Archive for July, 2013


July 20, 2013

 Facts and Information about Radiation Exposure The Energy Collective,

Willem Post   19 March 2011“……Airborne radioactive isotopes from the Chernobyl and Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant fires were spread by the weather and have entered the soil, water, and the fauna and flora. The isotopes are most harmful if they enter the human body through inhalation, ingestion or open wounds.

The isotopes of greatest concern for drinking water and food (including seafood and kelp) are:

tritium: half-life 12.3 years, 0.018 MeV beta emitter, does not collect in body, is eliminated with urine.*

strontium-90: half-life 29 years, 0.546 MeV gamma-ray emitter, collects in bones and teeth

iodine-131: half-life 8.1 days, 0.4 MeV beta and 0.4 MeV gamma-ray emitter, collects in thyroid

cesium-137: half-life 30.2 years, 0.3 MeV beta and 0.66 MeV gamma-ray emitter, collects in fleshy tissue, such as kidneys

radium-226: half-life 1,620 years, 4.9 MeV alpha emitter, collects in bones, liver, breast; a major source is flyash from coal plants

** Tritium has a biological half-life of about 10 days due to taking in and eliminating of water. The radiation fraction in the body of an ingested dose = biological half-life/isotope half-life = 10 days/ (365 days/yr x 12.3 years) = 0.0022. Tritium is a least dangerous isotope.

Grazing cows concentrate iodine-131 in their milk, causing milk consumers, such as infants, to be excessively exposed, and concentrate cesium-137 in their flesh. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, fetuses and young children face the greatest danger from iodine-131, because it accumulates in the thyroid.

Children are at much higher risk than adults because they are growing, and their thyroid glands are more active and in need of iodine. The gland is smaller in children than in adults, so a given dose of iodine-131 will deliver a higher dose of radiation to a child’s thyroid and potentially do more harm.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if an adult and a newborn ingest the same dose of radioactive iodine, the thyroid dose will be 16 times higher to a newborn than to an adult; for a less than 1-year-old, eight times the adult dose; for a 5-year-old, four times the adult dose.

Pregnant women take up more iodine-131 in the thyroid, especially in the first trimester. The iodine crosses the placenta and reaches the fetus; its thyroid takes up more iodine as pregnancy progresses. During the first week after birth a baby’s thyroid activity increases up to fourfold and stays at that level for a few days, so newborns are especially vulnerable.

Potassium iodide can protect the thyroid by saturating it with normal iodine. People in Japan have been advised to take it.



July 20, 2013

Facts and Information about Radiation Exposure The Energy Collective,
Willem Post   19 March 2011“….

Background radiation comes from outer space (cosmic, solar), the earth (radon, potassium, uranium, thorium), food, and even other people. US natural background radiation exposure is an average of 3.6 mSv/yr; Australia 2.4 mSv/yr; Ramsar (Iran) 260 mSv/yr

Manmade average exposure is 2.6 mSv/yr, of which CT scans 55%, other diagnostic & therapeutic 24%, other 21%

US total radiation exposure, background plus manmade, is an average of 3.6 + 2.6 = 6.2 mSv/yr per person, increased from 3.6 mSv/yr about 20 years ago when CT scans were much less common.

The 6.2 mSv/yr average is misleading, because the majority of people have only x-rays during their lifetime, whereas a small percentage of people have CT scans, cancer treatments with radioactive isotopes, angiograms, stent implants, etc. These people have exposures several times greater than 6.2 mSv/yr during their treatment periods.

Example: On October 1, 2011, radiation at a hospital entrance (people walking in and out) near Fukushima in Japan was measured at 0.51 microSv/hr. Someone working at the entrance would be exposed to 0.51 x 2,000 hr/yr = 1.02 mSv/yr which is well within (background + manmade) radiation range. This radiation exposure has to be typed, converted to dose and adjusted with factors to estimate any health impact.

Notable Radiation Events: According to UN and US National Academy of Sciences Reports:

– More than 500 atmospheric atomic device detonations released about 70 billion curies; almost all of it is from instantaneous, short-life, gammy radiation, little from medium and long-life isotopes.

