Archive for May, 2013

Ozyorsk the closed town – site of 1957 nuclear catastrophe

May 23, 2013

Ozyorsk was and remains a closed town because of its proximity to the Mayak plant, 

To consider how insanely radioactive Lake Karachay is, think about this: Chernobyl disaster: 5-12 exabecquerels blown over thousands of square miles Lake Karachay: 4 exabecquerels in this tiny lake, less than a quarter of a mile in diameter. Even approaching the lake will get you a lethal dose within an hour. And they ARE starting to cover it up with concrete and gravel as the water evaporates. As the water recedes, they lay down dirt, gravel and concrete over the area so it can’t fill back in and the sediment doesn’t get disturbed by the wind.

The 10 Worst Civilian Nuclear Accidents in History  , May 21, 2013   Quick -how many nuclear accidents can you name? Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima …any more? There have been quite a few nuclear accidents of varying danger that you probably never heard of, including some fatal incidents. For example, in 1957, nuclear waste exploded at a reactor near the Soviet town of Ozyorsk.

One of the storage tanks contained around 70 to 80 tons of radioactive liquid waste, and its cooling mechanism stopped working and wasn’t fixed. The tank’s contents, made up mostly of ammonium nitrate and acetates, began to dry out as the liquid heated up and evaporated. Moreover, the temperature increase caused an explosion whose force was equivalent to 70 to 100 tons of TNT, and this sent huge amounts of radioactivity – roughly 20 MCi (800 PBq) – into the environment. The fallout cloud from the explosion contaminated an area of up to 7,722 square miles (20,000 square kilometers).

Over a period of nearly two years, about 10,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area. In terms of fatalities, the exact cost of the incident is not known, but immediately around the site of the explosion there were 66 diagnosed cases of chronic radiation syndrome.

Renewable energy – many types of large scale battery storage coming into use

May 23, 2013

Large Scale Energy Storage Roundup 23 May 13, 

As the world increasingly moves towards renewable energy; it will need many individual energy storage locations distributed across the grid to address issues of variability in electricity production.   The idea of a battery being a relatively small device or a series of small boxes cobbled together with wiring is changing fast. Batteries capable of storing huge amounts of energy are being developed using all sort of materials and technologies.
The following are just a few we’ve reported on in the past; some of which are have now been deployed in commercial applications:

– Lithium polysulfide flow battery
– Sodium ion battery
– “Rust” battery
– Zinc air
– Iron phosphate
– Lithium-air
– Molten salt
– Beltway
– Flywheel
– Iron based flow
– Vanadium based flow
– Liquid metal
– Silicon air

More recently, we’ve covered underground compressed air storage and pumped hydro has been around in various forms for many years. Here are a few more large energy storage systems that have recently been put on our radar.

Isentropic pumps heat from one tank of inert material (e.g. gravel) into another. One tank of gravel is cooled to -160°C while another is heated up to 500°C. The process is reversible with a round trip efficiency claimed to be 72-80%. Advantages include low cost materials, high reliability and durability.

Energy Cache uses ski-lift style structures to lift gravel up a hill. This is stored gravitational potential energy. Advantages include cheap materials, a simple process and materials don’t degrade over time.

Subhydro is also type of gravity storage, using the pressure of sites deep underwater. Water is pumped out of rigid underwater tanks to store energy, then allowed to flow back through water turbines to generate electricity.

Hydrostor is another type of gravity storage, using the pressure of sites deep underwater. Air is pumped into flexible underwater tanks to store energy, then released through air turbines when required to generate power.

