Tag Archives: high-level radioactive waste

Imagining Failure: Nuclear Waste on the Beach, California

But for all the good vibes and stellar sunsets of  San Onofre state beach in California, beneath the surface hides a potential threat: 3.6m lb of nuclear waste from a group of nuclear reactors shut down nearly a decade ago. Decades of political gridlock have left it indefinitely stranded, susceptible to threats including corrosion, earthquakes and sea level rise. The San Onofre reactors are among dozens across the United States phasing out, but experts say they best represent the uncertain future of nuclear energy.

“It’s a combination of failures, really,” said Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the top federal enforcer, between 2009 and 2012, of the situation at San Onofre. That waste is the byproduct of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), three nuclear reactors primarily owned by the utility Southern California Edison (SCE) that has shut down….

Since there is not central repository for the final disposition of nuclear wasted in the United States,  the California Coastal Commission approved in 2015 the construction of an installation at San Onofre to store it until 2035. In August 2020, workers concluded the multi-year burial process, loading the last of 73 canisters of waste into a concrete enclosure. San Onofre is not the only place where waste is left stranded. As more nuclear sites shut down, communities across the country are stuck with the waste left behind. Spent fuel is stored at 76 reactor sites in 34 states….

At San Onofre, the waste is buried about 100ft from the shoreline, along the I-5 highway, one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares, and not far from a pair of faults that experts say could generate a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. Another potential problem is corrosion. In its 2015 approval, the Coastal Commission noted the site could have a serious impact on the environment in case of coastal flooding and erosion hazards beyond its design capacity, 

Concerns have also been raised about government oversight of the site. Just after San Onofre closed, SCE began seeking exemptions from the NRC’s operating rules for nuclear plants. The utility asked and received permission to loosen rules on-site, including those dealing with record-keeping, radiological emergency plans for reactors, emergency planning zones and on-site staffing.

San Onofre isn’t the only closed reactor to receive exemptions to its operating licence. The NRC’s regulations historically focused on operating reactors and assumed that, when a reactor shut down, the waste would be removed quickly.

It’s true that the risk of accidents decreases when a plant isn’t operating, said Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But adapting regulations through exemptions greatly reduces public transparency, he argued. “Exemptions are wink-wink, nudge-nudge deals with the NRC,” he said. “In general, it’s not really a great practice,” former NRC chair Jaczko said about the exemptions. “If the NRC is regulating by exemption, it means that there’s something wrong with the rules … either the NRC believes the rules are not effective, and they’re not really useful, or the NRC is not holding the line where the NRC should be holding line,” he said…

It’s worth considering how things fail, though, argued Rod Ewing, nuclear security professor at Stanford University’s center for international security and cooperation, and author of a 2021 report about spent nuclear waste that focuses on San Onofre. “The problem with our safety analysis approach is we spend a lot of time proving things are safe. We don’t spend much time imagining how systems will fail,” he said. “And I think the latter is what’s most important.”

Excerpts from Kate Mishkin, ‘A combination of failures:’ why 3.6m pounds of nuclear waste is buried on a popular California beach, Guardian, Aug. 

Time for Burial: Last Repository for Nuclear Waste, Germany

Germany published on September 28, 2020 a list of potential storage sites for radioactive waste as part of its plans to exit nuclear power, dropping the Gorleben salt dome in Lower Saxony from the running.  The 444-page list of sites, to be assessed by 2031 for use from 2050 to hold waste currently in interim storage at nuclear plants, was published by Germany’s Federal Agency for Final Storage (BGE).  Some 90 locations, including parts of Lower Saxony, Bavaria, Baden Wuerttemberg and eastern German states, have been found to be potentially suitable after BGE undertook preliminary mapping that revealed 54% of German territory could be satisfactory.

Taking three years, the process identified salt, clay and crystalline, above all granite, formations, stressing the criteria were science-based, without political influence.  No location was predetermined, said Stefan Studt, head of BGE’s managing board, at a news conference. “Any region in today’s list would take a long, long time to become the actual final space,” he said. Germany had been on a course to exit nuclear power since 2000 but hastened the plan, now set for 2022, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Gorleben, which became the focus of anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s, failed on three points related to retention, hydrochemical and overall geological qualities, so that it could not be ruled out that aquifers may come into contact with salt, said Steffen Kanitz, a BGE board member.

