Archive for the ‘safety’ Category

Nuclear Power Is a Dead End. We Must Abandon It Completely.

November 3, 2022

In fact, the knock-out arguments against the nuclear industry today are reactors’ cost and deployment time. The greatest barriers to this claimed renaissance—and it is primarily talk, not investment—is its inability to deliver affordable power on time and on budget.

Small nuclear reactors (SMRs) -both slower to deploy than conventional reactors and more expensive per kilowatt capacity. overall, SMRs are inferior to conventional reactors with respect to radioactive waste generation, management requirements, and disposal options.

Even given Europe’s energy crisis, the case against nuclear power has never been so conclusive—and so important.

The Nation, By Paul Hockenos 13 Oct 22,

BERLIN—Amid a confluence of crises—the Ukraine war, an energy crisis, and climate breakdown—nuclear energy is experiencing a renaissance, at least in the rhetoric of politicians and pundits across Europe, North America, and beyond. After all, it’s tempting to propose these generators of low-carbon energy as a panacea to this daunting phalanx of calamities.

But in fact, the case against nuclear power and for genuinely renewable energies has never been so conclusive—and so important. In early March, Russia captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine—the largest in Europe with six reactors, each the size of the one that melted down in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—and transformed it into an army base from which it fires artillery at Ukrainian positions.

Although this weaponizing of nuclear reactors had long been recognized as a threat, the vulnerability of nuclear power plants in conflict zones is now center stage in Europe. The battlefield in this case is controlled by an unpredictable autocrat who has threatened that he’ll use every means at his disposal to destroy Ukraine. At the Zaporizhzhia station, the Russian military has taken the Ukrainian nuclear engineers hostage, and is working them at gunpoint. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned in August that there’s a “real risk of nuclear disaster” unless the fighting stops. Russia could sabotage a power plant like Zaporizhzhia and attempt to shift the blame onto Ukraine. A nuclear weapon strike would be a crime against humanity, but a disaster at nuclear plant could blur responsibility and complicate the international response. Nuclear plants, where military-scale security is nonexistent, are sitting ducks for acts of terrorism and wartime targeting.

At the same time, the world’s nuclear power champion, France, has punctured the myth that nuclear power is a round-the-clock energy source that can operate without back-up reserves—a favorite trope of wind and solar power skeptics. Nowhere in Europe today is the energy crisis more acute than in France, where for much of this year, between a third and over half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors have been shut down either because weather-warmed rivers cannot cool their systems or on account of corrosion damage, hairline cracks, staff shortages, and pending maintenance work on their geriatric hardware. The outages have forced France to rely on Germany for electricity imports—culled in large part from the wind and solar farms that supply almost half of Germany’s electricity. In August, France’s power prices hit €1,100 per megawatt-hour, more than 10 times the 2021 price, smashing records across the continent………………………………………

Critics’ original concern with nuclear power, namely its safety, remains paramount. The two most catastrophic meltdowns, in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union and the Fukushima site in Japan, in 2011, had horrific repercussions that still haunt those regions. But these mega disasters are only the most well known. According to IAEA, there have been 33 serious incidents at nuclear power stations worldwide since 1952—two in France and six in the United States.

These accident numbers don’t include the toxic fallout from lax disposal and storage of nuclear waste.

Between 1945 and 1993, 13 countries, including the UK, the US, and the Soviet Union, heaved barrels of nuclear waste into their seas—a total of 200,000 tons—presuming the vast ocean waters would dissolve and dilute it. Those casks still lie there today.

This sad chapter belongs to the 80-year-old saga of nuclear waste. Currently, there’s over a quarter-million metric tons of spent fuel rods sitting above ground, usually in cooling pools at both closed-down and operative nuclear plants, waiting like Samuel Beckett’s protagonists Vladimir and Estragon for a definitive solution that will never come.

In northern Europe, the Finns claim that they’ve solved it by digging 100 tunnels 1,400 feet into the bedrock of an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Bothnia. Underway now for decades, this $3.4 billion undertaking, the first permanent repository in the world, will eventually hold all of Finland’s spent nuclear refuse—less than 1 percent of the world’s accumulated radioactive remnants—until about 2100. This highly radioactive mass will, its operators promise, remain catacombed for 100,000 years. (Since nuclear waste is lethal for up to 300,000 years, these sites are a time-bomb for whoever or whatever is inhabiting the planet then, assuming geological conditions allow it to lie peacefully for that long.) In light of Finland’s small volume of radioactive waste, the full lifetime price tag of nearly $8 billion dollars is significantly more per ton than the estimated $34.9 billion, $19.8 billion, and $96 billion that the France, Germany, and the United States respectively will shell out for nuclear waste management, according to the World Nuclear Waste Report 2019.

Most countries don’t have barren islands far from groundwater sources, so they have to make do, like Switzerland did in September when it announced that it intends to excavate a geological storage repository near the German border, closer to German towns in Baden Württemberg than Swiss ones. Germany’s borderland communities are vigorously contesting the choice, which will probably be abandoned by the Swiss. Nearly all proposed sites end up scratched for the obvious reason that nobody wants to live next to a nuclear waste dump.

Nowhere in the world has anyone managed to create a place where we can bury extremely nasty nuclear waste forever,” Denis Florin of Lavoisier Conseil, an energy-focused management consultancy in Paris, told the Financial Times earlier this year. “We cannot go on using nuclear without being adult about the waste, without accepting we need to find a permanent solution.”

The inherent danger of nuclear power is often relativized by advocates as the bitter pill we must choke down in light of its other advantages. In fact, the knock-out arguments against the nuclear industry today are reactors’ cost and deployment time. The greatest barriers to this claimed renaissance—and it is primarily talk, not investment—is its inability to deliver affordable power on time and on budget.

Nuclear energy is such a colossal expense—into the tens of billions of dollars, like the $30 billion Vogtle units in Waynesboro, Ga.—that few private investors will touch them, even with prodigious government bankrolling.

The UK government finally found a taker for its Hinkley Point C station in 2016 when it offered lavish subsidies to the French energy firm EDF. But even that deal becomes less sweet the higher construction costs spiral and the longer EDF postpones its opening beyond 2025. So catastrophic are the cost overruns of EDF’s projects worldwide that the company could no longer service its €43 billion debt and this year agreed to full nationalization. But experts say this alone won’t solve any of the fundamental problems at Hinkley C or the Flamanville plant in Normandy, which is 10 years behind schedule, with costs fives times in excess of the original budget. Cost overruns are one reason that one in eight new reactor projects that start construction are abandoned.

While safety concerns drive up the cost of nuclear plant insurance, the price of renewables is predicted to sink by 50 percent or more by 2030. Study after study attests that wind and solar cost a fraction of the price of nuclear power: at least three to eight times the bang for the buck in terms of energy generation and climate protection, at a time when the exorbitant cost of energy is causing recessions and street protests across Europe. It is because solar photovoltaic and wind power are the cheapest bulk power source in most of the world that renewables, grids, and storage now account for more than 80 percent of power sector investment. In 2021, companies, governments, and households invested 15 times as much in renewable energy than in nuclear. They’re simply the better buy.


