Tag Archives: radioactive pollution

Radioactive Water Dumping and Human Rights

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, [UN Special Rapporteurs  have] consistently raised concerns about the approaches taken by the government of Japan. UN Special Rapporteurs have been concerned that raising of “acceptable limits” of radiation exposure to urge resettlement violated the government’s human rights obligations to children.

UN Special Rapporteurs have been concerned of the possible exploitation of migrants and the poor for radioactive decontamination work. Their most recent concern is how the government used the COVID-19 crisis to dramatically accelerate its timeline for deciding whether to dump radioactive wastewater accumulating at Fukushima Daiichi in the ocean

The communities of Fukushima, so devastated by the tragic events of March 11, 2011, have expressed their concerns and opposition to the discharge of the contaminated water into their environment. It is their human right to an environment that allows for living a life in dignity, to enjoy their culture, and to not be exposed deliberately to additional radioactive contamination. Those rights should be fully respected and not be disregarded by the government in Tokyo. The discharge of nuclear waste to the ocean could damage Japan’s international relations. Neighboring countries are already concerned about the release of large volumes of radioactive tritium and other contaminants in the wastewater.

Japan has a duty under international law to prevent transboundary environmental harm. More specifically, under the London Convention, Japan has an obligation to take precaution with the respect to the dumping of waste in the ocean.

Indigenous peoples have an internationally recognized right to free, prior and informed consent. This includes the disposal of waste in their waters and actions that may contaminate their food. No matter how small the Japanese government believes this contamination will be of their water and food, there is an unquestionable obligation to consult with potentially affected indigenous peoples that it has not met…The disaster of 2011 cannot be undone. However, Japan still has an opportunity to minimize the damage…There are grave risks to the livelihoods of fishermen in Japan and also to its international reputation. Again, I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

Excerpts from, Baskut Tuncak [UN Rapporteur], Fukushima nuclear waste decision also a human rights issue, Kyodo News, July 8, 2020

Forever Fukushima: Cleaning Up the Huge Mess

By the end of 2019, Japan further delayed the removal of thousands of spent fuel units that remain in cooling pools since the 2011 disaster The government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., are keeping a 30- to 40-year completion target.

More than 4,700 units of fuel rods remain at the three melted reactors and two others that survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. They pose a high risk because their storage pools are uncovered and a loss of water in case of another major disaster could cause the fuel rods to melt, releasing massive radiation. Their removal at Units 1 and 2, after repeated delays, is now postponed by up to 10 years from the initial target of 2018, with more preparation needed to reduce radiation and clear debris and other risks.

Fuel rod removal at the Unit 1 reactor pool will begin sometime in 2027-2028, after debris is cleaned up and a huge rooftop cover installed to contain radioactive dust. Fuel removal at Unit 2 pool is to begin in 2024-2026. Work at the Unit 3 reactor pool began in April 2019 and all 566 units will be removed by March 2021. TEPCO has emptied the pool at Unit 4, which was offline and only suffered building damage, and aims to have all remaining rods in reactor pools removed by 2031 for safer storage in dry casks.

TEPCO has been unable to release the 1.2 million tons of treated but still radioactive water kept in nearly 1,000 tanks at the plant, fearing public repercussions and the impact on the area’s struggling fishing and agriculture. The amount of water is growing by 170 tons daily because it is used to cool the melted fuel inside the reactors.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry recently drafted a proposal to release the water to the sea or the air, or a combination of both. TEPCO says it can only store up to 1.37 million tons, or until the summer of 2022. Time is limited because preparation is needed before any water release. TEPCO and the government say the tanks pose risks if they were to spill their contents in another major earthquake, tsunami or flood…. The water is still somewhat contaminated, but TEPCO says further treatment can remove all but radioactive tritium to levels allowed for release. Experts say tritium is not harmful to humans in small amounts and has been routinely released from nuclear plants around the world.

Removing an estimated 880 tons of molten fuel from Fukushima’s three melted reactors is the toughest and unprecedented challenge. It’s six times the amount dealt with in the aftermath of the 1979 Three Mile Island partial core melt in the United States.  Removal is to begin in 2021 at Unit 2, where robotic probes have made more progress than at Units 1 and 3. A robotic arm was developed to enter the reactor from the side to reach the melted fuel, which has largely fallen to the bottom of the primary containment vessel… The first decade through 2031 is a crucial phase that will affect future progress…

Japan has yet to develop a plan to dispose of the highly radioactive melted fuel and other debris that come out of the reactors. TEPCO will compile a plan for those after the first decade of melted fuel removal. Managing the waste will require new technologies to reduce its volume and toxicity. TEPCO and the government say they plan to build a site to store waste and debris removed from the reactors, but finding one and obtaining public consent will be difficult.