Germany publishes nuclear storage list, Gorleben dropped

The Enormous Task of Nuclear Waste Storage

“The Koeberg spent fuel pool storage capacity in South Africa  is currently over 90% full. (These) pools will reach (their) capacity by April 2020,” Eskom, the South African utility, told Reuters in a statement on Nov. 25, 2019.  Koeberg produces about 32 tonnes of spent fuel a year. Fuel assemblies, which contain radioactive materials including uranium and plutonium that can remain dangerous for thousands of years, are cooled for a decade under water in spent fuel pools.

Fuel Pool at Koeberg, South Africa

In 2016,  Eskom paid an estimated 200 million rand ($13.60 million) for an initial batch of seven reinforced dry storage casks from U.S. energy company Holtec International to help keep Koeberg running beyond 2018.  Eskom now has nine new unused casks on site, each with an individual capacity of 32 spent fuel assemblies, with another five expected to be delivered soon.

Holtec Cask

The 14 casks should ensure there is sufficient storage in the spent fuel pool until 2024, Eskom said, ahead of a tender for an extra 30 casks….Anti-nuclear lobby group Earthlife Africa said South Africa could not afford the social, environmental and economic costs associated with nuclear waste.  “We have a ticking bomb with high-level waste and fuel rods at Koeberg,” said Makoma Lekalakala, Earthlife Africa’s director.

Wendell Roelf, Waste storage at Africa’s only nuclear plant brimming, Reuters, Nov. 25, 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

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

Crabs in Radioactive Seas: Kara Sea

The Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s dumped several hundred containers with solid radioactive waste in the Blagopoluchie Bay in Novaya Zemlya. Back then, these waters were covered with ice overwhelming parts of the year.  Today, that is quickly changing. The bay located in the northern part of the Russian Arctic archipelago is now ice-free increasing parts of the year. With the retreating ice follow new species.

Researchers from the Russian Shirshov Institute of Oceanology have comprehensively studied the eco system of the bay for several years. Among their key findings is a quickly growing number of snow crabs. In this year’s research expedition to the remote waters, the researchers were overwhelmed by the numbers. According to the institute, the crab invasion can be described «as avalanche».

The number of crabs in the area is now estimated to almost 14,000 per hectare, the institute informs. With the help of underwater photo and video footage, the researchers have studied how the crab expansion is leading to a other reduction in other marine life on the sea bottom.    A further spread in the other parts of the Kara Sea is imminent, and the Russian Fisheries Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) believe that the Kara Sea will ultimately become an area with commercial crab fishing.

But Kara seas is a major nuclear waste dump…No major leakage from the radioactive materials have so far been registered.  Soviet authorities are believed to have dumped about 17,000 containers with solid radioactive wastes in Arctic waters and primarily in the Kara Sea. More than 900 containers are located on the bottom of the Blagopoluchie Bay. Also a number of reactor compartments were dumped, as well as three nuclear subs and other nuclear materials.

Exceprts from Atle Staalesen, Arctic crab invasion comes to nuclear waste graveyard, the Barents Observer, Nov. 26, 2018

The Future of Nuclear Waste: Czech Republic

Czech plans for dealing with nuclear waste have been put under the spotlight once again thanks to a European Commission warning calling for the country to outline its plans for deal with nuclear waste. The Czech Republic was last week one of five states which the Commission said had failed to pass on their long-term nuclear waste plans by the original deadline of August 2015. The other countries include, somewhat ironically, largely non-nuclear Austria, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

The Czech Republic has around 10,000 tonnes of high radioactive nuclear waste, mostly stemming from the spent fuel of its nuclear power plants which begin operating in the mid-1980s, but also from other civil activities. The spent fuel is stored on site at nuclear power plants but the barrels containing it will wear out long before the contents become safe.

The Czech Republic set out a strategy to deal with high radioactive nuclear waste already in 2002 with the main focus on finding a deep storage site. The preliminary search has been focused on seven localities which are reckoned to be geologically suitable as well as near the Dukovany nuclear power plant. But there have been vociferous public protests at most of the sites causing the current government to back down and promise that no steps will be taken in the face of opposition. Even so, a timeline for choosing a deep repository has already been set with the selection of a site due to take place in 2025, construction started in 2050, and the final facility ready by 2065.

