Radioactive Waste 11 - State of Washington and the Department of Energy Will Spar Over Missed Hanford Deadlines in Court

        I wrote a recent article about legal action being taken by the Governor and Attorney General of the State of Washington against the United States Department of Energy. The issue of contention was the failure of the DoE to meet deadlines with respect to emptying a leaking waste storage tank at Hanford and construction of a vitrification plant to sequester nuclear waste in glass logs at Hanford.

        There will be a court hearing next February where both sides will get to present their arguments. Both sides are seeking changes in the 2010 consent decree set down by the federal court for the schedule of these particular parts of the Hanford cleanup. The DoE says that the original schedule was too optimistic and the State of Washington has agreed that there is no way that DoE can meet the original schedule. The consent decree settled a 2008 lawsuit about missed deadlines at Hanford. Now in February the court will discuss setting still later deadlines.

        DoE argues that it has been unable to meet the consent decree deadlines because of "unforeseen technical and budget issues." DoE was confident that it clearly and completely understood the problems that had to be solved. DoE thought that it knew what had to be done and had created a corresponding budget and schedule that would satisfy the requirements of the consent decree. Included in the plans were solutions to twenty eight technical issues that had been identified in a 2006 review of the Hanford cleanup.

        Only two months after the consent decree had been issued, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board came up with more technical issues and called for more tests. In 2012, a DoE employed pointed out that there was still a risk of corrosion in vessels and pipes in the vitrification plant although the DoE thought that they had solved the problem. In 2013, it was discovered that the planned ventilation system might allow toxic gas to leak into areas where people were working. Fixing this is going to require expensive changes to existing systems. DoE is building a new lab to test how to ensure that the waste stream at the vitrification plant is well mixed to prevent nuclear reactions and generation of flammable gas. The tests will take three years and additional time will be required to redesign the vitrification plant system.

         The shutdown of the federal government in 2013 over budget issues and the sequester that cut federal spending across the board caused delays and other problems with the Hanford cleanup and the consent decree schedule. DoE says that it does not want to agree to future fixed deadlines because it has learned that the complexity of the job at Hanford makes meeting such deadlines impossible. They admit that, "Despite the application of extraordinary levels of effort and expertise, the project has proved to be far more difficult, and the technical solutions for more elusive, than DoE anticipated." The State of Washington accepts that the job is complex and difficult but still wants some set deadlines.

        DoE has been working on cleanup of Hanford for decades. There have been repeated failures to comprehend the complexities and difficulties of cleaning up the Hanford site on the part of the DoE. There have been repeated assurances that DoE knew what it was doing and would be able to meet deadlines which were repeatedly missed. Is DoE capable of cleaning up Hanford or are we destined to witness repeated promises and failures until future budget problems drain the funds needed to clean up Hanford and they just put up a big fence and walk away?


Geiger Readings for October 21, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745

Ambient office = 98  nanosieverts per hour

Ambient outside = 66  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 36  nanosieverts per hour
Romaine lettuce from Central Market = 93  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 162  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 154  nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 173 - U.S. Nuclear Industry Pushes to Extend Reactor Lifetimes to Eighty Years

        I have blogged a lot about the aging U.S. nuclear power reactors. Most of them were built decades ago and are nearing or have already passed their initial forty year licenses. There does not seem to be much interest among investors and utilities in building new nuclear power reactors. The U.S. has a guaranteed loan pool of about twenty billion dollars that was created seven years ago. Since creation, the fund has only found one power company interested in building two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia. This company got an eight billion dollar loan. There is still over twelve billion in the fund but, for the moment, no other takers.

       With lack of interesting in building new reactors, the nuclear power industry in the United States is working on extending the lifespan of the current nuclear power reactors. The owners of seven old power reactors in Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina are going to ask the U.S. government for permission to extend the lifespan of their reactors to eighty years, twice the original licensed lifespan. They claim that it will be more economical to keep the old reactors going rather than build more new reactors. Critics of the plan say that many of the reactors were built on designs that were decades older than the reactors. They point out that it may be difficult to keep the old reactors going as long as eighty years.