– Chernobyl, 1986, released about 100 million curies; most of it spread as medium and long-life isotopes over a very large geographical area; the plant had no concrete containment vessel, as many other former USSR plants.

Radioactive iodine concentrates in the thyroid which may cause thyroid cancer 2-3 years after exposure. Of all the children exposed by drinking milk from 1986 to 2002, 16 years, about 4,000 were diagnosed with thyroid cancer. As of September 2005, 15 had died, with more to come in future years.

– Fukushima Daiichi, 2011, released about 10 million curies; most of it spread as medium and long-life isotopes by the prevailing winds over the Pacific Ocean.

– Three Mile Island, 1979, released about 50 curies; the plant has a concrete containment vessel, as do all other US nuclear power plants.

Note: Worldwide, nuclear plants without proper containment vessels should be decommissioned and dismanteld, i.e., no more Chernobyls!

1 curie = 37 billion atomic disintegrations per second = 37 billion Becqerel

High Radiation Exposure Occupations: Examples of industries with significant occupational radiation exposure, IN ADDITION to the above background + manmade exposure:

– Airline crew (the most exposed population), 4.6 mSv/yr

– Industrial radiography

– Medical radiology and nuclear medicine

– Uranium mining

– Nuclear power plant and nuclear fuel reprocessing plant workers, 3.6 mSv/yr

– Research laboratories (government, university and private)

Note: Pilots are more likely to get colon, rectal, prostate and brain cancers; female crew members are twice as likely to suffer breast cancer, and, if pregnant, increase the risk of Down’s syndrome and leukemia for their unborn children; the fetus statutory limit is 1 mSv/yr. An explanation for the pilots may be their sedentary working conditions, the poor airline food, the radio headset and the instrument and radar radiation in the cockpit.

Here is a URL which calculates radiation doses for various isotopes, distance from the source, shielding, etc.

Measuring radioactivity – converting doses

July 20, 2013

Facts and Information about Radiation Exposure The Energy Collective,

The external radiation dose, such as from soil, air, water and food, in Bqs, can be measured using appropriate instrumentation. The Bqs measured are much greater than the Gys encountered by a person because of personal protection and distance from the radiation source; the intensity of radiation is reduced by the square of the distance from the source.

Dose conversion factors, DCFs, have been calculated using computer programs by the various government agencies. The DCFs take into account the energy of multiple isotopes, multiple exposure events, isotope residence times, radioactive daughters, tissue types, distance from the source, etc. DCFs (units Sv/Bq) are used to convert the Bqs to Svs.

Because DCFs exist for all radionuclides, the total Sv dose received from all radionuclides taken into the body during a year or a lifetime can be calculated and compared with public Sv dose limits set by government agencies. The website below has several examples using Bqs and DCFs to calculate Svs for ingestion, inhalation and immersion.

Click to access H49-96-1-1995E-2.pdf

Click to access 520-1-88-020.pdf


Absorbed Dose: Gy is a unit of ionizing radiation dose absorbed by biological matter, either through the skin, inhaled or ingested.

To gauge biological effects the Absorbed Dose is multiplied by weighing factor We, which is dependent on the type of ionizing radiation. Such measurement of biological effect is called “Equivalent Dose” and is measured in Sv.

Equivalent Dose = Gy x energy weighing factor We = Sv

For x-rays, gamma rays, electrons, positrons, muons: We = 1, and 1 Gy x 1 = 1 Sv

For neutrons of different energy levels: We varies from 5 to 20, and 1 Gy varies from 5 to 20 Sv

For alpha particles, fission fragments, heavy nuclei: We = 20, and 1 Gy x 20 = 20 Sv

Example: The Equivalent Dose of mixed radiation may be 0.3 mGy x (We = 5, slow neutron) + 6 mGy x (We = 1, gamma rays) + 0.1 mGy x (We = 20, fast neutron) = 9.5 mSv

To gauge biological effects the Equivalent Dose is multiplied by weighing factor Wt, which is dependent on the tissue type. Such measurement of biological effect is called “Effective Dose” and is measured in Sv.