Additionally, there will be an estimated 770,000 tons of solid radioactive waste by 2030, including contaminated debris and soil, sludge from water treatment, scrapped tanks and other waste. They will be sorted, treated and compacted for safe storage under a plan to be compiled by 2028.

The government says Fukushima’s decommissioning cost is estimated at 8 trillion yen ($73 billion), though adding compensation, decontamination of surrounding areas and medium-term storage facilities would bring the total to an estimated 22 trillion yen ($200 billion). The Japan Center for Economic Research, a think tank, estimates that decommissioning alone would cost 51 trillion yen ($470 billion) if the water is not released and tritium removal technology is pursued.

More than 10,000 workers will be needed annually in coming years, about one third assigned to work related to the radioactive water. 

Excerpts from MARI YAMAGUCHI,  Japan revises Fukushima cleanup plan, delays key steps, Associated Press, Dec. 27, 2019

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

Where to Go? 1 Million Tons Radioactive Water at Fukushima

In August 2019, Tepco projected that storage of radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear plant would reach full capacity by around summer 2022 even after the expansion — the first time it has issued such a precise estimate.  According to Tepco, the Fukushima No. 1 plant had 960 massive tanks containing 1.15 million tons of treated water as of July 18, 2019. Water that has touched the highly radioactive melted fuel debris has been cleaned up through water treatment machines and is stored in the tanks, but the high-tech treatment machines are able to remove most radionuclides except tritium. The plant currently sees an increase of contaminated water by 170 tons a day, Tepco says.

Releasing tritium-tainted water into the sea in a controlled manner is common practice at nuclear power plants around the world, and it was generally considered the most viable option as it could be done quickly and would cost the least.  The head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Toyoshi Fuketa, has long said that releasing the treated water into the sea is the most reasonable option, but people in Fukushima, especially fishermen, fear it will damage the region’s reputation.

Addressing those concerns, the government panel, launched in November 2016, has been looking for the best option in terms of guarding against reputational damage. Injecting it into the ground, discharging it as steam or hydrogen, or solidification followed by underground burial have all been on the table. Under the current plan, Tepco is set to increase the tank space to store 1.37 million tons of water a total, but estimates show that will only last until summer 2022.  But the more space it creates, the bigger the decommissioning headache becomes.

Excerpts from KAZUAKI NAGAT, Fukushima nuclear plant to run out of tanks to store tritium-laced water in three years, Tepco says, Japan Times, Aug. 9, 2019
BY KAZUAKI NAGATA

How Nuclear Explosions Affect the Deep Ocean

Radioactive carbon released into the atmosphere from 20th-century nuclear bomb tests has reached the deepest parts of the ocean, new research finds.  A new study in AGU’s journal Geophysical Research Letters finds the first evidence of radioactive carbon from nuclear bomb tests in muscle tissues of crustaceans that inhabit Earth’s ocean trenches, including the Mariana Trench, home to the deepest spot in the ocean.

Mariana Deep Ocean Trench

Organisms at the ocean surface have incorporated this “bomb carbon” into the molecules that make up their bodies since the late 1950s. Crustaceans in deep ocean trenches are feeding on organic matter from these organisms when it falls to the ocean floor. The results show human pollution can quickly enter the food web and make its way to the deep ocean, according to the study’s authors.



Crustacean

According to researchers, water containing carbon-14 can take centuries to circulate throughout the ocean, but the food web drastically accelerated the process. “There’s a very strong interaction between the surface and the bottom, in terms of biologic systems, and human activities can affect the biosystems even down to 11,000 meters,” said Weidong Sun, a coauthor of the study, “so we need to be careful about our future behaviors.”

