Radioactive Waste 109 - Incompetance and Dishonesty at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Caused Accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

      I have blogged several times about the accidents and radiation releases at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The WIPP is the single repository for wastes from nuclear weapons development and manufacture in the U.S. In mid-February of 2014, the contents of a drum from the Los Alamos National Laboratory overheated and caused the drum to burst, raising the temperature in the WIPP chamber to a level that could have caused other drums to rupture. Radioactive materials from the burst drum made their way into the ventilation system which was not functioning properly. Plutonium and americium were detected in Carlsbad, over twenty of miles away. The WIPP had to be shut down which has resulted in hundred of problematic drums of waste being left at LANL, WIPP and in temporary storage in Texas. It will take years to repair the damage from the accident and hundreds of millions of dollars.

      The LANL was chasing a deadline of June of 2014 to have sent all of the radioactive waste from nuclear weapons development to the WIPP. If the private consortium could make the deadline, that would help it to get an extension of its two billion dollar annual contract from the U.S. Department of energy. In the summer of 2013, one batch of waste at LANL was found to be far too acidic to be transported to the WIPP. The official policy of LANL called for stopping work with that acidic waste until a specific set of reviews were conducted with respect to how to treat the waste. Such a process is time consuming and expensive and it might have interfered with meeting the June 2014 deadline. Instead of following its own guidelines, the lab and its subcontractors took shortcuts. LANL added a neutralizer to the waste to change its pH and added an organic wheat based kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. One of the subcontractors said that he was not an expert on the chemistry of the wastes at LANL and he requested that LANL experts review the treatment of the waste. This was not done. It turns out that the additives basically turned the contents of the drums of waste into potential bombs.

      Drums of the treated acidic waste were shipped to WIPP for permanent disposal. Every drum that is shipped to the WIPP is supposed to be accompanied by documents that give a detailed and complete account of the contents of the drum. The documents that came with the acidic waste drums did not contain the required information. There was no mention of the high acidity, the neutralizer or the organic kitty litter. Most chemists would have recognized the explosive nature of the contents of the drums if they knew that organic kitty litter was being mixed with the nitrate salts in the waste.

       For two years before the accident this year, the LANL would not allow inspectors who conducted annual permitting audits for New Mexico's Environmental Department into the area where waste was treated for shipment. The WIPP did not find out about the explosive chemistry in the burst drum until after the accident. Even after the drum burst last February, the LANL continued to withhold critical information from the people at the WIPP. It appears that there may have been a typo in the LANL guidelines that led to the switch to organic kitty litter.

       If the documentation for the waste shipments had been accurate and complete, they would not have been allowed on the road at all. The pending report from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Accident Investigation Board is expected to be critical of the behavior of the staff at LANL and their subcontractors who were apparently more interested in meeting the deadline than they were in the safety of the wastes they were shipping. Once again this illustrates a point that I keep repeating. Corporations cannot be relied upon to follow nuclear safety regulations.

Geiger Readings for November 19, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 108  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 83  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 93 nanosieverts per hour
Crimini Mushrooms from Central Market = 81  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 79  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 57 nanosieverts per hour

Canada is Working On Creating Molybdenum-99 Without the Use of Nuclear Reactors

         Yesterday, I blogged about a loan program at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration aimed at the development of domestic sources of Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), a radioactive isotope that is critical for most medical imaging systems. Mo-99 has a half-life of about three days. Then it decays into technetium-99 which is the isotope that is actually used in medical imaging. Because of its short half-life, Mo-99 cannot be stockpiled and so it must be constantly produced.

         Currently, five reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa and Russia produce most of the commercial Mo-99 in the world. The primary method of production is based on bombarding highly enriched uranium with neutrons. Because of the dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons, other methods of production not involving highly enriched uranium are being developed. In my last blog, I mentioned that Canada produces as much as forty percent of the world's supply of Mo-99 in its NRU reactor which is slated for shut down in 2016. It turns out that this will not be the end of Mo-99 production in Canada.

          The Canadian Medical Isotope Project (MIP) just used the Canadian Light Source linear accelerator in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to produce a batch of Mo-99 that did not require a nuclear reactor. The CLS contains a target of enriched molybdenum-100 (Mo-100). The target is bombarded with high-energy X-rays which knock single neutrons out of the Mo-100 atoms which results in the creation of Mo-99.  

          The Canadian government has allocated over fifty billion dollars since 2010 to the development of non-reactor sources of useful radioisotopes through the Isotope Technology Acceleration Program (ITAP). The Saskatchewan Government and ITAP are funding the MIP in partnership with the Prairie Isotope Production Enterprise (PIPE). The MIP is testing the production of isotopes until they obtain approval from Health Canada, the Canadian national health regulatory agency. It is anticipated that upon completion of testing and approval, this project will be able to supply Mo-99 to healthcare facilities across Western Canada by 2016.

        CLS has stated that just three accelerators systems could produce enough Mo-99 to supply all of Canada's domestic needs for the radioisotope. CLS hopes to that the commercialization of Mo-99 productions from accelerators will provide sufficient funding to extend production and seek foreign markets.

         The Canadian announcement about new processes for M0-99 production came just a few days after the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration announced an eight million dollar loan program aimed at new methods of production of Mo-99 that do not utilize highly-enriched uranium. The timing of the Canadian announcement is very interesting. Is it possible that Canada which has announced the shut down of the reactor currently producing forty percent of the global supply of Mo-99 is concerned about losing that market share due to efforts of other countries such as the U.S. to produce their own Mo-99 internally? Perhaps the recent Canadian announcement was intended to reassure current Canadian customers for Mo-99 that Canada will continue to be a major source for Mo-99 after the scheduled closing of the NRU reactor.