Depleted uranium, cancer, birth defects in Iraq – new findings

May 23, 2013

Scientists detect high levels of uranium contamination that increases cancers, birth defects in Iraq  May 21, 2013  Ten years after the Iraq war of 2003 a team of scientists based in Mosul, northern Iraq, have detected high levels of uranium contamination in soil samples at three sites in the province of Nineveh which, coupled with dramatically increasing rates of childhood cancers and birth defects at local hospitals, highlight the ongoing legacy of modern warfare to civilians in conflict zones. The radioactive element uranium is widely dispersed throughout the earth’s crust and is much sought after as a fuel for nuclear power plants and for use in weapons. Depleted uranium (DU), commonly used in modern munitions such as defensive armour plating and armour-piercing projectiles, is 40 per cent less radioactive than natural uranium, but remains a significant and controversial danger to human health.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets a maximum uranium exposure of 1 millisievert (mSv) per year for the general public, but environmental scientists at the University of Mosul and the Institute of Forest Ecology, Universitaet für Bodenkultur (BOKU), Vienna, Austria, led by Riyad Abdullah Fathi have measured significant levels of uranium in soil samples from three sites in the province of Nineveh in the north of Iraq. Writing in the journal Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Fathi and colleagues link their findings with dramatic increases in cancers reported to the Mosul Cancer Registry and the Iraqi national cancer registry (which began collecting data in 1975).

They conclude that:

“The Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 left a legacy of pollution with DU in many regions of Iraq. The effects of these munitions may be affecting the general health of Iraqi citizens, manifesting in an increase in cancers and birth defects.”

They also warn that, even though some of the contamination measured in this study is specifically linked to known sites, it can be easily spread widely in the air, soil and water, particularly as dust in windstorms.

Their report “Environmental pollution by depleted uranium in Iraq with special reference to Mosul and possible effects on cancer and birth defect rates” begins with a literature review that collates health-related data from a range of sources, including a report by the WHO (in 2003), which states that childhood cancers – particularly leukaemia – are ten times higher in Iraq than in other industrialised countries.

Although there is already significant evidence of cancers and related illnesses in adults (particularly war veterans), the authors emphasise that it is the dramatic rise in the incidence of cancer and birth defects in children under 15 years of age since the second Gulf War that points to the terrible legacy of DU weaponry. Childhood cancers are now some five times higher than before the two Gulf Wars (currently around 22 children per 100,000, compared with approximately 4 children per 100,000 in 1990).

The focal point of their scientific study was three sites near Mosul: Adayah, a landfill for radioactive waste; Rihanyah, a former research centre for nuclear munitions (disused since 1991); and Damerchy, a small village on the Tigris River (about 10km north of Mosel), which was a scene of fighting in the 2003 conflict. Particularly high levels of uranium were found at Rihanyah where storage ponds of liquid and solid waste from uranium processing are still a source of radioactive pollution. The accumulation of uranium in wild plants (principally the shrub Lagonychium farctum) was noted in Damerchy, where it is thought to have entered the food chain and is linked to the death of numerous head of cattle.

The team acknowledge that there are numerous other factors that impact on the data for cancer rates in the wider Iraqi population, including population increases and possible inaccuracies due to reluctance to register congenital malformations and deaths or poor administration in hospitals (although almost 70 per cent of births took place outside hospitals).

Nevertheless, with the WHO predicting that global cancer levels will rise by 50 per cent between 2003 and 2020, the presence of so much carcinogenic material across Iraq suggests that the public health legacy of the two Gulf Wars is only going to get worse.


New radiation detection method- crowd sourcing radiation exposure data

May 23, 2013

Safecast’s software and devices are all open source, and anyone can use the data. Franken says it’s being used by researchers around the world and even by the government in some Japanese cities.

you can tie specific medical symptoms to radiation levels.”


“We want to cover every street so people who look at our maps can drill down and zoom in and find out what the measurement is right in front of their house,” Moross says.

Moross is taking measurements for Safecast. Since the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daichi two years ago, volunteers like him have been driving around Japan, testing radiation and adding their readings to online maps.

When The World last checked in on Safecast, in May of 2011, the group had just formed and had posted a handful of radiation measurements.

Now, Safecast volunteers have taken close to 10 million separate readings…….

Franken demonstrates one of Safecast’s bGeiges. The “b” is for bento box because of the device’s resemblance to a small lunchbox. “So this looks like ordinary kind of thing,” Franken says. “You can clip it on your belt and you can be casual, but inside is a Geiger counter. It has a GPS and a complete computer inside.”

It has a waterproof, shockproof case so it can be attached to a car or bicycle.

Safecast is also working on a drone that can carry a Geiger counter into areas too dangerous for humans.

Safecast has loaned dozens of these devices to volunteers and now offers a kit for people who want to build their own.

All those Geiger counters have gathered a lot of data. Two years ago, Safecast’s map had a lot of blank space. Now, it has more detailed information about radiation in Japan than any other public source. Franken zooms in and out on the online map.