Effective Dose = Gy x We x tissue weighing factor Wt = Sv

For bone surface, skin: Wt = 0.01

For bladder, breast, liver, esophagus, thyroid: Wt = 0.05

For bone marrow, colon, lung, stomach: Wt = 0.12

For gonads (testes, ovaries): Wt = 0.20

Example: The above calculated Effective Dose for a bladder may be 9.5 mSv x (Wt = 0.05, bladder) = 0.475 mSv

During an X-ray test, the dense bone tissue absorbs radiation energy causing some instant ionizing damage, such as creating free radicals inside bones, whereas the radiation energy easily passes through the less dense fleshy tissues to the film in old X-ray systems, to the digital sensor in new X-ray systems.

Ingestion and inhalation of radioactive particles cause much greater ionizing damage to body tissues for longer periods of time than high energy electromagnetic waves, such as X-rays. …

Radioactivity measurement units

July 20, 2013

Facts and Information about Radiation Exposure The Energy Collective,

There are three measurement units for radioactivity: the becquerel (Bq) measures radioactivity, the gray (Gy) measures the absorbed dose and the Sievert (Sv) measures the biological effects of the absorbed dose.

The Bq measures the activity of the radioactive source, meaning the number of atoms which, within a particular time frame, transform and emit radiation.

1 Bq = 1 disintegration per second (dps); disintegration energy levels vary by isotope.

The Bq is a very small unit; multiples are often used:

1 MBq = 1 mega becquerel = 1,000,000 Bq

1 GBq = 1 giga becquerel = 1,000,000,000 Bq

1 TBq = 1 tera becquerel = 1,000,000,000,000 Bq

The radioactivity of an environment, a material or a foodstuff is given in Bq per kilogram or per liter.


The Gy measures the absorbed dose, meaning the energy transferred by one or more isotopes to the material by ionizing radiation upon encountering it.

1 Gy = 1 joule of ionizing energy per kilogram; Sub-multiples are often used:

1 mGy = 1 milligray = 0.001 Gy

1 uGy = 1 microgray = 0.000001 Gy

1 nGy = 1 nanogray = 0.000000001 Gy


The Sv evaluates the effects of ionizing radiation on living material. At equal Gy doses, the effects of radioactivity on living tissue depends on the type and energy level of the radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron, etc.), on the tissue type and on the length of exposure.

The Sv is a very large unit; sub-multiples are often used:

1 mSv = 1 millisievert = 0.001 Sv

1 uSv = 1 microsievert = 0.000001 Sv



International System of units (SI Units) and corresponding Common Units

– Bq is the unit of radioactivity that corresponds to the curie (Ci)

– Gy = 1 joule/kg is the unit of Absorbed Dose that corresponds to the rad

– Sv = 1 J/kg x We x Wt is the unit of Equivalent Dose that corresponds to the rem

– coulomb/kilogram (C/kg) is the unit of exposure that corresponds to the roentgen (R)


1 Joule = 6,200 billion mega electronvolt (MeV) = 1 watt.second

kBq/sq m = 1,000 Bq of radioactive particulate over an area of 1 sq m

1 TBq = 27 Curies, or 1 pCi = 0.037 Bq

1 GBq = 27 mCi

1 MBq = 27 uCi

37 GBq = 1 Ci


1 rad = 0.01 Gy

1 rem = 0.01 Sv

1 roentgen (R) = 0.000258 coulomb/kilogram (C/kg)

1 coulomb = 1 amp.second; it is a flow of one amp of electric charge for one second.


Radiation doses affecting the body

July 20, 2013

Facts and Information about Radiation Exposure The Energy Collective,
Willem Post   19 March 2011  “……RADIATION DOSES

The extent and time period of exposure to a dose is important to determine the likely biological damage to a human body. A healthy adult body has a given capacity to repair damage from radiation. Thus a full body exposure to a big dose over a short time is generally more harmful because the body cannot keep up with repairs, than a full body exposure to a small dose over a long time which the body usually can repair as it occurs.

Ingesting and inhaling radioactive particulate, such as radioactive dust blown by the wind from a nuclear plant fire or atomic bomb test, is harmful. As the radioactive particulate enters the cell, it damages the DNA which affects the expression of chromosomes which, in some cases, does not show up for decades as a tumor or cancer, making it difficult to establish cause and effect.

Exposure to other DNA-altering contaminants in the environment, such as urban pollution, lead from paints and gasoline, radon in stone buildings, herbicides, pesticides, industrial waste and agricultural run-off, and lifestyle exposures, such as from smoking, drugs, alcohol and pollutants in the workplace further complicates any cause and effect analyses.

If a significant quantity of radioactive particulate stays in parts of the body, such as radioactive iodine in the thyroid or radioactive polonium (in cigarette smoke) in the lungs, it may cause DNA damage that leads to:

– tumors (thyroid, ovaries, breasts, prostate, lungs, etc.) that may become cancerous

– leukemia, i.e., cancer of the blood and bone marrow

– birth defects

– neurological defects that may hinder future mental development resulting in lower IQs

As a significant part of the US soil, water, fauna (includes people) and flora was exposed to radioactive isotopes from atomic testing in Nevada, mostly during the 40s, 50s and 60s, adverse public health impacts, some lasting more than one generation, have occurred….


Radiation: Alpha and Beta paricles

July 20, 2013

Facts and Information about Radiation Exposure The Energy Collective,
Willem Post   19 March 2011

Elements that contain unstable nuclei are radioactive; they are
called radionuclides. They decay by releasing mostly alpha and beta
particles accompanied by gamma rays

. An alpha particle has low-energy, is positively charged and consists
of two protons and two neutrons, i.e., a helium atom without its 2
electrons; it can be stopped by tissue paper or human skin.

A beta particle is a high-energy, negatively charged electron
(negatron) or a positively charged positron; it can be stopped by a
sheet of aluminum. Gamma rays are high energy, short-wavelength,
electromagnetic radiation; they can be stopped by concrete or lead.The
energy released by radionuclides may knock electrons out of their
orbits around an atom’s nucleus. This process is called ionizing
radiation. Ionizing radiation damages living tissues, leads to changes
in constituents of the cell, including the DNA of chromosomes, and
results in changes in structure and function of the cells and organ
systems. Understanding the potential for ionizing radiation to effect
changes to living tissues requires knowing how much radioactive energy
is absorbed by the tissues.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013 released

July 14, 2013

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013 Two years after the Fukushima disaster started unfolding on 11 March 2011, its impact on the global nuclear industry has become increasingly visible. Global electricity generation from nuclear plants dropped by a historic 7 percent in 2012, adding to the record drop of 4 percent in 2011. This World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013 (WNISR)provides a global overview of the history, the current status and the trends of nuclear power programs worldwide.

Chernobyl’s radioactive forests and the wildfire risk, as the planet heats

July 14, 2013

Women in their 20s living just outside the zone face the highest risk from exposure to radioactive smoke, the 2011 study found: 170 in 100,000 would have an increased chance of dying of cancer. Among men farther away in Kiev, 18 in 100,000 20 year olds would be at increased risk of dying of cancer.

the greatest danger from forest fire for most people would be consuming foods exposed to smoke. Milk, meat and other products would exceed safe levels, the 2011 study predicts. The Ukrainian government would almost certainly have to ban consumption of foodstuffs produced as far as 150 kilometres from the fire

Watching for a radioactive forest fire  JANE BRAXTON LITTLE, ABC Environment 8 JUL 2013  Tinder dry and radioactive: the forests around Chernobyl are an accident waiting to happen. For 27 years, forests around Chernobyl have been absorbing radioactive elements. A fire would send them skyward again – a growing concern as summers grow longer, hotter and drier. “…….Nikolay Ossienko patrols the forests surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,,,,,,, ”Our number one job is to save the forest from fire,”…… It’s a job with international consequences.

