Tag Archives: nuclear waste storage

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

Nuclear Priesthood: the future of nuclear waste

As  the world increasingly buries its nuclear waste, a growing number of experts are trying to come up with a way to warn future generations of what, exactly, will be lying under their feet.    Deciding where to create nuclear waste storage sites, demarcating them clearly and then writing it all down seems like the obvious solution. After all, mankind started writing down its history 5,500 years ago and the likelihood of us stopping to do so seems slim.   But the question then becomes: what should we write this crucial piece of information on?  Stone and paper deteriorate. USB sticks and servers do, too.  Some government entities, like ANDRA, the French National Agency in charge of managing radioactive waste, have started to record their archive on permanent paper.  Also known as acid-free paper due to its composition, it can remain chemically and physically stable for a long period of time — unlike traditional paper, which starts to yellow and decay over time when exposed to light or heat.

The agency has also built sapphire discs, made out of sapphire and etched with platinum on one side. These can contain up to 40,000 pages of pictures and text and could, theoretically, last for some two million years.   Language, after all, is a living, changing entity. That’s why it took us decades to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs and why you might have gotten a headache reading Shakespeare’s Old English masterpieces in class. So who’s to say that French scientists 1,000 years from now will be able to understand la langue de Moliere’s current form?  The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has since created a working group whose task it is to set the best practices on Radioactive Waste Repository Metadata Management so that all the information is not only stored properly but is also easily accessible as national nuclear waste programmes evolve…

In a report, the researchers led by Thomas Sebeok of the University of Indiana recommended the creation of a nuclear priesthood, inspired by the Catholic Church, which would relay information down the generations through “a mixture of iconic, indexical and symbolic elements” and “a high degree of redundancy of messages.”..

The problem with art, explained Peter Galison, professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and author of the Containment documentary, is that if a message is too artistic, then it might not be properly understood as different people may have different interpretations of it….For instance, you know for sure what the skull pictogram means. If you’re thinking death, you’re right. Yet this symbol, Blanquer said, “comes from alchemists.”  “The skull represents Adam and the crossing bones the promise of resurrection,” he revealed. So in the span of just a few centuries this particular pictogram has evolved from meaning resurrection to meaning death.

As waste can be buried either near or deep under the surface, the signal should be seen both above but also under the ground. The researchers employed by the US Department of Energy in the mid-1980s (who came up with the nuclear priesthood, remember!), had also envisioned different monuments to get the point across: fields of pikes, threatening statues of thunderbolts, or enormous blocs of granite positioned into a tight grid….
The Finnish project of Onkalo took the problem completely differently: what if we came up with a way that would allow us to simply not tell future generations?  Its solution? Digging a deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel.  “The entire concept of Posiva (the company which manages the project), is that 100 to 120 years after it’s been closed, the site will not be signalled. The 500 meters to the storage site in the geological layer will be filled with rock and the entire thing will be isolated and invisible in the natural landscape.”

Excerpts from What will a nuclear waste warning look like in 100,000 years’ time?, Euronews, Nov. 16, 2018

Nuclear Waste Above Sea Level: Pilgrim

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (PNPS) is the only nuclear power plant operating in Massachusetts. …On October 13, 2015, plant owners announced that it would close by June 1, 2019, citing “market conditions and increased costs,” which would have included tens of millions of dollars of necessary safety upgrades.

Up to 2015,all of the nuclear reactor fuel rods from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station were submerged in a deep pool of water, which was running out of space.  In 2015, the company started to use casks to store the waste. Cask storage is used at many nuclear plants in the United States to deal with excess nuclear reactor waste. The casks, 18 feet tall and 11 feet wide, are designed to withstand a truck bomb or a tornado-borne projectile moving at 360 miles per hour.

The plant in 2018 had 17 steel-reinforced concrete cylinders filled with the radioactive waste on a concrete pad about 25 feet above sea level and about 200 feet from shore.  It announced it was planning to move these 360,000-pound casks to a new pad on an existing parking lot that’s about 75 feet above mean sea level and 700 feet from shore to avoid risks associated with sea-level rise due to climate change.

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. 


Nuclear Waste Specialists

U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson of Delaware on June 21,2017 sided with the federal government in blocking a $367 million merger between EnergySolutions and the radioactive site’s parent company. Waste Control Specialists calls the deal essential for its long-term viability.The details of Robinson’s opinion were sealed.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued in November 2017 to block the merger of rival companies, arguing it would essentially create a monopoly on radioactive waste disposal.  “Substantial evidence showed that head-to-head competition between EnergySolutions and Waste Control Specialists led to better disposal services at lower prices,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said in a statement. “Today’s decision protects competition in an industry that is incredibly difficult to enter.”…

Waste Control Specialists, which currently stores low-level radioactive waste in Andrews County*** has a pending application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store tens of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel currently filling up reactor sites across the country. The company has pitched the massive expansion as a solution to a problem that has bedeviled policymakers for decades….

