Radioactive Waste 123 - U.S. Department of Energy Launched New Initiative to Site Permanent Waste Repositories.

             Disposing of nuclear waste is a huge problem for the U.S. nuclear industry. In 1982, the U.S. Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The purpose of this act was to review possible sites and then select one site for development. The selected site was the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository which was supposed to permanently sequester spent nuclear fuel rods from domestic nuclear power reactors in old salt mines under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The government had promised nuclear power plant operators a permanent waste solution by 1999 and was collecting a fee from each power plant operator.

           The Yucca Mountain site development was burdened with political backlash from people and officials in Nevada as well as concerns that the original estimate of ground water movement in the area was much too lowe. In 2009, President Obama cancelled the Yucca Mountain project. By then, the government waste fund had grown to billions of dollars and some nuclear power plant operators are suing for the return of their payments to the fund. Congress recently insisted that the last of the allocated funds for Yucca Mountain be spent as dictated by law.

          It is estimated that if no solution to the waste problem is found within a few years, all the spent fuel pools at all the nuclear power plants in the U.S. will be full and reactors will have to be shut down. There have been calls for  the allocation of funds to temporary onsite storage in dry casks.

         The nuclear waste generated by nuclear weapons research, development and manufacture is another issue. The U.S. is still trying to clean up waste left behind at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation from decades of nuclear weapons production. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)  is a nuclear waste repository in an old salt mine near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It was constructed to receive waste from nuclear weapons work at labs and facilities around the U.S.

        It has been in operation for fifteen years but, as time passed, the procedures became sloppier, record keeping declined, and maintenance fell behind. Earlier this year, a drum of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratories blew up and radioactive materials including plutonium and americium were released into the environment. It will take years and hundreds of million dollars to get the WIPP operating again so it can continue to receive nuclear weapons related wastes.

        The Department of Energy has launched a new initiative for nuclear waste disposal. There are three parts to the new DOE proposal. First, they are going to dispose of spent nuclear fuel rods separately from the wastes generated in nuclear weapons production. Second, they are going to implement a search for a site for permanent disposal of weapons waste Third, they are going to create an interim storage facility to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel rods. They say that the search for these two sites will be "phased, adaptive and consent-based". Being consent-based means that people and governments in the area of a possible site will be consulted at each stage. It also means that any area that is being considered as a possible site can withdraw from the selection process at any stage.

        Marv Fertel is the head of the U.S. nuclear industry trade group named the Nuclear Energy Institute. He welcomed the new initiative from the DoE but said that as  far as he was concerned, Yucca Mountain was the only legal nuclear waste repository for spent nuclear fuel and that the project should be resumed. Fertel said "The industry acknowledges DOE's parallel development of a consolidated interim storage facility for commercial reactor fuel in a willing host community and state, and a separate repository for defense waste. These must be developed in the same time frame. Responsible stewardship of used nuclear fuel from the production of electricity with nuclear energy is a priority for our industry and should be for the federal government."

Geiger Readings for March 25, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 84 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 73  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 78 nanosieverts per hour
Crimini mushroom from Central Market = 81  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 50 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 40 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Weapons 129 - Possible New Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

         A great deal of world attention is focused on the negotiations between six major powers and Iran over Iran's nuclear program. Israel is known to have over a hundred nuclear warheads although they publicly deny it. No other Middle Eastern country even has an operational nuclear power reactor.  There are countries in the Middle East which are moving in the direction of acquiring nuclear power reactors which are generally seen as a first step in the creation of nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear weapons are seen by many nations to not just contribute to state security but also elevate the prestige of the nations who have them. It appears that there may be a nuclear arms race underway in that turbulent region.

       The United Arab Emirates starting working on a nuclear power reactor in 2012 and expects to finish it by 2017. They have just completed the concrete dome for the reactor containment building and the overall project is about sixty percent complete.

