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UK’s Magnox nuclear reprocessing plant to close, leaving world’s largest stockpile of separated civil plutonium

June 17, 2021


Plutonium Policy,  No2NuclearPower, No 132 May 2021,  Update Introduction ..The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) now expects the Magnox Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield to close this year (2021) – one year later than previously planned. The newer Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was shut in November 2018. Reprocessing, which has always been unnecessary, is the chemical separation of plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear waste fuel.

When reprocessing ends there will be around 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium stored at Sellafield – the world’s largest stockpile of separated civil plutonium. (1) In 2008 the NDA launched a consultation on options (2) for dealing with this embarrassing stockpile – it is highly toxic, poses a permanent risk of proliferation, and will cost taxpayers around £73 million a year to store for the next century. (3) Today, after almost a decade and a half of dithering, the UK Government has failed to make any decisions, but still appears to favour the re-use option, which would probably involve transporting weapons useable plutonium or MoX fuel to reactor sites, such as Hinkley Point C and Sizewell B (and C if it is ever built) with an armed escort. 

The NDA itself said in 2008 that deciding soon could save money by removing the need to build further plutonium stores. And the Government’s refusal to admit that using the plutonium as fuel for new reactors is not only extremely technically challenging but also probably unaffordable, means funds are being spent developing both re-use and immobilisation options thus maximising the cost of plutonium disposition at the same time maximising the cost of plutonium storage. 

The story so far When reprocessing ends in 2021 there will be around 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium stored at Sellafield. About 23 tonnes of this is foreign-owned, largely but not exclusively by Japanese utilities, and is managed under long-term contracts. (4) The UK’s stockpile of plutonium has been consolidated at Sellafield by transporting material at the former fast reactor site at Dounreay in Caithness down to Cumbria. The NDA says it has been working with the UK government to determine the right approach for putting this nuclear material beyond reach. (5) The options it is considering are all predicated on the development of a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM) – a subsidiary of the NDA – is assuming that a GDF will be available to receive its first waste in the late 2040s. Then it will take around 90 years to emplace all existing waste before it can begin emplacing other materials such as immobilised plutonium or spent plutonium fuel. And there are no guarantees this timetable will be achieved. In Sweden, for example, which is perhaps one of the countries most advanced in its development of an underground repository, nuclear utilities have warned reactors may have to close early because of delays in the approval of the repository. (6) 

The Options Options considered for dealing with plutonium include using it as a fuel called Mixed Oxide Fuel (MoX) in nuclear reactors (followed by storage as spent fuel pending disposal in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF)). 
Storage Problems Meanwhile plutonium will have to continue to be stored at Sellafield. The NDA’s 2008 report said “If a decision were taken today on a solution for the inventory, there could still be a requirement to provide storage for around 40 years.” (17) Continued long-term storage of civil plutonium is not as easy as it sounds nor is it cheap, and there are many technical challenges. ……………..

The NDA considers some of the older plutonium packages and facilities used in early production to be amongst the highest hazards on the Sellafield site. Therefore, it is aiming to gradually transfer all plutonium to a new store, the Sellafield Product and Residue Store (SPRS) which opened in 2010……..

A proportion of the plutonium canisters at Sellafield are decaying faster than the NDA anticipated. A leak from any package would lead to an ‘intolerable’ risk as defined by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). The NDA has therefore decided to place the canisters more at risk in extra layers of packaging until SRP is operational. ………..

  In 2014, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that the Government did not have a strategy in place for the plutonium stored at Sellafield. 7 years later, it has still not decided between the two options available to it: readying the plutonium stockpile for long-term storage in a geological disposal facility (that has yet to be constructed); or reusing it as fuel in new nuclear power stations. (25)

Conclusion The Government’s preferred option for the disposition of plutonium still appears to be to use the majority of the stockpile to fabricate Mixed Oxide Fuel for use in Light Water Reactors. This could mean transporting weapons-useable plutonium on our roads or rail network to Sizewell and Hinkley Point. These transports would need to be accompanied by armed police. 

This is despite the fact that a plutonium immobilisation plant would be required in any case to immobilise that portion of the plutonium stockpile which is not suitable for use in MoX fuel.

 Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority needs to continue its programme of modernising Sellafield’s plutonium storage facilities, which will involve the construction  extensions to the Sellafield Product and Residue Store (SPRS) and retreating and repacking some of the existing canisters which are considered unsuitable for storage in a modern store. This will also involve construction the Sellafield (Product and Residue store) Retreatment Plant (SRP). 

Had the Government decided soon after the publication of the NDA’s options report to immobilise the UK plutonium stockpile, as advised by environmentalists and proliferation specialists, it is likely that savings could have been made by removing the requirement for one or both of the plutonium store extensions. Indeed, if a decision is taken soon, it may still be possible to avoid the cost of building the second store extension. of two     

 In short, Government policy appears to be maximising the cost of plutonium disposition by requiring both a MoX fuel fabrication plant AND a plutonium immobilisation plant, and at the same time maximising the cost of plutonium storage. Under this policy MoX fuel containing weapons useable plutonium would have to be transported under armed guard around the country.

The radiation danger to astronauts- cancer, heart disease -an ethical problem

April 5, 2021

“These are all crucial studies to be conducted in order to really understand the risks we’re exposing astronauts to,” says Meerman. “Therefore, we believe we are not there yet and we should debate whether it is safe to expand human space travel significantly

Long-distance space travel: addressing the radiation problem 08 Mar 2021  A team of US and Netherlands-based scientists has published a review paper highlighting ways to protect astronauts from the negative cardiovascular health impacts associated with exposure to space radiation during long-distance space travel.

Cardiovascular impacts Space radiation is currently regarded as the most limiting factor for long-distance space travel because exposure to it is associated with significant negative effects on the human body. However, data on these effects are currently only available for those members of the Apollo programme that travelled as far as the Moon – too small a number from which to draw any significant conclusions about the effects of the space environment on the human body. In addition, although exposure to space radiation, including galactic cosmic rays and solar “proton storms”, has previously been linked to the development of cancer and neurological problems, data on the consequences of space radiation exposure for the cardiovascular system are lacking.

In an effort to address these limitations, researchers based at the University Medical Center (UMC) Utrecht, Leiden University Medical Center, Radboud University and the Technical University Eindhoven in the Netherlands, as well as Stanford University School of Medicine and Rice University in the US, have carried out an exhaustive review of existing evidence to establish what we know about the cardiovascular risks of space radiation.

