Category Archives: nuclear weapons

Making Friends with Radioactive Waste: the Nuclear Dump of Moscow

Russian environmental activists and residents are sounding the alarm (in December 2019) over government plans to build a motorway near a Soviet-era radioactive waste site in southeast Moscow that they fear could spew dangerous particles into the air.  The 34-km (21-mile) road, which city authorities say is safe and will help ease traffic, is set to pass the Moscow Polymetal Plant and a fenced-off site where it disposed of radioactive substances decades ago.  Vasily Desyatkov, a senior city construction official, said surface and underground tests carried out where the foundations of the road were due to be laid had turned back normal readings that show there is no risk.

But that has not placated activists who have led a series of protests in recent months.  “It could lead to the release of radionuclides contained in the soil which will be dispersed with the dust. They will be spread everywhere – on people’s feet, car wheels, anything,” said Igor, a protester.

The site, the Moscow Polymetals Plant’s slag heap, is Just 13 kilometers from the Kremlin and steps from Kolomenskoye Park, a popular spot for Muscovites to ski in winter and picnic in summer, the Moskvorechye-Saburovo hill is the most contaminated of the bunch, according to Radon, a government agency tasked with locating and clearing radioactive waste. A legacy of a rushed Soviet effort to begin nuclear research as the race to build an atomic bomb gained steam in the 1930s, the hill is one of many contaminated sites across Russia …

Moskvorechye-Saburovo District Moscow

It contains tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste left over after the extraction of thorium and uranium from ore. The factory ceased production of metals in 1996 for “environmental reasons,” according to its website — it now produces weapons and military equipment — and the dump is now a hill half a kilometer wide sloping down to the banks of the Moscow River.  City officials had been considering a full-scale clean-up for years, but never rubber-stamped a plan due to the risky location of the site near a source of water for Moscow’s southern suburbs. 

“Operations in such an environment are a serious engineering challenge — one incautious step, and radioactive soil gets into the river,” said Alexander Barinov, Radon’s chief engineer for Moscow…. “Full decontamination by removing all of the radioactive waste is simply impossible,” he added, noting that Radon every year conducts “a kind of therapy” to ensure the site’s safety — in short, dumping dirt on top of the waste to keep it buried after topsoil runoff each spring. 

Excerpts from Russians protest over plans to build road near Soviet-era radioactive waste site, Reuters, Dec. 10, 2019; Will a Road Through a Nuclear Dumping Ground Result in ‘Moscow’s Chernobyl’?, Moscow Times, July 16, 2019

The Nuclear Fuel Bank is Up and Running

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) received in December 2019 the second and final shipment of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at a purpose-built facility in Kazakhstan housing the IAEA LEU Bank, which was established to provide assurance to countries about the supply of nuclear fuel. The delivery completes the planned stock of the material that the IAEA LEU Bank will hold, following the first shipment in October 2019.

Kazakhstan’s JSC National Atomic Company Kazatomprom – the world’s largest producer of natural uranium – delivered 28 cylinders of LEU to the facility at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The uranium originated from Kazakhstan and was enriched at a facility in neighbouring Russia before the LEU was transported by train to the site in eastern Kazakhstan, where it was checked and officially accepted by IAEA experts.

Owned by the IAEA and hosted by Kazakhstan, the IAEA LEU Bank is one of the Agency’s most ambitious undertakings since it was founded in 1957.  The establishment and operation of the IAEA LEU Bank are fully funded by voluntary contributions from IAEA Member States and other donors totalling US $150 million, covering estimated costs for at least 20 years of operation. Donors include the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the United States, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Norway and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan contributed also in kind by hosting the IAEA LEU Bank.

The Bank operates with er assurance of supply mechanisms established including a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by the Russian Federation at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, Russian Federation, and an assurance of supply guaranty by the United Kingdom for supplies of LEU enrichment services.