       After decades of exposure to radiation, some metal reactor parts become brittle and are more likely to crack when subjected to stress. One big concern is that some of the piping in the cooling system of a reactor could crack and leak which might trigger the emergency cooling system to dump large amounts of water into the reactor. The reactor could keep operating but the temperature drop could induce what is called "pressurized thermal shock." This could crack open the reactor containment vessel and release radioactive materials into the environment.

       Supporters of extending the lifespan of these old reactors say that they will carefully monitor the steel, concrete, cable insulation as well as other critical components. Small pieces of metal called "coupons" are kept inside the reactor and removed one at a time to check for brittleness. Unfortunately, some of the reactors have run out of coupons and their operators are trying to figure out another way to check for brittleness. In other cases, the operators have placed coupons closer to the reactor core to "age them faster."

         The consensus of the Nuclear Regulator Commissioners and the nuclear power industry is that these old reactors can continue to operate for decades more with adequate monitoring. Currently, the owners of many old reactors have filed for and been granted twenty year extensions of their forty year licenses. No requests have been denied but some requests are still under review. There is a new push for another round of twenty year extensions which would bring the licensed life of a reactor to eighty years.

         My big concern is that the nuclear industry has a poor record of adhering to regulations on nuclear safety and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a very poor record of monitoring and enforcing such adherence. As the U.S. power reactors age, the odds of a nasty accident increase. Extending reactors life spans to eighty years is a very bad idea.

Microscopic images of samples of stainless steel. The top sample shows steel with its normal integrity. The bottom image shows steel that has been made brittle by exposure to radiation.

Geiger Readings for October 20, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 91  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 85  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 70  nanosieverts per hour
Romaine lettuce from Central Market = 86  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 112  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 98  nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for October 19, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 96  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 87  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 85  nanosieverts per hour
Ascan apple pear from Central Market = 72  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 108  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 91  nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for October 18, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 100  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 113  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 147  nanosieverts per hour
Romaine lettuce from Central Market = 95  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 116  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 111  nanosieverts per hour
Petrale Sole - Caught in USA = 85 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Fusion 18 - Will the Polywell Nuclear Fusion Reactor Design Work?

         I have been blogging this week about experimental fusion reactors. I got excited reading about the Bussard Polywell reactor. It has three excellent features. Based on hydrogen and boron-11 fuel, it does not consume radioactive fuel, it does not produce neutrons during operation and it does not produce radioactive waste. The developers of the Bussard Polywell say that they are confident that they can build a prototype 100 megawatt nuclear fusion reactor for about three hundred and fifty million dollars. This is a very small amount of money compared to the billions that are subsidizing the nuclear fission industry. But then I had to ask why one was not being built if it was such a good design.

       The original idea for this type of reactor design was from a paper by a Russian physicist named Lavrent'ev published in 1974. Robert Bussard started a company to pursue the Polywell concept in 1985. In 1992 and 1994, he received funding from the U.S. Navy as well as two small grants from NASA and LANL. IN 1995, a paper was published by Todd Rider that offered a detailed criticism of the Polywell design. Because no operational device existed, Rider had to use theoretical estimates from other fusion research. After making a set of assumptions about the operation of the reactor including such factors as loss of ions due to upscattering, ion thermalization rate, energy loss due to x-ray emissions and the fusion rate, Rider concluded that the design had "fundamental flaws."

       Bussard responded that the Polywell plasma had a different structure, temperature distribution and well profile than the operational parameters that had been assumed by Rider. He questioned other assumptions made by Rider and concluded that his design would produce net useful energy. Other researchers also questioned Rider's assumptions, calculation and conclusions. They pointed out that there were aspects of the Polywell design and operation that Rider did not address that undermined his conclusions.

