Archive for November, 2015

Finland’s govt approves nuclear waste deep burial project

November 19, 2015

Deep Storage Plans Approved. IEEE Spectrum  By Lucas Laursen 17 Nov 2015 Finland’s government issued a construction license to nuclear disposal consortium Posiva last week, Reuters reported. The license gives the group approval to build a storage facility on Olkiluoto Island, Finland, designed to last 100,000 years.

The facility would be the first of its kind in the world. Since the beginning of the nuclear power age, energy firms have paid to store nuclear waste in temporary holding ponds unlikely to last more than a couple of centuries.  The Posiva facility, decades in the planning, may pioneer a more sustainable era of disposal. (See “Finland’s Nuclear Waste Solution,” IEEE Spectrum, December 2009.)

waste burial Olkiluoto Island

Nuclear waste consists of metal rods composed mostly of uranium with a molecular weight of 238. Over time, the depleted uranium atoms release radioactive particles—a process called decay—that converts the uranium into lighter elements. Over billions of years, those atoms decay, too. By the end, all that is left is lead.

In the (long) meantime, however, the radioactive material can contaminate its surroundings, and therefore requires costly management. The United States and other nuclear-powered countries have thus far proven unable to agree on where to store their half-century’s worth of accumulated nuclear waste. An earthquake, volcanic activity, or even a slow leak of water could disrupt the temporary facilities in which the waste now sits.

To provide safer and more permanent storage, Posiva proposes to bury electrically-welded iron-and-copper capsules 400 meters underground. The capsules would be surrounded by clay barriers and capped with rubble and cement. The facility, which would have a 6,500 metric ton capacity, could likely hold Finland and Sweden’s projected future nuclear waste. But that capacity doesn’t come close to the volume required by larger nations such as the United States, which has over 70,000 metric tons of waste piled up, and produces an additional 2,200 tons a year.

Though tunneling has been going on for over a decade, Posiva had to wait for the Finnish government to approve its 2012 construction permit application before it could begin the trickier task of loading radioactive waste into its metal coffins. That task may begin as soon as 2023, continue for up to a century, and end when operators fill in the access tunnels with rubble and cap them off with cement. Posiva estimates that installation and operating costs for the first century will be around €3 billion (US $3.21 billion).

What is Finland’s nuclear waste burial plan?

November 19, 2015

Finland’s Nuclear Waste Solution. IEEE Spectrum,  By Sandra Upson 30 Nov 2009 Here on Olkiluoto Island, the forest is king. Elk and deer graze near sun-dappled rivers and shimmering streams, and humans search out blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms. Weathered red farmhouses sit along sleepy dirt roads in fields abutting the woods. Far beneath the vivid green forest, deep in the bedrock, workers are digging the labyrinthine passages and chambers that they hope to someday pack with all of Finland’s spent nuclear fuel.

Posiva, the Finnish company building an underground repository here, says it knows how to imprison nuclear waste for 100 000 years. These multimillennial thinkers are confident that copper canisters of Scandinavian design, tucked into that bedrock, will isolate the waste in an underground cavern impervious to whatever the future brings: sinking permafrost, rising water, earthquakes, copper-eating microbes, or oblivious land developers in the year 25 000. If the Finnish government agrees—a decision is expected by 2012—this site will become the world’s first deep, permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.

Of course, not everyone shares Posiva’s confidence. ”It’s deep hubris to think you can contain it,” says Charles McCombie, executive director of the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage, based in Switzerland.

There’s more at stake here than the interment of 5500 metric tons of spent Finnish fuel. More than 50 years after the first commercial nuclear power plants went operational in the United Kingdom and the United States, the world’s 270 000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel remain in limbo. After it gets swapped out of a reactor, utilities put it in specially designed pools, where chilled, circulating water absorbs the initial heat and radioactivity. After about five or six years, the fuel has cooled considerably, enabling utilities with limited pool space to load it into huge, million-dollar steel casks that are left to sit on concrete pads within guarded compounds.

The arrangement is far from ideal. The waste will emit harmful levels of radioactivity for thousands of years to come, and the casks are expected to last for a couple of hundred years, at most. The lack of a more permanent option is one of the biggest problems facing the global nuclear-power industry, which has been stalled for decades…….

Onkalo’s underground tunnels won’t even begin to address the global situation. But they will do the next best thing. This project, estimated to cost 3 billion ($4.5 billion), will either demonstrate that the technical, social, and political challenges of nuclear waste disposal can be met in a democratic society, or it will scare other such countries away from the repository idea for decades to come.

