Tag Archives: radioactive waste

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

Getting Rid of Nuclear Waste for Good: A Dream Coming True?

Gerard Mourou—one of the three winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics—claims that the lifespan of radioactive waste could potentially be cut to minutes from thousands of years. Although Mourou, 74, is quick to say that the laser option for nuclear waste that he and Irvine, California-based Professor Toshiki Tajima are working on may be years away, its promise has created a flurry of excitement for the sector in France.

 Environmental group Greenpeace estimates that there’s a global stockpile of about 250,000 tons of toxic spent fuel spread across 14 countries, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of that, 22,000 cubic meters—roughly equivalent to a three-meter tall building covering an area the size of a soccer pitch—is hazardous, according to the IAEA. A 2015 report by GE-Hitachi put the cost of disposing nuclear waste—outside of China, Russia and India—at well over $100 billion.  France produces more nuclear waste per-capita than any other country. With almost 72 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy—the most in the world—it generates 2 kilograms of radioactive waste per person each year. And although only a fraction of that is highly toxic, more than 60 years after getting into nuclear energy, the country still has no definitive way to cope with it.

In April 2019, France opened its third national debate on nuclear waste, bringing together policy makers, advocacy groups and scientists to discuss handling an estimated 10,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste collectively produced by the country’s 58 reactors over their lifespan. And that doesn’t include atomic material generated by the military and medical sectors.

The most toxic parts are stored right now in short-term facilities in La Hague in Normandy, in Marcoule and Cadarache in southern France and in Valduc, near Dijon. At the facility in La Hague, an hour’s drive from the D-Day beaches, specially designed robots cast the most radioactive nuclear waste into glass casings before putting them in inox containers. Already the world’s largest facility for processing atomic waste, it is constantly being expanded—making a long-term solution urgent.

State-controlled nuclear entities Electricite de France SA and Orano SA, charged with nuclear waste management, and CEA, France’s Atomic Energy Agency, have spent billions on the toxic material. At least another 25 billion euros ($28 billion) is set to be plowed into an underground maze of tunnels near the village of Bure in northeastern France that could be the final resting place for the highly toxic waste starting in 2025.  Like with other deep storage sites in place, under construction or being considered in countries including the U.S., Japan, Finland and Sweden, the Bure plan has drawn protests. Greenpeace has pointed to several risks, not least of which being the chance of the toxic material seeping into the groundwater or a fire releasing radioactive gases.

Enter Mourou, with his high-intensity laser option. The physicist’s work has paved the way for the shortest and most-intense laser pulses ever created. In his Nobel Lecture on Dec. 8, Mourou laid out his vision for using his “passion for extreme light” to address the nuclear-waste problem.  The process he and Tajima are working on is called transmutation, which involves changing the composition of an atom’s nucleus by bombarding it with a laser. “It’s like karate—you deliver a very strong force in a very, very brief moment,” said Mourou…Transmutation research has been going on for three decades, with efforts in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, U.S. and Japan either failing or in various stages of study…“I can imagine that the physics might work, but the transmutation of high-level nuclear waste requires a number of challenging steps, such as the separation of individual radionuclides, the fabrication of targets on a large scale, and finally, their irradiation and disposal,” said Rodney C. Ewing, a professor in nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University. A radionuclide is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable.

Excerpts from Zapping Nuclear Waste in Minutes Is Nobel Winner’s Holy Grail Quest, Bloomberg, Apr. 2, 2019

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

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

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.

What to Do with Radioactive Pools

More than 60,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel is stored on the shores of four of the five Great Lakes at the Border between United States and Canada — in some cases, mere yards from the waterline — in still-growing stockpiles…It remains on the shorelines because there’s still nowhere else to put it…

The nuclear power industry and its federal regulator, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, point to spent nuclear fuel’s safe on-site storage over decades. But the remote possibility of a worst-case scenario release — from a natural disaster, a major accident, or an act of terrorism — could cause unthinkable consequences for the Great Lakes region.   Scientific research has shown a radioactive cloud from a spent fuel pool fire would span hundreds of miles, and force the evacuation of millions of residents in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto or other population centers, depending on where the accident occurred and wind patterns.

For five years, Michigan residents, lawmakers, environmental groups and others around the Midwest have, loudly and nearly unanimously, opposed a planned Canadian underground repository for low-to-medium radioactive waste at Kincardine, Ontario, near the shores of Lake Huron. Meanwhile, spent nuclear fuel, vastly more radioactive, sits not far from the shores of  four Great Lakes — Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario — at 15 currently operating or former nuclear power plant sites on the U.S. side. In Michigan, that includes Fermi 2; the Donald C. Cook nuclear plant in Berrien County; the Palisades nuclear plant in Van Buren County, and the former Big Rock Point nuclear plant in Charlevoix County, which ceased operation in 1997 and where now only casks of spent nuclear fuel remain.

