Archive for the ‘– plutonium’ Category

Plutonium problems won’t go away

April 30, 2022

Plutonium problems won’t go away, By Chris Edwards, Engineering and Technology, February 15, 2022 

  Nuclear energy’s environmental image is as low as carbon’s,with its clean fuel potential being tarnished by legacy waste issues. Are we any closer to resolving this?

At the end of 2021, the UK closed the curtain on one part of its nuclear waste legacy and took a few more steps towards a longer-lasting legacy. A reprocessing plant, built at the cost of £9bn in the 1990s to repackage waste plutonium from pressurised water reactors in the UK and around the world for use in new fuel, finally converted the last remaining liquid residue from Germany, Italy and Japan into glass and packed it into steel containers. It will take another six years to ship it and all the other waste that belongs to the reactor owners, who are contractually obliged to take it back.

Even when the foreign-owned waste has headed back home, the UK will still play host to one of the largest hoards of plutonium in the world, standing at more than 110 tonnes. It amounts to a fifth of the world’s total and a third of the global civilian stockpile of 316 tonnes. Despite operating a smaller nuclear fleet than France’s, the UK has 1.5 times more plutonium.

It was never meant to end this way. The long-term dream was for fission-capable fuel to keep going round in a circle, only topped up with virgin uranium when necessary. The plutonium produced during fission could itself sustain further fission in the right conditions. However, fast-breeder reactors that would be needed to close the cycle remain largely experimental, even in countries such as Russia where their development continues. Driven by both safety concerns and worries about nuclear proliferation that might result from easier access to separated and refined plutonium-239, the West abandoned its fast-breeder programmes decades ago.

It is possible to reprocess spent fuel into so-called mixed-oxide fuel, but it is only good for one use in a conventional reactor. Other actinides build up and begin to poison the fission process. The only prospects for change lie in so-called Generation IV reactors, but these designs have yet to be tested and may continue to fall foul of proliferation concerns.

While operators around the world have mulled over the practicality of fuel reuse, containers of both processed and reprocessed fuel have lingered in storage tanks cooled by water despite, in some countries, being earmarked for deep burial for decades. In the late 1980s, the US Department of Energy (DoE) settled on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the single destination for the country’s spent nuclear fuel, and scheduled it for opening a decade later. By 2005, the earliest possible opening date had slipped by 20 years. It remains unopened and will probably never open. In the interim, much of the fuel has lingered in water-filled cooling tanks while politicians consider more localised deep-storage sites.

Fukushima provided a wake-up call to the industry, not just about the problems of controlling reactors but their spent fuel. After the tsunami, engineers were concerned that without replenishment pumps, the water in the storage tanks for the spent fuel would evaporate. If the fuel then caught fire, it would likely release radioactive tritium and caesium into the atmosphere. In a stroke of luck, water leaked into the damaged ponds. Now the issue for operators of some older reactors is that the fuel canisters are just corroding into the water instead.Experts such as Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, recommend storage pools should only be used until the fuel is cool enough to be transformed into glass, immersed in concrete or both, and transferred to dry storage, preferably in a deep geological disposal facility (GDF).At a conference last November organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Laurie Swami, president and CEO of Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organisation, claimed “there is scientific consensus on the effectiveness of deep geologic repositories” for highly radioactive waste.

The UK similarly settled 15 years ago on a plan to build its own GDF for high-level waste in tandem with the establishment of a single government-owned body responsible for organising where the waste goes, in the shape of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The GDF took a small step forward at the end of 2021 when two candidate sites were announced, both close to the Cumbrian coast. The local communities have agreed in principle that the NDA can investigate where they are suitable for a set of tunnels that may extend under the Irish Sea. With the project at such an early stage, the country remains years away from opening a GDF. Finland, in contrast, has pressed ahead and expects its GDF to open in 2025, while Sweden is likely to have the second one in the world.

At the same time, there is an enormous volume of other irradiated material that cannot economically be put into deep storage. In a keynote speech at the IAEA’s conference, James McKinney, head of integrated waste management at the NDA, explained that a lot of radioactive waste is contaminated building material. The Low-Level Waste Repository at Drigg in Cumbria was designed for this kind of waste, but McKinney stressed that capacity is “precious” and in danger of running out if all the material is taken there. Over the past decade, the NDA and its subcontractors have been working to divert as much waste as possible from the Drigg site by reprocessing and repackaging it.

By bringing waste management under one umbrella instead of dividing it among power-station operators, the NDA has been able to change procurement strategies to favour the use of much more R&D for waste handling. “The destination of radioactive waste can be changed through interventions,” McKinney adds. “At this moment, we estimate some 95 per cent of potential low-level waste is being diverted away [from Drigg]. Twelve years ago, the opposite would be true.”

A recent example of this in action is the dismantling of pipes that were once installed at the Harwell research centre. More than 1,500 sections of metal pipe were delivered to oil-and-gas specialist Augean, which is using high-pressure water jets to remove radioactive scale so the metal can be recycled instead of needing long-term storage.

Getting less manageable waste away from the storage tanks presents another major challenge, particularly if it comes from the oldest reactors. For example in the UK, when spent Magnox fuel was taken out of the reactors, the magnesium cladding around it was stripped away and moved to Sellafield’s Magnox Swarf Storage Silo (MSSS). Though the swarf itself is just intermediate-level waste, Sellafield’s operator regards emptying the silo ready for transfer to long-term dry storage as one of the more hazardous projects on the site. Stored underwater to keep them cool, the packages of swarf gradually corrode and release hydrogen gas and contaminants, which can escape into the ground. Moving the waste for treatment can itself lead to more escapes.

