Radioactive Waster 110 - Washington State Attorney General Intends to Sue The U.S. Department of Energy Over Hanford Safety

         I have blogged on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation many times. I have attended events put on by the United States Department of Energy to solicit public input for the Hanford cleanup. The representative of the DoE were well schooled in public relations but they were not able to soothe the critics who had good reason to be skeptical given the dishonesty and incompetence of past DoE pronouncements and behaviors.

         During the past year there have been several incidents at Hanford where more than 50 workers have become ill after they breathed vapors emitted by some of the one hundred and seventy seven underground storage tanks of nuclear waste. The DoE said that doctors cleared all the workers to return to work and that there were no permanent health problems related to the incidents. Some of the exposed workers  begged to differ. Now the State of Washington has become involved.

        On November 19, 2014 Bob Ferguson, the Attorney General of the State of Washington, stated that "Hanford workers face a very real and immediate health risk." Ferguson said, "The federal government has a responsibility to keep these Washington workers safe, and I intend to hold them accountable." There is a ninety day window for a lawsuit to be filed after the intent to file has been announced. The Washington AG said that the ninety day clock started with his public statement.

       In the past couple of decades, tanks workers have reported "nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, contact dermatitis, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats, expectorating, dizziness and nausea," Ferguson said. "Several of these workers have long-term disabilities."

        A report issued last month by the DoE's Savannah River National Laboratory on the vapor release situation stated that "the methods used to study the vapor releases were inadequate." One of the problems that the report highlighted was the methods currently in use do not take into account short intense releases of vapors. There are ten major recommendations accompanied by over forty supporting recommendations. These recommendations include " proactively sampling the air inside tanks to determine its chemical makeup; accelerating new practices to prevent worker exposures; and modifying medical evaluations to reflect how workers are exposed to vapors."

       The work on the report was triggered by a request from Washington River Protection Solutions(WRPS) which is the DoE's prime contractor for managing the nuclear waste stored at Hanford. Hanford was used to develop and manufacture nuclear weapons for the U.S. arsenal for decades. Nuclear waste disposal was conducted in a haphazard and poorly documented fashion. In the decades since the weapons work halted in 1987, there has been a long string of radiation releases and missed deadlines for cleaning up the nuclear waste that remains.

        My research for this blog has uncovered many examples of the incompetence and dishonesty of the DoE and its contractors at Hanford. I am pleased that the State of Washington is moving to take legal action against the DoE's failure to secure the safety of workers at Hanford.

Geiger Readings for November 26, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 65  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 110  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 114 nanosieverts per hour
Red bell pepper from Central Market = 86  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 128  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 112 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 179 - China Pursues Thorium Power Reactors

         I have blogged about thorium as a possible nuclear fuel. Thorium was considered for fueling nuclear reactors in the 1960s but the abundance of uranium and the fact that uranium could be converted into plutonium for nuclear weapons removed thorium from serious consideration. Thorium is an abundant element and the United States has actually buried tons of thorium as an unwanted byproduct of rare earth mining.

         Originally, China intended to develop and construct an operational thorium reactor by 2040 but now Chinese nuclear scientists have been told that they must construct a thorium reactor by 2025. China feels that it is under pressure to develop thorium reactors because other countries, especially India are pouring money into thorium research.

         In early 2013, Jiang Miaheng, son of the former Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin, launched their current thorium research program. He said that China had enough thorium to supply energy needs for twenty thousand years.  Three hundred and fifty million dollars were allocated to start the project. One hundred and forty PhD level scientists were recruited by the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics (SINAP). It was anticipated that the staff of the SINAP would reach seven hundred and fifty by 2015 but this appears to have been an overly conservative estimate.

         The Chinese are focusing on molten salt or liquid fluoride reactors as the best designs for a thorium reactor. Thorium reactors can theoretically be much smaller and operate at atmospheric pressured without the need for huge containment vessels that are required by uranium and MOX reactors. If such reactors can be built and operated safely, small thorium reactors could be used to power individual office buildings and industrial plants.

         Britain has a small thorium project called ThorEA at Huddersfield University. The head of that project says that thorium is intrinsically safer than uranium fuel because the thorium itself must be bombarded with an external source of neutrons in order to produce power. If the reactor fails and shuts down, there can be no chain reaction or critical events such as happened at Fukushima.

         The U.S. actually built a molten salt thorium reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1960s. The Nixon administration cancelled the project because the Pentagon wanted the plutonium produced in nuclear reactors fueled with uranium. A former NASA engineer named Kirk Sorensen retrieved the designs for thorium reactors from the government archives and published them. This aroused no interest in the United States to pursue thorium reactors. Jiang visited the ORNL and obtained a copy of the thorium reactor design documents after reading an article about the benefits of thorium as a nuclear fuel.

          China has plenty of thorium and is very concerned about being dependent on foreign sources of fuel. China also has a very serious problem with air pollution. If thorium reactors could be developed, they would reduce air pollution and assist in ameliorating climate change. China is currently building twenty eight conventional reactors and pursuing other cutting edge nuclear projects including the thorium project.

          Thorium reactors are promoted as being safer and cheaper than conventional power reactors. In other blogs I have pointed out some of the problems with thorium reactors including higher operating temperatures and more highly radioactive waste than produced by uranium reactors.

Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics:

Geiger Readings for November 25, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 90  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 91  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 93 nanosieverts per hour
Avacado from Central Market = 121  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 75  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 56 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 178 - Former U.K Promoter of Nuclear Power Comes Out For Renewables

         I have blogged a lot about all the reasons that nuclear power is not a viable option. Recently a promoter of nuclear power gave a lecture in which he questioned whether nuclear power was really necessary as a part of the mix of future global energy sources. Professor Sir David King was formerly a chief scientist and an advocate for building new nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom. He presented his lecture for the Ashden charity which presents the Ashden Energy Awards annually.

         Although King has been one of the most prominent strong advocates for nuclear power in the past, he did not make much mention of nuclear power in his lecture. A reporter who was struck by this omission got up and asked King about nuclear power in the Q & A part of the event. He did not get the answer that he expected. King said that Britain might be able to do without nuclear power and that the priority should be to develop battery systems that could support intermittent renewables such as wind and solar. “We have to keep reassessing the situation”, he said. “I believe that what we need, more than anything, is a surge of activity to develop energy storage capability …. Once we can do that technologically, why would we not just keep with renewables.”

        King pointed out that a country like India with lots of sunlight and deserts should go directly into solar energy. He said that solar power was already as much as a quarter the cost of connecting remote villages to the national electrical grid. On the other hand, he pointed out that countries such as Britain and Japan with less sunlight and fewer open spaces might have to include nuclear power if they could not solve the energy storage problems that accompany renewables. In that case, King said that he favored the small modular nuclear reactors that have recently been advocated by Owen Paterson, the former environmental secretary of the U.K. King did say in response to a later questioner that if the costs could be brought down enough, renewable energy sources and energy storage could provide all the electricity that Britain needed.

       In the past few years, there have been prominent opponents of nuclear power who have become advocates. This has been primarily a result of concern that we have to reduce the carbon footprint of energy sources if we are to ameliorate global climate change. It is true that the carbon footprint of nuclear power is much lower than fossil fuels but it is still not on par with renewable energy sources which also have many fewer problems than nuclear power. King's conversion from an advocate to an opponent of nuclear power may be one of the first prominent advocates of nuclear power to switch sides in the debate.

        As the cost of renewables and energy storage drops and the problems with nuclear power increase, it is inevitable that nuclear power will be abandoned. The only question is how many more dollars will be spent and how many more lives will be damaged or lost before this happens.

Sir David King:

Geiger Readings for November 24, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 68  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 76  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 82 nanosieverts per hour
Iceberg lettuce from Central Market = 44  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 105  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 97 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for November 23, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 84  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 71  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 56 nanosieverts per hour
Iceberg lettuce from Central Market = 124  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 57  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 51 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for November 22, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 85  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 72  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 51 nanosieverts per hour
Redleaf lettuce from Central Market = 116  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 88  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 83 nanosieverts per hour
Rockfish - Caught in USA = 119 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 178 - Hearts of America Northwest and Physicians for Social Responsibility Demand Shut Down of Columbia Generating Station

        I have often blogged about problems with the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south central Washington State. The Federal government spend decades developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons there but that ended about twenty five years ago. Despite decades of cleanup, the Hanford site is still one of the most radioactively contaminated places on Earth. In addition to the nuclear waste and waste processing facilities at Hanford, it is also host to the only operating nuclear power reactor in Washington which is called the Columbia Generating Station (CGS). The CGS is owned and operated by Energy Northwest and CGS is the only operating reactor left from the failed attempt to build five reactors in Washington. It supplies about four percent of the electricity for the Pacific Northwest.

       Hearts of American Northwest (HAN) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) recently commissioned a report about the CGS. The report was written by Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies. All three of these organizations have been regular critics of the nuclear industry in the United States in general and Hanford in particular.

      Alvarez’s report raised concerns about the safety of the spent fuel rods in the cooling pool. Spent fuel rods assemblies are removed from the reactor and placed in a cooling pool for several years that is five stories above the ground in a building next to the reactor. After cooling for several more years, the assemblies can be moved to dry cask storage onsite.

       In the event of an emergency such as an earthquake, the spent fuel pool could drain and expose the spent fuel to the open air. Contact with the air would ignite the spent fuel which would result in smoke and radioactive particulates being released into the environment. A deliberate terrorist attack could have the same effect. Such a fire could cause a thermal plume that could spread the radioactive contamination over hundreds of square miles. The disaster at Fukushima left a five story spent fuel cooling pool in a severely damaged pool that could have been drain by another earthquake.

        Alvarez also said that almost half of the incidence of radiation exposure to workers at Hanford between 1999 and 2011 took place at the CGS. He expressed concern that nearby cleanup activities could possibly expose the CGS workers to radiation in the event of an accident. HAN and PSR have demanded that CGS be shut down as a public threat.

       As might be expected, Energy Northwest (EN) was not pleased by the demand to shut down their power reactor. A spokesperson for EN suggested that Alvarez actually knew very little about their plant. He said that the chances of a fire breaking out in the concrete steel-lined spent fuel pool structure was very remote and not even a part of their disaster planning. The EN spokesperson also downplayed threats to worker safety saying that they had not exceeded the annual federal safety limit for workers’ exposure to radioactivity for the past seventeen years.

The Columbia Generating Station at Hanford: