Archive for October, 2011

Thorium nuclear reactors – a pipe-dream?

October 9, 2011

For Australia, The Age, nuclear is the power of last resort. Michael Bachelard October 9, 2011

“……..NEW GENERATION REACTORS.  Conventional nuclear reactors use uranium, but leave behind waste, elements of which remain radioactive for thousands of years. In addition, the known reserves of high-grade uranium ore are running out. Only 80 years’ supply remains at current rates of use, and 40 years if the world doubles the number of reactors.

Various nuclear technologies are being explored to provide a new generation of reactors using much more abundant materials to generate power. The kind referred to by questioner Russell Hamstead, thorium fast-breeder reactors, will use thorium, an element that is three times more abundant than uranium. In its natural state, thorium will not produce energy because it is not ”fissile”, so it needs a trigger such as plutonium to kick off a reaction. In effect, this ”breeds” fissile material (hence the term ”breeder”).

According to Dracoulis, these reactors have the potential to be 100 per cent efficient. That is, they generate little or none of the highly radioactive waste produced by current reactors, removing another key objection to nuclear power: the problem of disposing of radioactive waste.

But thorium is not the only material that could be used in a breeder reactor: depleted uranium can also be kicked back into energy production under the right conditions. The downside is that they are very expensive and have ”never been commercial”. Superphoenix, a breeder reactor in France, took seven years from 1974 to build, but produced a small fraction of the electricity it promised to produce and was eventually closed in 1998.

Diesendorf is unconvinced about thorium particularly: ”The new technology doesn’t exist. It’s all talk, it’s all plans. India has been trying to build an incredibly complicated three-part system for thorium and if it ever works it will be much more expensive than existing reactors and even more dangerous.”

Read more:

10 most radioactive places

October 4, 2011

 10 Most Radioactive Places on Earth   Infinite Unknown 24 Sept 11 While the 2011 earthquake and worries surrounding Fukushima have brought the threat of radioactivity back into the public consciousness, many people still don’t realize that radioactive contamination is a worldwide danger. Radionuclides are in the top six toxic threats as listed in the 2010 report by The Blacksmith Institute, an NGO dedicated to tackling pollution. You might be surprised by the locations of some of the world’s most radioactive places — and thus the number of people living in fear of the effects radiation could have on them and their children.

10. Hanford, USA

The Hanford Site, in Washington, was an integral part of the US atomic bomb project, manufacturing plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and “Fat Man,” used at Nagasaki. As the Cold War waged on, it ramped up production, supplying plutonium for most of America’s 60,000 nuclear weapons. Although decommissioned, it still holds two thirds of the volume of the country’s high-level radioactive waste — about 53 million gallons of liquid waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater underneath the area, making it the most contaminated site in the US. The environmental devastation of this area makes it clear that the threat of radioactivity is not simply something that will arrive in a missile attack, but could be lurking in the heart of your own country.

9. The Mediterranean

For years, there have been allegations that the ‘Ndrangheta syndicate of the Italian mafia has been using the seas as a convenient location in which to dump hazardous waste — including radioactive waste — charging for the service and pocketing the profits. An Italian NGO, Legambiente, suspects that about 40 ships loaded with toxic and radioactive waste have disappeared in Mediterranean waters since 1994. If true, these allegations paint a worrying picture of an unknown amount of nuclear waste in the Mediterranean whose true danger will only become clear when the hundreds of barrels degrade or somehow otherwise break open. The beauty of the Mediterranean Sea may well be concealing an environmental catastrophe in the making.

8. The Somalian Coast

The Italian mafia organization just mentioned has not just stayed in its own region when it comes to this sinister business. There are also allegations that Somalian waters and soil, unprotected by government, have been used for the sinking or burial of nuclear waste and toxic metals — including 600 barrels of toxic and nuclear waste, as well as radioactive hospital waste. Indeed, the United Nations’ Environment Program believes that the rusting barrels of waste washed up on the Somalian coastline during the 2004 Tsunami were dumped as far back as the 1990s. The country is already an anarchic wasteland, and the effects of this waste on the impoverished population could be as bad if not worse than what they have already experienced.

7. Mayak, Russia

The industrial complex of Mayak, in Russia’s north-east, has had a nuclear plant for decades, and in 1957 was the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents. Up to 100 tons of radioactive waste were released by an explosion, contaminating a massive area. The explosion was kept under wraps until the 1980s. Starting in the 1950s, waste from the plant was dumped in the surrounding area and into Lake Karachay. This has led to contamination of the water supply that thousands rely on daily. Experts believe that Karachay may be the most radioactive place in the world, and over 400,000 people have been exposed to radiation from the plant as a result of the various serious incidents that have occurred — including fires and deadly dust storms. The natural beauty of Lake Karachay belies its deadly pollutants, with the radiation levels where radioactive waste flows into its waters enough to give a man a fatal dose within an hour.