RADIOACTIVE CARBON FROM NUCLEAR BOMB TESTS FOUND IN DEEP OCEAN TRENCHES
AGU Press Release, 8 May 2019

Institutions Go Way But Not Nuclear Waste

The Trump administration  is asking Congress for money to resume work on the Yucca Mountain nulcear waste storage in Nevada.  But that may not end local opposition or a longstanding political stalemate. And in the meantime, nuclear plants are running out of room to store spent fuel….As the waste piles up, private companies are stepping in with their own solutions for the nation’s radioactive spent fuel. One is proposing a temporary storage site in New Mexico, and another is seeking a license for a site in Texas.

Most experts agree that what’s needed is a permanent site, like Yucca Mountain, that doesn’t require humans to manage it.  “Institutions go away,” says Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s no guarantee the owner will still be around for the duration of time when that waste remains dangerous, which is tens or hundreds of thousands of years.”

A California company says it has a viable plan for permanent storage. Deep Isolation wants to store spent fuel in holes drilled at least 1,000 feet underground in stable rock formations. The company says the waste would be separate from groundwater and in a place where it can’t hurt people.  “I like to imagine having a playground at the top of the Deep Isolation bore hole where my kids and I can go play,” says CEO Elizabeth Muller.  In November 2018, Muller’s company conducted a test north of Austin, Texas. Crews lowered an 80-pound canister into a drilled hole. It was a simulation, so no radioactive substances were involved. The goal was to determine whether they could also retrieve the canister.  The test was successful, and that’s important. Regulators require retrieval, because new technology could develop to better deal with the spent fuel. And the public is less likely to accept disposal programs that can’t be reversed, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Proving the waste can be retrieved may be the easy part. The bigger challenge is federal law, which doesn’t allow private companies to permanently store nuclear waste from power plants.  Current law also says all the waste should end up at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. By contrast, Deep Isolation’s technology would store waste at sites around the country, likely near existing nuclear power plants.

Jeff Brady, As Nuclear Waste Piles Up, Private Companies Pitch New Ways To Store It, NPR, Apr. 30, 2019

Devil’s Idea for Tokyo’s End: Fukushima

By late March 2011… after tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant—it was far from obvious that the accident was under control and the worst was over. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano feared that radioactive material releases from the Fukushima Daiichi plant and its sister plant (Fukushima Daini) located some 12 km south could threaten the entire population of eastern Japan: “That was the devil’s scenario that was on my mind. Common sense dictated that, if that came to pass, then it was the end of Tokyo.”

Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked Dr. Shunsuke Kondo, then-chairman of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, to prepare a report on worst-case scenarios from the accidenta .  Dr. Kondo led a 3-day study involving other Japanese experts and submitted his report (Kondo, 2011) to the prime minister on March 25, 2011. The existence of the report was initially kept secret because of the frightening nature of the scenarios it described. An article in the Japan Times quoted a senior government official as saying, “The content [of the report] was so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist.” …

One of the scenarios involved a self-sustaining zirconium cladding fire in the Unit 4 spent fuel pool. Radioactive material releases from the fire were estimated to cause extensive contamination of a 50- to 70-km region around the Fukushima Daiichi plant with hotspots significant enough to require evacuations up to 110 km from the plant. Voluntary evacuations were envisioned out to 200 km because of elevated dose levels. If release from other spent fuel pools occurred, then contamination could extend as far as Tokyo,…There was particular concern that the zirconium cladding fire could produce enough heat to melt the stored fuel, allowing it to flow to the bottom of the pool, melt through the pool liner and concrete bottom, and flow into the reactor building.

Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident for Spent Fuel Storage: The U.S. nuclear industry and its regulator should give additional attention to improving the ability of plant operators to measure real-time conditions in spent fuel pools and maintain adequate cooling of stored spent fuel during severe accidents and terrorist attacks. These improvements should include hardened and redundant physical surveillance systems (e.g., cameras), radiation monitors, pool temperature monitors, pool water-level monitors, and means to deliver pool makeup water or sprays even when physical access to the pools is limited by facility damage or high radiation levels….

[At nuclear power plants there must be…adequate separation of plant safety and  security systems so that security systems can continue to function independently if safety systems are damaged. In particular, security systems need to have independent, redundant, and protected power sources…]

Excerpts from Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Accident for Improving
Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants: Phase 2, US National Academies, 2016

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

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

How to Survive a Nuclear Explosion

Nukemap is a tool that lets you detonate nuclear weapons over an interactive map of the world.  The app was created by a historian to help people better understand the effects of nuclear explosions.  A new version shows how various types of radioactive fallout shelters might protect you from exposure.  Nukemap’s goal is help users understand both the horror of nuclear attacks and their potential survivability.