So far, Posiva has carved out nearly 5000 meters of tunnels and shafts, excavated more than 100 000 cubic meters of rock, and collected rock samples from 53 deep boreholes. Over the next three years, it will try to prove to the government that its canisters and deep chambers will contain radioactive waste no matter what happens to Finland. If Posiva succeeds, the repository will open for business in 2020. A hundred years later, the final canister will be buried, and the tunnels will be filled in, covered up, and artfully abandoned to a cover of pine needles and mushrooms. Finland’s first nuclear era will be over.

It’s damp and drippy in Onkalo’s passageways. From the tunnel’s entrance, a low, guttural hum reverberates in the dark. Somewhere in the blackness, a machine is drilling and blasting its way steadily downward, and construction workers are scurrying in its wake to check the ceiling for rocks that have been jostled loose in the explosions. The jumbo-size drilling machines are trundling down a 5.5-meter-wide tunnel that grows by about 5 meters a day, says junior construction manager Karoliina Lehesvuori……..

From all sides, water glistens on the rock face and collects into mud on the tunnel floor. The droplets are leaking into the tunnel from tiny fractures in the rock, smaller than a millimeter, at a rate of about 20 liters per minute. In tunnel terms, that’s slow, and that’s good news. The behavior of the water in Onkalo is Posiva’s top concern. At each new depth, geologists extract slim rock cores in search of telltale ”structures”—the fractures and crevices that determine how water moves in rock. So far, Onkalo appears to have uncharacteristically few structures, which explains why the tunnel is only damp and muddy rather than flooded with a torrent of water escaping from its high-pressure home in the rock.

Water is the one agent that could seriously threaten Posiva’s design. What the company has bet on is a nested system of what it calls engineered barriers, which are enveloped by the natural barrier of gneiss bedrock. The first engineered container for the radioactive refuse is the copper burial cask, within which sits an iron insert. Each canister will then be buried in specially dug holes in the underground tunnel network and surrounded by a special clay—the second engineered barrier—through which water can slowly diffuse, but not flow. A century from now, after Finland’s last planned reactor has long been closed and its fuel has cooled, the tunnel’s empty spaces will be filled back up with rubble and clay, the final safeguard. A concrete slab will cover the entrance and, the designers hope, deter future adventurers.

In the nightmare scenario, water would somehow manage to reach the canisters, carrying with it bacteria that burrow through the clay and erode the metal containers. The fuel rods would become exposed to the clay, and the water would carry harmful radionuclides from the fuel back to the surface………

The first challenge for Posiva was to locate a spot where no one would ever be likely to dig a deep hole. Then they had to figure out how to make and seal a container so perfectly that the weld would maintain its integrity through the next ice age, which might come as soon as 20 000 years from now.

”We needed a place that was very boring,” explains Johanna Hansen, Posiva’s research and development director. Rather than putting up elaborate signage to communicate with their far-future descendants, Hansen and her colleagues are betting that humanity will simply never want to dig here. They’d scanned the entire country for spots with no valuable metal deposits. They’d sampled groundwater all over Finland in search of the most saline, inhospitable locations. Pristine Olkiluoto passed muster. Olkiluoto’s residents, who were already sharing their island with two nuclear power plants—and were acutely aware of its lack of resources—welcomed the possibility of well-paying jobs for a century to come.

Their confidence that the project will be safe and well managed is unusual and not strongly supported by the historical record of government handling of other forms of high-level nuclear waste. In the Soviet Union, old nuclear submarines were simply abandoned along with their reactors and spent fuel in the Arctic Ocean. In the United States, at the decommissioned military reactor complex in Hanford, Wash., an estimated 1.67 trillion liters of low-level radioactive waste and more than 3 million liters of high-level waste have contaminated the soil and groundwater, and the radionuclides continue to leach into the nearby Columbia River. Unsettling lapses have also occurred at facilities in Sellafield in Cumbria, England; at the Savannah River in South Carolina; and at La Hague in northern France……..

Once the canisters are in place, the tunnels will be filled with a blend of more bentonite and excavated rock. ”We know that the bedrock is 1.8 billion years old and hasn’t changed since it was created,” says Hansen. ”We must try to maintain the bedrock as it was, so that the conditions return to how they were before we started disposal.” Now, however, the bedrock will contain the highest local concentration of uranium in the world, and the new geology must hold strong for a period of time that’s almost absurdly beyond human reckoning.