To manoeuvre 11,000 cubic metres of waste out of the 22 chambers of the MSSS, it has taken more than two decades to design, build and install two out of three shielded enclosures and grabbing arms that can lift out pieces of the swarf and prepare it to be immobilised in concrete or glass.

The time it has taken to even begin to clean up the MSSS illustrates the core issue that faces decommissioning and clean-up programmes: the sheer difficulty of trying to handle even moderately radioactive materials in circumstances where access was never considered when these structures were first built and filled. Everything in this kind of decommissioning calls for ungainly long-distance manipulators because there is no other way to protect the clean-up crews.

As engineers struggled to deal with the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, many people in Japan thought the same thing, and expressed surprise that a country that had invested so much in robotics research had none that it could send into the reactors to even perform a survey.

Japan was not alone with this issue: no country had a dedicated nuclear-accident response robot. Work on robots began decades ago but continued only in fits and starts for the most part. After a serious incident in 1999 at an experimental reactor at Tokaimura, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry set aside $36m to develop remote-controlled machines. But the projects ended within a few years.

To help deal with the immediate problems at Fukushima, the US research agency DARPA was quick to repurpose the military and disaster robots to which it had access, originally planning to send them on Navy ships across the Pacific. But it quickly emerged that this would be too slow

At a conference organised by the International Federation of Robotics Research on the 10th anniversary of the accident, Toyota Research chief scientist Gill Pratt said the first robots “got there in the overhead luggage of commercial flights”. For all of them it was a baptism of fire.

(Here this aticle continues with a discussion on robot technology – which must be remotely done and turns out to be very problematic)

………………………………………….Deep burial seems to be the easiest way to deal with long-lived waste, assuming no-one tries to dig it up without heavy protection and good intentions hundreds or thousands of years into the future. But the question of how safe it is if the repository breaches accidentally is extremely hard to answer.

Plutonium is unlikely to be the biggest problem. Although it oxidises readily to dissolve in water, the short-lived fission products such as strontium-90 and caesium-137 could be more troublesome if they escape the confines of a storage site, according to analyses such as one performed by SKB as part of Sweden’s programme to build a deep burial site there.The half-lives of these isotopes are far shorter than those of plutonium, so the risk from them will subside after a couple of hundred years rather than the thousands for plutonium. But what if they could be shortened to days or even seconds? Any radiation could then be contained or used before the waste is repackaged.

This is the promise of laser transmutation, which uses high-energy beams to displace neutrons in donor atoms that then, with luck, smash into those unstable isotopes to produce even more unstable atoms that quickly decay. In one experiment performed by Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, a laser transmuted atoms in a sample of iodine-129, with a half-life measured in millions of years, to iodine-128. A similar experiment at Cambridge converted strontium-90 to the medical labelling chemical strontium-89.

The bad news is that the energy required to perform transmutation at scale is enormous and not all isotopes are cooperative: their neutron-capture volumes are so small the process becomes even less efficient.Nobel laureate Gérard Mourou believes careful control over high-energy pulsed lasers will bring the energy cost of transmutation down significantly. He is working with several groups to build industrial-scale systems that could begin to clean up at least some of the high-activity waste.

Even if lasers can be made more efficient, there are further problems. For one, the waste needs to be separated as otherwise the stray neutrons will transmute other elements in the sample, generating unwanted actinides. This will not only increase the cost of reprocessing, it will increase the risk of proliferation, as it will lead to plutonium that is far easier to handle and move around, the one outcome that deep burial is meant to avoid……………………https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2022/02/plutonium-problems-won-t-go-away/

Plutonium ”hot particles” are not as stable as we assumed. Research on contaminated landscape around Maralinga in outback South Australia

June 26, 2021

We sliced open radioactive particles from soil in South Australia and found they may be leaking plutonium  https://theconversation.com/we-sliced-open-radioactive-particles-from-soil-in-south-australia-and-found-they-may-be-leaking-plutonium-161277

Barbara Etschmann, Research officer, Monash University

Joel Brugger, Professor of Synchrotron Geosciences, Monash University

Vanessa Wong, Associate Professor, Monash University

May 21, 2021 Almost 60 years after British nuclear tests ended, radioactive particles containing plutonium and uranium still contaminate the landscape around Maralinga in outback South Australia.

These “hot particles” are not as stable as we once assumed. Our research shows they are likely releasing tiny chunks of plutonium and uranium which can be easily transported in dust and water, inhaled by humans and wildlife and taken up by plants.

A British nuclear playground

After the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, other nations raced to build their own nuclear weapons. Britain was looking for locations to conduct its tests. When it approached the Australian government in the early 1950s, Australia was only too eager to agree.

Between 1952 and 1963, Britain detonated 12 nuclear bombs in Australia. There were three in the Montebello Islands off Western Australia, but most were in outback South Australia: two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga.

Besides the full-scale nuclear detonations, there were hundreds of “subcritical” trials designed to test the performance and safety of nuclear weapons and their components. These trials usually involved blowing up nuclear devices with conventional explosives, or setting them on fire.

The subcritical tests released radioactive materials. The Vixen B trials alone (at the Taranaki test site at Maralinga) spread 22.2 kilograms of plutonium and more than 40 kilograms of uranium across the arid landscape. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki contained 6.4 kilograms of plutonium, while the one dropped on Hiroshima held 64 kilograms of uranium.

These tests resulted in long-lasting radioactive contamination of the environment. The full extent of the contamination was only realised in 1984, before the land was returned to its traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Hot potatoes

Despite numerous cleanup efforts, residual plutonium and uranium remains at Maralinga. Most is present in the form of “hot particles”. These are tiny radioactive grains (much smaller than a millimetre) dispersed in the soil.

Plutonium is a radioactive element mostly made by humans, and the weapons-grade plutonium used in the British nuclear tests has a half life of 24,100 years. This means even 24,100 years after the Vixen B trials that ended in 1963, there will still be almost two Nagasaki bombs worth of plutonium spread around the Taranaki test site.

Plutonium emits alpha radiation that can damage DNA if it enters a body through eating, drinking or breathing.

In their original state, the plutonium and uranium particles are rather inactive. However, over time, when exposed to atmosphere, water, or microbes, they may weather and release plutonium and uranium in dust or rainstorms.

Until recently, we knew little about the internal makeup of these hot particles. This makes it very hard to accurately assess the environmental and health risks they pose.

Monash PhD student Megan Cook (the lead author on our new paper) took on this challenge. Her research aimed to identify how plutonium was deposited as it was carried by atmospheric currents following the nuclear tests (some of it travelled as far as Queensland!), the characteristics of the plutonium hot particles when they landed, and potential movement within the soil.

Nanotechnology to the rescue

Previous studies used the super intense X-rays generated by synchrotron light sources to map the distribution and oxidation state of plutonium inside the hot particles at the micrometre scale.

To get more detail, we used X-rays from the Diamond synchrotron near Oxford in the UK, a huge machine more than half a kilometre in circumference that produces light ten billion times brighter than the Sun in a particle accelerator.

Studying how the particles absorbed X-rays revealed they contained plutonium and uranium in several different states of oxidation – which affects how reactive and toxic they are. However, when we looked at the shadows the particles cast in X-ray light (or “X-ray diffraction”), we couldn’t interpret the results without knowing more about the different chemicals inside the particles.

To find out more, we used a machine at Monash University that can slice open tiny samples with a nanometre-wide beam of high-energy ions, then analyse the elements inside and make images of the interior. This is a bit like using a lightsaber to cut a rock, only at the tiniest of scales. This revealed in exquisite detail the complex array of materials and textures inside the particles.

Much of the plutonium and uranium is distributed in tiny particles sized between a few micrometres and a few nanometres, or dissolved in iron-aluminium alloys. We also discovered a plutonium-uranium-carbon compound that would be destroyed quickly in the presence of air, but which was held stable by the metallic alloy.

This complex physical and chemical structure of the particles suggests the particles formed by the cooling of droplets of molten metal from the explosion cloud.

In the end, it took a multidisciplinary team across three continents — including soil scientists, mineralogists, physicists, mineral engineers, synchrotron scientists, microscopists, and radiochemists — to reveal the nature of the Maralinga hot particles.

From fire to dust

Our results suggest natural chemical and physical processes in the outback environment may cause the slow release of plutonium from the hot particles over the long term. This release of plutonium is likely to be contributing to ongoing uptake of plutonium by wildlife at Maralinga.

Even under the semi-arid conditions of Maralinga, the hot particles slowly break down, liberating their deadly cargo. The lessons from the Maralinga particles are not limited to outback Australia. They are also useful in understanding particles generated from dirty bombs or released during subcritical nuclear incidents.

There have been a few documented instances of such incidents. These include the B-52 accidents that resulted in the conventional detonation of thermonuclear weapons near Palomares in Spain in 1966, and Thule in Greenland in 1968, and the explosion of an armed nuclear missile and subsequent fire at the McGuire Air Force Base in the USA in 1960.

Thousands of active nuclear weapons are still held by nations around the world today. The Maralinga legacy shows the world can ill afford incidents involving nuclear particles.

The US Energy Department’s renewed promotion of plutonium-fueled reactors. 

May 3, 2021

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021  ”’…………. The US Energy Department’s renewed promotion of plutonium-fueled reactors. The US plutonium breeder reactor development program was ended by Congress in 1983. A decade later, the Clinton Administration shut down the Idaho National Laboratory’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II for lack of mission. At the time, I was working in the White House and supported that decision.

The nuclear-energy divisions at the Energy Department’s Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories refused to give up, however. They continued to produce articles promoting sodium-cooled reactors and laboratory studies on “pyroprocessing,” a small-scale technology used to separate plutonium from the fuel of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II .

During the Trump administration, this low-level effort broke out. With the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy headed by a former Idaho National Lab staffer and help from Idaho’s two Senators, the Energy Department and Congress were persuaded to approve the first steps toward construction at the Idaho National Laboratory of a larger version of the decommissioned Experimental Breeder Reactor II.

 The new reactor, misleadingly labeled the “Versatile Test Reactor,” would be built by Bechtel with design support by GE-Hitachi and Bill Gates’ Terrapower. The Energy Department awarded contracts to the Battelle Energy Alliance and to university nuclear-engineering departments in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Oregon to develop proposals for how to use the Versatile Test Reactor.

The current estimated cost of the Versatile Test Reactor is $2.6-5.8 billion, and it is to be fueled with plutonium. The Idaho National Laboratory’s hope is to convince Congress to commit to funding its construction in 2021.