“The WCS site is not a safe place to store deadly high-level radioactive waste,” Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, said in a statement. “Texans and those along transport routes shouldn’t have to suffer the health, safety, security, financial and environmental risks that transport and storage of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste would bring.”

Critics allege that millions in donations by Harold Simmons, owner of Waste Control Specialists, to Texas Governor Rick Perry and other politicians influenced political support for the controversial project…..Critics also cite WCS’ safety record. One 22-ton shipment of low-level radioactive material from a diffusion plant in Illinois failed to arrive at the WCS Andrews facility in late July 2001. Lost for almost a month, the material turned up dumped on a cattle ranch north of Dallas.

Excerpts from  JIM MALEWITZ, Amid Texas nuclear waste site’s financial woes, judge blocks merger,  The Texas Tribune, June 21, 2017 + Wikipedia

***The plant is located 5 miles east of Eunice, New Mexico, and 35 miles west of Andrews. The surrounding area on both sides of the state border, “nuclear alley”, also includes:

–the National Enrichment Facility (owned and operated by the Urenco Group) in Eunice
–the deep geological repository Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP; managed by the United States Department of Energy), and
–the proposed first commercial uranium de-conversion facility in the United States, a project of International Isotopes, Inc.

Nuclear Waste: Ukraine

A consortium of four German companies has been awarded a contract to improve infrastructure for managing radioactive waste, the rehabilitation of contaminated areas and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Ukraine.  The consortium – comprising Brenk Systemplanung, DMT, Plejades and TÜV Nord EnSys – was awarded the contract for the project, which is within the framework of the European Union-funded Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC). The INSC is designed to support non-EU countries in improving nuclear safety. The contract will run for an initial two-year period and have a maximum budget of €1.5 million ($1.6 million).

According to the tender notice, the main objectives of the contract are to support the Ukrainian State Corporation ‘Radon’ in establishing an emergency response system for “radiation incidents involving unauthorized radioactive materials that are not related to nuclear power plant operation”. It also calls for the establishment of integrated, automated monitoring systems for radiation and environmental protection at Radon facilities, as well as the remediation of radioactive waste storage sites resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and situated outside the exclusion zone.

In a statement yesterday, DMT said it will jointly lead with TÜV Nord EnSys Hannover the assessment of some 50 radioactive waste storage sites.

Excerpts from German consortium awarded Ukrainian waste contract, World Nuclear News, Mar. 2, 2016

Nuclear Waste: play for time

The problem now, however, is civilian waste from power plants that came online in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nuclear power generates a fifth of America’s electricity; its 99 reactors account for almost a third of all nuclear power generated worldwide. Five more are under construction—the first to be approved since the 1970s—partly thanks to federal loan guarantees intended to boost clean energy production. The waste they generate has been stored safely, but it will stay dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. That requires a longer-term plan than leaving it outside, however well encased in concrete.

Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government pledged to dispose of nuclear waste—both civilian and military—permanently. Several possible plans were drawn up, many involving burying the waste in salt deposits deep under ground. To pay for this eventual cost, a levy was added to the bills of consumers of nuclear power.

But politics got in the way. In 1987 Congress determined that only one place, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, would be considered. This, says Richard Stewart of New York University Law School, was the result of a stich-up between two congressmen who did not want their states to host waste dumps. Tom Foley, the then House majority leader, and Jim Wright, the Speaker, blocked proposals for sites in their home states of Washington and Texas.

Nevadans nickname the 1987 amendment the “screw Nevada” bill, and they have fiercely resisted implementation. Some $15 billion has been spent on building the repository at Yucca Mountain, but no waste has been moved there. Nevadans are quick to point to the damage done to their state by nuclear-weapons tests. Since 2010, the Department of Energy has formally ruled the facility out. In a lawsuit in 2013, the government was forced to stop collecting the levy on nuclear power until a plan exists for a permanent site. It has also been forced to pay utility companies for the costs of storing waste temporarily, since it did not start collecting waste fuel in 1998, as the original law dictated.

Some hope Yucca Mountain might be reopened by a new president. “The only aspect of used fuel in this country that has been problematic is the politics”, says John Keeley of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group. In January the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the regulator, concluded that the site is safe for the disposal of waste. But the worries of Nevadans—that moving spent fuel on railways might lead to spills, or that radioactivity could leak into the environment—remain.

Recent experience doesn’t help. America already operates one of the world’s few deep storage sites for radioactive waste—near Carlsbad, in New Mexico. It stores waste mostly from nuclear-weapons production. In February 2014 the facility suffered two crippling accidents. One was apparently caused by workers packaging waste with the wrong sort of cat litter. The plant-based “Swheat Scoop” brand they used, unlike the mineral-based kind they were meant to, did not absorb radioactivity very well. The facility has not accepted any new waste since.

Excerpts from Nuclear Waste: Faff and fallout, Economist, August 29, 2015, at 23