As an example, suppose a 150-kiloton bomb detonates in New York City (near the ground).  This yield, in kilotons of TNT, would be about 10 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So Nukemap predicts that dangerous fallout from such a cataclysm could spread deep into Connecticut and douse Stamford….In this example blast, a person out in the open at Scalzi Park in Stamford, Connecticut, might get 116 rads of radiation exposure over five hours. Nukemap describes this as “sickness inducing,” since it’d be enough to weaken the body’s immune system (among other effects).  Meanwhile, if that Connecticut resident were to huddle in the basement of a nearby three-story brick building for 72 hours, they’d see only 8 rads — roughly equivalent to the dosage astronauts getafter living aboard the International Space Station for 6 months.

Exceprts from This simulator shows what a nuclear explosion would do to your town — and it just got a scary (yet helpful) new feature, Business Insider, Oct. 31, 2018

Stolen Nuclear Materials: Iraq

Iraq is searching for “highly dangerous” radioactive material stolen in 2015, according to an environment ministry document and seven security, environmental and provincial officials who fear it could be used as a weapon if acquired by Islamic State.

The material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer, went missing in November 2015 from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra belonging to U.S. oilfield services company Weatherford WFT.N, the document seen by Reuters showed and officials confirmed…

The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, according to the document and officials.  A U.S. official said separately that Iraq had reported a missing specialized camera containing highly radioactive Iridium-192 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog, in November 2015….The environment ministry document, dated Nov. 30 and addressed to the ministry’s Centre for Prevention of Radiation, describes “the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province”…

A senior environment ministry official based in Basra, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak publicly, told Reuters the device contained up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 “capsules”, a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.

The material is classed as a Category 2 radioactive source by the IAEA, meaning that if not managed properly it could cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it for minutes or hours, and could be fatal to someone exposed for a period of hours to days….

Large quantities of Ir-192 have gone missing before in the United States, Britain and other countries, stoking fears among security officials that it could be used to make a dirty bomb…..“They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb,” said the official, who works at the interior ministry…But the official said the initial inquiry suggested the perpetrators had specific knowledge of the material and the facility. “No broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry,” he said….

Besides the risk of a dirty bomb, the radioactive material could cause harm simply by being left exposed in a public place for several days, said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security…The senior environmental official said authorities were worried that whoever stole the material would mishandle it, leading to radioactive pollution of “catastrophic proportions”.

Excerpts from Exclusive: Radioactive material stolen in Iraq raises security fears, Reuters, Feb. 17, 2016

 

 

Nuclear Waste Mismanagement: Los Alamos to WIPP

The Timeline

June 2011: Las Conchas Fire threatens transuranic nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos.

Jan. 5, 2012: New Mexico Environment Department and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) prioritize cleanup of above-ground legacy waste and agree on a June 30, 2014, deadline to ship all Cold War-era nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

June 26, 2012: Gov. Susana Martinez visits Los Alamos to celebrate the 1,000th shipment of waste to WIPP.

Aug. 1, 2012: LANL changes policy, requiring organic kitty litter instead of the clay-based variety to absorb liquids in packaging of nuclear waste.

September 2012: The lab begins using organic kitty litter exclusively as an absorbent in waste.

August 2013: LANL officials authorize waste packaging contractor EnergySolutions to add neutralizer to acidic waste, despite manufacturer’s warnings about incompatibility.

Dec. 4, 2013: Waste Drum 68660 is packaged at Los Alamos for shipment to WIPP.

Feb. 5, 2014: An underground truck fire forces evacuation at WIPP.

Feb. 14, 2014: A chemical reaction causes the drum to rupture, triggering a radiation leak that exposed more than 20 workers to contamination and indefinitely shut down WIPP.

May 2014: The first public reports emerge that organic kitty litter may have been a factor in the radiation leak at WIPP, and WIPP officials learn details about the waste from LANL that indicate the lab hid certain truths about its contents and their volatility.

June 17, 2014: LANL scientists conclude heat from the ruptured drum at WIPP could have made up to 55 more drums stored nearby more volatile.

July 23, 2014: LANL officials acknowledge a lead-contaminated glove in the waste drum that burst at WIPP has been added to the factors being investigated as the possible cause.

