Tag Archives: nuclear waste

A Never-Ending Disaster: radioactive water at Fukushima

A Greenpeace report details how plans to discharge over 1 million tonnes of highly contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean was proposed by a Japanese government task force.  According to Greenpeace.

“The decision not to develop water processing technology that could remove radioactive tritium was motivated by short term cost cutting not protection of the Pacific ocean environment or the health and livelihoods of communities along the Fukushima coast,” said Kazue Suzuki, Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Japan. “  The report concludes that the water crisis remains unresolved, and will be for the foreseeable future. The only viable option to protect the environment and the communities along the Fukushima coast being long term storage for the contaminated water.

The discharge option for water containing high levels of radioactive tritium was recommended as least cost by the Government’s Tritiated Water Task Force and promoted by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). The Task Force concluded in 2016 that “sea discharge would cost 3.4 billion yen (US$30 million) and take seven years and four months to complete. It concluded that this was cheapest and quickest of the five methods.” However, technical proposals for removing tritium were submitted to the same Government Task Force by multiple nuclear companies with estimated costs ranging from US$2-US$20 billion to US$50-US$180 billion depending on the technology used. These were dismissed as not viable but without detailed technical consideration.

TEPCO has claimed since 2013 that its ALPS technology would reduce radioactivity levels “to lower than the permissible level for discharge.” However, in September 2018 TEPCO admitted that the processing of over 800,000 tons of contaminated water in 1000 storage tanks, including strontium, had failed to remove radioactivity to below regulatory limits, including for strontium-90, a bone seeking radionuclide that causes cancer. TEPCO knew of the failure of the technology from 2013. The Greenpeace report details technical problems with the ALPS system.

The Fukushima Daiichi site, due its location, is subject to massive groundwater contamination which TEPCO has also failed to stop. Each week an additional 2-4000 tonnes of contaminated water is added to the storage tanks.

Excerpts from Technical failures increase risk of contaminated Fukushima water discharge into Pacific, Greenpeace Press Release,  Jan. 22, 2019

Keeping up with the Joneses: Nuclear Power

Worried the U.S. may be falling behind rivals in nuclear-power technology, the Energy Department plans to spend $115 million to help develop advanced fuels for next-generation reactors.  Under a three-year pilot project announced, the money would go to an Ohio company to produce a more energy-dense uranium, which the nuclear industry has been asking for to support a budding industry of smaller reactors.  Department officials say they plan to award the contract to American Centrifuge Operating, a unit of Centrus Energy Corp. , unless rival companies can make a compelling case by Jan. 22, 2019.

The U.S. nuclear industry is at a crossroads that has jeopardized its workforce in the U.S. and helped fuel the rise of U.S. rivals abroad. The industry, faced with safety concerns, expensive regulations and competition from other fuels, is pushing to reinvent its core technology to be simpler, cheaper and often much smaller….China has become one of the few countries building nuclear-power capacity, and Russia has taken a dominant position in developing projects elsewhere…Russia is the only country capable of producing the higher-enriched uranium the Energy Department’s new program would produce. Without it, the U.S. risks being left out of the global industry’s next stage, said Dan Brouillette, Deputy Energy Secretary.

Excertps from Timothy Puko, New Effort to Develop Advanced Nuclear Fuel, WSJ, Jan. 7, 2018

Nuclear Robots

Robots have been used in nuclear facilities for a long time.Scenarios such as maintenance tasks in nuclear facilities or even disasters like radioactive leaks or search and rescue operations have proven to be quite successful. We are talking about robotic  arms or remote operated vehicles with some end effectors built in to handle dangerous situations.”

1986: Chernobyl’s robot trouble–During the Chernobyl nuclear incident, the Soviet authorities in charge of cleaning up nuclear waste developed around 60 unique remote-controlled robots to spare human workers from radioactive exposure. The total cost of the clean-up operation was $2bn.  Designs included the STR-1 robot, which resembles a moon buggy. It was placed on the roof of the nuclear plant and used to clean upparts of the destroyed reactor. Another design for the purpose of debris cleaning was the Mobot, developed by Moscow State University. It was a smaller version of a loader used in construction, with a front-end bucket used to  scoop up debris.