Canada's NRU reactor:

Geiger Readings for November 18, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 71  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 74  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 80  nanosieverts per hour
Star red pear from Central Market = 67  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 67  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 43 nanosieverts per hour

The U.S. Department of Energy is Funding Research into Domestic Production of Molybdenum-99

         Most of my posts have been about nuclear chemistry, nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and radioactive threats to health and the environment. There is another sector of the nuclear industry that I have covered briefly that has to do with the production and utilization of specific radioisotopes for a wide variety of purposes.

         The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will soon award eight million dollars to fund two projects that are intended to produce a domestic supply of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) without the necessity of using highly enriched uranium (HEU). 

         Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) is used in about eighty percent of the nuclear imaging procedures in hospital. The Tc-99m used in hospitals is produced by Mo-99. Mo-99 has a half-life of sixty six hours or about three days so it cannot be just produced and stockpiled. Most of the global supply of Mo-99 is produced in five reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa and Russia. If anything interferes with production in any of these reactors, shortages can quickly develop. Most of the Mo-99 is produced by bombarding HEU targets which raises concerns of proliferation. In addition, Canada's NRU reactor which produces up to forty percent of the global supply of Mo-99 is scheduled to stop operating in 2016 which will result in a big drop in global Mo-99 production from current sources.

         Currently, the U.S. does not produce any Mo-99 so it is dependent of those foreign sources. The NNSA has been working with commercial partners since 2009 to develop domestic sources for Mo-99 that do not require the use of HEU.

         NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes is slated to receive about five million dollars to continue work on the production of Mo-99 by neutron capture. Currently, NMR is using a research reactor at Missouri University to produce Mo-99 by bombarding Mo-98 with neutrons. Eventually, NMR intends to develop a linear accelerator that can produce Mo-99. NNSA has a cost sharing agreement with NMR that has supplied them with over sixteen million dollars of federal funds. NMR hopes to be able to start commercial production of Mo-99 in 2015.

          Shine Medical Technologies (SMT) will get about three million dollars to develop a process that will use what is called sub-critical accelerator technology to produce Mo-99 via fission of low-enriched uranium (LEU). SMT has just received a one hundred and twenty five million dollar debt financing package for a healthcare investment firm. This infusion of capital along with the funds from NNSA will permit SMT to complete design and construction of a manufacturing facility and allow them to ramp up commercial production.

          Mo-99 is just one of many critical radioisotopes in use today. Given the currently unstable global political and economic situation, it is a good idea to develop domestic sources of important radioisotopes just in case foreign supplies are cut off.



Geiger Readings for November 17, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 121  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 100  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 68  nanosieverts per hour
Celery from Central Market = 93  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 85  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 58 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for November 16, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 89  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 71  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 74  nanosieverts per hour
Bartlett pear from Central Market = 75  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 96  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 76 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for November 15, 2014

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 99  nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 88  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 81  nanosieverts per hour
Mango from Central Market = 110  nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 74  nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 63 nanosieverts per hour
Rockfish - Caught in USA = 117 nanosieverts per hour

The International Energy Agency Issues Annual World Energy Outlook Report

         There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of nuclear power. On one side, the critics point to problems at nuclear power plants, lax regulation, environmental and health dangers, problems of waste disposal and dangers of proliferation. On the other side, proponents point out that nuclear reactors have a small carbon footprint which would help to reduce anthropogenic climate change and they produce reliable baseload power as compared to intermittent wind and solar power sources. Then there are political, social and economic factors which may support or work against the construction of new nuclear power plants. Covering all these issues has been one of the reasons that I have been writing these blogs.

         The International Energy Association has recently released their annual World Energy Outlook report in which they predict the growth potential of nuclear power in the next 25 years. They estimate that the share of world energy production produced by nuclear power will rise by one percent by 2040. The report predicts that the global primary energy demand will rise thirty seven percent by 2040. They expect that the demand for coal and oil will level off around 2040. The report assumes that world energy production from fossil fuels will be roughly equal to the energy being produced by nuclear and renewables such as wind and solar. One of the authors of the report is quoted as saying that renewable are on the way to becoming the number one source of global electricity.

         Although the report stressed the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also suggested that fifteen billion dollars a year should be invested in oil development with an additional nine billion dollars a year slated for coal. The report called for most oil development to take place in the Middle East. Nuclear power will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about four years worth of the use of fossil fuels by 2040, according to the report.

        The report estimates that the cost of decommissioning aging nuclear power plants will exceed one hundred billion dollars in the next twenty five years. (Governments and the nuclear industry regularly underestimate the cost of decommissioning.)  One problem with estimating decommissioning costs is the fact that since the dawn of nuclear power, only ten nuclear power plants have been decommissioned so the nuclear industry does not have much experience with the process. Of the four hundred and thirty four nuclear power reactors currently operating, almost half are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2040.

         The estimate of the cost of decommissioning two hundred nuclear reactors does not include the creation of a permanent geological repository for disposing of nuclear waste. Many billions of additional dollars will be required to create and fill future repositories. It is estimated that seven hundred thousand metric tons of spent nuclear fuel will have been generated by 2040.

         It is beneficial for agencies interested in power generation to estimate future demand and supply. However, it is entirely possible that the dropping cost of renewables will eventually remove the need for building additional nuclear power plants by 2040.