Indeed, in the face of an ever more cataclysmic climate crisis that demands solutions now—like hitting the EU’s 2030 targets of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2030—the build-out of nuclear is painfully, prohibitively slow. In Europe, just one nuclear reactor has been planned, commissioned, financed, constructed, and put online since 2000—that’s Finland’s Olkiluoto-3 reactors (March 2022). Europe’s flagship nuclear projects—called European Pressurized Reactors—have been dogged by delays from the start. The Olkiluoto-3 reactors in Finland, which had been scheduled to go online in 2009, still isn’t heating homes. Globally, the average construction time—which count the planning, licensing, site preparation, and arranging of finances—is about a decade.

Small-scale modular reactors (SMR), advanced with funding during the Obama administration, are supposedly the industry’s savior—the so-called next generation—although they’ve been around for decades. Purportedly quicker to build, with factory-made parts, they generate at most a 10th of the energy as a conventional reactor. Yet they are not significantly different in terms of their problems. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2022 claims that, so far, they have been both slower to deploy than conventional reactors and more expensive per kilowatt capacity. A recent study conducted by Stanford University and University of British Columbia came to the conclusion that “overall, SMRs are inferior to conventional reactors with respect to radioactive waste generation, management requirements, and disposal options.”


Finally, the last claim of nuclear supporters is that the massive baseload supply that reactors provide when they’re up and running is just what systems reliant on weather-based renewables need at down times. In fact, nuclear is the opposite of what decentralized clean energy systems require.

Renewables and nuclear energy don’t mix well in one system, explains Toby Couture of the Berlin-based think tank E3 Analytics. “What renewables need is not so-called baseload power,” he told me, “which is inflexible and unable to ramp up and down, but flexible, nimble supply provided by the likes of storage capacity, smart grids, demand management, and a growing toolbox of other mechanisms, not the large and inflexible supply of nuclear reactors.”

Couture added, “The inability of nuclear power to ramp down effectively to ‘make room’ for cheap wind and solar is one of the main reasons why France’s own domestic renewable energy development has lagged behind its peers.” According to Couture, France’s inability to flexibly accommodate wind and solar has exacerbated the continent-wide power supply crunch.

In light of the energy crisis, Germany may extend the lifetime of two of its three remaining nuclear plants for three months, in a reserve capacity beyond their scheduled end-of-year closure date. This emergency measure, a direct consequence of the previous governments’ failures, does not alter the logic against nuclear power, which even Germany’s own nuclear industry now accepts. Renewables, clean tech, and energy efficiency are easy to rollout, cost-effective, safe, and proven. Let’s concentrate on deploying these technologies at full speed to decarbonize our world before the impacts of climate change overwhelm us.

Cuban Missile Crisis 60th anniversary: How world teetered on nuclear abyss

November 3, 2022

9News, By Richard Wood • Senior Journalist Oct 15, 2022

“……………………………………… Sixty years ago, the flashpoint was Cuba and the deployment of Russian nuclear missiles to the island – just 180km from the US mainland.

Here is a look at how the dramatic events unfolded over a tense 13 days.

………………………………………………………. On Friday, October 26, 1962, fears of a US invasion were so great that Cuban leader Fidel Castro ordered American reconnaissance planes to be shot down.

The end game came in the form of a public US promise the next day not to invade Cuba and a private – long denied – promise to remove US missiles from Turkey in return for a Soviet pledge to pull out their nuclear missiles from Cuba.

How the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded

October 16: Photos taken by a US spy plane that show nuclear-armed missiles on Cuba are shown to President John F. Kennedy.

October 18: Kennedy receives an assurance from the Soviet government that his country is providing only defensive aid to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

October 22: In a TV address, Kennedy says the weapons are a “clear and present danger” to the US and its allies.

October 23: US naval forces deploy around Cuba to enforce their blockade

October 25: Russian freighters bound for Cuba turn back.

October 26: Nikita Khrushchev writes to Kennedy offering to remove the missiles if the US lifts the blockade and pledges not to invade Cuba.

October 27: Kennedy receives a second letter from the Soviet government demanding much tougher terms. A US spy plane is shot down over Cuba and its pilot dies.

October 28: Russian state radio announces Khrushchev will withdraw the missiles in exchange for a non-invasion pledge by the US.

Counting the cost of cracking in EDF’s nuclear reactors in France

November 3, 2022

Nuclear Engineering, 11 Aug, 22,

The full extent of stress corrosion cracking at EDF’s reactors in France has still to be determined. Nonetheless, lower production as plants are re-examined has come at the worst possible time for the company.

On 15 December 2021 EDF announced that it would temporarily shut down two reactors at the Civaux site. The move came after inspections undertaken as part of as Civaux 1’s 10-yearly in-service inspection revealed defect indications close to welds in pipes that formed part of the of the safety injection system (SIS). This back-up circuit allows borated water to be injected into the reactor core in order to stop the nuclear reaction and to maintain the volume of water in the primary circuit in the event of a loss of primary coolant accident.

The discovery illustrated the mixed blessings of a ‘series’ approach to nuclear build, as EDF decided that it should also investigate and, if needed, address the same problem at other reactors in the N4 series, notably at Chooz, where there are four similar reactors. It began an outage at Chooz 2 on 16 December and at Chooz 1 on 18 December.

At that time EDF said the extended outage at Civaux and the closure at Chooz would cost it about 1TWh in lost generation to the end of 2021. But since then the company has found the problem to be more widespread.

ASN (Autorite´ de Su^rete´ Nucle´aire), France’s nuclear safety authority, said analysis on parts of the pipes removed from Civaux 1 had revealed the presence of cracking resulting from an unexpected stress corrosion phenomenon on the inner face of the piping, close to the weld bead. There was worse news for EDF. The ultrasonic inspection, which had been carried out during the plants’ regular 10-yearly outages, is mainly used to detect cracking caused by thermal fatigue. It is less effective at detecting stress corrosion cracking (SCC). That raised the fear that SCC had been present in reactors that had previously been examined by ultrasound and indications of SCC had wrongly been classified as spurious. The re-examination of Chooz B1 and B2 indicated this was indeed the case and there was SCC that needed to be addressed.

All five of the reactors in the initial group have had to undergo additional checks to determine which areas and systems are affected by the stress corrosion phenomenon.

To make matters worse still, checks at Penly 1, during its third 10-yearly outage, revealed indications on the same pipes, which laboratory analysis showed to be SCC, albeit at a smaller scale than at Civaux 1. Unlike the Chooz and Civaux reactors, Penly is not one of the 1450MWe N4 series but a 1300MWe reactor in an earlier French series.

As a result, EDF has returned to the checks previously conducted on all of its reactors to re-examine the results, searching for indications then thought to be spurious but now seen as potential indications of stress corrosion.

May update

In early May, speaking at an investor meeting after the company published results for the three months to the end of March, Regis Clement, EDF’s Deputy Head of Nuclear Generation, provided an update to investors.