Globally, there are around 450 nuclear power reactors in operation today, supplying about 10 percent of the world’s electricity and one-third of all low-carbon electricity. Fifty-two additional nuclear power reactors are currently under construction.

Excerpts from Second Shipment of Low Enriched Uranium Completes IAEA LEU Bank, IAEA Press Release, Dec. 10, 2019

How to Lose Track of 250 barrels of Radioactive Waste — Los Alamos National Laboratory

The Triad National Security,*** the company in charge of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) operations in 2018 lost track of 250 barrels of mixed hazardous waste on their way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad. Mixed waste contains low-level radioactive waste and other hazardous materials. Failing to track such a high volume of waste is an egregious error that falls in line with the lab’s long history of serious missteps.  “The fact that LANL has mischaracterized, misplaced, mis-inventoried — or whatever — 250 barrels of waste is pretty astounding,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Still, Triad has committed less than a tenth of the violations that its predecessor, Los Alamos National Security LLC, used to average in a given year.  A disastrous “kitty litter” incident happened under Los Alamos National Security, in which a waste barrel was packaged in error with a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts, causing the container to burst and leak radiation at the Southern New Mexico storage site. WIPP closed for almost three years, and the cleanup cost about $2 billion.

***Triad is a public service oriented, national security science organization equally owned by its three founding members: Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), The Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), and The Regents of the University of California (UC).

Excerpts from Scott Wyland State report: LANL lost track of 250 barrels of nuke waste, Santa Fe New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2019

Why Russia Loves Germany’s Toxic Waste

Environmental groups have voiced concern in November 2019 that Russia is again accepting shipments of uranium tails, a byproduct formed when uranium is enriched, from a German nuclear fuel firm, reigniting a debate over whether the substance meets the definition of nuclear waste.  The shipments of the toxic compound – also called uranium hexafluoride – were halted in 2009 over revelations that Russia was accepting it from foreign customers and storing it in the open. At that time, Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, bowed to environmental pressure and promised to no longer import the radioactive substance.

But German government documents revealed in November 2019 by Greenpeace and the Russian environmental group Ecodefense show that the German-based enrichment company Urenco resumed the uranium tail shipments as long ago as May 2019.  According to Urenco’s contract with the Russian nuclear-fuel giant Teksnabeksport (Tenex), a subsidiary of Rosatom, some 12,000 tons of uranium tails are set to be delivered to Novouralsk, near Yekaterinburg by 2022. Four thousands tons have been sent so far….

Urenco, Germany

Uranium hexafluoride, also called depleted uranium, is a colorless radioactive powder that is produced as a byproduct of enriching uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants. Urenco, which is a partnership involving German, British and Dutch energy firms, has operated an enrichment facility in Gronau, Germany since 1985.  This facility stores depleted uranium in the open air. In the early 1990s, Russian opened its doors to reprocessing depleted uranium from foreign customers. A previous contract between Tenex and Urenco envisioned the import of 100,000 tons of uranium tails between 1996 and 2009.

The issue of whether uranium tails in fact constitute nuclear waste depends on whom you ask. Both Rosatom and Germany’s nuclear industry classify uranium hexafluoride as a recyclable material. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, however, has long held that uranium tails should be classified as nuclear waste – a view that Bellona, Ecodefense and Greenpeace share.  But while Rosatom asserts that uranium tails are valuable raw material, the motive for importing them is unclear. By most estimates, Russia already holds nearly 1 million tons of uranium tails from its own fuel production – making the need for another 12,000 tons from abroad questionable.

Charles Digges, Russia resumes importing depleted uranium from Germany, breaching old promises, Bellona, Nov. 1, 2019

How to Engineer Bacteria to Search for Underground Chemical Weapons: DARPA

U.S. military researchers asked in 2019 two companies to develop new kinds of biological sensors that can detect underground disturbances or the presence of buried chemicals or weapons.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., are looking to Raytheon BBN Technologies, and Signature Science, for the BioReporters for Subterranean Surveillance program.  This project seeks to use indigenous and engineered organisms to sense changes of interest to military commanders in natural and built environments. Raytheon BBN and Signature Science won separate $1.6 million contracts for the Subterranean Surveillance progam.