But the aged 2002 strategy is now being updated with public consultation part of the process. Environmentalists on one side argue that the existing framework focused primarily on the search for a deep repository should be overhauled and that the country should take its time and keep its options option with technological advancement likely offering other options for radioactive waste in the near future. 

Excerpts from BRUSSELS CALLS FOR CZECH STRATEGY FOR RADIOACTIVE WASTE, Radio Prague, July 24, 2017

Hot Nuclear Waste Deep in the Earth

The federal government plans to spend $80 million ( assessing whether its hottest nuclear waste can be stored in 3-mile-deep holes, a project that could provide an alternative strategy to a Nevada repository plan that was halted in 2010.  The five-year borehole project was tentatively slated to start later this year on state-owned land in rural North Dakota, but it has already been met with opposition from state and local leaders who want more time to review whether the plan poses any public danger…The Department of Energy wants to conduct its work just south of the Canadian border on 20 acres near Rugby, North Dakota — in part because it’s in a rural area not prone to earthquakes — but is prepared to look elsewhere if a deal can’t be reached. Some sites in West Texas and New Mexico have expressed interest in becoming interim sites for above-ground nuclear waste storage, but it’s not clear if they would be considered for borehole technology.

Project leaders say the research will require months of drilling deep into the earth but will not involve any nuclear waste. Instead, dummy canisters without radioactive material would be used in the project’s third and final phase.  The research team will look at deep rock to check its water permeability, stability, geothermal characteristics and seismic activity — a central concern with burying the hot radioactive waste deep underground….

If the technology proves successful and the government moves forward with deep borehole disposal, there must be no fracking-related injection wells in the vicinity…which some research has linked to seismic activity.

Currently, high-level radioactive waste — both from government sources and utilities’ nuclear power plants — is without a final burial site. The waste at power plants is stored on site in pools of water or in heavily fortified casks, while the government’s waste remains at its research labs.

But the 16,000-foot-deep boreholes could be used for high-level radioactive waste from the department’s decades of nuclear work originally slated to go to Yucca, including nearly 2,000 canisters of cesium and strontium now being stored in water at the department’s Hanford Site in Washington state.

Excerpts from , Feds seek borehole test for potential hot nuke waste burial, Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2016

Stop Fukushima Freeways

 

Over 250 intensely radioactive nuclear waste shipments would cross through
the Washington DC metropolitan area and thousands more would travel across the roads, rails  and waterways of the nation, if [the Yucca Mountain permanent repository in Nevada is approved]….The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), an NGO, released maps of the likely routes radioactive shipments would use…

According to the map, highly radioactive waste fuel from nuclear power reactors in Virginia and Maryland would pass through the DC area on railroad tracks next to Metro Rail trains, including passing though Union Station. Each shipment contains several times more radioactive material than the Hioshima bomb blast released, with 20 to 50 tons of irradiated fuel assemblies in each  canister….  [Accident may happen during the shipments]…The shipments would also be vulnerable to attack or sabotage….Large-scale nuclear waste transport would also occur if, as some in Congress advocate, a“centralized interim storage” site for high-level radioactive waste were created.

Excerpts from Stop Fukushima Freeways Campaign Kicks Off, Nuclear Information and Resource Service Oct. 27, 2015

Nuclear Waste-Idaho National Laboratory

 

The U.S. Energy Department has canceled  in October 2015 a plan to ship to the Idaho National Laboratory spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors out of state, a controversial proposal that drew protests from two former governors and a lawsuit from one of them. Incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in January 2015 expressed conditional support for two proposed deliveries of the high-level radioactive waste, saying it would raise the lab’s profile and boost the local economy around Idaho Falls, where the facility is located.

But talks between the Department of Energy (DOE) and Idaho broke down amid mounting opposition to the plan by two of Idaho’s former governors, one of whom filed a lawsuit last month seeking information he said the federal agency was concealing about the proposal.