For almost three decades the forests around the shuttered nuclear power plant have been absorbing contamination left from the 1986 reactor explosion. Now climate change and lack of management present a troubling predicament: If these forests burn, strontium 90, cesium 137, plutonium 238 and other radioactive elements would be released, according to an analysis of the human health impacts of wildfire in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone conducted by scientists in Germany, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States.

This contamination would be carried aloft in the smoke as inhalable aerosols, that 2011 study concluded.

And instead of being emitted by a single reactor, the radioactive contamination would come from trees that cover some 1,500 square kilometres around the plant, said Sergiy Zibtsev, a Ukrainian forestry professor who has been studying these irradiated forests for 20 years.

“There’s really no question,” he added. “If Chernobyl forests burn, contaminants would migrate outside the immediate area. We know that.”

Combined with changes in climate, these crowded pine forests are a prescription for wildfire. In their assessment of the potential risks of a worst-case fire, Zibtsev and the team of international scientists concluded that much of the Chernobyl forest is “in high danger of burning.”

Zibtsev has been worrying about catastrophic wildfire in Chernobyl since witnessing runaway wildland fires in the western United States while on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2005. He has watched the threat get worse each passing year. Rainfall in the region is decreasing and seasonal droughts are lasting longer, changes Zibtsev attributes to climate change. Scientists say these patterns of drier and longer summers are contributing to forest drying and increased insect attacks.

The predominantly pine forests themselves are part of the problem. After the explosion — the worst nuclear accident in human history — the area surrounding the power plant was evacuated, the fields and forests abandoned. To keep the contamination from moving beyond the area known as the “zone of alienation”, the Ukraine government forbade all commercial activity. For forests, this meant a halt to logging, thinning and removing dead trees. While most of Ukraine boasts woodlands that are carefully manicured, the Chernobyl forests have grown into unmanaged thickets with dense brush below and lifeless canopies above.

The risk of fire in these forests has concerned scientists since 1992, a drought year when more than 170 square kilomtres of forests burned. They know that these ecosystems are trapping radionuclides and slowly redistributing them in soil and vegetation, a process called ‘self-repair’. In some places the contamination level is the same as it was in 1986, most of it in the top 10 centimetres of the soil. Absorbing cesium, plutonium and strontium helps contain radionuclides within the exclusion zone, but it dramatically heightens the alarm over wildfire……..

Oliver, Zibtsev and others began calling attention to the potential for another Chernobyl disaster at variety international and scientific conferences, but the issue drew little more than finger pointing. Until their 2011 study, no one had assessed the human health effects of a catastrophic wildfire in the exclusion zone.

Led by Oliver and Zibtsev, scientists at several institutions in Europe and North America analysed a worst-case scenario: a very hot fire that burns for five days, consumes everything in its path, and sends the smoke 100 kilometres south to Kiev. A separate worst-case study is underway looking at the risks for Sweden, Finland and other European countries heavily impacted by the 1986 explosion.

Women in their 20s living just outside the zone face the highest risk from exposure to radioactive smoke, the 2011 study found: 170 in 100,000 would have an increased chance of dying of cancer. Among men farther away in Kiev, 18 in 100,000 20 year olds would be at increased risk of dying of cancer. These estimates pale in comparison to those from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, which predict between 4,000 and over a million eventual deaths from radiation exposure.

Instead, the greatest danger from forest fire for most people would be consuming foods exposed to smoke. Milk, meat and other products would exceed safe levels, the 2011 study predicts. The Ukrainian government would almost certainly have to ban consumption of foodstuffs produced as far as 150 kilometres from the fire……..

[ People living outside the exclusion zone] would be exposed to radiation beyond all acceptable levels. In addition to ‘normal’ external radiation, they would be inhaling radionuclides in the smoke they breathe — being irradiated both outside and inside……..

The United Nations recently acknowledged the potential for another Chernobyl disaster and has mounted a $20 million sustainable development project designed to address wildfire and other environmental issues.

Radioactivity increasing in Fukushima’s leaking water

July 14, 2013
  • 11,000 becquerels per liter – TEPCO’s measurement of Cesium-134 on July 9.
  • 18,000 becquerels per liter — TEPCO’s measurement of Cesium-137 on July 8.
  • 22,000 becquerels per liter – TEPCO’s measurement of Cesium-137 on July 9.