The two companies will perform laboratory research and proof-of-concept demonstrations of biological sensing systems in well- controlled field tests that take advantage of recent advances in microbial science and synthetic biology to develop biological sensors, signal transducers, and reporters that can reveal subterranean phenomena at a distance.  Bio Reporters should be able to sense a phenomenon at least one meter below the surface, propagate a signal to the surface within seven days, and be continuously detectable on the surface at a distance of 10 meters over the subsequent seven days.

DARPA researchers want Raytheon BBN and Signature Science experts to take advantage of the extensive biological networks that exist underground to monitor large areas to increase the military’s ability to detect subterranean events without the need for precise coordinates.

Excerpts from John Keller, Researchers eye new biological sensors to to detect underground objects like buried chemicals and weapons, https://www.militaryaerospace.com,  Nov. 6, 2019

In more detail  Signature Science and its partner, the Texas A&M University Center for Phage Technology, aim to leverage modern and synthetic phage biology and the straightforward molecular genetics of the harmless soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis to generate a new platform to recognize and report on specific chemical threats underground. The Spore-Phage Amplified Detection (SPADe) method, potentially extensible to explosives, radiation or physical disturbance sensing, seeks to substantially advance currently used techniques which rely heavily on manual soil testing. 

How to Change the World: Take Seeds to Space and Irradiate them with Cosmic Rays

With 19% of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land, China is in a bind: how to feed its growing and increasingly affluent population while protecting its natural resources. The country’s agricultural scientists have made growing use of nuclear and isotopic techniques in crop production over the last decades. In cooperation with the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), they are now helping experts from Asia and beyond in the development of new crop varieties, using irradiation.

While in many countries, nuclear research in agriculture is carried out by nuclear agencies that work independently from the country’s agriculture research establishment, in China the use of nuclear techniques in agriculture is integrated into the work of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and provincial academies of agricultural sciences. This ensures that the findings are put to use immediately.

And indeed, the second most widely used wheat mutant variety in China, Luyuan 502, was developed by CAAS’s Institute of Crop Sciences and the Institute of Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, using space-induced mutation breeding. It has a yield that is 11% higher than the traditional variety and is also more tolerant to drought and main diseases.  It has been planted on over 3.6 million hectares – almost as large as Switzerland. It is one of 11 wheat varieties developed for improved salt and drought tolerance, grain quality and yield.

Through close cooperation with the IAEA and FAO, China has released over 1,000 mutant crop varieties in the past 60 years, and varieties developed in China account for a fourth of mutants listed currently in the IAEA/FAO’s database of mutant varieties produced worldwide.

The Institute uses heavy ion beam accelerators, cosmic rays and gamma rays along with chemicals to induce mutations in a wide variety of crops, including wheat, rice, maize, soybean and vegetables….Indonesia’s nuclear agency, BATAN, and CAAS are looking for ways to collaborate on plant mutation breeding

Space-induced mutation breeding
 
Irradiation causes mutation, which generates random genetic variations, resulting in mutant plants with new and useful traits. Mutation breeding does not involve gene transformation, but rather uses a plant’s own genetic components and mimics the natural process of spontaneous mutation, the motor of evolution. By using radiation, scientists can significantly shorten the time it takes to breed new and improved plant varieties.

Space-induced mutation breeding, also called space mutagenesis, involves taking the seeds to space, where cosmic rays are stronger, and these rays are used to induce mutation.  Satellites, space shuttles and high-altitude balloons are used to carry out the experiments. One advantage of this method is that the risk of damaging the plants are lower than when using gamma irradiation on earth.

Excerpts from How Nuclear Techniques Help Feed China, IAEA, Apr. 4, 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