Cecil Andrus, a Democrat who served four terms as governor, said at the time that he suspected DOE’s intent was to turn the sprawling research facility along the Snake River into a de facto nuclear dump in the absence of a permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste elsewhere in the United States.  Earlier this year, Andrus and former Governor Phil Batt, a Republican, accused DOE of violating a 1995 agreement that banned such shipments to Idaho.Specifically, they said the Energy Department had not yet complied with a provision of the accord requiring removal of nuclear waste already stored at the lab to reduce impacts on an aquifer that supplies drinking water to tens of thousands of Idaho residents.

In a statement sent Friday to Idaho National Lab workers, the director, Mark Peters, said he had been informed that the state and DOE “were unable to reach an understanding that would have enabled the first of two recently discussed shipments of research quantities of spent nuclear fuel to come to INL.” [see also 2011 Memorandum of Agreement on Storage of Research Quantities of Commercial Spent Fuel at the Idaho National Laboratory]  Peters said in his statement that the spent nuclear fuel in question would be delivered instead to “another DOE facility,” though it was not made clear where the materials were now destined.

Energy Department cancels plan to ship nuclear waste to Idaho, Reuters, Oct. 23, 2015

Russia Improves Nuclear Waste Management

Russia has introduced an automated system for the accounting and control of its radioactive substances and waste that encompasses more than 2000 organizations. The system follows an order by state nuclear corporation Rosatom, 113 subsidiaries of which account for 96% of the country’s radioactive substances and waste.  The system automates the collection and monitoring of the availability, production, transmission, receipt, processing, conditioning, siting and deregistration of radioactive substances and waste, as well as their changes in status, properties and location….Full implementation of the system is scheduled for late 2015…[T]he system is needed for the implementation of a Russian government decree on the procedure for state registration and control of radioactive waste.”The new solution enables a high level of quality control in the movement of radioactive substances and waste and provides complete data for assessment of the financial responsibility for handling them,.”

In June 2011, the Russian legislature passed the Radioactive Waste Management Law developing a unified state radioactive waste management system that brought Russia into compliance with the United Nations Joint Convention on the Safe Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel ( adopted in 1997 entered into force in 2001). In April 2012, the state-run national operator for radioactive waste, NO RAO, was created to manage this process.

Plans for disposal of low- and intermediate-level wastes are to be in place by 2018. It is expected to establish repositories for 300,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, and an underground research laboratory in Nizhnekansky granitoid massif at Zheleznogorsk near Krasnoyarsk for study into the feasibility of disposal of solid high-level radioactive waste and solid medium-level long-lived wastes by 2021. A decision on final high-level radioactive waste repository is expected by 2025.

Excerpts from Russia makes progress with radwaste data management, World Nuclear News, Feb. 23, 2015

 

Nuclear Waste: Germany to South Carolina

The U.S. Department of Energy said on June 4, 2014 it will study the environmental risk of importing spent nuclear fuel from Germany that contains highly enriched uranium, a move believed to be the first for the United States.  The department said it is considering a plan to ship the nuclear waste from Germany to the Savannah River Site, a federal facility in South Carolina.  The 310-acre site already holds millions of gallons of high-level nuclear waste in tanks. The waste came from reactors in South Carolina that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1953 to 1989.

The Energy Department said it wants to remove 900 kilograms (1,984 pounds) of uranium the United States sold to Germany years ago and render it safe under U.S. nuclear non-proliferation treaties.  A technique for the three-year process of extracting the uranium, which is contained in graphite balls, is being developed at the site in South Carolina, according to the Energy Department.

[The radioactive waste to be imported to the United States from Germany consists of 152 30-tonne CASTOR casks containing 290,000 graphite balls from the  AVR gas-cooled prototype reactor, stored at the Juelich research center [Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ)], and 305 CASTOR casks containing 605,000 graphite balls from the THTR-300 reactor, stored at the Ahaus waste site. While the waste contains some US-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU), the amount is unclear as the material was irradiated and has been in storage for over 20 years since the reactors closed.]

Some critics question whether the department has fully developed a clear plan to dispose of the radioactive waste.”They’re proposing to extract the uranium and reuse it as fuel by a process that has never been done before,” said Tom Clements, president of SRS Watch, a nuclear watchdog group in South Carolina….

Sources told Reuters in May that German utilities were in talks with the government about setting up a “bad bank” for nuclear plants, in response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to close them all by 2022 after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Excerpt from  Harriet McLeod, German nuclear waste may be headed to South Carolina site, Reuters, June 4, 2014