They present their findings in the journal Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. Manon Meerman.As first author Manon Meerman, a graduate student at UMC Utrecht, explains, the majority of current knowledge comes from studies of people who have received radiotherapy for cancer, where cardiovascular disease is a common side-effect, or from animal and cell culture studies that demonstrate the major negative effects of exposure to space radiation on the cardiovascular system. Such effects include fibrosis, or stiffening, of the myocardium and accelerated development of atherosclerosis, the main cause of myocardial and cerebral infarction.

“You can argue that if NASA, ESA and other space agencies want to expand space travel, both in terms of location – for example, to Mars – and time, astronauts will be exposed to the specific space environment for longer periods of time. However, we currently do not know what the effects of exposure to these space-specific factors are,” says Meerman.

“NASA currently sees space radiation as the most limiting factor for long-distance space travel, but the exact short- and long-term effects are not fully understood yet. We are therefore exposing astronauts to extremely uncertain risks. However, research into the effects of space radiation has increased over the past few years and we’re constantly gaining more knowledge on this topic,” she adds.

Advanced models According to Meerman, another important factor in this discussion is the fact that we currently cannot adequately protect astronauts from space radiation. Shielding with radiation-resistant materials is very difficult since exposure levels are far higher than on Earth and the type of radiation is much more penetrating. Pharmacological methods of protecting the cardiovascular system are hampered by the fact that no effective radioprotective compounds have yet been approved.

“The most important conclusion is that we actually do not know enough about the exact risks that long-distance space travel pose for the human body. Therefore, in our opinion, we should keep looking for new ways to protect astronauts from the harmful space environment before we expand human space travel,” says Meerman. Moving forward, Meerman stresses that research on the effects of space radiation should incorporate advanced models that provide a more accurate representation of the cardiovascular impacts of space radiation – such as those based on lab-created human cardiac tissue and organ-on-a-chip testing technologies.

Studies should also examine the effects of combinatorial exposure to different space radiation particles, as well as combined exposure to space radiation components and other space-specific factors, like microgravity, weightlessness and prolonged hypoxia. “These are all crucial studies to be conducted in order to really understand the risks we’re exposing astronauts to,” says Meerman. “Therefore, we believe we are not there yet and we should debate whether it is safe to expand human space travel significantly.

Reuters gives a timeline of events: Fukushima 2011 – 2021

April 5, 2021
Events following Japan’s worst quake and nuclear incident By Reuters Staff  Compiled by Karishma Singh. Editing by Gerry Doyle, 5 Mar 21,  On March 11, Japan marks a decade since a huge earthquake and tsunami left more than 22,000 people dead or missing and triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Here is a brief timeline of events after the 9.0 magnitude quake, the biggest recorded in Japan’s history:
March 11, 2011: A 9.0 magnitude quake hits off the coast of northeast Japan, triggering a tsunami that devastates towns and villages. The tsunami swamps backup power and cooling systems at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, eventually causing meltdowns at three of six reactors. Two months later, TEPCO confirms meltdowns occurred. Government declares a nuclear emergency and tells residents within a 3 km radius of the plant to evacuate. The evacuation zone is expanded in stages to a 20 km radius over the next two days. More than 160,000 people are eventually evacuated.

March 12: TEPCO begins injecting seawater to cool the reactors’ fuel rods. People stock up on groceries and supplies in Tokyo, about 250 km away, amid radiation fears. Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time, says later he feared he might have to evacuate Tokyo.

March 16: Emperor Akihito gives a rare televised address expressing deep worry about the crisis.

March 22: Technicians working at the plant attach power cables to all six reactors and start a pump at one to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods.

April 4: Engineers release over 10,000 tons of contaminated water – about 100 times more radioactive than legal limits – that had been used to cool overheated fuel rods after running out of storage capacity.

May 20: TEPCO’s president, Masataka Shimizu, 66, resigns, taking responsibility for the nuclear crisis.

Aug. 26: Kan confirms he will resign. Dec. 16: Japan declares damaged reactors are in a stable state of “cold shutdown”.

July 1, 2012: Kansai Electric Power Co restarts the 1,180-megawatt No. 3 unit at its Ohi atomic plant, Japan’s first nuclear reactor to come back online since the Fukushima crisis, despite public concerns about nuclear safety.

July 5, 2012: A commission appointed by parliament concludes Fukushima was a “profoundly man-made disaster” that could have been prevented, and mitigated by a more effective response.

Dec. 26, 2012: Shinzo Abe elected prime minister after his Liberal Democratic Party wins general election, ousting the Democratic Party of Japan, in power at the time of the crisis.

July 22, 2013: TEPCO admits that since the 2011 reactor breaches, radioactive water has continued to leak from the plant into groundwater, making it radioactive, with implications for drinking water and for the Pacific Ocean.

Sept. 7, 2013: In a bid led by Abe, Tokyo is declared the host of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, with a promise of showcasing a reconstructed Fukushima. Abe says the crippled plant is “under control”.

April 1, 2014: People begin to return to the 20-km exclusion zone around Fukushima as decontamination of the area is completed.

June 3, 2014: TEPCO begins work on an “ice wall” to slow the flow of ground water into the wrecked plant, but the buildup of contaminated water continues, slowing recovery efforts.

Nov. 5, 2014: TEPCO removes 400 tonnes of spent uranium fuel from a damaged reactor building, the first of four sets of used rods to be removed in a cleanup expected to last decades. F

eb. 7, 2018: TEPCO ordered to pay about 1.1 billion yen ($10 million) to 321 Fukushima residents for damages in a class action suit. Sept. 5, 2018: Japan acknowledges for the first time that radiation at the Fukushima plant killed a worker there, ruling that compensation should be paid to the family of the man in his 50s who died of lung cancer.

Sept. 19, 2019: Former TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, and former executives Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto cleared of criminal charges of professional negligence resulting in injury and death in the only criminal case to arise from the crisis.

March 1, 2021: TEPCO said it had moved spent uranium fuel from a damaged reactor to a safer location – the second successful operation of its kind and the first to be carried out by remote control, because of the high radiation in the reactor building.

The man who saves forgotten cats in Fukushima’s nuclear zone 

April 5, 2021

The man who saves forgotten cats in Fukushima’s nuclear zone, By Tim KellyKim Kyung Hoon-3 Mar 21,

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – A decade ago, Sakae Kato stayed behind to rescue cats abandoned by neighbours who fled the radiation clouds belching from the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant. He won’t leave.

