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Diminishing prospects for MOX and integral fast reactors

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#810
4494
09/09/2015
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor
Article

A non-existent reactor type called the 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) has some prominent champions, including climate scientist James Hansen. Supporters are beguiled by the prospect of nuclear waste and weapons-usable material being used as fuel to generate low-carbon power − helping to address three problems at once.

The theoretical attractiveness fades away when the real-world history of fast reactors is considered: they have proven to be accident-prone, expensive white elephants, and they have contributed to weapons proliferation.

Both the US and the UK governments have been considering building IFRs. The primary purpose in both countries would be to provide a degree of proliferation resistance to stockpiles of separated plutonium. For Hansen and other IFR supporters, the significance of the US and UK proposals is that the construction of IFRs in those countries could kick-start a much greater worldwide deployment.

However, it seems increasingly unlikely that IFRs will be built in the US or the UK ... and no other country is seriously considering building them.

The latest report on US plutonium disposition options signals a shift away from using mixed uranium/plutonium (MOX) fuel in favor of disposal − and it didn't consider IFRs to be worthy of detailed consideration. The study − commissioned by the Department of Energy (DoE) and produced by a 'Red Team' of experts from US nuclear laboratories, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the commercial nuclear power industry − was leaked to the Union of Concerned Scientists and has been posted on the UCS website.1,2

The plutonium in question is 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the US nuclear weapons program (with Russia having also agreed to remove the same amount of plutonium from its military stockpile). The partially built MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina has proven to be an expensive white elephant. The DoE Red Team report details the "difficult, downward spiraling circumstances" that have plagued the MOX program and contributed to the delays and massive cost overruns at the MOX facility.

The UCS notes that the estimated life-cycle cost of the MOX facility has ballooned from US$1.6 billion (€1.43b) to more than US$30 billion (€26.9b), and the DoE report notes that the cost of the MOX approach for plutonium disposition has "increased dramatically".

The World Nuclear Association has crunched the numbers: "Despite being 60% built, the MOX plant still needs some 15 years of construction work, said the leaked report, and then about three years of commissioning. Once in operation the plant would work through the plutonium over about 10 years with this 28-year program to cost $700-800 million per year − a total of $19.6−22.4 billion on top of what has already been spent."3

The DoE Red Team report states that it may not be possible to get sufficient reactors to use MOX fuel to make the approach viable − and that it may struggle get utilities to use MOX fuel even if it is given away for free (!) and even in markets where additional costs (e.g. licensing costs to enable the use of MOX fuel) can be passed directly on to consumers.

The DoE Red Team report promotes a 'Dilute and Dispose' option − downblending or diluting plutonium with adulterating material and then disposing of it. The DoE has already used that method to dispose of several tons of plutonium. DoE proposes disposal of the 34 metric tons of downblended plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

WIPP would also be required if the MOX approach is pursued. WIPP has been closed since a February 2014 underground chemical explosion but the Red Team anticipates that it will re-open in the coming years and could be available for downblended waste (or MOX waste).

Don Hancock from the Albuquerque-based Southwest Information and Research Center opposes the MOX project but is sceptical about disposal at WIPP, saying the DoE should review other options including storing the plutonium at the Savannah River Site or the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where thousands of plutonium pits are already warehoused. Hancock said: "The Red Team or the Union of Concerned Scientists may be confident that WIPP will reopen in a few years, but I don't see any real basis for that. Going from one bad idea to another bad idea is not the solution to this problem."4

Integral fast reactors

IFRs − also called PRISM or Advanced Disposition Reactors (ADR) − have been considered for plutonium disposition in the US. The ADR concept is similar to General Electric Hitachi's PRISM according to the DoE.

