 12, 2019

The Nine and their Nuclear Weapons

Nine nationst control the roughly 14,200 nuclear weapons in the world… But What makes a good nuclear arsenal?  First, a good nuclear doctrine. Will a country strike first, or only in response?  Second, safety. Are the nukes secure? Does the country participate in nonproliferation treaties?
Third, do the nukes work as intended? Is the arsenal sufficient? Can the nukes survive an initial attack?…Business Insider has weighed these questions with the help of Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, to rank the world’s nuclear arsenals.

9. North Korea: North Korea fails by virtually every metric used to measure nuclear arsenals… Because Pyongyang can never hope to defeat any of its enemies in conventional fighting, it turned to nukes as a guarantor of its security.  Weapons count: estimated 60. North Korea has a number of short- to intercontinental-range ballistic-missile systems thought to operate off the backs of mobile missile launchers.  One analyst has warned that North Korea’s mobile launchers may simply distract from the real threat of hidden nuclear silos, but no evidence of such silos has ever appeared in US intelligence reports made public.  It’s completely unknown if North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons mated or with the warhead affixed to the missile.

8. Pakistan: Pakistan built nuclear weapons in response to its bitter regional rival, India, testing and proceeding with a relatively simple nuclear mission: deter or defeat India….Pakistan has links to Islamic extremists with connections to global terror networks. Experts have long feared not enough has been done to secure Islamabad’s nukes against these threats.  Additionally, “Pakistan has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use,” by building smaller, tactical nuclear weaponsWeapons count: 150.  Pakistan has ballistic missiles with ranges just long enough to hit anywhere in the country of India….The US has specifically given Pakistan permission to modify its F-16 fighters to drop nuclear weapons…Pakistan is thought to keep its nuclear warheads separate from its missiles and delivery systems.

7. India: “India is still a nuclear posture that’s still in vivid development,” Just as Pakistan fears India’s greater strength and numbers, India has come to fear China’s growing and modernizing conventional forces.  But unlike Pakistan, India has sworn off nuclear first strikes and not looked into tactical nuclear weapons. ..But India’s submarine fleet remains a dream at the moment, lowering its overall score.  Weapons count: 140 (stored)  India recently launched its first nuclear-powered submarine..As it stands, the missiles and submarine India has picked out for its underwater nuclear deterrent can’t range China’s vital points or most of Pakistan.

6. Russia: “Russia seems to sort of be driven by a frantic exploitation of different options,”   Weapons count: 6,850 (1,600 deployed; 2,750 stored; 2,500 retired).  Russia has the full nuclear triad with constantly modernized bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines. The triad is a true 24/7/365 force with submarines on deterrence patrols at all times.  Additionally, Russia has a high number of tactical nuclear weapons with shorter-range and smaller-explosive yield…Russia’s Poseidon underwater 100 to 200 megaton nuclear torpedo is the biggest nuclear explosive device ever built…The weapon would essentially set off tidal waves so large and an explosion so radioactive and punishing that continents, not countries, would pay the price for decades.  The US has not found it useful to respond to these doomsday-type devices.  Russia stores its nuclear warheads mated to missiles and ready to fire. Additionally, it has surrounded Moscow with 68 nuclear-tipped missile interceptors meant to protect the city from a US strike.

5. Israel:   “Israel is interesting because it’s a semi-dormant nuclear program, but it’s not dormant,” …Israel’s conventional military, with its top-of-the-line air force and close coordination with the US, easily overpowers its regional foes in traditional fighting.  Instead of reaching for nuclear weapons to threaten a more powerful foe, Israel has a “very relaxed nuclear posture, truly what you could call a last resort posture,”  Weapons count: estimated 80..Truly, nobody knows what weapons Israel has or doesn’t have, and that’s the way they like it.

4. UK:   Weapons count: 215 (120 deployed; 95 stored)  During the Cold War, the UK labored to create its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the UK has withdrawn from that posture and essentially become a client of the US.  The UK operates four nuclear submarines that fire can fire 16 Trident missiles made by the US. That’s it. The UK won’t get an “arsenal” page for this reason. The warheads on these patrols are mated to missiles.