6. Sellafield, UK

Located on the west coast of England, Sellafield was originally a plutonium production facility for nuclear bombs, but then moved into commercial territory. Since the start of its operation, hundreds of accidents have occurred at the plant, and around two thirds of the buildings themselves are now classified as nuclear waste. The plant releases some 8 million liters of contaminated waste into the sea on a daily basis, making the Irish Sea the most radioactive sea in the world. England is known for its green fields and rolling landscapes, but nestled in the heart of this industrialized nation is a toxic, accident-prone facility, spewing dangerous waste into the oceans of the world.

5. Siberian Chemical Combine, Russia

Mayak is not the only contaminated site in Russia; Siberia is home to a chemical facility that contains over four decades’ worth of nuclear waste. Liquid waste is stored in uncovered pools and poorly maintained containers hold over 125,000 tons of solid waste, while underground storage has the potential to leak to groundwater. Wind and rain have spread the contamination to wildlife and the surrounding area. And various minor accidents have led to plutonium going missing and explosions spreading radiation. While the snowy landscape may look pristine and immaculate, the facts make clear the true level of pollution to be found here.

4. The Polygon, Kazakhstan

Once the location for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons testing, this area is now part of modern-day Kazakhstan. The site was earmarked for the Soviet atomic bomb project due to its “uninhabited” status — despite the fact that 700,000 people lived in the area. The facility was where the USSR detonated its first nuclear bomb and is the record-holder for the place with the largest concentration of nuclear explosions in the world: 456 tests over 40 years from 1949 to 1989. While the testing carried out at the facility — and its impact in terms of radiation exposure — were kept under wraps by the Soviets until the facility closed in 1991, scientists estimate that 200,000 people have had their health directly affected by the radiation. The desire to destroy foreign nations has led to the specter of nuclear contamination hanging over the heads of those who were once citizens of the USSR.

3. Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan

Considered one of the top ten most polluted sites on Earth by the 2006 Blacksmith Institute report, the radiation at Mailuu-Suu comes not from nuclear bombs or power plants, but from mining for the materials needed in the processes they entail. The area was home to a uranium mining and processing facility and is now left with 36 dumps of uranium waste — over 1.96 million cubic meters. The region is also prone to seismic activity, and any disruption of the containment could expose the material or cause some of the waste to fall into rivers, contaminating water used by hundreds of thousands of people. These people may not ever suffer the perils of nuclear attack, but nonetheless they have good reason to live in fear of radioactive fallout every time the earth shakes.

2. Chernobyl, Ukraine

Home to one of the world’s worst and most infamous nuclear accidents, Chernobyl is still heavily contaminated, despite the fact that a small number of people are now allowed into the area for a limited amount of time. The notorious accident caused over 6 million people to be exposed to radiation, and estimates as to the number of deaths that will eventually occur due to the Chernobyl accident range from 4,000 to as high as 93,000. The accident released 100 times more radiation than the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. Belarus absorbed 70 percent of the radiation, and its citizens have been dealing with increased cancer incidence ever since. Even today, the word Chernobyl conjures up horrifying images of human suffering.

1. Fukushima, Japan

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami was a tragedy that destroyed homes and lives, but the effects of the Fukushima nuclear power plant may be the most long-lasting danger. The worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the incident caused meltdown of three of the six reactors, leaking radiation into the surrounding area and the sea, such that radiative material has been detected as far as 200 miles from the plant. As the incident and its ramifications are still unfolding, the true scale of the environmental impact is still unknown. The world may still be feeling the effects of this disaster for generations to come.

Finland’s Onkalo nuclear waste tomb – limited space

October 4, 2011

TVO: No room for Fennovoima waste in nuclear cave, YLE FI  4 oct 11, Onkalo on Finland’s west coast will be the world’s first permanent nuclear waste repository. The project director of the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant, TVO Senior Vice President Jouni Silvennoinen, insists there is no space for waste from utilities other than TVO or Fortum in the Onkalo underground disposal site on Finland’s west coast.

Onkalo (or ‘cave’) is being dug into the bedrock near the Olkiluoto power station by Posiva, which is 60 percent owned by TVO and 40 percent by Fortum. The latter utility owns two commercial reactors in Loviisa on the south-east coast, and has applied to build a third. TVO has two operating reactors on Olkiluoto, an island in the municipality of Eurajoki, on the west coast between Rauma and Pori.

Finland is the first country in the world to attempt to build a safe permanent storage place for nuclear waste, at an estimated cost of some three billion euros. Similar repositories are planned in Sweden – where this so-called multi-barrier deep geological disposal system was devised – and France, but construction has not begun.

In the meantime, most of the world’s spent fuel rods are being temporarily stored in tanks of water – a practice being increasingly called into question since last spring’s Fukushima disaster. There are now some 1900 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste being held in interim storage in Finland.