But in repository design, everything is relative. A thousand centuries may seem like a long time, but for nuclear waste it’s just the beginning. Spent nuclear fuel is mostly uranium-238, with a half-life of 4.46 billion years. The longer the half-life of the isotope, the less radioactivity it emits—but that’s not the full story. Some harmful isotopes are less likely to attach themselves to clay or rock, and therefore they are more likely to move around. ”In terms of the stuff that could make it out in hundreds of thousands of years, iodine-129 and cesium-135 would be on the list,” says John Kessler, a spent-fuel-management expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, in Charlotte, N.C. ”But over a million years, the uncertainties are pretty big.”……..

In as little as 20 000 years, Finland may enter an ice age, and advancing ice sheets kilometers thick could carve out the rock and force more water into its fractured depths. The liquid may then diffuse through the bentonite barrier, eat through the copper, and carry off still-hot radionuclides. No one can be sure.

But maybe nobody will be here to care. In 1000, 10 000, or 100 000 years, it might not be unreasonable to think our descendants will have abandoned this toxic land for a cozier alternative, on space pods or newly colonized planets. Where once there were humans, now hermaphroditic fish and finned flamingos may slither through our poisonous landscapes. Or perhaps evolution’s charge will have delivered beings who are healthier, cuter, and more intelligent than the ones designing today’s disposal systems. Or evolution may go in the opposite direction and cockroaches will reign supreme, just as we always suspected they might……

Overwhelming danger of space radiation is what is stopping travel to Mars

November 19, 2015

Space Radiation Is Quietly Stopping Us From Sending Humans to Mars
In order to create a colony, we need to be able to survive a long trip through space. Neel V. Patel, November 17, 2015 
Innumberable dangers threaten human astronauts traveling into deep space. Some of these, like asteroids, are obvious and avoidable with some decent LIDAR. Others aren’t. At the top of the not-so-much list is space radiation, something NASA is in no way prepared to protect explorers from while ferrying them to Mars. The radiation environment beyond the magnetosphere is not conducive to life, meaning sending astronauts out there without protection is equivalent to sending them to their doom.

While we’ve sent astronauts into space for over half a century now, the vast majority of these missions have been limited to traveling into low Earth orbit — between 99 and 1,200 miles in altitude. The Earth’s magnetic field — which extends thousands of miles into space — protects the planet from being hit head-on by high-energy solar particles traveling over one million miles per hour.

There are three big sources of space radiation, and they all pose a certain amount of risk that can’t always be anticipated or protected against. The first is trapped radiation. Some particles don’t get deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field. Instead, they’re trapped in one of the big two magnetic rings surrounding the Earth, and accumulate together as part of the Van Allen radiation belts. NASA has only had to contend with the Van Allen belts during the Apollo missions.

The second source is galactic cosmic radiation, or GCR, which originates from outside the solar system. These ionized atoms travel at basically the speed of light, although Earth’s magnetic field is also able to protect the planet and objects in low Earth orbit from GCR.

The last source is from solar particle events, which are huge injections energetic particles produced by the sun. There’s a distinction between the solar winds normally emitted by the sun, which take about a day to get to the Earth, and these higher-intensity events that hit us within 10 minutes. Besides producing a potentially lethal amount of radiation for astronauts, SPE can sometimes be wildly unpredictable, making it difficult for NASA scientists and engineers to develop protective measures against them.

NASA examines space radiation the way employers determine acceptable risks for their employees — they will not subject astronauts to an occupational risk of developing cancer beyond a certain threshold…….

For NASA, acceptable risk means a three percent excess lifetime risk of cancer.

But mitigating cancer risk isn’t the only issue. The most common problem is nausea — not so bad if you’re in a spacecraft with barf bags close by, but pretty dangerous if you’re out on a space walk and all you have is a space suit to catch your vomit. One’s immune system might also take a hit for a few days or weeks, and catching an infection out there in the dead of everything is no bueno……..

But NASA has sent astronauts to the moon and back — through the Van Allen belts, no less — and nobody died. Doesn’t that mean we’ve already got the whole cosmic ray thing figured out?

Not quite. The effects of space radiation are dependent on exposure — the longer you’re out in space, the more you’re at risk. The Apollo missions took about three days to get to the moon. The crew for Apollo 11 was back home eight days after liftoff. The timeframe for Mars missions is on a scale of years. “There are two different classes of Mars missions,” says Gregory Nelson, a researcher at Loma Linda University who specializes in the physiological effects of space radiation. “One of those will get to there faster so you can stay longer on the Mars surface. I think that’s 500 days and you come back quickly. In the other version, you’re gone for like 900-some days.” Nelson says a crew going to Mars would probably be exposed to about one gray of radiation — over 277 times the dose of normal year’s worth of radiation exposure on Earth.

The risks of developing cancer or being exposed to a lethal amount of radiation rises exponentially in that timeframe. …….