Sept. 30, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy announces full resumption of activities at WIPP could be five years away and estimates the recovery cost at $500 million.

Oct. 1, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General issues a report condemning LANL for failing to follow its own internal safety procedures and warnings against mixing volatile components in the drum that ruptured at WIPP.

In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.  The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.

For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.
Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.

The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.

The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.

Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.

Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems….

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.  As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.,,,

More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.  “All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.
Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery….

Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.  A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held. “LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak, The New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2014

Nuclear Accidents of the Future

Three major atomic accidents [Three Mile Island US 1979, Chernobyl USSR 1986, Fukushima Japan 2011] in 35 years are forcing the world’s nuclear industry to stop imagining it can prevent more catastrophes and to focus instead on how to contain them.  As countries such as China and India embrace atomic power even after the Fukushima reactor meltdowns in 2011 caused mass evacuations because of radiation fallout, scientists warn the next nuclear accident is waiting to happen and could be in a country with little experience to deal with it.

“The cold truth is that, no matter what you do on the technological improvements side, accidents will occur — somewhere, someplace,” said Joonhong Ahn, a professor at the Department of Nuclear Engineering of University of California, Berkeley. The consequences of radiation release, contamination and evacuation of people is “clear and obvious,” Ahn said. That means governments and citizens should be prepared, not just nuclear utilities, he said.

While atomic power has fallen from favor in some western European countries since the Fukushima accident — Germany, for example, is shutting all of its nuclear plants — it’s gaining more traction in Asia as an alternative to coal. China has 28 reactors under construction, while Russia, India, and South Korea are building 21 more, according to the World Nuclear Association. Of the 176 reactors planned, 86 are in nations that had no nuclear plants 20 years ago, WNA data show…

The problem is that the causes of the three events followed no pattern, and the inability to immediately contain them escalated the episodes into global disasters with huge economic, environmental and political consequences. Even if no deaths have yet been officially linked to Fukushima radiation, for example, cleanup costs have soared to an estimated $196 billion and could take more than four decades to complete.

If nuclear is to remain a part of the world’s energy supply, the industry must come up with solutions to make sure contamination — and all other consequences — do not spread beyond station grounds, Gregory Jaczko, ex-chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo….

Since the introduction of nuclear stations in the 1950s, the industry has focused safety efforts on design and planning. Research and innovation has looked at back-up systems, passive technology that would react even if no human operator did, and strengthened materials used in construction of atomic stations….

The official toll from the reactor explosion at Chernobyl was put at 31 deaths. Radiation clean-up work, however, involved about 600,000 people, while 200,000 locals had to be relocated.  The accident contaminated 150,000 kilometers of land and according to the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev it was a factor in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In Japan, the meltdown of three Fukushima reactors helped unseat premier Naoto Kan and forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people, destroying local fishing, farming and tourism industries along the way. It also brought tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters out onto the streets in the country’s biggest demonstrations since the 1960s. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator and once the world’s biggest non-state power producer, would have been bankrupted by the Fukushima accident but for billions of dollars in government aid…

Building a plant that would contain an accident within the facility boils down to cold cash, he said.  The review calls for new reactor designs to make a major release of radioactive fallout outside the station site “practically impossible,” the IAEA said. The standard would be “crucial for public acceptance and for the sustainability of nuclear energy.” Specialists on the review met for the first time in March and no conclusions are yet available, IAEA spokesman Greg Webb said by e-mail.

The problem with an engineering solution, an ever better reactor design or grander safety systems, is that based on the premise that all technology is fallible those defense systems can also fail, Berkley’s Ahn said.  “This is an endless cycle,” Ahn said. “Whatever is your technology, however it is developed, we always have residual risk.”  When the next nuclear accident occurs the world needs to have better knowledge of how to limit the spread of radiation and do the clean-up, including removing radiation from the soil, water and having an efficient evacuation drill for the population in danger zones, Ahn said. We also need more understanding of the impact of low-dose radiation on organisms, he said.  “This is about recovery from an accident, not preventing an accident,” Ahn said. “It’s completely different. And I think this concept is very necessary for the future of nuclear utilization.”

Excerpts from Yuriy Humber, World Needs to Get Ready for the Next Nuclear Plant Accident, Bloomberg, Apr. 4, 2014