The Energy Department also committed $80 million to co-fund the construction of a 345-megawatt-electric (MWe) “Natrium” (Latin for sodium) demonstration liquid-sodium-cooled power reactor proposed by GE-Hitachi and Terrapower which it hopes Congress would increase to $1.6 billion. It also committed $25 million each to Advanced Reactor Concepts and General Atomics to design small sodium-cooled reactors. And it has subsidized Oklo, a $25-million startup company financed by the Koch family, to construct a 1.5 MWe “microreactor” on the Idaho National Laboratory’s site to demonstrate an extravagantly costly power source for remote regions.


In all these reactors, the chain reaction would be sustained by fast neutrons unlike the slow neutrons that sustain the chain reactions in water-cooled reactors. The Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy has justified the need for the Versatile Test Reactor by the fast-neutron reactors whose construction it is supporting. In this way, it has “bootstraping” the Versatile Test Reactor by creating a need for it that would not otherwise exist.

This program also is undermining US nonproliferation policy..………..https://thebulletin.org/2021/04/plutonium-programs-in-east-asia-and-idaho-will-challenge-the-biden-administration/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=MondayNewsletter04122021&utm_content=NuclearRisk_EastAsia_04122021

Sorry saga of America’s plutonium waste problems

April 5, 2021

Can the Energy Department store 50 tons of weapons-grade plutonium for 10,000 years?  Robert Alvarez Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 8 Mar 21,

”…………The US-Russia plutonium disposal disagreement.

The end of the Cold War led to deep cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, and in 1993 President Clinton issued a directive declaring that the United States is “committed to eliminating, where possible, the accumulation of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.” In September 2000, the United States and Russia signed the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement, under which 34 metric tons of plutonium from weapons would be blended with uranium and serve as mixed-oxide or MOX reactor fuel to produce electricity.

Construction on the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Plant at the Savannah River Site began in 2007, but  the United States abandoned the project because of delays and estimated cost overruns of $30 billion to $50 billion. After a “Red Team” expert review in 2015, the Energy Department decided to pursue a “dilute and dispose” option for storing plutonium, which, the team reported, would cost about half as much as the MOX project. Plutonium from weapons and other forms would be converted from metal to oxide, diluted with a secret adulterant, and then placed  a special container for shipment and disposal at WIPP. In April of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin took issue with the US decision, saying it “is not what we agreed on.” The dilute-and-dispose option for excess plutonium does not meet the same level of proliferation resistance as the 300-year radiation barrier provided by the “spent fuel standard”; within a few decades after emplacement, radiations levels could fall low enough to allow the plutonium to be recovered, in theory. But the salt formation at WIPP is expected to slowly collapse and seal off the drums of waste. Just the same, in October 2016 Putin suspended implementation of the plutonium disposition agreement “due to Washington’s unfriendly actions toward Russia.”

The dilute and dispose project.

The Energy Department optimistically estimates that its dilution and disposal project will start up in 2027 and store 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by 2049, at a cost of $18 billion. That time estimate seems likely to be unrealistic; according to the Institute for Defense Analysis, “we could find no successful historical major project that both costs more than $700 million and achieved [Energy Department project startup] … in less than 16 years.” The dilute and dispose project i

  • The Pantex weapons assembly and disassembly plant near Amarillo, Texas, where thousands of pits and other forms of plutonium have to be prepared for safe and secure shipment to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. The majority of the plutonium at Pantex is stored in facilities at that were built in the 1940s. In 2010 and 2017, unexpected 2,000-year rains flooded a major plutonium storage area with several inches of water, which shut down the plant. It cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with about 1,000 containers affected by the flooding.
  • At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, pits will be converted from metal to an oxide that resembles a yellow-to-olive-green talcum-like powder, which is highly dispersible if it escapes from leaking glove boxes. The conversion process takes place at the PF-4 facility, a 69-year-old complex where the Energy Department has a major multibillion-dollar project underway to upgrade aged processes to produce new plutonium bomb triggers. In 2020, a panel of the National Academies of Science warned that “LANL may be a major bottleneck” impacting the plutonium disposal mission. The disposal and production projects could be on a collision course by the middle of this decade, when both are planned to scale up by 10 times.
    • Once Los Alamos produces plutonium oxides, they will be sent to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where the plutonium will be diluted and mixed with a secret adulterant, sometimes via the use of mortars and pestles. About 166,000 specially designed drums will be filled with the dilute fissile material. This task is a tall order for the Savannah site, where the round-the-clock work is expected to scale up by 10 times in a facility that officially exceeded its design life years ago. The facility will be almost 100 years old by 2049 when the dilute and disposal project is expected to be completed.
    • Once the drums are filled, commercial trucks are expected to transport them across the country, from South Carolina to New Mexico and WIPP, in more than 3,888 shipments.
    • As it plans to dispose of its excess plutonium, the Energy Department has, notably, paid little attention to inspections and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a key element of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As noted by the report of an expert panel of the National Research Council, “IAEA monitoring and inspections are an important component of the [Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with Russia]  requirements, and they could also provide enhanced public and international confidence that the material is properly accounted for and emplaced in WIPP.” Plutonium disposal beyond dilute and dispose.
    •  Over the past three years, WIPP and the nearby area have become ground zero for several storage and disposal plans for the bulk of civilian and military radioactive wastes. In addition to trans-uranic wastes set for WIPP and plutonium related to weapons production, the Energy Department seeks to dispose of six tons of fuel-grade plutonium from its research and development program, sludge from 15 of Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste tanks, trans-uranic waste generated from the production of new plutonium pits, and other radioactive waste.
    • Even after the Energy Department recently recalculated its excess plutonium and other radioactive wastes, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in the total volume to be sent to WIPP, the federal statutory limit set in the Land Withdrawal Act, which authorized the opening of WIPP, will be exceeded by these planned disposal efforts. Congress would have to amend the law to expand the volume, set for WIPP at 175,564 cubic feet, by as much as than 50 percent to accommodate all the waste. Moreover, it appears that new plutonium pit production is projected to generate huge amounts more waste.Lurking in the shadows, 71 miles from the WIPP, sits an Energy Department effort to dispose of as much as 500,000 gallons of grouted wastes from Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste tanks at the Waste Control Specialists landfill in Andrews County Texas.
    • That firm is also seeking a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish centralized interim storage of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power reactor fleet. So, too, is the Holtec Corporation with a proposed spent nuclear fuel storage site 16 miles from WIPP in Lea County, New Mexico.If these interim storage efforts succeed, by mid-century up to 10,000 spent fuel cannisters containing nearly the entire US commercial spent nuclear fuel inventory will be transported across the country for storage near WIPP. They may sit there for more than 100 years. (See sidebar: “The long-term problem of “peaceful” plutonium.) If these plans are realized, WIPP and the nearby area will have become the recipients of an enormous, decades-long, radioactive-waste-transport funnel directing the bulk of the nation’s commercial and military radioactive detritus to New Mexico and far West Texas……… https://thebulletin.org/2021/03/can-the-energy-department-store-50-tons-of-plutonium-for-10000-years/#.YEa37PTkUIk.twitter