Both Nelson and Donoviel reiterate that at present, NASA is unable to send people to Mars and still confidently stick to a three percent risk of developing cancer later in life. That certainly doesn’t mean the research will stop — but if the agency intends to put boots on the red planet by the end of the 2030s, they have a lot more work to do to solve the space radiation puzzle.

Deep waste burial a better solution than the much touted PRISM and MOX

November 19, 2015

Another option on the table is PRISM. Developed by GE Hitachi (GEH), PRISM is a sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses a metallic fuel alloy of zirconium, uranium, and plutonium. GEH claims PRISM would reduce the plutonium stockpile quicker than MOX and be the most efficient solution for the UK. The problem is, despite being based on established technology, a PRISM reactor has yet to be built, and the UK is understandably a little reluctant to commit in this direction. Seen as something of a gamble, it remains in the running alongside the currently more favoured MOX option.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure. Regardless of what decision is taken, a proportion of the plutonium will end up as waste and will need to be safely disposed of.

Unlike MOX and PRISM, immobilisation has no prominent industry backers. In comparison to exploiting the plutonium for our energy needs, there is no great fortune to be made from disposing of it safely. But immobilising the entire plutonium stockpile may in fact be a more economically sound approach than reprocessing

Sellafield plutonium a multi-layered problem, The Engineer UK,   6 November 2015 | By Andrew Wade   “……..It takes somewhere in the region of 5-10kg of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon, so 140 tons is a slightly worrying amount to have sitting in a concrete shed in Cumbria. While everyone at the press conference was at pains to point out that there are no major safety concerns with the current storage, it is widely accepted that a long-term plan needs to be formulated. This, however, is where things get tricky. The potential energy of the plutonium if converted to nuclear fuel is massive, but there are several competing technologies vying for endorsement, none of which are well proven as financially viable.

Top of the list – and the government’s current preference – is for some application that uses mixed oxide fuel, or MOX. MOX is made by blending plutonium with natural or depleted uranium to create a fuel that is similar, but not identical, to the low-enriched uranium used in most nuclear plants today. MOX can be – and in several European countries is – used in thermal reactors alongside uranium. But despite past concerns, there is in reality no shortage of uranium today, so no huge need to supplement it with MOX in current reactors. Where MOX could in fact lead to greater efficiencies is in fast reactors, but these are costly and difficult to operate, and would not make economic sense unless the cost of uranium fell.

To complicate matters further, developing MOX is by no means a straightforward process. A Sellafield MOX Plant was completed in 1997, didn’t actually begin operation until 2001, and was closed in 2011 after a poor performance record that saw it deliver just 5 tons of MOX in its first five years. To put that it into context, it was designed with a capacity for 120 tons a year. Total construction and operating cost was around £1.2bn. While France has had a degree of success in producing MOX, construction on the US’s MOX production facility at the Savannah River Site was recently pushed back a decade, and may not be in operation until 2033.

Another option on the table is PRISM. Developed by GE Hitachi (GEH), PRISM is a sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses a metallic fuel alloy of zirconium, uranium, and plutonium. GEH claims PRISM would reduce the plutonium stockpile quicker than MOX and be the most efficient solution for the UK. The problem is, despite being based on established technology, a PRISM reactor has yet to be built, and the UK is understandably a little reluctant to commit in this direction. Seen as something of a gamble, it remains in the running alongside the currently more favoured MOX option.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure. Regardless of what decision is taken, a proportion of the plutonium will end up as waste and will need to be safely disposed of. One of the speakers at the press conference was Professor Neil Hyatt from the University of Sheffield. A materials science specialist, Hyatt is currently developing an immobilisation technique that can be used to render the plutonium unsuitable for weaponisation, allowing it to be more safely stored in the longer term. Using a form of hot isostatic pressing (HIP), the process mimics the formation of ancient minerals by using extreme heat and pressure to lock the plutonium inside ceramic based wasteforms.

According to Hyatt, the HIP technology is about a decade away from operation. Unlike MOX and PRISM, immobilisation has no prominent industry backers. In comparison to exploiting the plutonium for our energy needs, there is no great fortune to be made from disposing of it safely. But immobilising the entire plutonium stockpile may in fact be a more economically sound approach than reprocessing, says Hyatt. Some see this as madness, putting all that potential energy beyond the use of future generations. Others believe the technology needed to exploit that energy is decades away, by which point fusion and renewables will be better options. Just about the only thing the NDA could say with certainty, was that the right decision is more important than a quick one. We wait with bated breath. 