He said inspections and examinations had confirmed stress corrosion in sections of piping at Civaux 1, Chooz 1 and Penly 1, where the affected parts will be removed and replaced. EDF had already begun investigations at Civaux 2 and Chooz 2 and now that has been extended to seven more units – Chinon 3, Cattenom 3, Bugey 3 and 4, Flamanville 1 and 2, and Golfech 1. Of these units, Clement said: “Indications have been found during ultrasound inspection process but we are not yet able to establish whether these are minor flaws in the composition of the steel, traces of thermal fatigue or stress corrosion.” Laboratory tests are under way.

In the end, EDF will inspect all its reactors. It expects that process to be completed by the end of 2023 and largely to be carried out during scheduled maintenance outages. Clement said, “At this time more or less 20% of the fleet is undergoing examination” and EDF expected to have a “high level of requirements” in controlling or remedying the problem.

The overall cost of assessing and remedying the problem cannot yet be fully assessed, ……………………….

Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Fabrication plant – a detailed history of troubles.

August 4, 2022

Dead fish near SC nuclear fuel site were an early warning. Then came the spills and accidents, The State, BY SAMMY FRETWELL, JULY 30, 2022 

“……………………………………………………. 1980: State regulators learn of a fish kill near the Westinghouse wastewater plant. They found elevated levels of fluoride and ammonia-nitrogen in groundwater and surface water. It was later determined that the pollution came from the plant wastewater area. 1980: Twenty plant workers evacuated from Westinghouse after a small leak of uranium hexafluoride gas.

1982: Westinghouse unable to find 9.5 pounds of slightly enriched uranium, according to an NRC report. 1983: State regulators fine Westinghouse $6,000 for illegally shipping flammable material that caused a fire at Barnwell County’s low-level nuclear waste dump. 1988: Radioactivity found in monitoring wells is thought to have come from prior leaks of industrial wastewater. Low concentrations of Uranium 235, 234 and 238 found.

1989: EPA investigators find an array of pollutants in groundwater at the Westinghouse site, some higher than safe drinking water levels. Vinyl Chloride and TCE, both of which can cause cancer, were found to exceed the drinking water standard. 1989: Twenty five dead deer discovered at the Westinghouse property, some of them in an area where wastewater was being discharged near the Congaree River. The deer reportedly died from nitrate poisoning, but public records reviewed by The State do not show an exact cause. 1992: Trichloroethene (TCE), cis-1,2-dichloroethene (CIS 1,2 DCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE), are detected at amounts above the federal maximum contaminant level for safe drinking water. The high levels were found near the plant’s oil house.

1993: NRC fines Westinghouse $18,750 after alleging that the company failed to perform a criticality safety analysis and failed to conduct safety tests. 1994: Radioactive leak exposes 55 workers to uranium hexafluoride and shuts down the Westinghouse plant. 1997: The plant loses two low-enriched fuel rods. The NRC says five violations of NRC requirements occurred. Safety was not compromised, but problems “are indicative of inadequate management attention.’’

1998: Company fined $13,750 after NRC notes the “loss of criticality control,’’ a problem that could have led to an accident. The agency says a problem had gone uncorrected. 2000: NRC hits Westinghouse with a violation notice because an operator “willfully violated criticality safety procedures when preparing to mix a batch of powder.’’ 2000: Uranyl nitrate spills at the Westinghouse plant, causing a cleanup. When the cleanup began, workers found the spill was worse than originally thought.

2001: NRC hits Westinghouse with a violation for transporting 3 cylinders of licensed material with elevated radiation levels. 2001: Westinghouse fails to follow criticality safety rules at a uranium recovery area dissolver elevator, violation notice says. Containers were not stacked far enough apart, reducing safety. Westinghouse didn’t do enough to fix the problem. 2001: NRC issues a violation notice to Westinghouse after raising concerns about criticality safety, including failing to keep uranium powder mixing hoods properly separated.

2001: NRC hits Westinghouse with violation after criticality safety controls failed to work on the ammonium diurnate process lines. 2002: NRC letter tells Westinghouse that its criticality safety control efforts need improvement. NRC Regional Administrator Luis Reyes says the last two safety reviews have urged improvement for criticality safety. Letter notes concern about nuclear transportation program. 2002: NRC notice of investigation says a contractor for Westinghouse falsified records about the receipt and processing of materials. That resulted in a small amount of nuclear material being improperly shipped to nuclear site in Tennessee. 2004: NRC again raises concerns about criticality safety, the practice of making sure a nuclear chain reaction does not occur. Efforts to improve compliance with procedures and “implement criticality safety controls were not fully effective,’’ letter from regional administrator Luis Reyes says.

2004: NRC letter hits Westinghouse with a $24,000 fine. The company failed to maintain criticality controls as required. Ash in the company’s incinerator exceeded concentration limits for uranium. The Level 2 violation is, at the time, the most serious ever noted at the plant. 2008: Broken pipe spills radioactive material into the soil in the same area as a later 2011 leak, but Westinghouse doesn’t tell state or federal regulators for years. 2008: The NRC sanctions Westinghouse for losing sixteen sample vials of uranium hexafluoride. The company didn’t properly document and control the transfer of the vials and failed to secure them from “unauthorized removal.’’ 2008: Westinghouse hit with a violation notice after a worker disabled an alarm and bypassed a safety significant interlock.

2009: Westinghouse fires a contract foreman after federal regulators found that he had falsified records. Westinghouse also was cited by the NRC. The foreman certified that employees were trained in safety procedures, when they had not completed training.

2009: Westinghouse loses 25 pounds of pellets that were to be used in making nuclear fuel rods. NRC downplays danger but says Westinghouse should have kept better track of the nuclear material.

2010: NRC levies $17,500 fine against Westinghouse after uranium-bearing wastewater spilled inside the plant.

2011: Uranium leaks into ground beneath the Westinghouse plant, but federal inspectors weren’t told about it for years. NRC officials said they only learned about the spill in 2017.

2012: Worker exposed to uranium-containing acid and whisked to a hospital by emergency medical crews. The worker was treated for pain and released.

2012: Westinghouse fails to follow through on a report to improve the facility so it could better withstand an earthquake, NRC says. Recommendations had been made nine years previously.

2015: Three workers are injured when steam erupted from a wash tank. The workers are taken to a Columbia area hospital for treatment and later sent to the burn center in Augusta, which specializes in treating severe burns.

2016: A buildup of uranium that could have led to a small burst of radiation forces Westinghouse to shut down part of the fuel plant and temporarily lay off 170 workers, about one-tenth of its work force at the plant. The uranium found in the scrubber area is nearly three times the legal limit.

2017: Westinghouse worker exposed to a solution toxic enough to cause chemical burns when the solution sprayed him. 2018: Uranium leaks into the ground through a hole in the Westinghouse plant floor. An acid solution had eaten into the floor. Soil was contaminated.

2018. The NRC says Westinghouse allowed workers to walk across a protecting liner for years, which likely weakened the liner and contributed to a hole in the floor that allowed uranium solution to leak out.