“As you can see, [around] Tokyo, all the roads on the map are basically filled by dots,” he says. The dots are radiation readings. The map is color-coded, so you can see where levels are higher. One thing this data reveals is that being near the nuclear plant doesn’t necessarily put you in danger – and being far away doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. Radiation didn’t spread in a tidy circle. There are hot spots here and there, depending on things like how the wind blew and whether there were hills.

“In cities [like] Fukushima City or Koriyama City there are really big differences street by street,” Franken says. “That’s why measurement street by street became more relevant: because my street is not your street and I’m not safe until I know my street is safe.”

The Japanese government also measures radiation, but it doesn’t provide this much detail and doesn’t make it easy to read like this. And not everybody trusts the government data. Safecast’s software and devices are all open source, and anyone can use the data. Franken says it’s being used by researchers around the world and even by the government in some Japanese cities.

“And you can come up with lots of things that can come from it which we can’t imagine today,” he says. “But as it is available suddenly people say, ‘I want to tie this data with this data.’ For example, you can tie specific medical symptoms to radiation levels.”

That kind of research hasn’t been possible in the past…….

Recording and tracking patients’ medical radiation

May 23, 2013

New Tracking of a Patient’s Radiation Exposure ,WSJ, By LAURA LANDRO, 21 May 13,  During a four-week hospital stay, 29-year-old Josh Page had so many CT scans that he lost track, kidding with his doctor about how much radiation he was exposed to—though he admits he had “no clue.” Now, Intermountain Healthcare, where he was treated for an inflammation of the pancreas and underwent surgery in February, is keeping track for him.

The Salt Lake City-based nonprofit group of 22 hospitals and 185 clinics is launching the first major system of its kind to measure and report patients’ cumulative medical radiation exposure from tests that deliver the highest amount of radiation. This includes CT scans, nuclear medicine scans and interventional radiology exams for the heart. In addition to educating doctors and patients about the risks and benefits of medical radiation, Intermountain will allow them to access their exposure data via its electronic health record.

While the benefits of tests and procedures usually outweigh the slightly increased cancer risk from exposure due to radiation, “the risks should be considered before these imaging tests are performed,” says Keith White, medical director of Intermountain’s Imaging Services. This is particularly true for younger patients, who have a higher risk because they live long enough to see long-term effects…… Federal data shows that in 2006, Americans received seven times more radiation exposure than in the 1980s, with much of the increase coming from CT scans and tests that use small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose and assess coronary artery disease. Since 2006, growth in use of CT scans has slowed amid a push for doctors to order fewer tests, both to reduce costs and protect patients from unnecessary radiation exposure. Concern over the potential cancer risks has already led to widespread changes.
Radiology groups, researchers and equipment suppliers are working to lower radiation exposure through improved software programs, and new machines that deliver reduced doses. The National Institutes of Health is incorporating radiation-dose exposure reports into electronic medical records at its own clinical center.

More on Minimizing Imaging Risks

Dialing Back on Radiation in CT Scans to Lower Risk
New Efforts Look to Cut Radiation
Nashville, Tenn.-based Hospital Corporation of AmericaHCA -1.41% the largest for profit hospital system, is planning to track patient doses as part of a new Radiation Right campaign. The American College of Radiology is sponsoring a national Dose Index Registry to allow providers to compare their CT doses against national benchmarks, and is a lead sponsor of Image Wisely, a safety campaign.

Radiation doses are measured in units known as millisieverts, or mSv. Atomic bomb survivor data shows a significant association between developing cancer and a radiation exposure about 100 mSv. But it isn’t clear whether the risk is the same from cumulative exposure in smaller doses, such as multiple CT scans each delivering 10 mSvs. The overall risk of getting cancer in anyone’s lifetime is 40% and some experts feel that 100 mSv of medical radiation can increase this by 1%.

For most medical tests, the added cancer risk is so small it can only be measured on a population rather than an individual basis. And even exposure data isn’t a reliable measure because it can vary highly by such factors as age, gender, the body part exposed to radiation and the patient’s size, says James A. Brink, chief radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-chairman of Image Wisely……

Radioactive fallout continues from Fukushima

May 23, 2013

WHAT ABOUT THE ONGOING THREAT OF FUKUSHIMA FALLOUT ?,Veterans Today, 14 May 13 The Washington Blog posed that same question on April 13, 2013 ~ Is Fukushima Leaking … Or Are the Reactors Wholly Uncontained?