Radioactive honey detyected near nuclear powr station

November 19, 2015

Radioactive honey found near nuclear power station, 2 Nov, 2015  Honey contaminated with nuclear waste has been found near a disused power station in Scotland, scientists have confirmed, with samples of the product testing positive for “elevated” radioactivity. The samples showed levels of radioactive caesium-137 that are 14 times higher than samples of honey from elsewhere in the UK, prompting scientists to call for an investigation into wider contamination at the site.

The plant, which closed in 1994, no longer produces nuclear energy. It is still in the process of being decommissioned, however.

Independent nuclear energy consultant John Large said bees are an important barometer of environmental health.“Bees are key indicators of what is happening in the environment. They forage in a three-mile radius around the hive and anything in the soil is drawn up into plants and into the nectar they collect.

“This reading is within the limit for human consumption, but caesium-137 should not be turning up in honey at all,” he added.

The results are included in the government’s Radioactivity In Food and the Environment report, published last week…….

Germany’s transition from nuclear energy to renewables

November 19, 2015

Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future
The European nation’s energy revolution has made it a leader in replacing nukes and fossil fuels with wind and solar technology. National Geographic, By Robert Kunzig Photographs by Luca Locatelli  OCTOBER 15, 2015 “…..Germany’s Audacious Goal

Germany has Europe’s second highest consumer electricity prices, yet public support for its energiewende—an aggressive transition to renewable energy—is at an impressive 92 percent. The support is rooted in an eco-friendly culture, a collective desire to abandon nuclear energy, and laws that allow citizens to profit from selling their energy to the grid. Roughly 27 percent of Germany’s electricity is from renewables; the goal is at least 80 percent by 2050……….

Fell, who was installing PV panels on his roof in Hammelburg, realized that the new law would never lead to a countrywide boom: It paid people to produce energy, but not enough. In 1993 he got the city council to pass an ordinance obliging the municipal utility to guarantee any renewable energy producer a price that more than covered costs. Fell promptly organized an association of local investors to build a 15-kilowatt solar power plant—tiny by today’s standards, but the association was one of the first of its kind. Now there are hundreds in Germany.

In 1998 Fell rode a Green wave and his success in Hammelburg into the Bundestag. The Greens formed a governing coalition with the SPD. Fell teamed up with Hermann Scheer, a prominent SPD advocate of solar energy, to craft a law that in 2000 took the Hammelburg experiment nationwide and has since been imitated around the world. Its feed-in tariffs were guaranteed for 20 years, and they paid well.

“My basic principle,” Fell said, “was the payment had to be so high that investors could make a profit. We live in a market economy, after all. It’s logical.”…….

The biogas, the solar panels that cover many roofs, and especially the wind turbines allow Wildpoldsried to produce nearly five times as much electricity as it consumes. Einsiedler manages the turbines, and he’s had little trouble recruiting investors. Thirty people invested in the first one; 94 jumped on the next. “These are their wind turbines,” Einsiedler said. Wind turbines are a dramatic and sometimes controversial addition to the German landscape—“asparagification,” opponents call it—but when people have a financial stake in the asparagus, Einsiedler said, their attitude changes.

It wasn’t hard to persuade farmers and homeowners to put solar panels on their roofs; the feed-in tariff, which paid them 50 cents a kilowatt-hour when it started in 2000, was a good deal. At the peak of the boom, in 2012, 7.6 gigawatts of PV panels were installed in Germany in a single year—the equivalent, when the sun is shining, of seven nuclear plants. A German solar-panel industry blossomed, until it was undercut by lower-cost manufacturers in China—which took the boom worldwide.

Fell’s law, then, helped drive down the cost of solar and wind, making them competitive in many regions with fossil fuels. One sign of that: Germany’s tariff for large new solar facilities has fallen from 50 euro cents a kilowatt-hour to less than 10. “We’ve created a completely new situation in 15 years—that’s the huge success of the renewable energy law,” Fell said.

Germans paid for this success not through taxes but through a renewable-energy surcharge on their electricity bills. This year the surcharge is 6.17 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, which for the average customer amounts to about 18 euros a month—a hardship for some, Rosenkranz told me, but not for the average German worker. The German economy as a whole devotes about as much of its gross national product to electricity as it did in 1991.

In the 2013 elections Fell lost his seat in the Bundestag, a victim of internal Green Party politics. He’s back in Hammelburg now, but he doesn’t have to look at the steam plumes from Grafenrheinfeld: Last June the reactor became the latest to be switched off. No one, not even the industry, thinks nuclear is coming back in Germany…….

Germany’s big utilities have been losing money lately—because of the energiewende, they say; because of their failure to adapt to the energiewende, say their critics. E.ON, the largest utility, which owns Grafenrheinfeld and many other plants, declared a loss of more than three billion euros last year.