“I want to make sure I am here to take care of the last one,” he said from his home in the contaminated quarantine zone. “After that I want to die, whether that be a day or hour later.” So far he has buried 23 cats in his garden, the most recent graves disturbed by wild boars that roam the depopulated community. He is looking after 41 others in his home and another empty building on his property. Kato leaves food for feral cats in a storage shed he heats with a paraffin stove. He has also rescued a dog, Pochi.

With no running water, he has to fill bottles from a nearby mountain spring, and drive to public toilets. The 57-year-old, a small construction business owner in his former life, says his decision to stay as 160,000 other people evacuated the area was spurred in part by the shock of finding dead pets in abandoned houses he helped demolish. The cats also gave him a reason to stay on land that has been owned by his family for three generations.

“I don’t want to leave, I like living in these mountains,” he said standing in front of his house, which he is allowed to visit but, technically, not allowed to sleep in. The two-storey wooden structure is in poor condition. Rotten floorboards sag. It is peppered with holes where wall panels and roof tiles that kept the rain out were dislodged by a powerful earth tremor last month, stirring frightening memories of the devastating quake on March 11, 2011, that led to a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.

The cats also gave him a reason to stay on land that has been owned by his family for three generations. “I don’t want to leave, I like living in these mountains,” he said standing in front of his house, which he is allowed to visit but, technically, not allowed to sleep in. The two-storey wooden structure is in poor condition. Rotten floorboards sag. It is peppered with holes where wall panels and roof tiles that kept the rain out were dislodged by a powerful earth tremor last month, stirring frightening memories of the devastating quake on March 11, 2011, that led to a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.

FEAR LINGERS About 30 km (19 miles) southeast, still in the restricted zone, Hisae Unuma is also surveying the state of her home, which withstood the earthquake a decade ago but is now close to collapsing after years of being battered by wind, rain and snow. “I’m surprised it’s still standing,” the 67-year-old farmer said, a week after the tremor that damaged Kato’s house. “I could see my cattle in the field from there,” she said pointing to the living room, a view now blocked by a tangle of bamboo.

Unuma fled as the cooling system at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s nuclear plant 2.5 km away failed and its reactors began to melt down. The government, which has adopted Fukushima as a symbol of national revival amid preparations for Tokyo Olympic Games, is encouraging residents to return to decontaminated land. Lingering fears about the nuclear plant, jobs and poor infrastructure are keeping many away, though. Unuma, now a vegetable farmer in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo, where her husband died three years ago, won’t return even if the government scrapes the radioactive soil off her fields.

Radiation levels around her house are around 20 times the background level in Tokyo, according to a dosimeter reading carried out by Reuters. Only the removal of Fukushima’s radioactive cores will make her feel safe, a task that will take decades to complete. “Never mind the threat from earthquakes, those reactors could blow if someone dropped a tool in the wrong place,” she said.

Before making the four-hour drive back to her new home, Unuma visits the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power. Among the 233 bullocks still there is the last surviving bullock from the 50-strong herd Unuma used to tend, and one of her last living links to the life she had before the disaster. Her bullock ignores her when she tries to lure him over, so Yoshizawa gives her a handful of cabbage to try to tempt him. “The thing about cattle, is that they really only think about food,” Yoshizawa said. (This story corrects date to March 11, 2011 in paragraph 9) Reporting by Tim Kelly and Kim Kyong Hoon; Additional reporting by Akira Tomoshige; Editing by Pravin Char

NuScale’s small nuclear reactor dream – dead on arrival?

April 5, 2021

in order to make advanced reactors accessible within the next few decades—even relatively simple reactors, like NuScale’s—the government would need to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies …… the nuclear dream looks dead on arrival….Biden’s Other Nuclear Option, Smaller nuclear reactors might be the bridge to a carbon-free economy. But are they worth it? Mother Jones, 22 Feb 21, BOYCE UPHOLT    ”……….. Four years after it opened, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania spooked the nation, and Oregon, like many states, put a moratorium on new nuclear plants. …… In 2007, an engineer at Oregon State University named José Reyes began to resurrect it by imagining a reactor that would be “very, very different.” By shrinking and simplifying the standard nuclear reactor, Reyes believes he has created a technology that can generate power more safely at a fraction of the price. Last August, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a final safety report for Reyes’ design, recommending its certification. Construction on the first reactor could begin as soon as 2025. That puts NuScale, the company Reyes co-founded, at the front of the race toward “advanced nuclear” power Donald Trump’s Department of Energy was “all in” on advanced nuclear, as a press release put it, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development. President Joe Biden is a fan, too. As part of his plan to shift the United States to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, he has targeted further investment in small modular nuclear reactors like NuScale’s.