“You may have heard that Tepco ~ the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plants ~ announced alarge leak of radioactive water….. You may have heard that the cooling system in the spent fuel pools at Fukushima has failed for a second time in a month.

This is newsworthy stuff … but completely misses the big picture. Associated Press notes: ” Experts suspect a continuous leak into the ocean through an underground water system, citing high levels of contamination in fish caught in waters just off the plant. (Tepco graphics of the Fukushima plants even appear to show water directly flowing from the plant to the ocean. And see this.)  In fact, Japanese experts say that Fukushima is currently releasing up to 93 billion becquerels of radioactive cesium into the ocean each day. ”

How much radiation is that?

“A quick calculation shows that Chernobyl released around ten thousand times more radioactive cesium each day during the reactor fire. But the Chernobyl fire only lasted 10 days … and the Fukushima release has been ongoing for more than 2 years so far. Indeed, Fukushima has already spewed much more radioactivecesium and iodine 131 than Chernobyl. The amount of radioactive cesium released by Fukushima was some 20-30 times higher than initially admitted.

Fukushima also pumped out huge amounts of radioactive iodine 129 ~ which has a half-life of 15.7 million years. Fukushima has also dumped up to 900 trillion becquerels of radioactive strontium-90 ~ which is a powerful internal emitter which mimics calcium and collects in our bones ~ into the ocean. And the amount of radioactive fuel at Fukushima dwarfs Chernobyl … and so could keep leaking for decades, centuries or millennia.”

” The bottom line is that the reactors have lost containmentThere are not “some leaks” at Fukushima.“Leaks” imply that the reactor cores are safely in their containment buildings, and there is a small hole or two which need to be plugged. But scientists don’t even know where the cores of the reactors areThat’s not leaking. That’s even worse than a total meltdown.”

So what are the consequences for people living outside of Fukushima itself ? They could be quite severeindeed.”   See full report:……

If the West did bomb Iran’s nuclear plant

May 23, 2013

The new study provides the only available scientific predictions to date about what a nuclear attack in the Middle East might actually mean.  Dallas, who was previously the director of the Center for Mass Destruction Defense at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is quick to point out that the study received no U.S. government funding or oversight.  “No one wanted this research to happen,” he adds.

Who Will Drop the Next Nuclear Bomb? We ignore the ever-growing global arsenal of nuclear weapons at our peril. The Nation,  Nick Turse   May 13, 2013   “……. Iranian cities — owing to geography, climate, building construction, and population densities — are particularly vulnerable to nuclear attack, according to a new study, “Nuclear War Between Israel and Iran: Lethality Beyond the Pale,” published in the journal Conflict & Health by researchers from the University of Georgia and Harvard University. It is the first publicly released scientific assessment of what a nuclear attack in the Middle East might actually mean for people in the region.

Its scenarios are staggering.  An Israeli attack on the Iranian capital of Tehran using five 500-kiloton weapons would, the study estimates, kill seven million people — 86% of the population — and leave close to 800,000 wounded.  A strike with five 250-kiloton weapons would kill an estimated 5.6 million and injure 1.6 million, according to predictions made using an advanced software package designed to calculate mass casualties from a nuclear detonation.

Estimates of the civilian toll in other Iranian cities are even more horrendous.  A nuclear assault on the city of Arak, the site of a heavy water plant central to Iran’s nuclear program, would potentially kill 93% of its 424,000 residents.  Three 100-kiloton nuclear weapons hitting the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas would slaughter an estimated 94% of its 468,000 citizens, leaving just 1% of the population uninjured.  A multi-weapon strike on Kermanshah, a Kurdish city with a population of 752,000, would result in an almost unfathomable 99.9% casualty rate.

Cham Dallas, the director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia and lead author of the study, says that the projections are the most catastrophic he’s seen in more than 30 years analyzing weapons of mass destruction and their potential effects.  “The fatality rates are the highest of any nuke simulation I’ve ever done,” he told me by phone from the nuclear disaster zone in Fukushima, Japan, where he was doing research.  “It’s the perfect storm for high fatality rates.”

