Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

Forget Nevada! How America Buries its Nuclear Waste 1999-2019

Just before midnight on June 27, 2019, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), Carlsbad, New Mexico received its 12,500th transuranic (TRU) waste shipment since operations began there in 1999.

Nuclear Waste heading to WIPP from Idaho

The shipment originated from the EM program at Idaho National Laboratory, which has sent WIPP the most TRU waste shipments — 6,500 and counting — of all Departement of Energy (DOE) generator sites over the past 20 years…

Idaoho National Laboratory Nuclear Waste Management

WIPP drivers have safely traveled over 14.9 million loaded miles, transporting more than 178,500 waste containers for permanent disposal 2,150 feet underground.

Excerpts from WIPP Reaches 12,500-Shipment Milestone, Press Release US Department of Energy, July 2, 2019

The Real Nuclear Weapons Doctrine of the United States

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in mid-June 2019 briefly published the Pentagon’s official doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. The joint chiefs quickly pulled the document — Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations from the public website. [But a public copy has been preserved] “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” the doctrine opines. “Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The joint chiefs published the nuclear document around the same time that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual 2019 report, detailing the world’s atomic arsenals.  At the start of 2019, Russia, the United States, and seven other countries possessed 13,865 nuclear weapons, SIPRI found. That represents “marked decline” from the 14,465 atomic weapons in world arsenals at the beginning of 2018, according to SIPRI….But the cuts could reverse. New START will expire in 2021 unless both parties agree to extend the treaty. “…

A senior U.S. intelligence official on May 29, 2019 accused Russia of secretly conducting nuclear tests in violation of an international treaty and the country’s own moratorium on such tests….But the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. was skeptical of the general’s claim. “Ashley would only say that Russia had the ‘capability’ to conduct very low-yield supercritical nuclear tests in contravention of the treaty, a capability which Russia, China and the United States have long had. He did not say that Russia has conducted or is conducting such tests.”  Ashley’s allegation is consistent with repeated attempts by Pres. Donald Trump, his administration and his allies in Congress to dismantle existing arms-control regimes by accusing Russia of violating them, thus justifying a U.S. withdrawal from the same regimes and clearing the way for a U.S. arms build-up.

The Trump administration echoed the administration of Pres. Barack Obama in accusing Russia of willfully violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, an accusation Russia has denied. The White House in February 2019 announced the United States’ withdrawal from the treaty, which bans land-based, medium-range missiles in Europe.

There’s irony in Ashley accusing Russia of violating the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which according to the Arms Control Association “prohibits any nuclear test explosions that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction and creates a robust international verification regime.”  “The United States has signed but not ratified the treaty,” the association pointed out. “The most effective way for the United States to enforce compliance with the zero-yield standard is for the Trump administration and the U.S. Senate to support ratification of the treaty and help to bring it into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating.”

Davide Axe, Oops: The Pentagon Just Revealed Its Nuclear Doctrine, National Interest, June 20, 2019

$400 Billion and Up: Cleaning Up Pollution from Nuclear Weapons

The cost of cleaning up pollution from nuclear weapons manufacturing is estimated to be  $377 billion.  This reflects cleanup cost estimates for 16 sites across the United States. Two of these, the Hanford site in Washington and Savannah River site in South Carolina, have most of  nuclear waste stored in tanks, which is particularly costly and complicated to treat.

family type bomb shelter (picture 1958)

These clean up costs  grew by $214 billion between 2011 and 2018 and they will continue to grow for several reasons including the lack of a program-wide cleanup strategy and reliance primarily on individual sites to locally negotiate cleanup activities and establish priorities. For example, the Hanford and Savannah River sites plan to treat similar radioactive tank waste differently, with Hanford’s efforts possibly costing tens of billions more than Savannah River’s. In addition, the government manages most of its cleanup work as operations activities, under less stringent requirements than other environmental remediation projects. For example, operations activities are not subject to independent oversight.

Excerpts adapted from GAO, Environmental Liability Continues to Grow, and Significant Management Challenges Remain for Cleanup Effort, May 1, 2019.

A Nuclear Leaking Grave

The Bravo test, the testiong of a nuclear bomb on March 1, 1954, in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands resulted in an explosion that was 2½ times larger than expected. Radioactive ash dropped more than 7,000 square miles from the bomb site, caking the nearby inhabited islands.  “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” the Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”

The 1954 explosion was part of nuclear tests conducted as the American military lurched into the nuclear age. From 1946 o 1958, 67 U.S. nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall islands….From 1977 to 1980, loose waste and top soil debris scraped off from six different islands in the Enewetak Atoll was transported to Runit island and was mixed with concrete and buried in nuclear blast crater. 4,000 US servicemen were involved in the cleanup that took three years to complete. The waste-filled crater was finally entombed in concrete.  The Runit Dome, also called locally “The Tomb”, is a 46 cm (18 in) thick dome of concrete at sea level, encapsulating an estimated 73,000 m3 (95,000 cu yd) of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239. …The structure, however, was never meant to last. Today, due to disrepair and rising sea tides, it is dangerously vulnerable. A strong storm could breach the dome, releasing the deadly legacy of America’s nuclear might….

Cracks have reportedly started to appear in the dome. Part of the threat is that the crater was never properly lined, meaning that rising seawater could breach the structural integrity. “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the ABC. “It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome. 

According to Guterres, UN Secretary General, who refers to Runit Dome as nuclear coffin: The Pacific was victimized in the past as we all know, The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas.”

Excerpts from Kyle Swenson , The U.S. put nuclear waste under a dome on a Pacific island. Now it’s cracking open, Washington Post, May 20, 2019 and Wikipedia

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