       Saudi Arabia has recently publicized its plans to construct sixteen nuclear power plants in the next twenty years. A recent visit to S.A. by South Korean officials resulted in the signing of a memo of understanding for S.K. to build two reactors for S.A. S.A. has also been making similar arrangements with China, Argentina and France for reactor construction. S.A. has plenty of oil but would rather sell it than burn it domestically. There are also rumors that S.A. has a standing order with Pakistan for the delivery of nuclear warheads if Iran creates nuclear weapons.

       Jordan has contracted with Russia to build nuclear reactors. Jordan has no oil reserves and little water resources. While nuclear power reactors can help to solve the energy problem for Jordan, they could exacerbate the water problem because of the huge amounts of cooling water required by nuclear reactors.

       Egypt recently announced that it was going to contract with Russia for the construction of a nuclear power reactor near Alexandria. The Russia President said at a press conference following a visit to Egypt, "If final decisions are made, it will mean not just building a nuclear power plant, it means the creation of the entire new atomic industry in Egypt."

       Nuclear power reactors cost in the neighborhood of five billion dollars to construct. Poor nations like Egypt and Jordan may have trouble paying for the nuclear power reactors that they are in the process of ordering. S.A. has plenty of money to pay for reactor construction. However, they have consistently resisted pressure from the U.S. to promise not to divert any technology or radioactive materials from power reactors to nuclear weapons development. They have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but their fear of Iran may cause them to ignore their treaty obligations.

       The U.S. and the other nations negotiating with Iran have concerns about Iran's nuclear program that go beyond Iran. If a reasonable agreement can be struck with Iran to slow down uranium enrichment and allow inspections in return for a relaxation of the current stiff international sanctions, the U.S. and the other nations involved in the Iran negotiations hope that that will prevent a potential nuclear arms race in the region. On the other hand, if the negotiations fall apart and Iran is seen to continue efforts that appear to be aimed at obtaining nuclear weapons, the neighboring countries may feel that their only choice is to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Geiger Readings for March 24, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 119 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 111  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 111 nanosieverts per hour
Banana from QFC = 72  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 110 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 90 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactor 223 - Some Problems with Small Modular Reactors

         I have posted several articles about small modular reactors (SMRs). So far, they only exist as designs and some test systems. The idea is to manufacture standardized parts in a factory to take advantage of economies of scale and standardization. They are designed to produce up to three hundred megawatts of electricity each. The modules are shipped to the site of the power plant and assembled.

        There are multiple approaches to the design of SMRs and different companies are exploring these designs. The U.S. Department of Energy has been investing funds in this research. This new type of reactor is also being studied in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland to help meet future energy needs. The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) in the U.K recently published their assessment of the prospect of SMRs. Their conclusions apply to the situation in other countries as well.

         No one has commercialized an SMR yet. None of the SMR designs has even been finalized. The licensing procedure for these SMRs will take five to ten years at least. There is no solid cost estimate for a commercial version of a SMR but, contrary to previous assumptions, preliminary estimates suggest that the SMRs will not be cheaper per watt than the current large scale reactors.

          One of the big problems with SMRs is the fact that their manufacture will require a "massive supply chain." This supply chain will have to be created before a single SMR can be put into operation. The utility rate payers will ultimately have to fund the supply chain. However, in order for that to happen, the manufactures of SMRs will need many orders for their product. There has been no rush to order SMRs so it is sort of a chicken and egg thing. They need to be able to manufacture the SMRs to get orders but they need to get orders to finance the manufacture. Research on SMRs has been losing momentum because of the lack of a market for them.

         Even if a design is chosen and a manufacturing facility is constructed with the requisite supply chain, there are other potential problems for SMRs. While the concept of standardization and production lines has worked  very well to supply our modern age with many industrial and consumer products, it also has a great vulnerability. If mistakes are made in a design or in the conversion of the design to a finished product, then those mistakes will be present in all of the SMRs from that plant based on that design. Some design problems can take years to show up in nuclear reactors. If a potentially dangerous flaw surfaced after dozens of SMRs were constructed, shipped, installed and turned on, it would be very difficult to fix. It would not be liking recalling some cars because of a flaw in the engine. The tools that were needed to construct an SMR would be back at the factory. Repairs in the field would be complex and very expensive, if they were even possible once the reactor had been operating and was radioactive.