Dangers of plutonium fuelled, sodium cooled “Versatile Nuclear Reactor”

February 18, 2021

Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare

November 28, 2020

Nailing the Coffin of Civilian Plutonium, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare, By Frank von Hippel,   Masafumi Takubo, and Jungmin KangSpringer Press, Reviewed by Thomas Countryman, November 2020

Even in the world of speculative investment bubbles, it would be difficult to find a parallel to the business of making plutonium. This “industry” has seen massive investment by private and mostly governmental funds in pursuit of creating the world’s most dangerous material, an investment that has failed to yield a single dollar in returns. Nevertheless, a combination of scientific ambition, bureaucratic inertia, and governmental hubris keeps alive a dream that should have been smothered long ago.

Leave it to three highly experienced specialists to briefly recount the history, clearly explain the physical realities, and precisely pick apart the ever-weakening arguments that have supported reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into a new plutonium-based fuel. Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo, and Jungmin Kang accomplish all of this in Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare. Its planned translation into Japanese and Korean should help citizens participate in critical upcoming decisions about continuing plutonium projects by governments in Tokyo and Seoul.

The earliest rationale for using plutonium as a nuclear fuel rested on the fact that spent nuclear fuel, the leftover material from civilian nuclear power plants, still contained far more potential energy than had yet been consumed. In the 1970s, uranium was believed to be scarce in the natural environment, and the full utilization of its energy capacity made some engineering, logical, and economic sense. In succeeding decades, the economic rationale has been constantly undermined by the realization that natural uranium is sufficiently plentiful that its price is no longer the primary cost factor in nuclear power generation, by the unanticipated complexity of building advanced reactors optimized to use plutonium as fuel, by the cost of new and necessary safety regulations applicable to all reactors, and most recently by the continued fall in the cost of generating renewable energy.

In the face of these realities, only France, at a substantial economic loss, currently operates a full program for recovering plutonium from spent fuel for use as new nuclear fuel. Russia reprocesses spent fuel and is now testing plutonium in a breeder reactor. Japan has indicated it plans to open one of the world’s largest reprocessing plants in Rokkasho in the next two years, but that two-year time frame has been the boilerplate forecast for each of the past 10 years. India is actively reprocessing civilian spent fuel, and China is constructing a major facility for that purpose. South Korea has announced an end to its nuclear power program, but some officials and experts retain the aspiration to pursue civilian reprocessing.

No other nuclear-powered nation is actively pursuing “closing” the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing plutonium for energy generation. The economic and technical realities forced one country after another—Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, then the United States—to end their own efforts.

This weak support highlights the merits of the authors’ arguments. They systematically deconstruct the political and technical arguments in favor of such programs. Crucially, they demonstrate the factual inaccuracy of the primary argument advanced by Japanese and South Korean advocates that reprocessing spent fuel will diminish the volume and danger of nuclear waste that must ultimately be stored in geological repositories. They also knock down convincingly the claim that plutonium that is reactor grade, as opposed to weapons grade, is unusable in an explosive device.

Although it may be the prerogative of sovereign states to spend their own money irrationally, the authors focus also on important externalities, in particular the threat to the world’s security and environment from the continued production of plutonium. A commitment to the closed fuel cycle delays the inevitable decision that must be made by Japan and South Korea concerning permanent safe storage of spent fuels, a decision on which the United States also continues to procrastinate. In addition, it leads to unsafe practices concerning the storage of spent fuel rods destined for reprocessing. The authors describe for the first time how close the world was to a greater disaster in 2011, as overcrowded spent fuel cooling ponds could have led to a much greater radiation release following the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The authors explain that moving the spent fuel to interim dry cask storage would avert such catastrophic risks.

Of still greater concern is the risk that even a sliver of the massive plutonium stockpiles could be acquired by terrorists to use in a nuclear explosive device or a panic-inducing radiological dispersion device. Since plutonium was first fabricated 80 years ago, nations have created more than 500 tons of what is arguably the world’s most dangerous material. The International Atomic Energy Agency defines a “significant quantity” of plutonium, or enough to make a nuclear weapon, as eight kilograms, although even a Nagasaki-size blast could be generated with significantly less plutonium. Thus, the 300 tons of plutonium designated for civilian use would be sufficient to create more than 35,000 warheads.