Israel has never confirmed or denied possessing nuclear weapons, but is widelyknown to have up to several hundred nuclear warheads in its arsenal.  Iran has no nuclear weapons and its leaders claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes only.  Published reports suggest that American intelligence agencies and Israel’s intelligence service are in agreement: Iran suspended its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. ……

According to Dallas and his colleagues, the marked disparity between estimated fatalities in Israel and Iran can be explained by a number of factors.  As a start, Israel is presumed to have extremely powerful nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery capabilities including long-range Jericho missiles, land-based cruise missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and advanced aircraft with precision targeting technology…….

The number of fatalities at Hiroshima has been estimated at 140,000.  A nuclear attack on Nagasaki three days later is thought to have killed 70,000.  Today, according to Dallas, 15-kiloton nuclear weapons of the type used on Japan are referred to by experts as “firecracker nukes” due to their relative weakness.

In addition to killing more than 5.5 million people, a strike on Tehran involving five 250-kiloton weapons — each of them 16 times more powerful than thebomb dropped on Hiroshima — would result in an estimated 803,000 third-degree burn victims, with close to 300,000 others suffering second degree burns, and 750,000 to 880,000 people severely exposed to radiation. “Those people with thermal burns over most of their bodies we can’t help,” says Dallas.  “Most of these people are not going to survive… there is no saving them.  They’ll be in intense agony.”  As you move out further from the site of the blast, he says, “it actually gets worse.  As the damage decreases, the pain increases, because you’re not numb.”

In a best case scenario, there would be 1,000 critically injured victims for every surviving doctor but “it will probably be worse,” according to Dallas.  Whatever remains of Tehran’s healthcare system will be inundated with an estimated 1.5 million trauma sufferers.  In a feat of understatement, the researchers report that survivors “presenting with combined injuries including either thermal burns or radiation poisoning are unlikely to have favorable outcomes.” …..

The new study provides the only available scientific predictions to date about what a nuclear attack in the Middle East might actually mean.  Dallas, who was previously the director of the Center for Mass Destruction Defense at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is quick to point out that the study received no U.S. government funding or oversight.  “No one wanted this research to happen,” he adds.

Lest we forget – the Hiroshima atomic bomb horror

May 23, 2013

Who Will Drop the Next Nuclear Bomb? We ignore the ever-growing global arsenal of nuclear weapons at our peril. The Nation,  Nick Turse  May 13, 2013 “……..Nuclear Horror: Then and Now The first nuclear attack on a civilian population center, the U.S. strike on Hiroshima, left that city “uniformly and extensively devastated,” according to astudy carried out in the wake of the attacks by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.  “Practically the entire densely or moderately built-up portion of the city was leveled by blast and swept by fire… The surprise, the collapse of many buildings, and the conflagration contributed to an unprecedented casualty rate.”  At the time, local health authorities reported that 60% of immediate deaths were due to flash or flame burns and medical investigators estimated that 15%-20% of the deaths were caused by radiation.

Witnesses “stated that people who were in the open directly under the explosion of the bomb were so severely burned that the skin was charred dark brown or black and that they died within a few minutes or hours,” according to the 1946 report.  “Among the survivors, the burned areas of the skin showed evidence of burns almost immediately after the explosion.  At first there was marked redness, and other evidence of thermal burns appeared within the next few minutes or hours.”

Many victims kept their arms outstretched because it was too painful to allow them to hang at their sides and rub against their bodies.  One survivor recalled seeing victims “with both arms so severely burned that all the skin was hanging from their arms down to their nails, and others having faces swollen like bread, losing their eyesight. It was like ghosts walking in procession…  Some jumped into a river because of their serious burns. The river was filled with the wounded and blood.”……

Becoming ever more dangerous – USA’s Hanford nuclear reservation

May 23, 2013

Hanford Nuclear Cleanup May Be Too Dangerous, Future Of Storage Plant Uncertain |  By Valerie Brown 05/09/2013 , Scientific American:  (click here for original article)

The most toxic and voluminous nuclear waste in the U.S.—208 million liters —sits in decaying underground tanks at the Hanford Site (a nuclear reservation) in southeastern Washington State. It accumulated there from the middle of World War II, when the Manhattan Project invented the first nuclear weapon, to 1987, when the last reactor shut down. The federal government’s current attempt at a permanent solution for safely storing that waste for centuries—the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant here—has hit a major snag in the form of potential chain reactions, hydrogen explosions and leaks from metal corrosion. And the revelation last February that six more of the storage tanks are currently leaking has further ramped up the pressure for resolution.