       The cheerleaders for SMRs are vocal and very enthusiastic but there are very serious questions about the viability of the whole SMR concept. Public and private money would be better spent on renewable alternatives such as wind and solar power.

Artist's concept of a small modular reactor:

Geiger Readings for March 23, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 116 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 99  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 113 nanosieverts per hour
Danjou pear from Central Market = 81  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 123 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 104 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for March 22, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 116 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 99  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 113 nanosieverts per hour
Danjou pear from Central Market = 81  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 123 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 104 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for March 21, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 114 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 169  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 165 nanosieverts per hour
Mango from Central Market = 86  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 133 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 122 nanosieverts per hour
Dover sole - Caught in USA = 87 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 222 - Four Nuclear Energy Bills Are Working Their Way Throught The Washington State Legislature

          Washington State has a tortured history with nuclear power. The biggest bond default in the history of the United States was the collapse of the WPPSS project to construct five nuclear power reactors in Washington. It cost utilities over two billion dollars. Ultimately, only one of the intended reactors was built at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and is still operating today. Critics of nuclear power call for that plant to be shut down. Supporters of nuclear power have been calling for new power reactors in Washington. Recently three bills related to nuclear power made it through the state Senate under the sponsorship of Washington Senator Sharon Brown with a pending fourth bill awaiting a vote. Sharon Brown is the Senator from Washington's District 8 which contains the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

        Currently under Washington State law, electric utilities must make a voluntary option to buy "green power" available to customers. Green power is defined as "electricity generated from wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, gas produced during the treatment of wastewater, and other specified sources." Washington Senate Bill 5091 would change the definition of "qualified alternative energy resource" or green power to include nuclear energy. This is a bad idea. Low-carbon emissions should not be the only criterion for being green power. The horrible pollution from mining uranium, the dangers of accidents at nuclear plants, the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants and many other negative aspects of nuclear energy should disqualify it from ever being considered "green."

       There are thousands of people working in the fields related to nuclear power, nuclear research and nuclear cleanup in Washington state with most of them at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. That workforce is aging so Washington Senate Bill 5093 would create a nuclear education system with the goal of teaching Washington students about nuclear energy. The program would pay for science teachers to attend courses on nuclear energy and to bring "nuclear ambassadors" from the field into Washington classrooms. I hope that the classes would include serious information about the dangers and problems of nuclear energy but I fear that they could become one-sided cheerleading for only the benefits of nuclear power.

       Washington State Senate Bill 5113 requires that "the Washington State Commerce Department coordinate and advance the siting of both small modular reactors themselves and small modular reactor-manufacturing facilities within the state, advancing nuclear power as part of Washington’s future energy mix." Prototypes of small modular reactors have been designed and constructed for testing but no commercial versions are available yet. They can be manufactured in a standard production line and moved to their operational site. They produce less than three hundred megawatts of power. It may take ten years or more to license and construct a small commercial modular reactor. This is an untested new technology and may encounter unanticipated problems on the way to production.

        A fourth bill is waiting for a vote in the Washington Senate. Senate Bill 5115  calls for the "state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to study the siting of small modular reactors in the state, identify possible locations, and decide what permits and studies are needed for these kinds of siting decisions. They would also investigate how to streamline the process." As I said above, small modular reactors are a new technology.

        While I appreciate the fact that Senator Sharon Brown is working on jobs for people in her district, I do not agree that an expansion of nuclear power in Washington will ultimately be beneficial to District 8 and Washington. I fear that if the State legislature passes these bills into law, Washington State may wind up spending considerable funds under these four bills. As momentum builds for constructing small modular reactors in Washington State, it may become more and more difficult to stop nuclear projects even if there are severe cost overruns and scheduling delays. Let us hope that we do not repeat the mistakes of WPPSS and wind up with no new power sources and a lot of new debt.