Continuing to accumulate plutonium is not only a terrorism risk, but also a source of tension between states. There is concern in Beijing that Japan holds greater stocks of separated plutonium than China and in Seoul that South Korea holds none. The authors note briefly but tellingly the normally unstated security considerations that in part motivate civilian reprocessing programs: an intention to sustain a latent weapons capacity.

The authors make a convincing case for the international community to act together to end further production of separated plutonium. The effort to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty, which would ban production of plutonium for weapons, remains frozen in a glacier at the Conference on Disarmament. Whether or when it moves ahead, there is a separate compelling need to negotiate a ban on civilian separation of plutonium.

Although less than 200 pages, Plutonium is not light reading. Its economic and scientific arguments are compact, thoroughly documented, and clear even to lay people. For policymakers and the public, it provides a clear picture of a dream whose claimed benefits have all evaporated but whose danger remains ominously present.


Thomas Countryman is the chair of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. He served 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, retiring in 2017 as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Fukushima may have scattered plutonium widely

November 28, 2020

Fukushima may have scattered plutonium widely, Physics World 20 Jul 2020   Tiny fragments of plutonium may have been carried more than 200 km by caesium particles released following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011. So says an international group of scientists that has made detailed studies of soil samples at sites close to the damaged reactors. The researchers say the findings shed new light on conditions inside the sealed-off reactors and should aid the plant’s decommissioning……..

Mapping plutonium spread

To date, plutonium from the accident has been detected as far as 50 km from the damaged reactors. Researchers had previously thought that this plutonium, like the caesium, was released after evaporating from the fuel. But the new analysis instead points to some of it having escaped from the stricken plant in particulate form within fragments of fuel “captured” by the CsMPs…….

Implications for decommissioning

The researchers note that previous studies have shown that plutonium and caesium are distributed differently in the extended area around Fukushima, which suggests that not all CsMPs contain plutonium. However, they say that the fact plutonium is found in some of these particles implies that it could have been transported as far afield as the caesium – up to 230 km from the Fukushima plant.

As regards any threat to health, they note that radioactivity levels of the emitted plutonium are comparable with global counts from nuclear weapons tests. Such low concentrations, they say, “may not have significant health effects”, but they add that if the plutonium were ingested, the isotopes that make it up could yield quite high effective doses.

With radiation levels still too high for humans to enter the damaged reactors, the researchers argue that the fuel fragments they have uncovered provide precious direct information on what happened during the meltdown and the current state of the fuel debris. In particular, Utsunomiya points out that the composition of the debris, just like that of normal nuclear fuel, varies on the very smallest scales. This information, he says, will be vital when it comes to decommissioning the reactors safely, given the potential risk of inhaling dust particles containing uranium or plutonium.

The research is reported in Science of the Total Environment.   https://physicsworld.com/a/fukushima-may-have-scattered-plutonium-widely/

‘Small Modular Nuclear Reactor’ entrepreneurs trying to revive dangerous ‘plutonium economy’ dream

June 20, 2020

Proposed nuclear projects in New Brunswick would revive dangerous “plutonium economy” https://nbmediacoop.org/2020/04/27/proposed-nuclear-projects-in-new-brunswick-would-revive-dangerous-plutonium-economy/    by Gordon Edwards  The Government of New Brunswick is supporting proposals by two start-up multi-national companies with offices in Saint John to build a type of nuclear reactor judged to be dangerous by experts worldwide.Last year, the government handed $5 million each to ARC Nuclear, based in the US, and Moltex Energy, based in the UK, to develop proposals to build prototypes of so-called Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs) in the province. The government is also supporting both companies in their proposal for millions more taxpayer dollars from the federal Strategic Innovation Fund.

It seems that these two SMNR entrepreneurs in New Brunswick, along with other nuclear “players” worldwide, are trying to revitalize the “plutonium economy” — a nuclear industry dream from the distant past that many believed had been laid to rest because of the failure of plutonium-fuelled breeder reactors almost everywhere, including the US, France, Britain and Japan.

The phrase “plutonium economy” refers to a world in which plutonium is the primary nuclear fuel in the future rather than natural or slightly enriched uranium. Plutonium, a derivative of uranium that does not exist in nature but is created inside every nuclear reactor fuelled with uranium, would thereby become an article of commerce.

The proposed SMNR prototype from ARC Nuclear in Saint John is the ARC-100 reactor (100 megawatts of electricity). It is a liquid sodium-cooled SMNR, based on the 1964 EBR-2 reactor – the Experimental Breeder Reactor #2 in Idaho. Its predecessor, the EBR-1 breeder reactor, had a partial meltdown in 1955, and the Fermi-1 breeder reactor near Detroit, also modelled on the EBR-2, had a partial meltdown in 1966.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, who created the US fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, tried a liquid-sodium-cooled reactor only once, in a submarine called the Sea Wolf. He vowed that he would never do it again. In 1956 he told the US Atomic Energy Commission that liquid sodium-cooled reactors are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”

The ARC-100 is designed with the capability and explicit intention of reusing or recycling irradiated CANDU fuel. In the prototype phase, the proposal is to use irradiated fuel from NB Power’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. Lepreau is a CANDU-6 nuclear reactor.