Last year a DoE Working Group concluded that the ADR approach would be more than twice as expensive as all the other options under consideration for plutonium disposition; that it would take 18 years to construct an ADR and associated facilities; and that the ADR option is associated with "significant technical risk".5

The 2014 DoE Working Group report stated:

"Irradiation of plutonium fuel in fast reactors ... faces two major technical challenges: the first involves the design, construction, start-up, and licensing of a multi-billion dollar prototype modular, pool-type advanced fast-spectrum burner reactor; and the second involves the design and construction of the metal fuel fabrication in an existing facility. As with any initial design and construction of a first-of-a-kind prototype, significant challenges are endemic to the endeavor, however DoE has thirty years of experience with metal fuel fabrication and irradiation. The metal fuel fabrication facility challenges include: scale-up of the metal fuel fabrication process that has been operated only at a pilot scale, and performing modifications to an existing, aging, secure facility ... Potential new problems also may arise during the engineering and procurement of the fuel fabrication process to meet NRC's stringent Quality Assurance requirements for Nuclear Power Plants and Fuel Reprocessing Plants."

In short, the ADR option is associated with "significant technical risk" according to the 2014 DoE report, and metal fuel fabrication faces "significant technical challenges" and has only been operated at the pilot scale.

If the August 2015 DoE Red Team report is any guide, the IFR/ADR option is dead and buried in the US. The Red Team didn't even consider IFR/ADR worthy of detailed consideration:1

"The ADR option involves a capital investment similar in magnitude to the MFFF [Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility] but with all of the risks associated with first of-a kind new reactor construction (e.g., liquid metal fast reactor), and this complex nuclear facility construction has not even been proposed yet for a Critical Decision (CD)-0. Choosing the ADR option would be akin to choosing to do the MOX approach all over again, but without a directly relevant and easily accessible reference facility/operation (such as exists for MOX in France) to provide a leg up on experience and design. Consequently, the remainder of this Red Team report focuses exclusively on the MOX approach and the Dilute and Dispose option, and enhancements thereof."

The DoE Red Team report states that the IFR/ADR option has "large uncertainties in siting, licensing, cost, technology demonstration, and other factors". It states that the IFR/ADR option "could become more viable in the future" if fast reactors were to become part of the overall U.S. nuclear energy strategy.

IFR/PRISM/ADR advocates argued in 2011 that the first PRISM could be built in the US by 2016.6 However the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive a licensing submission from General Electric Hitachi and there are no concrete plans for PRISMs in the US let alone any concrete pours.

IFRs in the UK?

The UK government is also considering building IFRs for plutonium disposition. Specifically, General Electric Hitachi (GEH) is promoting 'Power Reactor Innovative Small Module' (PRISM) fast reactors.7

The UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) released a position paper in January 2014 outlining potential options for future management of separated plutonium stockpiles.8 The NDA report stated that reuse in Candu reactors "remains a credible option", that MOX is a "credible and technically mature option", while PRISM "should also be considered credible, although further investigation may change this view."

The NDA report stated that the facilities required by the PRISM approach have not been industrially demonstrated, so further development work needs to be undertaken with the cost and time to complete this work yet to be defined in detail. GEH estimates that licensing these first of a kind PRISM reactors would take around six years. GEH envisages first irradiation (following development, licensing and construction) in 14−18 years but the NDA considers that timeframe "ambitious considering delivery performance norms currently seen in the UK and European nuclear landscape".

As in the US, the likelihood of IFR/ADR/PRISM reactors being built in the UK seems to be diminishing. An August 2015 report states that the Canadian Candu option seems to be emerging as a favorite for plutonium disposition in the UK, and that GEH is 'hedging its bets' by working with Candu Energy to develop the Candu approach.9,10

References:

1. Thom Mason et al., 13 August 2015, 'Final Report of the Plutonium Disposition Red Team', for the US Department of Energy, www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/final-pu-disposition-r...

2. UCS, 20 Aug 2015, 'DOE Study Concludes MOX Facility More Expensive, Much Riskier than Disposing of Surplus Plutonium at New Mexico Repository', www.ucsusa.org/new/press_release/doe-mox-study-0521

3. World Nuclear News, 21 Aug 2015, 'Disposal beats MOX in US comparison', www.world-nuclear-news.org/WR-Disposal-beats-MOX-in-US-comparison-210815...

4. Patrick Malone and Douglas Birch, 22 Aug 2015, Sante Fe New Mexican, www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/report-pressures-congress-to-k...

5. US Department of Energy, April 2014, 'Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group: Analysis of Surplus Weapon Grade Plutonium Disposition Options', www.nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/04-14-inlinefiles/SurplusPu...