After decades of research, experimentation and political inertia, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) started building the “Vit Plant” at Hanford in 2000. It’s intended to sequester the waste in stainless steel–encased glass logs, a process known as vitrification (hence “Vit”), so it cannot escape into the environment, barring natural disasters like earthquakes or catastrophic fires. But progress on the plant slowed to a crawl last August, when numerous interested parties acknowledged that the plant’s design might present serious safety risks. In response, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed an expert panel to find a way forward. Because 60 of the 177 underground tanks have already leaked and all are at increasing risk to do so, solving the problem is urgent.

Vitrification prep 101: Some tough homework

The plant’s construction, currently contracted by the DoE to Bechtel National, Inc., may be the most complicated engineering project underway in the U.S. But back in 2000 the DoE and Bechtel decided to save time and money by starting construction before crucial structures and processes had been designed and properly tested at a scale comparable to full operation. This wasn’t such a good idea, says Dirk Dunning, nuclear material specialist with the Oregon Department of Energy. “The worst possible time to save money is at the beginning. You’re better off to be very nearly complete on design before you begin construction.”

The vitrification project calls for the waste to be analyzed chemically and radiologically before it enters a pretreatment facility to be separated into various constituents such as cesium 137, strontium 90 and metals. After that, each separate waste stream is channeled as either high-level or low-activity waste into designated melters. The glass is created by mixing sand with a few additives like boron; the waste is stirred in, and the whole mess is melted, then decanted into the steel canisters. After the glass logs solidify the waste is trapped and should be isolated from the environment for long enough for most of the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

The low-level waste canisters will be stored permanently at Hanford. Because the planned Yucca Mountain geologic repository project was halted by the Obama administration, the high-level waste canisters will be kept at Hanford in an as-yet unconstructed building. In January the DoE announced it is beginning work on a new “comprehensive management and disposal system” that will make a permanent geologic repository available by 2048. Yet even if all goes perfectly from now on, it will take until 2062 to vitrify all the waste.

The waste presents significant challenges for Vit Plant project engineers and nuclear chemists. For one thing, the waste varies wildly from tank to tank. The former nuclear weapons facility at Savannah River, Ga.—also part of the Manhattan Project—has been successfully vitrifying weapons waste for years, but only one fuel separation process was used there. At Hanford there were nine production reactors making plutonium and uranium fuel using at least six different radiochemical processes whose chemistry, and thus constituents, were very different. This remains true of the waste as well. There are large differences in composition from tank to tank that necessitate chemically profiling the waste in batches before it enters the Vit Plant, which may also require changes to the glass formula at the other end of the process.

Overall, the tanks hold every element in the periodic table, including half a ton of plutonium, various uranium isotopes and at least 44 other radionuclides—containing a total of about 176 million curies of radioactivity. This is almost twice the radioactivity released at Chernobyl, according to Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, by Kate Brown, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The waste is also physically hot as well as laced with numerous toxic and corrosive chemicals and heavy metals that threaten the integrity of the pipes and tanks carrying the waste, risking leakage.

The physical form of the waste causes problems, too. It’s very difficult to get a representative sample from any given tank because the waste has settled into layers, starting with a baked-on “hard heal” at the bottom, a layer of salt cake above that, a layer of gooey sludge, then fluid, and finally gases in the headspace between the fluid and the ceiling. Most of the radioactivity is in the solids and sludge whereas most of the volume is in the liquids and the salt cake.

Going with the flow

All of these considerations contribute to the overall problem, which can be summed up in one word: flow. To get to the glass log stage the waste has to travel through an immense labyrinth of tanks and pipes. It has to move at a fast enough clip to avoid pipe and filter clogs as well as prevent solids from settling. This is quite a challenge given the multiphasic nature of the waste: solids, liquids, sludge and gases all move differently. The waste feed through the system will be in the form of a “non-Newtonian slurry”—a mixture of fluids and solids of many different shapes, sizes and densities. If the solids stop moving, problems ensue.