But are these investments worth the money—and the risks? New designs or not, nuclear plants face daunting issues of waste disposal, public opposition, and, most of all, staggering costs. We must ramp up our fight against climate change. But whether nuclear is a real part of the solution—or just a long-shot bid to keep a troubled industry alive—is a debate that will come to the fore in the short window we have to overhaul the nation’s energy portfolio. Few issues divide us as cleanly as nuclear power. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of Americans support opening new plants, while 49 percent are opposed. The popular argument against nuclear power can be summed up in a few names: Chernobyl. Fukushima. Three Mile Island. Nuclear dread is palpable. Some formerly pro-nuclear countries, like Germany, began phasing out plants in the wake of the 2011 disaster in Japan. The dangers begin well before nuclear fuel arrives at a plant, and persist long afterward; the rods that fuel today’s plants remain radioactive for millennia after their use. How to ethically store this waste remains a Gordian knot nobody has figured out how to cut. The argument in favor of nuclear power boils down to the urgent need to combat climate change.  [Ed,  but nuclear does not  really combat climate change.] But if nuclear power is going to help us mitigate climate change, a lot more reactors need to come online, and soon. Eleven nuclear reactors in the United States have been retired since 2012, and eight more will be closed by 2025. (When nuclear plants are retired, utility companies tend to ramp up production at coal- or natural gas–fired plants, a step in the wrong direction for those concerned about lowering emissions.) Since 1970, the construction of the average US plant has wound up costing nearly three-and-a-half times more than the initial projections. Developers have broken ground on just four new reactor sites since Three Mile Island. Two were abandoned after $9 billion was.. sunk into construction; two others, in Georgia, are five years behind schedule. The public is focused on risks, but “nuclear power is not doing well around the world right now for one reason—economics,” says Allison Macfarlane, a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Until Three Mile Island, public support was strong. Dozens of plants came online. In the 1970s, Reyes, seeing an industry full of promise, decided to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering. ……… Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a state-owned agency that sells electricity across six Western states aims to offer its members the choice of fully carbon-free power, sees NuScale as the best available option for undergirding its existing wind and solar plants. In 2015, UAMPS announced a plan to build 12 NuScale reactors at the federally run Idaho National Laboratory. NuScale projected total construction costs at $3 billion—nearly a third less than the most recently completed US reactor, which came online in 2016 at a cost of $4.7 billion (though it will supply more power). And the next plant should cost even less, since NuScale’s small reactors will be built on an assembly line, rather than on-site. But the price will drop only if more customers buy them. “Taxes are more popular than nuclear power,” jokes Doug Hunter, the CEO of UAMPS. To change that perception, Hunter and his team have spent the last few years visiting towns and utility companies that buy power from UAMPS, explaining the potential role of nuclear power and the safety of NuScale’s design. His persistence paid off. By 2020, the majority had signed on to the NuScale project—though only as long as they had plenty of chances to back out if the project went south………. Even with new technology, we will need to mine uranium—a process that has leached radioactive waste into waterways—and find somewhere to put the spent fuel. (The current practice, which persists at Trojan and will be employed at NuScale’s plants, is to hold waste on-site. This is intended to be a temporary measure, but every attempt to find a permanent disposal site has been stalled by geological constraints and local opposition.) Lloyd Marbet, Director of the non-profit Oregon Conservancy Foundation believes we need to transition away from coal and gas immediately. But he worries that nuclear is too expensive, and a new round of investment might pull money away from more effective, and cleaner, solutions. ………. These days, he’s watching the industry creep back. A Republican state senator named Brian Boquist has proposed a bill three times that would permit city or county voters to exempt themselves from the 1980 law, allowing a nuclear facility to be built within their borders. (The bill has failed twice; the latest version is with the senate committee.) Boquist does not seem particularly committed to fighting climate change: He and other members of the Republican minority refused to show up to vote on a cap-and-trade bill in early 2020, causing the Senate to fall short of a quorum. (When Gov. Kate Brown threatened to retrieve legislators using state troopers, Boquist said to “send bachelors and come heavily armed.”) In 2017, as the legislature debated Boquist’s first pro-nuclear bill, Marbet testified that NuScale was making “an end run around [voters] in their quest for corporate profit.” He also noted the company’s ties to the Fluor Corporation. The Texas-based multinational engineering firm that has been NuScale’s majority owner since 2011 has invested $9.9 million in campaign contributions over the past 30 years, with nearly two-thirds going toward Republican candidates. (Fluor is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission due to allegedly sloppy accounting practices.) Marbet admits his view of the industry is jaundiced, but his experiences make him skeptical of NuScale and its claims. He worries, too, that if small reactors take off, operators will revert to old habits, cutting corners to make a buck. He points to a draft rule approved last year by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, over the objections of FEMA, that would reduce the size of the emergency planning zone around nuclear plants: Rather than a 10-mile-wide circle, a plant would only need an evacuation plan for the space within its fence lines. NRC commissioner Jeff Baran opposed the change, noting it is based on assumptions about small reactors, like NuScale’s, that remain on the drawing board, and might open the door to weakening safety standards for existing plants. Old-line environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club remain staunchly opposed to nuclear power, but politicians have been more open to it. President Barack Obama was an outspoken proponent of nuclear’s potential. For 2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously agreed to spend more than President Trump requested on nuclear research, and the Senate is currently considering a bipartisan bill that will streamline the permitting process and establish a national uranium reserve. Now, as part of his $2 trillion climate plan, Biden is calling for a federal research agency that would pursue carbon-free energy sources, including small reactors. Biden’s was the first Democratic Party platform in 48 years that explicitly supported an expansion of nuclear energy. His pick to lead the Department of Energy—which devotes the majority of its budget to nuclear projects—is former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has little experience in the field. Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator who is Biden’s chief domestic climate coordinator, has said that nuclear could play a key role in baseload power supply but indicated that waste disposal issues ought to be resolved before the technology is widely adopted. A major hurdle for any advanced nuclear product is the regulatory process. NuScale spent more than $500 million developing its licensing application. The path to approval has consumed 12 years already, and it’s not over yet. In the months after my visit to NuScale, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission noted “several potentially risk-significant” questions that remain unanswered about the company’s reactor design, especially about its new version of a steam generator. Nonetheless, the NRC granted its initial approval of the design at the end of the summer; now NuScale awaits official, final certification by the commissioners, which is expected sometime this year. But further analysis of the generators will be required before a license is granted to actually build a plant. A decade ago, NuScale suggested it might have a plant in operation by 2018. Now construction won’t begin until 2025 at the earliest. The plant at Idaho National Laboratory won’t be fully operational until 2030. Factoring in interest and other costs not included in NuScale’s $3 billion estimate, UAMPS expects a total 40-year lifetime cost of $6 billion for the plant. Some critics see this as the same old story: grand, early promises—a “dog and pony show,” as Marbet calls NuScale’s PR—followed by cost overruns and delays. Reyes intentionally used materials familiar to regulators, so as to speed along the process. But other advanced reactor designs, which use new kinds of fuel and coolant, may face an even slower and more expensive journey. Recently, nine towns—more than a quarter of the subscribed members—pulled out of UAMPS’s project after changing their minds about their energy needs or worrying that it was becoming a financial sinkhole. (Meanwhile, one new town signed on.) The plant’s economics depend on running near full capacity, which will only happen if utilities outside of UAMPS also buy some of its power. The Department of Energy says it will chip in nearly $1.4 billion over the next nine years, which should help bring down the cost of the plant’s energy. But the projected price—$55 per megawatt-hour—is still above the current costs for solar and wind projects. And the federal money will require annual congressional approval. It’s possible that other new ideas might pop up, competing for limited dollars. Biden’s climate plan hinges on a massive expenditure on research. What his administration will have to quickly decide, though, is how to divvy that pot. Allison Macfarlane, the former NRC commissioner, told me other industries deserve far more of our resources and attention than nuclear. Batteries, in particular, could steady out the uneven flow of renewables. They may even work better, since nuclear plants are difficult to power up or down in response to changing conditions. Once a pie-in-the-sky idea, battery storage now offers costs at least “in the ballpark” of nuclear, says Stan Kaplan, a former US Energy Information Administration analyst. Prices have dropped 70 percent in the past few years and are projected to drop another 45 percent before NuScale’s plant comes online. California—which also has a moratorium on nuclear builds—is rapidly expanding its storage capacity. Within 10 years, the niche that Nu­Scale is aiming for might already be filled. ……. For nuclear to persist as a hedge, it all but requires government assistance, given the enormous upfront costs of R&D. Another challenge is vetting which projects have real promise. “You have all these reactor vendors pitching their wares, and making all sorts of outrageous and false claims,” says Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. These claims have also been the basis of lowering safety standards, which offers a large indirect subsidy for operators. There needs to be a stronger peer-review process, he says, to make sure the government is only sponsoring truly worthwhile projects. A recent study from Princeton found that even without nuclear power, the relative cost of a decarbonized energy system in 2050 could be about the same as in 2015, which at the time was a historic low. The study found nuclear could reduce costs even further—if it becomes as cheap as its advocates hope. But Abdulla, the UC San Diego researcher, has calculated that in order to make advanced reactors accessible within the next few decades—even relatively simple reactors, like NuScale’s—the government would need to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and substantially simplify the regulatory process. Abdulla believes nuclear energy should have been “an arrow in our quiver.” But given the economics, he says, “I fear the arrow has broken.” if money were no object—if we could snap our fingers and scatter reactors across the landscape—…… But if Abdulla’s numbers are right, the nuclear dream looks dead on arrival….