“The utilities in Germany had one strategy,” Flasbarth said, “and that was to defend their track—nuclear plus fossil. They didn’t have a strategy B.” Having missed the energiewende train as it left the station, they’re now chasing it. E.ON is splitting into two companies, one devoted to coal, gas, and nuclear, the other to renewables. The CEO, once a critic of the energiewende, is going with the renewables.

Vattenfall, a Swedish state-owned company that’s another one of Germany’s four big utilities, is attempting a similar evolution. “We’re a role model for the energiewende,” ……..

Vattenfall, however, plans to sell its lignite business, if it can find a buyer, so it can focus on renewables. It’s investing billions of euros in two new offshore wind parks in the North Sea—because there’s more wind offshore than on and because a large corporation needs a large project to pay its overhead. “We can’t do onshore in Germany,” Wiese said. “It’s too small.”

Vattenfall isn’t alone: The renewables boom has moved into the North and Baltic Seas and, increasingly, into the hands of the utilities.  Merkel’s government has encouraged the shift, capping construction of solar and onshore wind and changing the rules in ways that shut out citizens associations. Last year the amount of new solar fell to around 1.9 gigawatts, a quarter of the 2012 peak. Critics say the government is helping big utilities at the expense of the citizens’ movement that launched the energiewende.

At the end of April, Vattenfall formally inaugurated its first German North Sea wind park, an 80-turbine project called DanTysk that lies some 50 miles offshore. The ceremony in a Hamburg ballroom was a happy occasion for the city of Munich too. Its municipal utility, Stadtwerke München, owns 49 percent of the project. As a result Munich now produces enough renewable electricity to supply its households, subway, and tram lines. By 2025 it plans to meet all of its demand with renewables……

Though Germany isn’t on track to meet its own goal for 2020, it’s ahead of the European Union’s schedule. It could have left things there—and many in Merkel’s CDU wanted her to do just that. Instead, she and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel, head of the SPD, reaffirmed their 40 percent commitment last fall……..

Nuclear fusion? it’s a white elephant

November 19, 2015

Another Fusion White Elephant Sighted in Germany 27th, 2015  Helian  According to an article that just appeared in Science magazine, scientists in Germany have completed building a stellarator by the name of Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), and are seeking regulatory permission to turn the facility on in November.  If you can’t get past the Science paywall, here’s an article in the popular media with some links.  Like the much bigger ITER facility now under construction at Cadarache in France, W7-X is a magnetic fusion device.  In other words, its goal is to confine a plasma of heavy hydrogen isotopes at temperatures much hotter than the center of the sun with powerful magnetic fields in order to get them to fuse, releasing energy in the process.  There are significant differences between stellarators and the tokamak design used for ITER, but in both approaches the idea is to hold the plasma in place long enough to get significantly more fusion energy out than was necessary to confine and heat the plasma.  Both approaches are probably scientifically feasible.  Both are also white elephants, and a waste of scarce research dollars.

The problem is that both designs have an Achilles heel.  Its name is tritium.  Tritium is a heavy isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus containing a proton and two neutrons instead of the usual lone proton.  Fusion reactions between tritium and deuterium, another heavy isotope of hydrogen with a single neutron in addition to the usual proton, begin to occur fast enough to be attractive as an energy source at plasma temperatures and densities much less than would be necessary for any alternative reaction.  The deuterium-tritium, or DT, reaction will remain the only feasible one for both stellarator and tokamak fusion reactors for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, tritium occurs in nature in only tiny trace amounts.

The question is, then, where do you get the tritium fuel to keep the fusion reactions going?  Well, in addition to a helium nucleus, the DT fusion reaction produces a fast neutron.  These can react with lithium to produce tritium.  If a lithium-containing blanket could be built surrounding the reaction chamber in such a way as to avoid interfering with the magnetic fields, and yet thick enough and close enough to capture enough of the neutrons, then it should be possible to generate enough tritium to replace that burned up in the fusion process.  It sounds complicated but, again, it appears to be at least scientifically feasible.  However, it is by no means as certain that it is economically feasible.

Consider what we’re dealing with here.  Tritium is an extremely slippery material that can pass right through walls of some types of metal.  It is also highly radioactive, with a half-life of about 12.3 years.  It will be necessary to find some way to efficiently extract it from the lithium blanket, allowing none of it to leak into the surrounding environment.  If any of it gets away, it will be easily detectable.  The neighbors are sure to complain and, probably, lawyer up.  Again, all this might be doable.  The problem is that it will never be doable at a low enough cost to make fusion reactor designs based on these approaches even remotely economically competitive with the non-fossil alternative sources of energy that will be available for, at the very least, the next several centuries.