6. 'Disposal of UK plutonium stocks with a climate change focus', http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/06/04/uk-pu-cc/

7. http://gehitachiprism.com

8. UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Jan 2014, 'Progress on approaches to the management of separated plutonium – Position Paper', www.nda.gov.uk/publication/progress-on-approaches-to-the-management-of-s...

9. Newswire 29th June 2015 http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1563539/ge-hitachi-nuclear-energy-canada...

10. August 2015, 'Slow Progress on Plutonium Stockpiles', nuClear news No.76, www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/nuclearnews/NuClearNewsNo76.pdf

US Government Accountability Office pours cold water on advanced reactor concepts

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#810
4491
09/09/2015
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor
Article

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other new reactor concepts in the US.

Let's begin with the downbeat conclusion of the GAO report:

"While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges. Both SMRs and advanced reactors require additional technical and engineering work to demonstrate reactor safety and economics, although light water SMRs generally face fewer technical challenges than advanced reactors because of their similarities to the existing large LWR [light water] reactors. Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs or power plants using other fuels. ...

"Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant.

"Furthermore, the licensing process can have uncertainties associated with it, particularly for advanced reactor designs. A reactor designer would need to obtain investors or otherwise commit to this development cost years in advance of when the reactor design would be certified or available for licensing and construction, making demand (and customers) for the reactor uncertain. For example, the price of competing power production facilities may make a nuclear plant unattractive without favorable rates set by a public authority or long term prior purchase agreements, and accidents such as Fukushima as well as the ongoing need for a long-term solution for spent nuclear fuel may affect the public perception of reactor safety. These challenges will need to be addressed if the capabilities and diversification of energy sources that light water SMRs and advanced reactors can provide are to be realized."

Many of the same reasons explain the failure of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the US Department of Energy (DoE) was to deploy a prototype 'next generation' reactor using advanced technology to generate electricity, produce hydrogen, or both, by the end of fiscal year 2021. However, in 2011, DoE decided not to proceed with the deployment phase of the project.

Small modular reactors

Four companies have considered developing SMRs in the US in recent years. NuScale has a cost-sharing agreement such that the DoE will pay as much as half of NuScale's costs − up to $217 million (€194m) over five years − for SMR design certification. NuScale expects to submit a design certification application to NRC in late 2016, and may begin operating its first SMR in 2023 or 2024. (However the timeframe is unrealistic, and the project may be abandoned − as other SMR projects have.)

The other three companies are a long way behind NuScale:

  • mPower, a subsidiary of Babcock & Wilcox, enjoyed a cost-sharing agreement with the DoE but in 2014 scaled back its R&D efforts because of a lack of committed customers and a lack of investors.
  • Holtec says it is continuing R&D work, but does not have a detailed schedule.
  • In 2014 Westinghouse suspended its efforts to certify its SMR design, because of a lack of committed customers (and the lack of a DoE cost-sharing agreement).

The GAO report states that the development of light water SMRs may proceed without serious difficulties as they are based on existing light water reactor technology. That said, standardization is a key pillar of SMR rhetoric, and members of an expert group convened by the GAO noted that component standardization has proven challenging for the construction of the larger Westinghouse AP1000 that has some modular components.

Another pillar of SMR rhetoric is mass production (to make them economic), and the development of a massive construction chain to allow for mass production is a radically different proposition to NuScale's plan to build just one reactor over the next decade.

Not-so-advanced reactor concepts

According to the GAO report, SMRs and new reactor concepts "face some common challenges such as long time frames and high costs associated with the shift from development to deployment − that is, in the construction of the first commercial reactors of a particular type."

The report notes the US government's generous financial support for utilities developing SMRs and advanced reactor concepts − DoE provided US$152.5 million (€137m) in fiscal year 2015 alone. Advanced reactor concepts attracting DoE largesse are the high temperature gas cooled reactor, the sodium cooled fast reactor, and to a lesser extent the molten salt reactor (specifically, a sub-type known as the fluoride salt cooled high temperature reactor).

DoE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials do not expect applications for advanced reactors for at least five years. In other words, an application may (or may not) be submitted some time between five years and five centuries from now.