Neither the U.S. nor the Canadian government has constructed a central collection site for the spent nuclear fuel. It’s not just a problem in the Great Lakes region — more than 88,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, an amount that is rising, is stored at 121 U.S. locations across 39 states.

Spent nuclear fuel isn’t only radioactive, it continues to generate heat. It requires storage in pools with circulating water for typically five years before it can be moved into so-called dry-cask storage — concrete-and-steel obelisks where spent fuel rods receive continued cooling by circulating air.In practice, however, because of the high costs associated with transferring waste from wet pools to dry casks, nuclear plants have kept decades worth of spent fuel in wet storage. Plant officials instead “re-rack” the pools, reconfiguring them to add more and more spent fuel, well beyond the capacities for which the pools were originally designed.

Only in recent years have nuclear plants stepped up the transition to dry cask storage because there’s no room left in the wet pools. Still, about two-thirds of on-site spent nuclear fuel remains in wet pools in the U.S….That’s a safety concern, critics contend. A catastrophe or act of terrorism that drains a spent fuel pool could cause rising temperatures that could eventually cause zirconium cladding — special brackets that hold the spent fuel rods in bundles — to catch fire.  Such a disaster could be worse than a meltdown in a nuclear reactor, as spent nuclear fuel is typically stored with nowhere near the fortified containment of a reactor core.

At Fukushima…what almost happened — at the plant’s Unit 4 spent-fuel pool that gives nuclear watchdogs nightmares.  A hydrogen explosion four days into the disaster left the building housing the Unit 4 spent-fuel pool in ruins. The pool was seven stories up in a crumbling, inaccessible building.  It “was so radioactive, you couldn’t put people up there,” von Hippel said. “For about a month after Fukushima, people didn’t know how much water was in the pool. They were shooting water up there haphazardly with a hose, trying to drop it by helicopter.”  Two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission secretly conducted a worst-case scenario study of the ongoing disaster. The biggest fear that emerged: that a self-sustaining fire would start in the Unit 4 spent fuel pool, spreading to the nearby, damaged reactors. That, they found, would release radiation requiring evacuations as far away as 150 miles, to the outskirts of Tokyo and its more than 13.4 million residents. “That was the devil’s scenario that was on my mind,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said during a special commission’s 2014 investigation of the accident.“Common sense dictated that, if that came to pass, then it was the end of Tokyo.”   What kept the spent fuel rods covered with water in Unit 4 was a miraculous twist of fate: The explosion had jarred open a gate that typically separated the Unit 4 spent fuel pool from an adjacent reactor pool.  “Leakage through the gate seals was essential for keeping the fuel in the Unit 4 pool covered with water,” a 2016 report on the Fukushima accident by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded. “Had there been no water in the reactor well, there could well have been severe damage to the stored fuel and substantial releases of radioactive material to the environment.”

The U.S. nuclear industry sees Fukushima differently — in some ways as a success story.  “At Fukushima, you not only had a tsunami, you blew up the buildings … and you still did not drain the pool,” said Rod McCullum, senior director for fuel and decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association for nuclear utilities in the U.S.  “Those pools and those casks withstood explosions and earthquakes and tsunamis, all on the same day.”  A scenario where a fire can occur by the draining of water from a spent-fuel pool “has never been demonstrated,” McCullum said. He noted safety measures added in the U.S. since Fukushima include the ability to provide extra pumps and water supplies, in minutes or hours, should a spent fuel pool become breached and lose water — even if the disaster required that the resources be brought in by air from farther away….

Because nuclear power is much more widely used in Canada — the province of Ontario alone has 20 nuclear reactors at three plants — it also generates much more nuclear waste.  In Ontario, nearly 52,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored on-site at nuclear plants along Lakes Huron and Ontario.“There’s a huge amount of high-level, radioactive waste stored right along the water,” said Edwards, the president of the nonprofit Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility  Like the U.S., Canada is seeking a long-term storage solution that will involve a central underground repository. Unlike the U.S., the Canadian government is seeking willing hosts, promising jobs and economic activity. …Even if a central repository is one day approved, another complication arises — how to get two generations of the most dangerous industrial waste man has ever created from sites all over the country to one point….

Germany, in the 1980s, tried using an abandoned salt and potash mine to store barrels of nuclear waste over 30 years, the Asse II mine.  It’s now prompting a cleanup that may take 30 years and cost nearly $12 billion U.S. dollars. The government has disputed the contention of workers at the mine that they were exposed to excessive levels of radiation, causing an unusual number of cancers….Nuclear power is projected to drop as a percentage of the world’s power generation mix from 10 percent in 2017 to just 5.6 percent by 2050, a report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency this summer found…

If central repository solutions aren’t found, within years, the re-licensing of some early dry-cask storage facilities will come into play, as they meet a lifespan they were never expected to reach. “The age of nuclear power is winding down, but the age of nuclear waste is just beginning,” Edwards said.

Excerpts from Keith Matheny, 60,000 tons of dangerous radioactive waste sits on Great Lakes shores, Detroit Free Press, Oct. 19, 2018