The other newly proposed NB SMNR prototype is the Moltex “Stable Salt Reactor” (SSR) — also a “fast reactor”, cooled by molten salt, that is likewise intended to re-use or recycle irradiated CANDU fuel, again from the Lepreau reactor in the prototype phase.

The “re-use” (or “recycling”) of “spent nuclear fuel”, also called “used nuclear fuel” or “irradiated nuclear fuel,” is industry code for plutonium extraction. The idea is to transition from uranium to plutonium as a nuclear fuel, because uranium supplies will not outlast dwindling oil supplies. Breeder reactors are designed to use plutonium as a fuel and create (“breed”) even more plutonium while doing so.

It is only possible to re-use or recycle existing used nuclear fuel by somehow accessing the unused “fissile material” in the used fuel. This material is mainly plutonium. Accessing this material involves a chemical procedure called “reprocessing” which was banned in the late 1970s by the Carter administration in the US and the first Pierre Elliot Trudeau administration in Canada. South Korea and Taiwan were likewise forbidden (with pressure from the US) to use this chemical extraction process.

Why did both the US and Canada ban this recycling scheme? Two reasons: 1) it is highly dangerous and polluting to “open up” the used nuclear fuel in order to extract the desired plutonium or U-233; and 2) extracting plutonium creates a civilian traffic in highly dangerous materials (plutonium and U-233) that can be used by governments or criminals or terrorists to make powerful nuclear weapons without the need for terribly sophisticated or readily detectable infrastructure.

Argonne Laboratories in the US, and the South Korean government, have been developing (for more than 10 years now) a new wrinkle on the reprocessing operation which they call “pyroprocessing.” This effort is an attempt to overcome the existing prohibitions on reprocessing and to restart the “plutonium economy.”

Both New Brunswick projects are claiming that their proposed nuclear reactor prototypes would be successful economically. To succeed, they must build and export the reactors by the hundreds in future.

On the contrary, however, the use of plutonium fuel is, and always has been, much more expensive than the use of uranium fuel. This is especially true now, when the price of uranium is exceedingly low and showing very little sign of recovering. In Saskatchewan, Cameco has shut down some of its richest uranium mines and has laid off more than a thousand workers, while reducing the pay of those still working by 25 percent. Under these conditions, it is impossible for plutonium-fuelled reactors to compete with uranium-fuelled reactors.

And to make matters worse for the industry, it is well known that even uranium-fuelled reactors cannot compete with the alternatives such as wind and solar or even natural-gas-fired generators. It is an open question why governments are using public funds to subsidize such uneconomical, dangerous and unsustainable nuclear technologies. It’s not their money after all – it’s ours!

Dr. Gordon Edwards, a scientist and nuclear consultant, is the President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. He can be reached at: ccnr@web.ca    Note from the NB Media Co-op editors: Dr. Edwards visited New Brunswick in March for a series of public talks on the development of so-called Small Modular Nuclear Reactors. The story of his talk in Saint John can be accessed here. The video of the webinar presentation scheduled for Fredericton can be accessed here.

Canada on verge of investing in plutonium

June 20, 2020

Gordon Edwards <ccnr@web.ca>\, 26 Apr 2020, It seems that the two SMNR (Small Modular Nuclear Reactor) entrepreneurs in New Brunswick (Canada), along with other nuclear “players” worldwide, are trying to revitalize the “plutonium economy” — a nuclear industry dream from the distant past that many believed had been laid to rest because of the failure of plutonium-based breeder reactors almost everywhere – e.g. USA, France, Britain, Japan …

One of the newly proposed NB SMNR prototypes, the ARC-100 reactor (100 megawatts of electricity) is a liquid sodium-cooled SMNR that is based on the 1964 EBR-2 reactor – Experimental Breeder Reactor #2. (Its predecessor, the EBR-1 breeder reactor, had a partial meltdown in 1955, and the Fermi-1 breeder reactor near Detroit, also modelled on the EBR-2, had a partial meltdown in 1966.) The ACR-100 is designed with the capability and explicit intention of reusing or recycling irradiated CANDU fuel.
The other newly proposed NB SMNR prototype is the Moltex “Stable Salt Reactor” (SSR) — also a “fast reactor”, cooled by molten salt, that is likewise intended to re-use or recycle irradiated CANDU fuel.
The “re-use” (or “recycling”) of “spent nuclear fuel”, also called “used nuclear fuel” or “irradiated nuclear fuel”, is industry code for plutonium extraction. The idea is to transition from uranium to plutonium as a nuclear fuel, because uranium supplies will not outlast dwindling oil supplies. Breeder reactors are designed to use plutonium as a fuel and create (“breed”) even more plutonium while doing so.
The only way you can re-use or recycle existing used nuclear fuel is to somehow access the unused “fissile material” in the used fuel, which means mainly plutonium.  This involves a chemical procedure called “reprocessing” which was banned in the late 1970s by the Carter administration in the USA and the first PE Trudeau administration in Canada. South Korea and Taiwan were likewise forbidden (with pressure from the US) to pursue this avenue.
Argonne Laboratories in US, and the South Korean government, have been developing (for over ten years now) a new wrinkle on the reprocessing operation which they call “pyroprocessing” in an effort to overcome the existing prohibitions on reprocessing and restart the “plutonium economy”. That phrase refers to a world whereby plutonium is the primary nuclear fuel in the future rather than natural or slightly enriched uranium. Plutonium, a derivative of uranium that does not exist in nature but is created inside every nuclear reactor fuelled with uranium, would thereby become an article of commerce.
Another wrinkle on this general ambition is the so-called “thorium cycle”. Thorium is a naturally-occurring element that can be converted (inside a nuclear reactor) into a human-made fissile material called uranium-233. This type of uranium is not found in nature. Like plutonium, uranium-233 can be used for nuclear weapons or as nuclear fuel. Although the materials are different, the ambition is the same — instead of the plutonium economy one could imagine an economy based on uranium-233.
The problems associated with both recycling schemes (the plutonium cycle and the thorium cycle) are
(1) the dangerous and polluting necessity of “opening up” the used nuclear fuel in order to extract the desired plutonium or U-233, and (2) the creation of a civilian traffic in highly dangerous materials (plutonium and U-233) that can be used by governments or criminals or terrorists to make powerful nuclear weapons without the need for terribly sophisticated or readily detectable infrastructure.
By the way, in terms of nuclear reactors (whether small or large), whenever you see the phrase “fast reactor” or “advanced reactor” or “breeder reactor” or “thorium reactor”, please be advised that such terminology is industry code for recycling — either plutonium or uranium-233.  Also, any “sodium-cooled” reactors are in this same category.
By the way, in terms of nuclear reactors (whether small or large), whenever you see the phrase “fast reactor” or “advanced reactor” or “breeder reactor” or “thorium reactor”, please be advised that such terminology is industry code for recycling — either plutonium or uranium-233.  Also, any “sodium-cooled” reactors are in this same category.

UK govt again to try “astronomically expensive” plutonium reprocessing nuclear reactors

June 20, 2020

Westminster relaunches plutonium reactors despite ‘disastrous’ experience, The National, 26 April, 20 By Rob Edwards  This article was brought to you by The Ferret.

THE UK Government is trying to resurrect plutonium-powered reactors despite abandoning a multi-billion bid to make them work in Scotland.

Documents released by the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) under freedom of information law reveal that fast reactors, which can burn and breed plutonium, are among “advanced nuclear technologies” being backed by UK ministers.

Two experimental fast reactors were built and tested at a cost of £4 billion over four decades at Dounreay in Caithness. But the programme was closed in 1994 as uneconomic after a series of accidents and leaks.

Now ONR has been funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in London to boost its capacity to regulate new designs of fast reactors, along with other advanced nuclear technologies.

Campaigners have condemned the moves to rehabilitate plutonium as a nuclear fuel as “astronomically expensive”, “disastrous” and “mind-boggling”. They point out that it can be made into nuclear bombs and is highly toxic – and the UK has 140 tonnes of it…….

ONR released 23 documents about advanced nuclear technologies in response to a freedom of information request by Dr David Lowry, a London-based research fellow at the US Institute for Resource and Security Studies. They include redacted minutes and notes of meetings from 2019 discussing fast reactors, and are being published by The Ferret.

One note of a meeting in November 2019 shows that ONR attempted to access a huge database on fast reactors maintained by the UK Government’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in Warrington, Cheshire…..

Two companies have so far won funding under this heading to help develop fast reactors that can burn plutonium. The US power company, Westinghouse, is proposing lead-cooled fast reactors, while another US company called Advanced Reactor Concepts wants to build sodium-cooled fast reactors.

In November 2019 BEIS also announced an £18 million grant to a consortium led by reactor manufacturer, Rolls Royce, to develop a “small modular reactor designed and manufactured in the UK capable of producing cost effective electricity”.

According to Dr Lowry, fast reactors would require building a plutonium fuel fabrication plant. Such plants are “astronomically expensive” and have proved “technical and financial disasters” in the past, he said.

“Any such fabrication plant would be an inevitable target for terrorists wanting to create spectacular iconic disruption of such a high profile plutonium plant, with devastating human health and environmental hazards.”

Lowry was originally told by ONR that it held no documents on advanced nuclear technologies. As well as redacting the 23 documents that have now been released, the nuclear safety regulator is withholding a further 13 documents as commercially confidential – a claim that Lowry dismissed as “fatuous nonsense”.

THE veteran nuclear critic and respected author, Walt Patterson, argued that no fast reactor programme in the world had worked since the 1950s. Even if it did, it would take “centuries” to burn the UK’s 140 tonne plutonium stockpile, and create more radioactive waste with nowhere to go, he said.

“Extraordinary – they never learn do they? I remain perpetually gobsmacked at the lobbying power of the nuclear obsessives,” he told The Ferret. “The mind continue to boggle.”

The Edinburgh-based nuclear consultant, Pete Roche, suggested that renewable energy was the cheapest and most sustainable solution to climate change. “The UK Government seems to be planning some kind of low carbon dystopia with nuclear reactors getting smaller, some of which at least will be fuelled by plutonium,” he said.

“The idea of weapons-useable plutonium fuel being transported on our roads should send shivers down the spine of security experts and emergency planners.”

Another nuclear expert and critic, Dr Ian Fairlie, described BEIS’s renewed interest in fast reactors as problematic. “Experience with them over many years in the US, Russia, France and the UK has shown them to be disastrous and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

This is not the view taken by the UK Nuclear Industry Association, which brings together nuclear companies. It wants to see the UK’s plutonium being used in reactors rather than disposed of as waste……

“The Scottish Government remains opposed to new nuclear power plants in Scotland,” a spokesperson told The Ferret. “The Scottish Government believes our long term energy needs can be met without the need for new nuclear capacity.”

The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to repeated requests to comment. https://www.thenational.scot/news/18405852.westminster-relaunches-plutonium-reactors-despite-disastrous-experience/