2019: Fire breaks out in a drum laden with mop heads, rags and other cleaning equipment.

2019: State and federal authorities report that water had leaked through a rusty shipping container and onto barrels of uranium-tainted trash. Contaminants then leaked into the soil below the shipping container floor.

2019: Westinghouse sends three workers to the hospital after they complained of an unusual taste in their mouths while doing maintenance on equipment that contains hydrofluoric acid.

2019: Two contaminated barrels are shipped from the Westinghouse plant to Washington State after workers in South Carolina failed to properly examine the containers for signs of radioactive contamination.

2020. The NRC issues violation against Westinghouse, this time after questions arose about nuclear safety. The issue centered on improper security of tamper seals, used to keep nuclear material from being stolen.

2020. NRC reports finding 13 pinhole leaks in a protective liner.

2020: South Carolina officials raise concerns about earthquakes at Westinghouse.

Sources: NRC records and news reports from The State.

Atoms and Ashes—lessons from six of the world’s worst nuclear disasters

August 4, 2022

This is a powerful and timely book. At a time when arguments for nuclear power are returning as a way to solve both climate change and the energy crisis, we need to arm ourselves with the arguments.  Not only is nuclear power not a solution to the problems we face, the lesson from this book is that it’s inherently dangerous and could have devastating consequences for life on earth. 27 June 22, Atoms and Ashes—from Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, the new book by Serhii Plokhy, is a compulsive but terrifying read, writes Amy Leather

Standing in front of Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, Boris Johnson launched the Tories’ Energy Security Strategy in April. Nuclear energy was central to the plan. Johnson claimed the strategy would deliver “clean, affordable, secure power to the people for generations to come”. He called for 25 percent of our electricity to come from nuclear power by 2050—up from the current 16 percent. That means greatly increasing capacity, with Johnson bragging the first phase of the plan will involve building eight new nuclear reactors.

Reading Atoms and Ashes by Serhii Plokhy in this context is chilling. As Plokhy says at the start, his main purpose is to take a fresh look at the history of nuclear accidents. He looks at why they happened, how bad they were, what we can learn, and assesses if they could ever happen again.

To do this, he examines six of the world’s worst nuclear disasters—although he is very clear these are by no means the only accidents that have occurred. In fact, there have been hundreds of known incidents and probably even more that have been kept secret or covered up.

Plokhy starts with the Castle Bravo nuclear test that took place in March 1954 at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, in the Pacific. A miscalculation of the hydrogen bomb’s radiation yield and wind direction significantly damaged human health and the environment. The book ends with the Fukushima disaster of 2011, when a 43-foot-high tsunami crashed over the Japanese nuclear plant causing three reactors to go into meltdown.

In between these terrible events Plokhy explores the 1957 Kyshtym disaster in Russia’s Ural Mountains. The explosion of a nuclear waste tank released a massive amount of radiation into the atmosphere. He examines the reactor fire at the Windscale works in Cumbria in the same year. And then he looks at the reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine.

It confirms in revealing detail what many of us who’ve campaigned against nuclear power already know—that it is neither clean nor safe. And, rather than a legacy of “secure power”, it will leave future generations nuclear waste, contaminated water and land, and the cost of clean ups, decontamination and decommissioning.

The catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl plant made the entire region uninhabitable, with up to half a million people permanently displaced. A report in September 2005 put the predicted final death toll from radiation induced cancers at 4,000 people.  The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests it could be more than six times that. Recent estimates put the number of deaths from the Fukushima disaster at 2,202 with some predicting thousands more extra cancer deaths. Around 150,000 people had to evacuate the region.  

Lots of dangerous material is generated from nuclear power. One of the solutions is to bury high level nuclear waste underground.  The US government buries its waste from weapons in New Mexico. The land will still be contaminated in 300,000 years’ time. Meanwhile in Japan, the future of over one million tons of contaminated water stored in a thousand tanks on the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant is unresolved. Last year the Japanese government decided to start releasing the water into the ocean—a process that could last decades and cause environmental damage.

Plokhy charts how the race to make atomic and hydrogen bombs drove the development of nuclear power during and just after the Second World War. Nuclear plants were first built to produce the plutonium needed for bombs, not to generate electricity. The first nuclear bombs were dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945, with devastating consequences.

It wasn’t until the end of 1953 that the US launched the concept of “atoms for peace”. President Dwight Eisenhower claimed that the nuclear industry could produce “good atoms” for energy. It was an attempt to reassure people after concerns were raised about nuclear energy. He wanted to change public perception in the US in order to win support for more investment in nuclear arms and weapons.

In Britain the first nuclear plant was Windscale, built in the village of Seascale on the Cumbrian coast. Construction began in 1947 and it went operational in 1950. The purpose of the nuclear reactors was to produce the material for a British bomb. Successive prime ministers—Labour and Tory—wanted to boost British nuclear capabilities. In the context of the Cold War’s imperialist competition between the US and Russia and British imperial decline, they sought to prove

Britain’s worth to the US. That meant developing a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible.

From the very beginning this competition between states to develop nuclear weapons meant great secrecy, cutting corners, taking risks and an often-cavalier attitude to safety. It becomes clear as each disaster plays out that—whether it was in the US, Russia or Britain—there was little care about that or the people affected by accidents and tests.

For example, when it came to the nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, those in charge proceeded despite knowing the risks. The people living on some nearby islands were not even told the tests were happening. The colonial mindset of the US meant the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands were either ignored or moved at will. And once suffering from radiation, they were subject to studies—not to help them recover but to help the industry assess the effects of radiation.

For example, when it came to the nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, those in charge proceeded despite knowing the risks. The people living on some nearby islands were not even told the tests were happening. The colonial mindset of the US meant the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands were either ignored or moved at will. And once suffering from radiation, they were subject to studies—not to help them recover but to help the industry assess the effects of radiation.

.Competition and secrecy meant that scientists developing and building the new nuclear reactors could not properly learn from each other. For example, those building the Windscale Works in the 1950s only learnt of new developments piecemeal from the US. Often it was too late to incorporate them into the reactor design. Plokhy describes how the scientists and engineers at Windscale didn’t find out about the need for radiation filters to be fitted on the chimneys until after construction had begun.  Rather than start again, they were put at the top of the chimneys where they were less effective. Tellingly even this addition was nicknamed “Cockcroft’s Folly” after the man who insisted they had them at all. In fact, these filters helped trap much of the radiation when the reactor fire broke out.

From the start, Russia chose to use outdated and unsafe reactor designs. Safer ones would have taken longer to build and they had no time to spare when racing against the US. The operators and nuclear engineers at Chernobyl had not even been told about the previous accidents with this type of reactor. Similarly, no manager or operator at Three Mile Island had been told of problems with the type of reactor they were using. It had previously caused an accident at another plant.