Do the math

TVO is building a third nuclear power production unit (OL3) and has received the green light from the government for a fourth (OL4). Meanwhile Fortum has two at Loviisa, and hopes to build a third there someday. However that is unlikely to be approved during the current legislative term at least.

In effect, the companies are planning to make Onkalo only large enough for waste from their own potential seven reactors – and are counting Fennovoima’s already-approved one as Finland’s eighth.

Spent fuel from the Fortum and TVO plants will have to be stored for 40-60 years before it cools enough to be stored underground. As the oldest Finnish reactors have been in operation since the late 1970s, some of their waste will soon be old enough for encapsulation.Speaking to YLE journalists last week, TVO Senior Vice President Jouni Silvennoinen reiterated that there is no possibility of also using the repository to store spent fuel from Finland’s sixth reactor. It is to be built by a newly-formed consortium, Fennovoima, either in Pyhäjoki or Simo, both on the upper part of Finland’s west coast. Last week a court removed the last legal obstacles to those site choices.

TVO offers to share know-how

The Nuclear Energy Act revision of 1994 requires nuclear power plant operators to arrange permanent disposal of nuclear waste within the country. The radioactive waste from Finland’s nuclear plants cannot be exported. Fennovoima has asked for permission to use Onkalo, but been rebuffed by TVO and Fortum.

We’re not trying to be nasty,” said Silvennoinen on Wednesday. “But the simple fact is that there is not enough room. We can’t expand the site under the sea. We can’t create another deeper level because then it might not withstand the pressure of an ice age. And we can’t build a shallower level because the underground water there is saltier and therefore more corrosive.”

“However we would be happy to share our know-how,” he added. “There are many other places in Finland where there is bedrock suitable for building a similar repository.”

Posiva is to formally apply for planning permission to build the storage area of the repository next year. Permanent disposal of radioactive waste at Onkalo is to begin in 2020 and be completed about a century later. The material is to be sealed in copper canisters and surrounded by bentonite clay in a labyrinth of tunnels extending 420 meters underground.

OL3 online in 2013

This depth was reached in June 2010, and commemorated in a ceremony led by then-Minister of Economic Affairs Mauri Pekkarinen. However it will take decades for the entire network of tunnels to be completed.

Nuclear waste is to be stored in copper capsules. (YLE / Kati Rantala)Meanwhile OL3, which will be the world’s largest nuclear power reactor, remains far behind schedule and over budget. It was originally to have begun operations in 2009. Now Silvennoinen says fuel will be loaded a year from now, with commercial operations to begin roughly a year after that.

On Thursday, the Rauma newspaper Länsi-Suomi reported that the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) has identified safety concerns at operating Finnish power plants as part of stress tests conducted after last spring’s Fukushima crisis in Japan. These include the lack of backup cooling systems that are independent of electrical supply at the Olkiluoto1 and 2 reactors.

Guaranteed for 100 millennia?

The Onkalo project is best known internationally because of Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen’s 2010 documentary Into Eternity, which earned more than a dozen awards at film festivals worldwide. Experts interviewed for the film expressed doubts as to whether the repository can really remain undisturbed for 100,000 years – which is some 10 times longer than any structure made by humans has so far lasted. It also raises the tantalising question of whether, and how, future generations of humans – or anyone else – should be warned to stay away from the site.

Such long-term questions about the plan have been raised by experts such as Geology Professor Emeritus Matti Saarnisto, and former Secretary-General of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, who studied the plan for the nuclear safety watchdog STUK. In June 2010 he told Parliament that “an exaggeratedly positive image has been presented of the integrity of the structure of Olkiluoto’s bedrock”. He warns that a honeycomb of storage sites extending over an area of several square kilometres will weaken the bedrock, making it vulnerable to earthquakes, and that during an ice age permafrost could spread deep into the rock, potentially rupturing the canisters and releasing radioactivity into the groundwater.

In short, it is difficult for anyone to guarantee that none of these will occur during the estimated 100,000 years that it will take for the radioactivity level of the waste to decline to non-hazardous levels.

BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine – Water Consumptiom

October 2, 2011
“Nuclear ‘once-through’ systems use about 20 to 25 per cent more water and nuclear ‘closed systems’ can use up to 83 per cent more water. Per megawatt existing nuclear power stations use and consume more water than power stations using other fuel sources. Depending on the cooling technology utilised, the water requirements for a nuclear power station can vary between 20 to 83 per cent more than for other power stations.”
– Dep of Parliamentary Services research note, 4 December 2006, no. 12, 2006–07, ISSN 1449-8456

“The Olympic Dam mining and processing operations currently use up to 35 megalitres per day of water. “it is estimated that an additional 120 Ml per day may be required for the expanded project.”

– Olympic Dam Environmental Impacts Statement, Seawater Desalination Plant Information Sheet #4, August 2006

Water consumption figures:
Nuclear: 2.3 L/ kWh
Solar (PV): 0.110 L/ kWh
Wind: 0.004 L/ kWh
(American Wind Energy Association estimate & US DOE)