What’s that?  Reactor design studies by large and prestigious universities and corporations have all come to the conclusion that these magnetic fusion beasts will be able to produce electricity at least as cheaply as the competition?  I don’t think so.  I’ve participated in just such a government-funded study, conducted by a major corporation as prime contractor, with several other prominent universities and corporations participating as subcontractors.  I’m familiar with the methodology used in several others.  In general, it’s possible to make the cost electricity come out at whatever figure you choose, within reason, using the most approved methods and the most sound project management and financial software.  If the government is funding the work, it can be safely assumed that they don’t want to hear something like, “Fuggedaboudit, this thing will be way too expensive to build and run.”  That would make the office that funded the work look silly, and the fusion researchers involved in the design look like welfare queens in white coats.  The “right” cost numbers will always come out of these studies in the end.

I submit that a better way to come up with a cost estimate is to use a little common sense.  Do you really think that a commercial power company will be able to master the intricacies of tritium production and extraction from the vicinity of a highly radioactive reaction chamber at anywhere near the cost of, say, wind and solar combined with next generation nuclear reactors for baseload power?  If you do, you’re a great deal more optimistic than me.  W7-X cost a billion euros.  ITER is slated to cost 13 billion, and will likely come in at well over that.  With research money hard to come by in Europe for much worthier projects, throwing amounts like that down a rat hole doesn’t seem like a good plan.

All this may come as a disappointment to fusion enthusiasts.  On the other hand, you may want to consider the fact that, if fusion had been easy, we would probably have managed to blow ourselves up with pure fusion weapons by now.  Beyond that, you never know when some obscure genius might succeed in pulling a rabbit out of their hat in the form of some novel confinement scheme.  Several companies claim they have sure-fire approaches that are so good they will be able to dispense with tritium entirely in favor of more plentiful, naturally occurring isotopes.  See, for example, herehere, andhere, and the summary at the Next Big Future website.  I’m not optimistic about any of them, either, but you never know.

Failures in nuclear power pipelines

November 19, 2015

Nuclear Pipe Nightmares, UCS  director, Nuclear Safety Project October 27, 2015 Disaster by Design

If you had a dollar for every foot of pipe—or even just a quarter for every three inches of pipe—used in the nation’s nuclear power plants, you would probably not be reading this post. That chore would be delegated to one or more of your many minions.

Pipes at nuclear power plants carry cooling water to the reactor vessel and spent fuel pool, transport steam to the main turbine, provide hydrogen gas to cool the main generators, supply fuel and lubricating oil to the emergency diesel generators, maintain the fire sprinklers ready to extinguish fires, and numerous other vital functions. Given so many pipes, a success rate of 99.99%—remarkably similar to a failure rate of one broken pipe out of ten thousand pipes—would result in lots of piping failures.

The Electric Power Research Institute’s report revealed lots of piping failures at U.S. nuclear power plants between 1961 and 1997 (Fig. 1). The non-leaking failures are identified by inspections indicating that safety margins had been compromised, forcing the pipes to be replaced before they leak. The leaking failures are identified by puddles on the floor or other obvious signs, again forcing pipes to be replaced.

[excellent charts on original]

The Electric Power Research Institute’s report identified numerous reasons why pipes break (Fig. 2). MIC under corrosion stands for microbiologically induced corrosion—tiny little bugs that eat metal. Pipes can be designed wrong, installed wrong, or weakened via an array of methods during use.

[article goes on to describe pipe failures at:]

Dresden Nuclear Plant

Fission Stories #65 described the January 25, 1994, …..

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant

On August 14, 1984…..

Surry Nuclear Plant

On December 9, 1986,….

Mihama Nuclear Plant

A 22-inch diameter pipe in the condensate/feedwater system ruptured on August 9, 2004, at the Mihama nuclear plant in Japan …..

Oyster Creek and Dresden Nuclear Plants

Fission Stories #162…..

LaSalle Nuclear Plant

On May 27, 1985…..

Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant

Fission Stories #29 described how 133,000 gallons drained from the condensate storage tank at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey in September 1996…..

Davis Besse Nuclear Plant

Fission Stories #131 described the March 2002 discovery by workers at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio that a crack in a pipe allowing a control rod inside the reactor vessel to be connected to and manipulated by its electric motor outside the vessel had been leaking cooling water from the reactor for as long as six years……

Byron Nuclear Plant

On October 19, 2007, workers brushing away rust on the outer surface of a cooling water pipe at the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois poked a hole in it……

Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant

The NRC described a broken pipe at the Big Rock Point nuclear plant in their annual report to the U.S. Congress on abnormal occurrences in 1998…….