The pressure to produce plutonium as quickly as possible meant cutting corners with safety. For example, something called “Wigner energy” builds up in the main body of the reactor while the fission reaction is taking place. This needs to be regularly released otherwise it ignites the graphite used to moderate the reaction. This special operation to release the excess energy is called “annealing”. But the procedure at Windscale required stopping the reactor, so reducing operational hours and productivity.  Under pressure from the government to produce more bomb fuel the Windscale Technical Committee had decided to reduce the number of anneals. By the time the anneal finally took place the day before the reactor fire in October 1957, it was long overdue.

At the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in order to meet the deadline of December 1983, the fourth reactor had gone operational before a key safety test.  It was not until April 1986 that plans were made to carry out this test. It meant shutting down the reactor. This is a very challenging operation and can lead to the reactor becoming unstable. What followed led to two massive blasts that flung off the shield that covered the top of the reactor. Masses of radioactive particles escaped into the atmosphere.

Prior to the disaster at Fukushima a scandal had broken out over the falsification of safety reports by the company—Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). According to Plokhy, from as early as 1977 “there were at least two hundred cases in which the company had supplied false information about inspections not carried out and issued reports that papered over existing problems”.

Nuclear power stations are often portrayed as calm laboratories where the experts are in charge. Bill Gates, a founder of nuclear innovation company TerraPower, has said that any problems will be solved by “innovation” and the “laws of physics”.

However, the descriptions in the book show the complete opposite of a calm, controlled environment. As Plokhy says, “Hazard is inherent in all nuclear power.” Atomic fission itself is dangerous, and nuclear reactors can be unreliable and unpredictable.  The book makes clear how competition, secrecy, lack of communication as well as miscommunication make it extremely unsafe.

Plokhy describes almost minute by minute the trajectory of each disaster. In all of them, there comes a point when the scientists, the operators, the experts simply don’t know what to do to prevent the accident from worsening. In the end, due to the conditions they are operating under, they sometimes make decisions that actually make the situation worse. Or, by solving one problem, another one is created. At Windscale, they simply did not know how to stop the fire. At Chernobyl one issue among many was that they did not know if the radiation would get into the groundwater. And at Three Mile Island, two scientists were having a raging argument about what next steps to take in the midst of the emergency. Meanwhile, in every case, the authorities delayed evacuation plans.

.This is in no way to blame the individuals working at the time or those who had to deal with the accidents. They acted with immense bravery and sacrificed their own health, and even lives, to prevent greater disaster. Plokhy highlights how often the subsequent reports into accidents wrongly blame personnel and not the reactor designs. He illustrates how the conditions they were operating in and the nature of nuclear power led to such problems.

After each major accident, the authorities say they’ve learned the lessons and developed new technology that will prevent anything similar from happening.  However, Plokhy highlights that there was – and still is—an inherent safety problem with nuclear reactors being used to generate power. They were never designed for that purpose. The reactors were developed from military prototypes to produce plutonium or to power nuclear submarines. 

Many of the new, smaller reactors that have been designed from scratch to produce energy, are still at the computer-simulation stage and years away from construction. Plokhy predicts that the expansion in the number of plants now being proposed will increase the probability of accidents.  

Although it is not discussed in the book, it is worth remembering that nuclear power is not carbon neutral. While nuclear fission itself does not release carbon emissions, every other stage of the production process means greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. More than almost any other form of energy generation nuclear power requires a complex cycle of mining, generation, storage and disposal. And in 2022 there are new risk factors. As Plokhy has written elsewhere, “Warfare, economic collapse, climate change itself—all of these increasingly real risks make nuclear sites potentially perilous places.”

This is a powerful and timely book. At a time when arguments for nuclear power are returning as a way to solve both climate change and the energy crisis, we need to arm ourselves with the arguments.  Not only is nuclear power not a solution to the problems we face, the lesson from this book is that it’s inherently dangerous and could have devastating consequences for life on earth.

What happened at Santa Susana?

August 4, 2022

A meltdown contaminated a community. A fire made it worse

What happened at Santa Susana? — Beyond Nuclear International A 1959 meltdown and a 2018 fire compounded a tragedy
By Carmi Orenstein
When the United Nations Human Rights Council officially recognized access to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” as a basic human right earlier last October, it was an acknowledgement fifty years in the making. It was backed by an international grassroots effort, with the journey to the final vote including the voices of more than 100,000 children around the world and multiple generations of allies pushing against powerful corporate opposition. 
Just about the time that this half-century-long campaign to enshrine the right to a safe environment kicked off, a story about the horrific violation of this same human right and its cover-up emerged in a community near my own childhood home in Southern California.

 In 1979, a UCLA student named Michael Rose uncovered evidence of a partial nuclear meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) in the Simi Hills outside of Los Angeles. The SSFL, formerly known as Rocketdyne, played key government roles throughout the Cold War, developing and testing rocket engines and conducting experiments with nuclear reactors. Today, as the result of a recently published peer-reviewed study that represents the dogged efforts of both professional researchers and a team of specially trained citizens, we have solid evidence of the spread of dangerous contamination from that site.

Santa Susan Field Laboratory 1958

Working with nuclear safety expert and then-UCLA professor Daniel Hirsch, Rose discovered documentation that the partial nuclear meltdown had occurred at SSFL twenty years earlier in 1959, releasing up to 459 times more radiation into the environment than the infamous meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania. Unlike the Three Mile Island facility, the SSFL reactors lacked containment structures—those tell-tale concrete domes that surround commercial nuclear power plants to prevent radiation spread in case of a nuclear accident. 

In addition to the 1959 meltdown, at least three of the site’s other nuclear reactors experienced accidents (in 1957, 1964 and 1969), and radioactive and chemical wastes burned in open-air pits as a matter of practice. A “hot lab,” which may have been the nation’s largest, was also located at SSFL, and, in 1957, it burned and was known to have spread radioactivity throughout the site. A progress report from the period states, “Because such massive contamination was not anticipated, the planned logistics of cleanup were not adequate for the situation.”

The rest of this story is an object lesson in what happens when the right to a safe environment is not universally acknowledged and when secretive, long-forgotten toxic legacies of the Cold War meet the unpredictable chaos of the current climate crisis. Real people are harmed in ways that are not easily remediable—including, perhaps, members of my family.

The radioactive contamination of the surrounding environment caused by the partial nuclear meltdown at the 2,849-acre SSFL site was not cleaned up by the time of Rose’s revelation. Nor was the extensive toxic chemical contamination on site. It is still not cleaned up. Thus, when the climate chaos-fueled Woolsey Fire erupted at, and burned through, the SSFL in 2018, the flames served to spread the contamination even further. The fire quickly burned 80 percent of the SSFL property, and onward, all the way to the ocean. Pushed by high winds and uncontained for nearly two weeks, the Woolsey Fire killed three people outright and destroyed over 1,600 structures.

Today, public knowledge of the original disaster and its continued radioactive and toxic legacy is still patchy. The silence that surrounded the catastrophe in 1959 gave way to intermittent waves of focused media attention, celebrity involvement, and inquiry and outcry on the part of elected officials in the years since the 1979 expose. These have been followed by whistleblower accounts from former workers, and various forms of citizen activism. While occasional news of confidential legal settlements addressing illness and contamination breaks through, the Santa Susana disaster is hardly a household name—including among those of us who grew up in its shadow. 