For one thing, there’s a chance that enough plutonium could congregate to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, or criticality—the self-sustaining cascade of atomic fission that releases massive amounts of energy. That would be a serious event even if an explosion did not breach the concrete containment building. Hot slurry could surge backward through the piping, spreading the problem to other parts of the system. Waste solids could also clog pipes, along with ion-exchange filters designed to grab the most radioactive constituents from the low-level waste for addition to the high-level stream.

Whether the solids pile up in the vessels, the pipes or the filters, says Donna Busche, nuclear and environmental safety manager for Hanford contractor URS Corp., “that’s where I’ve got the problem.” Further construction of the Vit Plant’s flawed components cannot proceed unless Busche issues an operating permit, which she is loath to do. She calls the DoE’s failure to require that Bechtel resolve the safety issues sooner “obscene.”

A second explosive risk could arise because both heat and radiation can disassemblewater into oxygen and hydrogen. If there are not places along the piping and in the vessels for hydrogen to exit the flow of waste, enough could build up to explode.

And then there’s the extreme radioactivity of the waste, which is far too high for direct human exposure. Enter the Vit Plant’s notorious “black cells.” These are 18 massive concrete enclosures populated by smaller stainless steel vessels. The idea is to guide the waste through the vessels without any human intervention over the 40 years officials believe it will take to process all the waste. The only way to do this is to ensure that the black cells have no moving parts. But because the waste has to be constantly stirred to prevent settling of the noxious and radioactive solids, the plan calls for pulse jet mixers—described as “turkey basters”—to keep the solids suspended.

The pulse jet mixers suck waste into their vertical tubes and then eject it forcefully back into the tanks. Unfortunately, they have not yet been shown to provide sufficient mixing at the scale necessary for the Vit Plant. They do, however, apply enough force to the slurry for the solids to grind away at the stainless steel of tanks and pipes, weakening them enough to risk leakage. Besides this erosion, there’s also potential for chemical corrosion. The Defense Nuclear Safety Board, which advises the White House, has called these problems “a show-stopper.”

“The way [the plant] is currently designed poses unacceptable risks. DoE now admits that,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge. In December the Government Accountability Office issued a highly critical analysis of the Vit Plant’s unresolved safety issues

Disagreements over the safety risks have also prompted outspoken protests from several senior Hanford officials. Chief project engineer Gary Brunson resigned in January. Busche and former deputy chief process engineer Walter Tamosaitis filed whistleblower complaints alleging that their concerns about safety were suppressed by Bechtel. (Bechtel declined to be interviewed for this story, citing nondisclosure agreements signed with Chu’s expert panel.)

But Langdon Holton, DoE’s senior technical authority for the Vit Plant and a member of Chu’s expert panel, believes the project’s problems are technical snags, rather than the insoluble consequence of incompetence or hubris. He also thinks that although the current risks are real, they are unlikely and would be of low magnitude if they did occur. For example, he says, “You’d have to have a vessel unmixed for half a year” for enough hydrogen to accumulate for a significant explosion. “Do I have concern we won’t be able to resolve the issues? No, but it will take some time,” he adds. (Chu’s panel does not expect to issue a formal report, according to Holton.)

Time may be limited. The 177 tanks, built between 1943 and 1986 and most intended for only about a 20-year life span, are decaying; at last count, six are leaking. The Vit Plant was supposed to start operating in 2007 and is now projected to begin in 2022. Its original budget was $4.3 billion and is now estimated at $13.4 billion. Nobody is suggesting the project be abandoned, yet forging ahead without confidence in the plant’s safe operation is not really an option either. The real question, many Hanford watchers say, is whether the country wants to pay for doing it right.

Busche is adamant that the safety issues must be solved before plans proceed further. “The level of robustness we have to put in all our systems is derived from the waste itself,” she says. “It’s the gift that keeps giving until it’s in a glass log.”

Navajo’s historic and continuing resistance to uranium mining

May 23, 2013

he Navajo people’s struggle to prevent the re-entry of mining corporations has so far been successful. It is fair to assume that as long as valuable resources remain on Indigenous lands profit-hungry corporations will continue to circle like vultures.