A great article. Just one problem.  The whole article runs with the assumption that nuclear power is effectively ”low carbon”. Yet this assumption is not challenged. There are several ways in which nuclear power is actually quite high carbon.   Just for one comparison with reneewable energy:  wind and solar power are delivered directlly to the turbines and panels – with no digging up of fuel required, no regular transport by road, rail etc.  The entire nuclear fuel chain with all its steps –   mining, milling, conversion, fuel fabrication, reactor, waste ponds, waste canisters , deep repositaory …       all this is carbon emitting.   

The Children with Cancer UK conference: nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two sides of the same coin

April 5, 2021

Low level radiation – a game changer for the nuclear power and weapons industries?  Pete Wilkinson, 21 February 2021   “If you placed a teacup sized piece of high level waste (what’s left of used or ‘spent’ nuclear fuel after it has been treated) in the middle of football pitch, you and everyone in the stadium would be dead before you left the centre circle.”

Phil Hallington, head of operations and development, Sellafield. BBC Radio 4, 7/1/15 ‘How to dismantle a nuclear power station’

In order to gain public acceptance of atmospheric bomb testing in Nevada, President Dwight E. Eisenhower declared the policy of the US government to be “keep the public confused”… (Extracts from ‘The Dangers of Low Level Radiation’, Charles Sutcliffe, Avebury Press, 1987 ISBN 0 566 05482 5)

These two quotations sum up the murky world of deceit, lies and deliberate withholding of information that characterised the race to develop the A and H-bombs in the immediate aftermath of WW2 as former allies became cold war enemies. The greater ‘good’ of possessing weapons of mass destruction to deter an aggressor outweighed the need to inform people of the unknowns surrounding the long-term effects of exposure to radiation. “Keeping the public confused” made it possible to develop those weapons without the encumbrance of protests. The raw materials for weapons of mass destruction – plutonium and enriched uranium – come from the nuclear reactors developed under the guise of generating electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. The policies of secrecy and obfuscation have likewise haunted the nascent civil nuclear power industry. Nuclear power stations have been essential for producing the materials that have incinerated and liquidised tens of thousands of innocents, and left thousands more with crippling genetic malformations all in the name of defence through the threat of mass murder. The Windscale Calder Hall reactors, opened by HM the Queen in 1956 and heralded as the first power station to provide nuclear-generated electricity to the UK grid, concealed the true impetus for their construction: to produce plutonium for domestic and American nuclear weapons. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two sides of the same coin, despite minister after minister, decade after decade, telling parliament and the public the opposite.

It is thought that around 200,000 people – mostly civilians – died as a result of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The US sent teams of officials into the fallout zones soon after the attacks to catalogue the effects on people as well as to evaluate their destructive capability. The US authorities developed a measure of radioactivity’s effect on human health which assumed that the greater the exposure to radiation, the greater the effect on the individual, leading to the ‘linear no threshold’ or LNT principle which has underpinned the relationship between dose and risk ever since. With little concern for detail, the authorities assumed that the LNT model was good for calculating the effects of both whole body exposure as well as internal exposure through nuclear particulate inhalation or ingestion and that the relationship between dose and risk remained constant. But in fact, in case after case of exposure to ionising radiation, the observed effect on health outstrips the theoretical effect LNT would suggest. Decades of grudging engagement from the authorities with its critics has still not delivered open and transparent examination of the uncertainties around the issue. The government, the nuclear industry itself, the regulators, nuclear industry trades unions, the supply chain companies, cheerleading university research and science departments all support and defend an industry which is well aware of these uncertainties. Yet still we commit to new nuclear build while wringing our hands about the rising cancer rate now affecting every second person in the country. Particulates of plutonium and uranium, invisible to the naked eye, produce energetic and highly interactive emissions that, while presenting little danger when outside the body, can present a serious internal hazard when inhaled or ingested. They represent a small ‘dose’ but can have a disproportionate effect on health if the body doesn’t manage to rid itself of the particle. The reality is actually ‘small dose, large risk’, the opposite of the LNT principle. It is perhaps no surprise that neither government nor its agencies wish to engage in fact-based debate on the issues: any recognition that critics of LNT have a case would require a fundamental review of nuclear discharges, their safety and the number of people qualifying for compensation. Nuclear weapons were routinely tested until the practice was banned, sometimes requiring the enforced removal of the inhabitants over whose remote atolls and islands the bombs were tested. Of the 2,000+ tests since the 1950s, more than 200 took place in the atmosphere, releasing unknown quantities of uranium and plutonium. Accidents at nuclear power stations – notably Chernobyl, Fukushima and the accident in 1957 at our own plutonium production plant in Cumbria, then known as Windscale – have also released unknown amounts of plutonium into the environment. Nuclear power plants routinely discharge small amounts of radioactive material into sea, land and air. Plutonium has been deliberately and routinely discharged into the Irish Sea since the 1950s from the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. These materials circle the earth in the jet stream and wash around our oceans. And the authorities, particularly the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (CoMARE), refuse to debate key issues with their critics. In 1983, a ten-fold excess of childhood leukaemia was identified in the small village of Seascale, a few miles south of Sellafield. At the end of a Yorkshire TV documentary film screened in the November of that year, nuclear bosses refused to concede that the plutonium discharges from the plant to the Irish Sea which were shown to be returning to shore and even turning up in household dust, could possibly have anything to do with the children’s illnesses. In December 1984, Hansard recorded the following speech from Lord Skelmersdale (extract):