The suburbs on either side of the SSFL, in Ventura County and a western edge of Los Angeles County, are still expanding. More than 500,000 people currently live within about ten miles of the site. Parents vs. SSFL is the dynamic, parent-led group currently at the helm of public monitoring of, and demand for, a comprehensive cleanup. On their social media sites, one often sees public comments from nearby residents along the lines of why were we not told?

To be sure, the history of site ownership and responsibility is complex and makes redress of grievance vexing. Although Rocketdyne owned the facility at the time of the meltdown, most of the site is now owned by Boeing. However, some of the property is owned by NASA, who in turn leases parts of its property as SSFL to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the lead regulatory agency for remediation, entered into a Consent Order with these “responsible parties,” in 2007. In 2010, stricter agreements were signed with DOE and NASA to clean up the properties for which they are responsible to “background levels.” 

In 2017 a legally binding agreement deadline for completion of cleanup was blown by, with no meaningful cleanup begun. In 2018 the Woolsey Fire came roaring through. That fire is now documented to have redistributed radioactive materials and toxic chemicals in surrounding areas. Non-binding, confidential negotiations with Boeing were just announced early this year. It is a confounding and maddening journey to anyone attempting to follow.

As Melissa Bumstead, co-founder of Parents vs SSFL, said in a Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles press release about the new study: “The bottom line is, if SSFL had been cleaned up by 2017 as required by the cleanup agreements, the community wouldn’t have had to worry about contamination released by the Woolsey Fire.” …………………………………….

UCLA professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Suzanne E. Paulson also weighed in. Speaking to a reporter the next year, Paulson explained

Assuming that radioactive material was in the soil [and] vegetation burned, it is reasonable that it traveled 30 miles downwind, and some of it got deposited in downwind areas… When soil and vegetation burn, the material in them, including metals [and] soil minerals, end up in the aerosol particles that make smoke look dark and hazy. They are small enough that they can remain in the atmosphere for up to a week and as a result can be widely dispersed.

At the end of 2018, just weeks after the Woolsey Fire was finally extinguished, work commenced on the independent study that was ultimately published online in early October and would appear in the December 2021 issue of the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity. This paper represents the work of community-volunteer citizen scientists who were trained to collect dust and ash samples in a 9-mile radius throughout the rural, urban, suburban, and undeveloped mountainous area around the SSFL. Their data collection was followed by the slow and careful work of scientific analysis. In a society whose governmental structures and policies decidedly are not guided by the Precautionary Principle today, and where there are no efficient mechanisms by which to correct past regulatory errors—no matter how grave—these volunteers and their three research leaders have provided powerful, incriminating evidence with which the community and its allies will push forward for the cleanup. 

…………………………. “Woolsey Fire ash did, in fact, spread SSFL-related radioactive microparticles.” The authors also wrote, “Excessive alpha radiation in small particles is of particular interest because of the relatively high risk of inhalation-related long-term biological damage from internal alpha emitters compared to external radiation.”……………………………………………..

How did the entities with knowledge and power continue to delay and obstruct while the population boomed and crept up the hillsides near the SSFL, knowing full well that powerful human health hazards were there to meet the communities, new and old? The statement by DTSC proclaiming that no contaminants were carried, while the Woolsey Fire was still burning, smacks of the most brazen regulatory capture. …………………………….. Carmi Orenstein is Program Director at Concerned Heath Professionals of New York.

Thin-walled nuclear waste containers – not really very secure.

August 4, 2022

Greg Phillips, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Watch 4 June   The biggest piece of BS that jumped out at me [in this pro nuclear article] is the bolded section:

“…Nuclear waste containers have been tested over the last 40 years by running them into concrete bunkers at 80 mph, being dropped onto huge steel spikes, burned in jet fuel fires at thousands of degrees, and sunk deep in water for weeks. These things are as strong as humans can make them.”


Excuse the caps, but too many people have been fooled by such pro-nuclear propaganda. Pictured at top is a thin welded canister – a fully laden canister would not survive a drop of a few metres.

Those nuclear waste containers pictured above are like hermit crabs, a hard exterior shell with vulnerable internals. The thin welded canister is placed into the concrete outer shell, which has vents to keep the canister cool. So any weld failure, crack can lead to radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. If the vents of the outer shell get blocked, the temperature of the fuel will rise to 400C+. If the pressurised Helium leaks out the temperature will rise.

War and some unusual developments regarding nuclear-related topics – Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands

August 4, 2022

The huge problem with the idea of having a nuclear reactor power plant on a military base is that it may cause catastrophic damage to all human life in and around the immediate area despite official comments from the U.S. Army that there are several safety prevention measures being taken to address this concern. 

War and some unusual developments regarding nuclear-related topicsm By Rick Arriola Perez |  May 09 2022

Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are one island chain that is embedded in the minds of Chinese military personnel who are charged with selecting and figuring out what adversary targets are most important to knock out, should China and the United States ever go to hot war. 

Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base is a huge military threat to the Chinese and to the North Koreans and Russians. Andersen is one of the most important American military bases in the world. Andersen has one of the world’s largest petroleum, oil, and lubricant storage facilities, training facilities, and areas that store, manage, maintain and load ordnance and other weapons of war. 

Andersen is located atop stolen Chamorro family lands located in our Deep Blue Pacific Ocean Marianas Trench continent. The U.S. Air Force is not formally required to ask permission to fly over foreign national airspace because from the American military perspective, we are close yet far enough away from any nation that requires the United States to first seek diplomatic approvals and notifications.  This is one of the many benefits afforded the Pentagon and the Air Force by residing in Guam and the Marianas. 

Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base is also the perfect location to store, manage, hold, and/or stage live nuclear missiles and weapons into and out of fighters, unmanned systems, and strategic aircraft that are assigned America’s nuclear bombing missions. These activities go relatively unnoticed because of our unique location. Missions can simply be initiated any day or night throughout the year. 

But bombs are not the only thing that is on the nuclear discussion table these days
These days the Department of Defense is also moving forward with design plan options to construct and operationalize nuclear-powered micro-reactors, transportable on Air Force cargo planes, to be used as power generation sources for military bases in remote locations.

These nuclear reactors are intended to generate the power equivalent of up to 1% of a large commercial nuclear power plant once assembled and turned on. The huge problem with the idea of having a nuclear reactor power plant on a military base is that it may cause catastrophic damage to all human life in and around the immediate area despite official comments from the U.S. Army that there are several safety prevention measures being taken to address this concern. 

One rationale that is being proposed to support the construction and design of nuclear reactors is that it will save over time millions of gallons of fossil fuel from being consumed, which is in line with environmental sustainability up to a point. Opposing viewpoints argue that there is simply no need to place a nuclear reactor in a remote military base because the amount of power generation it provides is not really needed because existing diesel-powered generators are adequate for use on remote military bases. 