Safety by Intent

The table above from the Electric Power Research Institute indicates that 1,816 failures were identified by testing and inspection at U.S. nuclear power plants between 1961 and 1997 while 2,247 failures were found after pipes had leaked.

This data reinforce a theme too often appearing in nuclear safety posts to our All Things Nuclear blog—testing and inspection efforts are less effective than they need to be. Afederal regulation requires that plant owners have extensive testing and inspection programs that find and fix safety problems in a timely and effective manner. If compliance with this regulation were fact rather than fiction, the data should show more piping failures are found via tests and inspections than by puddles on the floor.

The NRC must figure out why testing and inspection efforts are violating federal safety regulations by failing to find and fix piping failures in a timely and effective manner.

Low dose radiation: facts from World Health Organisation, Alice Stewart and Rosalie Bertell

November 19, 2015

W.H.O. IPHECA report 1995… areas over 5 mSv/year were designated mandatory EVACUATION zones.

The international standard for external exposure has been 1mSv/year. With the advent of ‘modern medicine’, the use of nuclear chemicals, xrays, dental included, of course…… it is harder for exposure to be limited in this way, but all people should be aware and consider xrays for children especially only when absolutely necessary! Dr. Alice Stewart showed that very low doses for children is far worse and causes cancers in children a few years later! Leukemia being prevalent.

Low Level radiation exposure from Sister Doctor Rosalie Bertell:

“When you are talking about constant low radiation exposure, what you are doing is introducing mistakes into the gene-pool. And those mistakes will eventually turn up by killing that line, that cell line, that species line. The amount of damage determines whether this happens in two generations or in seven generations or 10 generations. So what we are doing by introducing more mistakes into the DNA or the gene pool is we are shortening the number of generations that will be viable on the planet.

We have shortened the number of generations that will follow us. We have shortened that already. So we reduced the viability of living systems on this planet, whether it can recover or not. We don’t have any outside source to get new DNA. So we have the DNA we have, whoever will live on this planet in the future is present right now in the DNA. So if we damage it, we don’t have another place to get it.

There will be no living thing on earth in the future that is not present now in a seed, in a sperm and the ovum of all living plants and animals. So it is all here now. It is not going to come from Mars or somewhere. Living things come from living things. So we carry this very precious seed for the future. And when you damage it you do two things. You produce an organism that is less viable, less harmonized with the environment. At the same time, we are leaving toxic and radioactive waste around. So you are going to have a more hazardous environment and a less capable organism. That is a death syndrome for the species, not only for the individual. It is going to be harder to live. The body will be less able to take stress, and you are increasing the stress at the same time.

We are responsible for what we turn over to the next generation. It is amazing to me because I am the daughter of people that came from Europe, migrated to Canada and the United States for a better life for their children. And it seems that our generation does not care for the future. It is not our heritage. Our heritage was to give something better to our children than what we received. And we seem not to care. I find this very strange, and I think most of our grandparents would turn over in their graves, if they knew what we are doing.”

Dr. Rosalie Bertell 2010 Interview

Cancellation of radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods shipment to Idaho

November 19, 2015

Feds cancel research shipment of spent nuclear fuel to Idaho, Salt Lake Tribune, By KEITH RIDLER The Associated Press, 25 Oct 15, Boise, Idaho • Federal authorities have canceled the first of two proposed research shipments of spent nuclear fuel to eastern Idaho but still hope to deliver the second.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday that 25 fuel rods weighing about 100 pounds will not be sent to the Idaho National Laboratory.

The move comes after federal and state officials couldn’t come to terms on a waiver to a 1995 agreement that ties such shipments to nuclear waste cleanup at the 890-square-mile site. The federal agency is currently in violation of the agreement because of its failure to convert 900,000 gallons of liquid waste into solid form due to malfunctions at a $571 million plant……..

The Department of Energy wants to better understand “high burnup” spent fuel that is accumulating at nuclear power plants in the U.S. High burnup fuel remains in nuclear reactor cores longer to produce more energy but comes out more radioactive and hotter. It’s cooled in pools before being encased in steel and concrete.

The first proposed shipment to Idaho initially set for August would have come from the Byron Nuclear Power Station in Illinois.

The second shipment, also of 25 spent nuclear fuel rods weighing about 100 pounds, is scheduled for January 2016, from the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia.

The Department of Energy “will continue to work with the state of Idaho in an effort to identify a path forward for the proposed second shipment,” the agency said……..