Fukushima Radiation Leaks Rise Sharply  By William Boardman, Reader Supported News 11 July 13 ”………Here’s another perspective on the same situation:

  • 10 becquerels per liter – The officially “safe” level for radioactivity in drinking water, as set by the NRA.

A becquerel is a standard scientific measure of radioactivity, similar in some ways to a rad or a rem or a roentgen or a sievert or a curie, but not equivalent to any of them. But you don’t have to understand the nuances of nuclear physics to get a reasonable idea of what’s going on in Fukushima. Just keep the measure of that safe drinking water in mind, that liter of water, less than a quart, with 10 becquerels of radioactivity.

  • 60 becquerels per liter – For nuclear power plants, the safety limit for drinking water is 60 becquerels, as set by the NRA, with less concern for nuclear plant workers than ordinary civilians.
  • 60-90 becquerels per liter – For waste water at nuclear power plants, the NRA sets a maximum standard of 90 becquerels per liter for Cesium-137 and 60 becquerels per liter of Cesium-134.

At some of Fukushima’s monitoring wells, radiation levels were in fractions of a becquerel on July 8 and 9. At the well (or wells) that are proving problematical, TEPCO has provided no baseline readings.

    • 9,000 becquerels per liter – On July 8, according to TEPCO, the company measured radioactive Cesium-134 at 9,000 becquerels per liter. Since TEPCO characterized this as 90 times higher than on July 5, the implication is that the earlier reading (about 100) was less than twice as toxic as the allowable limit and only 10 times more toxic than drinking water for civilians.
    • 11,000 becquerels per liter – TEPCO’s measurement of Cesium-134 on July 9.
    • 18,000 becquerels per liter — TEPCO’s measurement of Cesium-137 on July 8.
    • 22,000 becquerels per liter – TEPCO’s measurement of Cesium-137 on July 9.
  • 900,000 becquerels per liter – TEPCO’s measurement of the total radioactivity in the water leaking from Reactor #1. This radiation load includes both Cesium isotopes, as well as Tritium, Strontium and other beta emitters. There are more than 60 radioactive substances that have been identified at the Fukushima site.

A becquerel is a measure of the radioactivity a substance is emitting, a measure of the potentialdanger. There is no real danger from radiation unless you get too close to it – or it gets too close to you, especially from inhalation or ingestion…….

Deep burial is the best solution for nuclear waste

July 14, 2013

Nuclear waste: DC has ignored a cheaper way to dispose of plutonium — until now, Douglas Birch & R. Jeffrey Smith The Center for Public Integrity, 7 July 13, 
For the past decade, Washington has known how to dispose of excess U.S. plutonium at a cost estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars less than what the Energy Department is spending on a South Carolina factory meant to transform plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors.

Instead of burning the plutonium, the cheaper alternative mixes it with glass or ceramics and some other materials, so it can be buried deep underground.

The government — until now — has rejected that option. But after spending $3.7 billion on the still-incomplete fuel factory, the Obama administration is giving the immobilization alternative a closer look. And independent scientists who formerly supported the so-called Mixed-Oxide (MOX) plant are now arguing that the alternative, called “immobilization,” seems the wiser choice.

Immobilization “appears to be cheaper and easier to do,” said Matthew Bunn, who was U.S. staff director for a joint U.S.-Russian  panel that drafted a blueprint for the huge plutonium disposal project at the request of the White House in 1996.

The fuel factory is at the heart of a U.S.-Russian pact that calls for each nation to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium withdrawn from excess nuclear weapons — a deal that’s been altered so many times that it’s now unclear if the end result will be a world with less plutonium or more.
Meanwhile, the MOX fuel factory is billions of dollars over budget and under new scrutiny by the Obama administration, which has threatened to cancel it.

“I was one of the ones pushing [the project] … I used to be strongly in support of the program, but have gotten fed up with the sheer cost” of the fuel factory, said Bunn, now a co-director of Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom, aimed at reducing the risks posed by nuclear explosive materials.