Nuclear reactor controversies are nothing new to the Pentagon and the Army
The Army previously had a nuclear reactor program that started during the time of the Korean war era, lasting up through the Vietnam war era. The program had mixed results, one catastrophic outcome, and was quite expensive to maintain. The current program under consideration is supported by the idea that having a small and mobile nuclear power plant for use by base personnel will also mitigate military casualty rates associated with the transportation and security protection of fuel in land-based warfighting areas. Supporters also point to the need for a constant source of power generation required for radars and for high-energy weapons.

So why should our Chamorro Pacific Islander Deep Blue Continent civilization be concerned about these developments?
The Pentagon and the Army have identified Guam as one of approximately 10 sites that are slated to have a micro nuclear reactor. The Marshall Islands is also another site identified to receive a nuclear reactor. 

But what our Chamorro people should be aware, as well as the people of Micronesia, especially the Marshallese, is that it is the U.S. Congress, not the Pentagon, that has been the genesis behind the push to get the Pentagon funding to move forward on this micro-nuclear reactor effort. Why is this the case? 

What the Guam and NMI congressmen need to do
Michael San Nicolas and Kilili Sablan have not articulated why Congress has been pushing the Pentagon to look into the design, construction, and use of small nuclear reactors for the Army. 

Both congressmen have not publicly addressed the need for a multi-Mariana Islands nuclear bomb shelter infrastructure study nor has there been any effort by these congressional leaders to introduce authorization language addressing this huge human health, readiness, and life or death safety issue tied to the increased militarization of our Mariana Island chain. 

President Biden will be the final authority as to whether a small mobile nuclear reactor program will proceed or be cancelled. These congressmen have not talked to President Biden about this very important matter.

Playing with fire at Chornobyl — Beyond Nuclear International

April 30, 2022

Will we avoid a deadly sequel?

Playing with fire at Chornobyl — Beyond Nuclear International

After 36 years the nuclear site is again in danger

By Linda Pentz Gunter

For 36 years things had been quiet at Chornobyl. Not uneventful. Not safe. But no one was warning of “another Chornobyl” until Russian forces took over the site on February 24 of this year.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine first took their troops through the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, where they rolled armored vehicles across radioactive terrain, also trampled by foot soldiers who kicked up radioactive dust, raising the radiation levels in the area.

As the Russians arrived at the Chornobyl nuclear site, it quickly became apparent that their troops were unprotected against radiation exposure and indeed many were even unaware of where they were or what Chornobyl represented. We later learned that they had dug trenches in the highly radioactive Red Forest, and even camped there.

After just over a month, the Russians pulled out. Was this to re-direct troops to now more strategically desirable — or possibly more reasonably achievable — targets? Or was it because, as press reports suggested, their troops were falling ill in significant numbers, showing signs of radiation sickness? Those troops were whisked away to Belarus and the Russians aren’t talking. But rumors persist that at least one soldier has already succumbed to his exposure.

Plant workers at the nuclear site, despite working as virtual hostages during the Russian occupation and in a state of perpetual anxiety, where shocked that even the Russian radiation experts subsequently sent in, were, like the young soldiers, using no protective equipment. It was, said one, a kind of suicide mission.

What could have happened at Chornobyl — and still could, given the war is by no means over and the outcome still uncertain — could have seen history repeat itself, almost 36 years to the day of that first April 26, 1986 disaster.

Yet, Chornobyl has no operating reactors. So why is it still a risk? Doesn’t the so-called New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure protect the site?

The $2.3 billion NSC was built to cover over the original and crumbling old sarcophagus that had encased the lethal cargo left behind after the April 26, 1986 explosion of Unit 4.

Supposed to last just 100 years, that still inadequate timeframe was thrown into jeopardy as a reported firefight broke out prior to the Russian takeover. Fears arose that the shocks and vibrations of repeated shelling and artillery fire could cause the NSC to crack or crumble.

Housed inside the NSC is the destroyed Unit 4 as well as 200 metric tonnes of uranium, plutonium, irradiated dust, solid and liquid fuel, and a molten slurry of uranium fuel rods, zirconium cladding, graphite control rods, and melted sand. 

The fuel lump from Unit 4, sitting inaccessible on a basement floor, remains unstable. In May 2021, there was a sudden and baffling escalation of activity there and a rise in neutrons, evoking fears of a chain reaction or even another explosion.

All of these volatile fuels and waste inventories still depend on cooling pumps to keep them cool. And those cooling pumps depend on power.

However, not everything at the site is within the NSC.

Units 1, 2 and 3 are not yet fully decommissioned and likely won’t be until at least 2064. Even though their fuel has been cooling for 20 years, it cannot go indefinitely without power. And managing it necessitates skilled, and unharried, personnel. 

Loss of power threatens the ISF-1 spent nuclear fuel pool where much of the waste fuel is still stored. As nuclear engineer, Dave Lochbaum, described it in an email, “If forced cooling is lost, the decay heat will warm the water until it boils or until the heat dissipated by convective and conduction allows equilibrium to be established at a higher, but not boiling, point.

“If the pool boils, the spent fuel remains sufficiently cooled until the water level drops below the top of the fuel assemblies.”

At that point, however, adds Union of Concerned Scientists physicist, Ed Lyman, “a serious condition in the ISF-1 spent nuclear fuel pool” could occur. “However, because the spent fuel has cooled for a couple of decades there would be many days to intervene before the spent fuel was exposed.”

At the time of the invasion, workers at the site had been engaged in moving the full radioactive waste inventory from all 4 of the Chornobyl reactors, from the common fuel pool to the ISF-2 facility where it will be dismantled and put into long-term storage casks. It is unclear whether this operation was halted, but likely so.

Fire also remains a significant risk at the site. The massive 2020 wildfire that reached the perimeter of the Chornobyl plant site, occurred in April, well before the dry season. Military combat clearly invites the risk of igniting a lethal fire. 

Indeed, the entire region, known as the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, is a tinderbox. As Dr. Tim Mousseau and his research team discovered, dead wood and leaf litter on the forest floors is not decaying properly, likely because the microbes and other organisms that drive the process of decay are reduced or gone due to their own prolonged exposure to radiation.

As leaf litter and organic matter build up, the risk of ignition increases. There have been several hundred fires in the Zone already, sometimes, incomprehensibly, deliberately started. The explosions of war fighting could spark another. Indeed, stories did emerge about fires during the Russian occupation, their origin unclear.

But even without military attacks or destruction of the site, it was still at risk, especially when offsite power was lost, twice, raising fears of a potential catastrophe if emergency on-site power — consisting of diesel generators — did not work or ran out of fuel. Later reports revealed that plant workers had taken to stealing Russian fuel to keep those generators running.

Meanwhile, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) had lost complete contact with its Chornobyl workforce. As days dragged into weeks, the SNRIU legitimately worried that an exhausted workforce, going without shift changes and operating under duress and potentially fear, could lead to mistakes that could prove deadly.

It was, after all, human error that had contributed to the first Chornobyl catastrophe.

On March 17, the SNRIU reported, “There is no information on the real situation at the Chornobyl NPP site, as there is no contact with the NPP personnel present directly at the site for the 22nd day in a row without rotation.”