“As from next year, discharges of caesium to the sea will be reduced to one-tenth of the maximum released in recent years. The revised authorisation sent to the company in draft will, when implemented, reduce discharges of plutonium and other alpha emitters to 200 curies a year, which is also a very sharp reduction from previous levels.”

In 2008, the German government financed a report known by the acronym KiKK. It showed that children under five years of age living within five kilometres of every German nuclear power station ran a risk of contracting leukaemia that was twice the national average in the country. Following a Children with Cancer UK international conference in 2018, a modest grant was awarded to the Low Level Radiation Campaign to write a report, compiling the evidence that supported the view that the health effects of exposure to low doses of alpha emitting radioactive materials are woefully underestimated. The report has been sent to every major government department, to MPs and to regulators. The response has been totally underwhelming. The government is unable even to consider that the industry on which it has relied since the 1940s to provide its plutonium, its nuclear engineers, its nuclear research facilities, much of its electricity and its medical isotopes, might be contributing to disease and death in the population. And it refuses to instruct its publicly funded expert body, CoMARE, to do so on its behalf. The Children with Cancer UK conference was addressed by one contributor who spoke movingly about the conditions required for a healthy and contented population – a sustainable and peaceful planet. Instead, we have created a soup of chemical, radioactive and other toxic materials casually tossed into the air while we have little or no idea as to their health effects. This, along with the 500,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste, is our legacy to our descendants. How on earth are we going to acknowledge this and begin the process of reconciliation and redress?

Green light for Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant, but is it viable?

June 20, 2020

Aomori’s Rokkasho nuclear plant gets green light but hurdles remain,   Japan Times, BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER, MAY 31, 2020, OSAKA – On May 13, the Nuclear Regulation Authority announced that the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, had met new safety standards created after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

The NRA’s approval means the long-troubled and controversial plant has moved closer to going into operation. Here’s a look at the Rokkasho plant and the problems it has faced.

What is the Rokkasho reprocessing plant?    The plant at Rokkasho is a 3.8 million square meter facility designed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s nuclear reactors.

Construction began in 1993. Once in operation, the plant’s maximum daily reprocessing capacity will be a cumulative total of 800 tons per year.

During reprocessing, uranium and plutonium are extracted, and the Rokkasho plant is expected to generate up to eight tons of plutonium annually. Both are then turned into a mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel at a separate MOX fabrication plant, also located in Rokkasho, for use in commercial reactors. Construction on the MOX facility began in 2010 and it’s expected to be completed in 2022.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant can store up to 3,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants on-site. It’s nearly full however, with over 2,900 tons of high-level waste already waiting to be reprocessed.

Why has it taken until now for the Rokkasho plant to secure approval from the nuclear watchdog?  Decades of technical problems and the new safety standards for nuclear power that went into effect after the 2011 triple meltdown at the power plant in Fukushima Prefecture have delayed Rokkasho’s completion date 24 times so far. It took six years for the plant to win approval under the post-3/11 safety standards.

There has also long been concern and unease over the entire project — and not just among traditional anti-nuclear activists — which the government has been forced to address. Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons state pursuing reprocessing. But as far back as the 1970s, as Japan was debating a nuclear reprocessing program, the United States became concerned about a plant producing plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapons program.

The issue was raised at a Feb. 1, 1977, meeting between U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.

“Reprocessing facilities which could produce weapons grade material are simply bomb factories,” noted a declassified U.S. State Department cable on the meeting. “We want to cooperate (with Japan) to keep the problem under control.”

…….. technical mishaps led to plans being made and then scrapped for many years, while arms control experts continued to worry that Japan could end up stockpiling plutonium that could lead to proliferation problems.

After the 2011 disaster, the NRA created tougher measures to minimize damage from natural disasters, forcing more construction and upgrades at the plant, leading to higher costs.

The Tokai plant halted operations in 2007. The decision to scrap it was made in 2014, as it was judged to be unable to meet the new safety standards. But little progress is being made, due to uncertainty over where to store all of the radioactive waste.

Safety concerns over the Rokkasho plant have remained, especially since 2017 when it was revealed that Japan Nuclear Fuel had not carried out mandatory safety standards for 14 years

By the time of the NRA announcement on May 13, the price tag for work at the Rokkasho plant had reached nearly ¥14 trillion.

What happens next?  The NRA is soliciting public comment on its decision until June 12, but the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is expected to formally approve the decision. After that, the Aomori governor would be asked to give his approval, though that is not a legal requirement. The last bureaucratic hurdles would then have been cleared to start operations at the plant by the spring of 2022.

However, there are other issues that could force a delay to the start of reprocessing. Japan had originally envisioned MOX fuel powering between 16 and 18 of the nation’s 54 commercial reactors that were operating before 2011, in place of conventional uranium.

But only four reactors are using it out of the current total of nine officially in operation. MOX fuel is more expensive than conventional uranium fuel, raising questions about how much reprocessed fuel the facilities would need, or want…….

Japan finds itself caught between promises to the international community to reduce its plutonium stockpile through reprocessing at Rokkasho, and questions about whether MOX is still an economically, and politically, viable resource — given the expenses involved and the availability of other fossil fuel and renewable energy resources

Asbestos fibres contain radium: lodged in a person’s lungs, this radioactivity causes mesothelioma

October 9, 2018

Ken Raskin, 17 Aug 18, Why is it, that sticky jagged fibers, like fiberglass, don’t cause mesothelioma, when embedded in lung tissue yet, similar asbestos fibers do cause cancer and mesothelioma?