The problem was that cleaning up nuclear waste required more skills than the robots could provide, eventually resulting in the authorities sending in soldiers to perform most of the decontamination works. Radiation was so high that each worker could only spend 40 seconds inside or near the facility; 31 died from exposure, while 237 suffered from acute radiation sickness.

2008: Cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the US has been somewhat of a hub for nuclear waste innovation. This is because scientists, and their robot friends, are faced with the task of emptying nuclear and chemical waste tanks the size of around 150 basketball courts before the waste reaches the Columbia River. Exposure to the material would kill a human instantly.

Luckily, Hanford has developed a few automated machines thatare specifically designed for different parts of the job. Take Foldtrack, for example, which can access the tanks through one-foot-wide pipes in the roof bysplitting into a string of pieces, and then rebuilding itself like a Transformer once inside. The remote-controlled robot uses a 3,000psi water cannon to blast nuclear sludge off the walls of the tank and pump it out. Upon completion, scientists are forced to leave the $500,000 robot in the tank due to the high levels of contamination.

Another robot, the Sand Mantis, looks like a fire hose on wheels. However, it comes packed with power, with the ability to blast tough toxic salts that build up in waste tanks with its 35,000psi water cannon. For comparison, a regular firehose has around 300psi of pressure. In order to support the huge power, the orifice of the hose is made of gems, such as sapphires, which can withstand the pressure….Finally, the Tandem Synthetic Aperture Focusing Technique,or Tank Crawler, locates cracks or corrosion in Hanford’s waste storage tanks using ultrasonic and electrical conductivity sensors.

2011: Fukushima—Previously designed robots failed to visually inspect the reactor, either breaking due to high radiation or by getting stuck in the confined spaces. That was until Toshiba’s senior scientist in its technology division, Kenji Matsuzaki, developed the Little Sunfish – an amphibious bread loaf-sized robot that could slip into the 5.5-inch reactor pipelines.

In 2017,  the Sellafield nuclear site in the UK, scientists have been working on methods to clean up the vast amounts of nuclear sludge from its First-Generation Magnox Storage Pond, as part of decommissioning efforts said to cost around £1.9bn each year. The size of two Olympic swimming pools, the storage pond contains large amounts of nuclear sludge from decaying fuel rods stored below the surface.  While robots have been designed to reach the depths of the pond and remove nuclear waste, none proved to be very successful, until Cthulhu– Collaborative Technology Hardened for Underwater and Littoral Hazardous Environment.  Cthulhu is a tracked robot that can move along the bottom ofthe storage pond, using whisker-like sensors and sonar to identify and retrieve the nuclear rods.

2018:  The South West Nuclear Hub at the University of Bristol inthe UK is collaborating with Sellafield to develop a nuclear waste robotic suit for humans, taking inspiration from the comic book hero Iron Man.

Excepts from Cherno-bots to Iron Man suits: the development of nuclear waste robotics,, Power-Technology. com, Dec. 4, 2018

The Fate of Disused Highly Radioactive Sources

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has helped remove 27 disused highly radioactive sources from five South American countries in a significant step forward for nuclear safety and security in the region. It was the largest such project ever facilitated by the IAEA.  The material, mainly used for medical purposes such as treating cancer and sterilizing instruments, was transported to Germany and the United States for recycling. Canada, where some of the sources were manufactured, funded the project upon requests for IAEA support from Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

The sealed Cobalt-60 and Caesium-137 sources pose safety and security risks when no longer in use…

Some of these sources were stored at hospitals for more than 40 years,” said César José Cardozo Román, Minister, Executive Secretary, Radiological Nuclear Regulatory Authority of Paraguay. “With this action, a problematic situation has been solved, improving safety for the public and environment and reducing the risk of malicious use and possible exposure to radioactive material.”

In recent years, the IAEA has assisted Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Honduras, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Uzbekistan in the removal of disused sources. The South American operation was the largest the IAEA has so far coordinated in terms of both the number of highly radioactive sources and countries involved.

Excerpts from IAEA Helps Remove Highly Radioactive Material from Five South American Countries, IAEA Press Release, Apr. 30, 2018

Radioactive Beaches: Fukushima at 2017

Six years after the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan, radioactive material is leaching into the Pacific Ocean from an unexpected place. Some of the highest levels of radioactive cesium-137, a major by-product of nuclear power generation, are now found in the somewhat salty groundwater beneath sand beaches tens of kilometers away, a new study shows.