       I do not have the mathematical and physics background that would enable me to review Rider's critique and Bussard's answers. I would assume but cannot document that twenty years of work on experimental devices by the Polywell team should have experimentally answered some of the criticisms posed by Rider. However, the existence of a detail critique, even if flawed has had a corrosive effect on support for the project over the years.

      Bussard continued to receive funding from the U.S. Navy from 1999 to 2006. He died in late 2007 while seeking funding to continue his work. In 2007, the Navy renewed funding and the project continued up to the present. The Polywell company is now seeking funds to build a full-scale model. Part of the problem  with getting more money from the Navy lies in the fact that most of the nuclear research funded by the U.S. government is handled by the U.S. Department of Energy which supports the tokomak approach to nuclear fusion.

       Considering how important this device could be if it works and the enormous amount of money the U.S. government spends on nuclear research, subsidies and loan guarantees, it would make sense to allocate the funds to build one. Assuming, of course, that the theoretical challenges from Rider and other have been successfully answered.

Diagram of a basic Polywell design:

Geiger Readings for October 17, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 112 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 106 nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 106 nanosieverts per hour
Iceberg lettuce from Central Market = 96 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 81 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 72 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Fusion 17 - Great Potential of New Nuclear Fusion Reactors

        I have been posting lately about nuclear fusion reactors. I have not covered them before in my blog because I did not feel that there were any fusion projects that could possibly be turned into commercial energy sources for decades. There is an old joke that nuclear fusion is forty years away, always. Nuclear fusion just seemed to absorb billions of dollars but like the end of the rainbow it just kept receding as you approached it.

        I am happy to say that there now appears to be three different approaches to nuclear fusion power that might result in a commercial model in less than ten years. All three of these new fusion reactor projects are being done by private groups. For reference, I have also blogged about the huge ITER project that is being build in France  by a consortium of governments. This experimental fusion reactor will cost billions of dollars and will not even be completed until 2027 at the soonest. Then there will have to be years of testing before any possible commercial reactor could be built. The three private fusion reactors under development will be about ten times as small, ten times as simple, ten times as cheap and generate more power than the ITER design. And, more importantly, one or more may hit the market before ITER is ever finished.

       The fuel for these fusions reactors will be very light elements like hydrogen, deuterium, tritium and boron. Hydrogen is easily made by decomposing water into oxygen and hydrogen. Deuterium can be separated from normal water or from hydrogen produced by electrolysis. Tritium can be produced when deuterium captures a neutron from nuclear fission. Tritium can also be produced in nuclear fission reactors by neutron bombardment of lithium-6, a stable isotope.

        Lithium is a very useful common element in the crust of the Earth and there are many sources. World production is about one one hundredth of the economically extractable reserves. So there is easily a hundred years supply at current levels of production. Lithium-6 is about eight percent of naturally occurring lithium.

        Boron is a fairly rare element but is concentrated in water soluble minerals. About eighty percent of boron is in the form of the stable isotope borton-11. Proven boron reserves are about two hundred and fifty times current production levels so we have several centuries of boron available at current levels of use. However, it is time consuming and expensive to separate out the boron-11.

         Deuterium and tritium reactions produce fast neutrons which causes concrete and metal to become brittle and can make other materials radioactive. While boron-11 may be expensive to produce, the amount consumed in a nuclear fusion reactor is very small compared to the consumption of boron for other industrial application. The main benefit of a hydrogen-boron reactor is that it does not produce fast neutrons. If a commercial nuclear fusion reactor is created, I would prefer that it not produce neutrons.

        The basic waste product of these nuclear fusion reactors is alpha particles or helium nuclei. As a matter of fact, the U.S. has been selling off critical helium reserves lately and we need to produce more helium. I do not have the numbers to show that substantial quantities of helium would be produced by fusion reactors but it is nice to have a harmless waste product that could have commercial value instead of the horrible waste generated by a nuclear fission reactor that has to be buried for centuries.

         The development of a commercially competitive nuclear fusion power reactor would be a game changer for the global energy industry. It could solve the base-load problem of renewables such as wind and solar much better than nuclear fission reactors and fossil fuels.