3. France:  France has a long history with nuclear weapons, like the UK, but has maintained more independence and control over its stockpile and doctrine.  Weapons count: 300 (290 deployed; 10 stored)..France has four nuclear-powered submarines, one of which stays on a constant deterrence patrol ready to fire mated nuclear missiles.  While it’s not a nuclear weapon outright, outside of the US, only France operates a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

2. US: Weapons count: 6,450 (1,750 deployed; 2,050 stored; 2,650 retiredd)Today the US’s nuclear arsenal has narrowed down to a triad in constant stages of modernization.  The US operates two nuclear-capable bombers, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the B-52 Stratofortress, originally built in the 1950s and slated to fly for 100 years.  The US operates a fleet of nuclear submarines, which it keeps on constant deterrence patrols.  The US also has nearly 400 intercontinental-range missiles in silos around the country, mostly aimed at Russia’s nuclear weapons for an imagined “mutual destruction” scenario.  Recently, the US has come under intense criticism for President Donald Trump’s proposal to build more smaller or tactical nuclear weapons. Experts say these weapons make nuclear war more likely.  The US has tactical nuclear weapons stored around Europe and Turkey, which, like the bigger strategic weapons, are stored mated.

1. China:   China has just 280 nuclear warheads, and none of them are mated to delivery systems. China flies bombers and sails submarines that it calls nuclear-capable, but none of them have ever actually flown with nuclear weapons.  China’s nuclear doctrine forbids first strikes and centers around the idea that China would survive a nuclear strike, dig its bombs out of deep underground storage, and send a salvo of missiles back in days, months, or years.  This essentially nails the idea of “credible minimum deterrence.” Everyone knows China has nuclear weapons, that they work, and nobody doubts China would use them if it first received a nuclear attack.  China has nuclear-capable submarines and bombers, but they do not ever travel with nuclear weapons on board.  China relies on a growing and modernizing conventional military to assert its will on other countries and virtually never mentions its nuclear arsenal.

Excerpts from Alex Lockie,  We ranked the world’s nuclear arsenals — here’s why China’s came out on top, Business Insider, Jan. 25, 2019

After Khashoggi: the Saudi Missiles

Satellite images suggest that Saudi Arabia has constructed its first known ballistic missile factory, according to weapons experts and image analysts, a development that raises questions about the kingdom’s increasing military and nuclear ambitions under its 33-year-old crown prince.  If operational, the suspected factory at a missile base in al-Watah, southwest of Riyadh, would allow Saudi Arabia to manufacture its own ballistic missiles, fueling fears of an arms race against its regional rival Iran.  Saudi Arabia currently does not possess nuclear weapons, so any missiles produced at the apparent factory are likely to be conventionally armed. But a missile-making facility would be a critical component of any eventual Saudi nuclear weapons program, hypothetically giving the kingdom capability to produce the preferred delivery systems for nuclear warheads.

Two additional missile experts who reviewed the satellite images for The Washington Post… agreed that the high-resolution photographs of the al-Watah site appear to depict a ­rocket-engine production and test facility, probably using solid fuel…The complex…highlights the nation’s intention to make its own advanced missiles after years of seeking to purchase them abroad, at times successfully….

Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a nuclear power-plant deal with the United States that would potentially include allowing it to produce nuclear fuel. The kingdom’s insistence on domestic fuel production has raised worries among U.S. officials that the kingdom wants the atomic power project not only for civil use but also for covert weapon-making purposes. ..

How the Saudis obtained the technological expertise necessary to build the facility is unclear. One potential supplier: China…China has sold ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the past and has helped supply ballistic missile production capabilities to other nations. In the 1990s, Pakistan secretly built a plant for medium-range missiles using blueprints and equipment supplied by China. The factory in Pakistan has long drawn the attention of top Saudi officials. ..

The main way the United States seeks to prevent the spread of drone and missile technology is through the Missile Technology Control Regime, or the MTCR, an informal multicountry pact designed to prevent the transfer of certain missile technologies. China is not a member but has agreed to abide by some of its stipulations.   While the United States sells an array of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, Washington has not sold ballistic missiles to Riyadh, in part because such missiles traditionally have been seen as destabilizing for the region. Saudi Arabia has turned to China in the past when met with refusals from the United States for certain weapons requests.

For example, the United States declined repeated Saudi requests to purchase what are known as category-one American drones, including Predators and Reapers, partly because of MTCR’s regulations. Instead, the kingdom turned to China, first purchasing drones and later striking a deal in which China will build a drone factory that will produce a Chinese copycat of the Predator in Saudi Arabia.

Excerpts Paul Sonne, Can Saudi Arabia produce ballistic missiles? Satellite imagery raises suspicions, Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2019