For toxicologists, studying asbestos and mesothelioma, there has always been one question. “How can these little-tiny, mineral fibers, embedded in soft tissue, almost always cause cancer? ”

Little or no physiological explanation, for it, made much sense.. The consensus was, that the fibers, set off a lethal-unending inflammation cascade, where the mineral fiber is lodged. An assault, on ones own body, by itself, from cytokines.

So, I ask, “Why is it that sticky jagged fibers, like fiberglass, dont cause mesothelioma when embedded in lung tissue, while asbestos does cause cancer and mesothelioma?”

The answer must be because,  the asbestos fibers, are radioactive. They are mineral fibers, extracted from the earth. Asbestos fibers, contain radium. When lodged in soft tissue, the asbestos fibers, constantly emmit alpha rays that are mutagenic, chemotoxic, and carcinogenic to the surrounding tissue microenvironment.

People forget, that for 80 years, that the government and nuclear physicists, have been lying-their-asses-off about the true nature of radionuclides. They have been lying about radionuclide, lethality in the human body, even in microscopic doses. Even the more diluted emmitors, like the radium in asbestos just sits there in the tissue constantly emitting alpha and beta rays. The smallest fibers of asbestos, trapped in soft tissue, always causes cancer.

This is what a fiber of asbestos trapped in your lungs, stomach, colon or any other soft tissue is doing: Alpha emittor in a cloud chamber:

Cloud chamber. Alpha particles

This is the age of ultimate  Trump -republican corrumption and criminality . Russia has the largest and, one of the only asbestos mines left, in the world. Any semblance of logic that they are not uncaring psychopaths. is all an illusion. Thee republicans, are making trillions on insider trading on the helterskelter tariffs that only make sense, to wall street crooks .

They will make trillions from kickbacks from russia for buying Russian asbestos, so that millions of americans can die horrible mesothelioma deaths

FROM an Nih Article

“Along with mineralogical observation, we have analyzed forty-four major and trace elements in extracted asbestos bodies (fibers and proteins attached to them) with coexisting fiber-free ferruginous protein bodies from extirpative lungs of individuals with malignant mesothelioma. Observarions and patients’ characteristics suggest that inhaled iron-rich asbestos fibers and dust particles,  induce ferruginous protein body formation resulting in ferritin aggregates in lung tissue that contain radium from the asbestos. Chemical analysis of ferruginous protein bodies extracted from lung tissues reveals anomalously high concentrations of radioactive radium, reaching millions of times higher concentration than that of seawater. Continuous and prolonged internal exposure to hotspot ionizing radiation from radium and its daughter nuclides could cause strong and frequent DNA damage in lung tissue, initiate different types of tumour cells, including malignant mesothelioma”

SCIENCE DIRECT ARTICLE rights and content


226Ra has been measured in five asbestos group minerals. The activity levels are variable, are consistent with other forms of rock and range from 0.01–0.4 pCi 226Ra/g. Alpha particles from asbestos fibers immobilized in the lower lung near pleural surfaces and in the upper lung on bronchial surfaces may be implicated in initiating mesothelioma and bronchial carcinoma.

WHAT MORE DIRECT PROOF DO YOU NEED? TO KNOW HOW LETHAL RADIONUCLIDES ARE. THEY ARE THE MOST CARCINOGENIC, MUTAGENIC, TERATOGENIC, TOXIC agents in the universe. Radionuclide pollution, is destroying the life-giving chemistry of biomolecules on earth, that animate us!

United Nations Environment Emissions Gap Report 2017

April 2, 2018

Emissions Gap Report,  [good graphs] , Authors: UN Environment, November 17 The goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change, as agreed at the Conference of the Parties in 2015, is to keep global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It also calls for efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The UN Environment Emissions Gap Report 2017 presents an assessment of current national mitigation efforts and the ambitions countries have presented in their Nationally Determined Contributions, which form the foundation of the Paris Agreement.

The report has been prepared by an international team of leading scientists, assessing all available information. The governments of countries mentioned specifically in the report have been invited to comment on the specific assessment findings; independent experts have also been invited to review the different chapters.

What’s new in this year’s report?

Update on global greenhouse gas emissions
This year, the Emissions Gap Report includes an assessment of the emissions associated with the Nationally Determined Contributions and current policies of each of the G20 members, including the European Union. This is in addition to presenting an update on global greenhouse gas emissions and national actions to meet the earlier Cancun pledges.

Exploring “negative emission technologies”
This year’s report explores removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as an additional way to mitigate climate change, over and above conventional abatement strategies.

An analysis of global carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industry

The Report includes a new systematic assessment of how various economic sectors can reduce their climate-warming emissions, focusing on the potential eductions from the wide application of already-known and cost-effective technologies.

The role of short-lived climate pollutants

The report describes the opportunities offered by limiting emissions of the so-called short-lived climate pollutants. Reductions of these pollutants will limit the rate of short-term warming, and when sustained and combined with reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, they help to limit long-term warming, which is the ultimate aim of closing the emissions gap.

Phasing out coal

This year’s report includes a detailed assessment of global developments in the coal sector. This also examines the options and barriers for a gradual coal phase-out.

What to do about the Nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

March 20, 2016

Analyses of the accidents by the DOE have documented a lack of a ‘safety culture’ at WIPP.

The current regulatory period of 10,000 years is short relative to the 24,100-year half-life of plutonium-239, let alone that of uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700 million years.

Policy: Reassess New Mexico’s nuclear-waste repository, Nature  Cameron L. Tracy,  Megan K. Dustin & Rodney C. Ewing 13 January 2016

Proposals to bury plutonium from nuclear weapons must address chemical interactions and intrusion risks. More than 600 metres below ground near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the world’s only operating deep geological repository currently accepting transuranic nuclear waste: that contaminated by elements heavier than uranium. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), run by the US Department of Energy (DOE), is used to dispose of laboratory equipment, clothing and residues from the nation’s nuclear-defence programme. In the past 15 years, around 91,000 cubic metres (equivalent to covering a soccer field to a depth of about 13 metres) of such transuranic waste, mostly of relatively low radiation levels, has been placed there.

The main contaminants are long-lived isotopes of plutonium (mainly plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,100 years, and plutonium-240, with a half-life of 6,560 years) and shorter-lived isotopes of americium and curium. In rooms carved out of a 250-million-year-old salt bed, the waste is stored in hundreds of thousands of plastic-lined steel drums. The repository is now at about half of its planned capacity and is to be sealed in 2033.