Scientists tested for radioactivity at eight different beaches within 100 kilometers of the plant, which experienced three reactor meltdowns when an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, knocked out its power. Oceans, rivers and fresh groundwater sources are typically monitored for radioactivity following a nuclear accident, but several years following the disaster, those weren’t the most contaminated water sources. Instead, brackish groundwater underneath the beaches has accumulated the second highest levels of the radioactive element (surpassed only by the groundwater directly beneath the reactor).

In the wake of the 2011 accident, seawater tainted with high levels of cesium-137 probably traveled along the coast and lapped against these beaches, proposes study coauthor Virginie Sanial, who did the work while at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Some cesium stuck to the sand and, over time, percolated down to the brackish groundwater beneath. Now, the radioactive material is steadily making its way back into the ocean. The groundwater is releasing the cesium into the coastal ocean at a rate that’s on par with the leakage of cesium into the ocean from the reactor site itself, Sanial’s team estimates.

Excerpts from Radioactive material from Fukushima disaster turns up in a surprising place, Science News, Oct. 2, 2017

See also Unexpected source of Fukushima-derived radiocesium to the coastal ocean of Japan

Disused, Dangerous and Nuclear

Most of radioactive waste arising from nuclear applications consists of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS). Radioactive sources are used in different devices in medical, industrial and agricultural facilities. They have to be accounted for and when they are no longer usable, they have to be recovered, dismantled, stored and, as the case may be, prepared for transportation. Therefore, countries with or without nuclear power programmes have to make sure they have the ability to properly manage them. The IAEA is supporting capacity building in both regulatory framework and operation and can support removal operations. The IAEA is also developing tools (mobile tool kits, mobile hot cells, transport packages) and supporting the strengthening of regional capabilities.

In an effort to scale up the safe and secure management of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS), the IAEA on September 19, 2017 introduced a new concept of Qualified Technical Centres.

“At the IAEA we receive a large number of requests for assistance in characterization, conditioning and removal of all categories of DSRS,” said Christophe Xerri, Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, Xerri, Director, IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology  “The idea behind this initiative is to increase the worldwide capability to manage DSRS by encouraging countries with well-equipped centres and trained personnel to provide technical services for the management of DSRS, within their countries and regionally.”…

The IAEA regularly dispatches expert missions to Member States to provide advice and guidance for the recovery and conditioning of DSRS. The most recent missions include recovery and conditioning of DSRS in Honduras in July, in Ghana in August and in Malaysia in September 2017…

During the event, experts from several Member States highlighted recent projects and activities related to DSRS management. Participants learned details of a South American Source Removal Project, with 29 sources to be removed from five countries. The event also included presentations on national regulatory infrastructure for inventories of radioactive sources and progress made on the integration of mobile hot cell with borehole disposal system.

Excerpts from IAEA Announces Concept of Qualified Technical Centres for the Management of Disused Sealed Radioactive Sources, IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy, Sept. 19, 2017

Mishandling Nuclear Materials: who is to blame

Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times from 2012 to 2107 according to government documents.While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.

The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or – in the worst cases – after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.  Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.

In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory – a privately-run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico – admitted five weeks ago that in June 2017  it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes, instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident… According to the initial explanation Los Alamos filed with the government on June 23, 2017 the lab used air transport because one of the other labs – located in Livermore, California ― needed the plutonium urgently.

The incident – which came to light after a series of revelations by the Center for Public Integrity about other safety lapses at Los Alamos ― drew swift condemnation by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons work. It provoked the Energy Department to order a three-week halt to all shipments in and out of Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and a linchpin in the complex of privately-run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal.

In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly-enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive), or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which arguably has more experience with the handling and transport of radioactive materials than any other government entity, has no jurisdiction over nuclear weapons-related work by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) or its contractors. Instead, the Energy Department (of which the NNSA is a semi-autonomous part) regulates all the sites on its own, as well as the contractors that manage them.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials, Center for Public Integrity, Aug. 1, 2017