Navajo Nation battles uranium corporations, nuclear industry Decades of dealing with environmental degradation, racism, Liberation, By Bethany Woody MAY 8, 2013  “……….In early 2013, uranium companies approached the Navajo Nation in hopes they will allow them to renew mining operations on their land. These companies claim that they have developed newer and safer methods for extracting uranium, after decades of environmental destruction and abuse led the Navajo Nation to officially ban their mining.

This decades-long battle for environmental justice is part and parcel of the struggles for workers’ rights and Native self-determination, and against the forces of militarism and capitalism.

Exploitation of Navajo lands

The Navajo Nation sits on 27,425 square miles in the four corners area of the southwestern United States. The area holds a vast amount of uranium ore and thus has become a center in the struggle over nuclear energy and weaponry.

Since the end of World War II, and the onset of the so-called Cold War, the U.S. government began mining uranium domestically in order to not rely on foreign supplies. Uranium is one of the most common naturally occurring radioactive metals on the planet, and was understood as essential for the development of nuclear weapons and technology.

Due to the unique geology and consistent climate of the Southwest, mining companies saw the Navajo reservation as the most profitable site to open mining operations in the 1940s. In 1948, the United States Atomic Energy Commission declared it would be the sole purchaser of all uranium mined in the country, initiating a mining boom of private companies and contractors who knew they had a guaranteed buyer.

Of the thousands of uranium mines, 92% were located in the Colorado Plateau on which the Navajo Nation is located. Between 1944 and 1986 approximately 4 million tons of uranium ore was mined from Navajo Tribal land.


In the early days of mining, Navajo people flocked to the low-wage work given the scarcity of jobs around the reservation. The Navajo workers dealt with racist bosses and coworkers while going into the most dangerous and undesirable jobs at lesser pay. Nonetheless, after Navajo Code Talkers’ had famously contributed to U.S. forces in World War II, many Navajo workers believed they had a patriotic duty and responsibility to the United States.

Mineworkers were also lied to about the dangers of Radon poisoning.

Radon poisoning

Before the 1950s, there were no real regulations on the disposal of radioactive waste on tribal lands, mine ventilation and what concentrations of Radon were safe. The waste that was produced was dumped back on the land, contaminating water supplies, crops, livestock, and inevitably the human population. Rates of illness skyrocketed, and the contamination manifested into cancer, mainly lung. It also caused illnesses like tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis, chronic obstructive respiratory disease, and various blood diseases.

Radon is an odorless, colorless, tasteless radioactive gas that occurs naturally in the decay of uranium. Radon is one of the densest substances that remain in a gaseous state. It leaves behind “Radon Daughters,” a substance that sticks to dust particles and is inhaled by miners. Without proper ventilation in mines, the miners were exposed to Radon levels that were about 100 times higher than reported. There had been studies in Europe as early as the 1930s that proved the dangers of Radon exposure.

In 2005, the Navajo Nation officially banned uranium mining. But uranium decays at an extremely low rate, somewhere in the range of a billion years, and thus the threat of contamination is not resolved.

The 1979 nuclear waste spill

Open abandoned mines are not the only source of environmental contamination. In July 1979, there was a nuclear spill in Church Rock, New Mexico after a dam holding back the United Nuclear Corporation’s waste pond broke and released massive amounts of contamination onto the Navajo reservation. Over 93 million gallons of radioactive tailing and acidic tailing solution poured into the Rio Puerco. More radiation was released into the environment during this disaster than during the well-known Three Mile Island accident four months earlier.

After the 1979 spill, the Navajo Nation asked then governor Bruce King of New Mexico to declare a disaster area so they could receive disaster assistance. King refused. The people of the Navajo Nation had no choice but to resume using the contaminated Rio Puerco. Only in 2008, nearly 30 years later, did the Environmental Protection Agency announce a 5-year clean-up plan for the Navajo Nation. As of 2011, the EPA had aided in the removal of about 20,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil.

The Navajo people’s struggle to prevent the re-entry of mining corporations has so far been successful. It is fair to assume that as long as valuable resources remain on Indigenous lands profit-hungry corporations will continue to circle like vultures……