The DOE is responsible for performing safety assessments to ensure that WIPP will not exceed limits on exposure to radioactivity, as set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for 10,000 years.

But new demands are emerging. An arms-control agreement with Russia made in 2000 obliges the United States to dispose of 34 tonnes of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons1. Following the terms of the agreement, the United States planned to convert the material into a fuel — mixed (uranium and plutonium) oxide, or MOX — to burn in commercial nuclear-power plants. But faced with soaring construction costs for a MOX fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the DOE has commissioned evaluations of alternatives2.

The most recent report3, published in August 2015, recommends burying the weapons’ plutonium at WIPP. Judging the repository’s performance to have been “successfully demonstrated”, the DOE’s Red Team expert panel proposes that the 34 tonnes of weapons plutonium can be added to WIPP once it has been diluted to low concentrations comparable to that of the transuranic waste at WIPP.

In fact, WIPP’s safety record is mixed. On 14 February 2014, a burst drum released small quantities of plutonium and americium to the surface (with a radioactivity of around 100 millicuries, or 3.7 gigabecquerels)4. Airborne radioactive material reached the surface through the ventilation system and spread 900 metres from the repository’s exhaust shaft. Twenty-one workers were exposed to low levels of radioactivity, the highest dose equivalent to that from a chest X-ray. Nine days earlier, smoke from a burning truck filled the underground workings and shaft, damaging mechanical, electrical and ventilation systems.

The DOE says that such accidents do not compromise the long-term performance of the repository. We agree that they need not — if lessons are learned. Our concern is not the events’ severity but that they were unanticipated. These accidents illustrate how difficult it is to predict potential failures of such a disposal system over millennia. For example, assumptions about the repository’s geochemistry or the likelihood of drilling into it can lead to underestimates of the risks.

Before expanding WIPP’s plutonium inventory, the DOE must examine more carefully its safety assesment for performance that stretches to 10,000 years and beyond.

Culture of complacency

The 2014 radioactive leak at WIPP was caused by heat from a chemical reaction in a drum4. Plutonium-contaminated nitrate salts, a waste product of plutonium purification at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, reacted with an organic, wheat-based commercial cat litter used as an absorbent for liquid wastes. The heat popped the lid. Although sensors detected the released radioactivity and diverted exhaust air through filters, some radioactive material leaked through. WIPP operators sealed the leak in the filtration system and sealed off the room in which the leak occurred. The breached drum remains in the repository.

“We cannot be certain that future inhabitants of the area will even know WIPP is there.”

Analyses of the accidents4 by the DOE have documented a lack of a ‘safety culture’ at WIPP. The facility’s successful operation for 15 years had bred complacency. The failures were wide-ranging: in safety assessments, control of drum contents, installation and maintenance of equipment, and preparation for an accident. An investigation of the drum-packaging procedure, for example, found “no evidence that any type of technical evaluation occurred” when selecting the organic absorbent material, even though its incompatibility with nitrate salts had been raised at LANL during waste packaging4……..

Long-term safety

WIPP’s present safety assessment addresses two scenarios: first, undisturbed performance and, second, human intrusion, such as inadvertently drilling through the repository in search of oil and gas6. The first foresees that after closure, the salt into which the repository is built will deform and flow around the drums to encase the waste. The model assumes that no fluids, such as brine, are present and that the site remains geologically isolated. Although the drums will be crushed, the radioactive material will be locked in the dry, solid salt, with no way to release radioactivity to the biosphere. Reliance on the geological barrier is so great that the form and composition of the waste is assumed to be unimportant; it need not even be treated.

Human intrusion could release radioactivity to the environment6. Salt deposits, layered as sediments or as salt domes, are often associated with mineral and energy resources, such as potash and hydrocarbons — oil and gas. In southeastern New Mexico, exploration for and extraction of these fuels has led to extensive drilling in the Permian Basin, where WIPP is located.

The probability of a borehole piercing the repository in the next 10,000 years is significant. If a borehole were to puncture the repository and a brine pocket, which are known to exist in the Castile geological formation below the Salado salt formation in which the repository sits, fluid may reach the transuranic waste (see ‘Accident risk’). To assess the risk of radioactive release, one must first establish the probability of borehole penetration and determine how the pressurized brine will react with the waste……..

Plutonium disposal

In the case of plutonium-bearing solids, demonstrating chemical inertness presents a huge challenge. In near-surface conditions, plutonium can assume a variety of oxidation states — up to four, each with different solid-state and geochemical behaviours7. Its decay product uranium-235 has two principal oxidation states, U4+ and U6+, each with different geochemical mobility7. This complexity makes it difficult to predict how the actinides will react or be transported.

Also, actinides decay mainly by the emission of α particles (energetic helium nuclei). During each decay, the daughter nucleus recoils and displaces thousands of atoms in the surrounding solid. Over time, this damage accumulates and changes the properties and chemical stability of the material. Radiation effects in actinide-bearing materials have been well documented over the past 20 years8, but are not considered in the Red Team’s evaluation.

The ‘dilute-and-dispose’ proposal to convert weapons-plutonium pits to plutonium oxide for burial in WIPP3 immediately raises safety issues. The extra plutonium nearly triples the current projected plutonium (around 12 tonnes) at closure. The design and safety assessment did not envision such a large amount. WIPP’s capacity would have to expand by 15%1, increasing the likelihood that a borehole will one day intersect it.

And the changed inventory of actinides demands new assessments of interactions with the materials present, including brine and CO2. The amount of plutonium mobilized in brine depends on its solubility, which depends on its form and the amount of CO2 present after reaction with the bags of magnesium oxide.

Next steps

The current regulatory period of 10,000 years is short relative to the 24,100-year half-life of plutonium-239, let alone that of uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700 million years. To accommodate the extra plutonium, the regulatory period might be lengthened, meaning that the probability of human intrusion during this period increases………

proposals to substantially increase the plutonium inventory combined with a failure to revise the safety assessment, particularly the possibility of human intrusion, bear witness to the ease with which policy decisions can disregard the fundamental science — and risk yet another failure.

The Red Team report shows a limited effort to consider or manage inherent risks. The shortcomings of proposals to dispose of weapons plutonium at WIPP mirror the operational failings that led to the 2014 accidents. Before the DOE considers implementing these recommendations, it should look to the repository’s record over the past 15 years of operation and reassess its confidence in the safe performance of the facility over the next 10,000.