At the factory, located on the Savannah River government reservation near Aiken, S.C., the plutonium is supposed to be mixed in a powder with another radioactive oxide, and then compressed into pellets to be stacked in fuel rods for nuclear reactors.
Under the immobilization option, plutonium would instead be ground up and encased in ceramic material shaped like a hockey puck, before being stacked in a can. The cans could be placed in a larger canister filled with molten glass contaminated by intensely radioactive nuclear waste — deadly enough to stop any thief or intruder. It would then be stored in subterranean vaults or inserted into 3-mile-deep boreholes, probably in a western state.

Under the original deal with Russia, the United States planned to immobilize a little over a quarter of the 34 tons of plutonium and convert the remainder into MOX fuel. In 2002, however, the administration of President George W. Bush canceled the immobilization option, arguing it lacked the funds to pursue both. Subsequently, Energy Department scientists discovered that some of the plutonium could not easily be converted into reactor fuel, forcing them to come up with an immobilization scheme for at least 4 metric tons of plutonium now at Savannah River.
The mystery glue
That requirement inspired the scientists to invent a mysterious substance that can be mixed with plutonium, which they have called “stardust.”

James Giusti, a DOE spokesman at the Savannah River site, said the precise composition of “stardust” is classified, but he confirmed that it’s not radioactive, which greatly eases handling of the wastes. When the “stardust” is blended with small amounts of plutonium, he said, it is hard to separate the two materials — and that’s crucial. “The compound makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to recover the plutonium unless you have a special chemical separation facility,” he said.

On a minute scale, this immobilization process has been shown to work. About 22 pounds of weapons plutonium have been mixed with “stardust,” placed in drums and stored at the bottom of a 2,150-foot-deep, man-made cavern east of Carlsbad, N.M., according to DOE officials. The remote, $1 billion government facility there was carved out of salt beds to be a repository for materials contaminated with highly radioactive wastes left over from U.S. weapons work, and in theory it could be expanded to hold larger quantities of immobilized plutonium.

Kenneth Bromberg, a former DOE official, said he has seen studies asserting that immobilization would cost 20 to 30 percent less than building the fuel factory, although he warned that cost estimates are difficult on such complex projects.

A 2002 report to Congress by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the division of the Energy agency overseeing the plutonium disposal effort, stated bluntly that immobilization was cheaper. The study estimated that long-term immobilization and storage of the plutonium — the option now getting a new look — would cost $600 million less than fashioning it into reactor fuel using the MOX plant: $3.2 billion instead of $3.8 billion (those were the prices at the time).

The Bush administration rejected the cheaper approach, however, citing the fact that the Russians disliked immobilization and wanted America to pursue the alternative approach Moscow preferred — namely construction of a factory that would turn the plutonium into reactor fuel.
Moscow said only this method would extract financial value from the plutonium. So the Russians are building a similar factory, in a mountain tunnel complex at the formerly closed city of Zheleznogorsk in central Siberia, and they intend to burn that factory’s MOX fuel in two nuclear “breeder” reactors. Those two reactors are ideal for creating new plutonium — just the opposite of what the original deal was supposed to accomplish, causing many arms control advocates to question the virtue of the arrangement.

The NNSA report, which said that immobilization was a cheaper option, was actually drafted to explain why that path was not selected. It did so by citing Russia’s preference, and by noting — in a politically savvy fashion — that pursuing immobilization would reduce “employment that would have been created in South Carolina.”

Thanks to our donors and sponsors for their support of local independent reporting. Join Lara Rubio, Janet Marcotte, and Alan Fischer and contribute today!

Congress knew from the outset that building the fuel factory was not the cheapest option. “It was a cost that Congress was willing to accept in order to help the Russian MOX program stay on track,” the House Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittee noted in an April 2006 report.

This history has since been garbled a bit by DOE: When asked to explain the choice at a recent congressional hearing, Neile Miller, then the acting head of NNSA, responded that when MOX was chosen “as a way to get agreement with the Russians,” U.S. officials believed the arrangement could be “more cost effective.”