Radiation monitors had remained off since the Russian occupation, leaving authorities and the public in the dark should there be any significant release of radioactivity as a result of damage at the site inflicted by military conflict or other causes.

Repeating a warning that had become a daily one on the SNRIU website, the agency concluded: “Given the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel, as well as the absence of day-time and repair staff, maintenance and repair activities of equipment important to the safety of the facilities at the Chornobyl NPP site are not carried out, which may lead to the reduction of its reliability, which in turn can lead to equipment failures, emergencies, and accidents.”

Finally, a month into the occupation, a partial shift change was allowed. Workers could go home and rest. But almost immediately, the Russians attacked the nearby worker town of Slavutych, terrorizing the workforce and leaving at least three dead according to press reports.

Some personnel, including security guards, chose to stay on at the site. With good reason, they perhaps feared that the Russian occupying force would behave irresponsibly at a site that houses lethal cargos.

Sure enough, on March 24 stories emerged that Russian forces at Chornobyl may have “looted and destroyed a laboratory near the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was used to monitor radioactive waste,” according to CNN and other news sources. 

The laboratory, which conducts research into radioactive waste management, houses radioactive materials that may then have fallen into Russian hands.

The State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management, which announced the attack, went further in wishing “the enemy today…will harm himself, not the civilized world.”

And now here we are, just days away from the 36th commemoration of that terrible day in 1986. Still watching. Still waiting. Still holding our breath. The war is neither over, nor won by either side. The Chornobyl site, possibly now more radioactive than in the immediate past, sits like a ticking time bomb. Along with too many unanswered — and unanswerable — questions. 

Who will protect it? Will it be spared further assault? And will the word Chornobyl come to mark a new nuclear catastrophe 36 years after the first?

Nuclear waste management: Is Finland’s Onkalo facility safe?

April 30, 2022

Nuclear waste management: Is Finland’s Onkalo facility safe?–82252 6 Apr 22,

The facility, set to begin operation in 2024, isn’t based on a foolproof concept

Finland, a nuclear energy champion, claimed it has figured out how to tackle one of the bigger issues with nuclear energy: Safely managing radioactive  waste. 

The country plans to store its nuclear waste in an underground facility called Onkalo. The structure, named after the Finnish word for “pit”, is a 500-meter-deep underground disposal facility designed to store used nuclear fuel permanently. 

The deep geological repository is usually built in places containing a stable rock.Finland can become the first to commission a plant to permanently store spent nuclear fuel. The idea is to encase the waste in corrosion-resistant copper canisters. These will be further encapsulated in a layer of water-absorbing clay. The setup will be buried in an underground tunnel. 

The facility is now equipped with 500 sensors to monitor the functioning of the entire system, according to VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, a state-owned company and one of the contributors to the project.

“Monitoring brings evidence that the repository will be keeping the outside world safe from the nuclear fuel waste,” Arto Laikari, senior scientist from VTT, said. The state-owned company’s collaborator Posiva, a Finnish nuclear waste management organisation, has submitted the operating license for the facility and is awaiting approval.

In 2023, Posiva will do a final trial run of the disposal mechanism but without radioactive material, Erika Holt, project manager from VTT, told Down To Earth. It is expected to begin operations in 2024.

Problem of disposing nuclear waste

For years, the nuclear industry has been trying to find solutions to the waste problem. They are generated at various steps during the nuclear life cycle: Mining uranium ore, producing uranium fuel and generating power in the reactor.

The waste can remain radioactive for a few hours, several months or even hundreds of thousands of years. Depending on the extent of radioactivity, nuclear wastes are categorised as low-, intermediate- and high-level waste. 

About 97 per cent of the waste is either low- or intermediate-level. The remaining is high-level waste, such as used or spent uranium fuel. 

A 1,000-megawatt plant creates about 30 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste every year, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Even at low levels, exposure to this waste will be harmful to people and other living organisms as long as it remains radioactive,” Ramana explained.

Global endeavours

Some nations are storing waste on-site. But it carries the risk of radioactive leakage. In the United States, for instance, spent fuel is stored in a concrete-and-steel container called a dry cask, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

India and a handful of other nations reprocess about 97-98 per cent of the spent nuclear fuel to recover plutonium and uranium, according to data from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. 

India also recovers other materials like caesium, strontium and ruthenium, which finds application as blood irradiators to screen transfusions, cancer treatment and eye cancer therapeutics, respectively, according to the research institute. 

The remaining 1-3 per cent end up in a storage facility. India also immobilises the wastes by mixing them with glass, which is kept under surveillance in storage facilities.

But there are problems with this approach as well. Except for the plutonium and uranium, all the radioactive material present in the spent fuel is redistributed among different waste streams, Ramana said. “These enter the environment sooner or later.”

The plutonium and uranium intended for reuse in other nuclear reactors will also turn into radioactive waste, he added. 

Nations like Finland, Canada, France and Sweden are also looking at deep geological repositories to tackle spent nuclear fuel wastes. 

In January 2022, the Swedish government greenlit an underground repository for nuclear waste. Construction in Sweden will take at least 10 more years, Johan Swahn, director of MKG Swedish NGO Office for Nuclear Waste Review, a non-governmental environmental organisation, said.

Finland can share its experience with colleagues and partners worldwide, Holt said. “But each country and programme must have their own solutions. Worldwide, we work together to show nuclear energy (and the holistic views for responsible waste management) are viable for meeting CO2 targets,” she added.

Is the approach safe?

Experts associated with the project said that 40-years of theoretical and lab-based studies suggest that the geological repository is safe.

The bedrock provides a natural barrier to protect from radioactive release to the environment, such as water bodies and air, Holt explained.

The use of clay and copper provides a protective layer to ensure no release due to extreme conditions like earthquakes.

But Ramana argues that theoretical safety studies are not foolproof. There are significant uncertainties stemming from various long-term natural processes. These include climate change and the unpredictability of human behaviour over these long periods of time, he added. 

Besides, design failure could undermine claims about safety, the expert noted. For instance, a few scientists fear that copper canisters can become corrosive and crack.

Finland’s team chose copper because it corrodes slowly. But Peter Szakálos, a chemist at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, is not quite sure.

In a 2007 study, Szakálos and his team observed that copper could corrode in pure, oxygen-free water. “It’s just a matter of time — anything from decades to centuries — before unalloyed copper canisters start to crack at Onkalo,” he told Science journal.

On February 14, 2014, radioactive materials such as americium and plutonium leaked out of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a deep geological long-lived radioactive waste repository, following an accident. The facility dealt solely with a special class of wastes from nuclear weapons production.

“If a failure like this happened within two decades of opening the repository, what are the odds that such failures won’t happen over the millennia that these repositories [Finland’s Onkalo] are supposed to operate safely?”

Both the Finnish project and the Swedish decision are very important for the international nuclear industry because the latter can point to these facilities to prove the nuclear waste problem is solved, Swahn said. “But it is very uncertain whether copper as a container material is a good idea.”

The projects may still fail as the understanding of how copper behaves in a repository environment is still developing, the expert added.