Advanced reactor designers told the GAO that they have been challenged to find investors due to the lengthy timeframe, costs, and uncertainty. Advanced reactor concepts face greater technical challenges than light water SMRs because of fundamental design differences. Thus designers have significantly more R&D issues to resolve, including in areas such as materials studies and fuel certification, coolant chemistry studies, and safety analysis. Some members of the expert group convened by the GAO noted a potential need for new test facilities to support this work. Furthermore, according to reactor designers, certifying or licensing an advanced reactor may be particularly time-consuming and difficult, adding to the already considerable economic uncertainty for the applicants.

The process of developing and certifying a specific reactor design can take 10 years or more for design work and nearly 3.5 years, as a best case, for NRC certification. Even that timeframe is more hope than expectation. Recent light water reactor design certifications, for the Westinghouse AP1000 and the GE Hitachi ESBWR, have taken about 15 and 11 years respectively. Both the AP1000 and ESBWR are modifications of long-established reactor types, so considerably longer timeframes can be expected for advanced concepts.

The cost to develop and certify a design can range from US$1−2 billion (€0.9−1.8b). Developers hope that costs can be reduced as they move from certification to the construction of a first-of-a-kind plant to the construction of multiple plants. But the GAO report notes that those hopes may be unfounded:

"[S]ome studies suggest that existing, large LWRs have not greatly benefitted from industry-wide standardization or learning to date for reasons including intermittent development and production. In fact, some studies have found that "reverse or negative learning" occurs when increased complexity or operation experience leads to newer safety standards. On a related point, another reactor designer said that the cost and schedule difficulties associated with building the first new design that has been certified by the NRC and started construction in the United States in three decades − the Westinghouse AP1000, a recently designed large LWR − have made it harder for light water SMRs to obtain financing because high-profile problems have made nuclear reactors in general less attractive. ... The AP1000 was the first new design that has been certified by the NRC and started construction in the United States in three decades. However, construction problems, including supply chain and regulatory issues, have resulted in cost and schedule increases."

US Government Accountability Office, July 2015, 'Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts', GAO-15-652, www.gao.gov/assets/680/671686.pdf

US EPA takes nuclear out of the Clean Power Plan

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#808
4485
18/08/2015
Tim Judson − Executive Director, Nuclear Information and Resource Service
Article

Thousands joined the nuclear-free, carbon-free contingent at last September's People's Climate March in New York City. The unexpectedly large turnout − followed by tens of thousands of comments and petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) − helped open the agency's eyes to first understand our position and then realize it made a lot of sense.

On August 3, an amazing thing happened. President Obama released the first real climate action policy in the U.S. ever. But that's not all. The incredible thing − the one that will be most important in the years to come − is ... they got it basically right!

Including on nuclear power. President Obama just made it the policy of the United States that nuclear power is not a viable climate solution. And not just that, but renewable energy can replace nuclear power just like it can replace fossil fuels.

This is a game-changer, both for reducing carbon emissions in the US, and for discrediting the deceptive 'Nuclear Matters' greenwashing bailout campaign (nuclearmatters.com). What is more, going into December's global climate treaty negotiations in Paris, the U.S. government just declared that we are moving forward, and we are going to do it with renewables, not nuclear.

The upshot is that the EPA appears to have done a total 180 on nuclear in the Clean Power Plan (CPP), and their rationales reflect the concerns raised by the public in the streets of New York City, in tens of thousands of comments, letters, and petitions, and by NIRS and other clean energy groups in conversations and a key meeting with EPA officials who listened and ultimately agreed with our position. After all, with all due modesty, it was a pretty reasoned and well thought-out approach to the climate issue.1

Clean Power Plan

Here is a quick synopsis of what the CPP rule actually does with respect to nuclear power:

1. Not only are nuclear reactors under construction not counted on in setting emissions goals, but neither are existing nuclear plants. By the same token, relicensing nuclear reactors won't count either.
2. Just as significantly, EPA recognized that there is no need to "preserve" nuclear reactors that are "at risk" of closure, because they can be replaced with renewables just as fossil fuels can.
3. EPA will only allow actual, new / increased nuclear generation to count toward complying with the emissions goals. That means, states can only count new reactors that actually operate before 2030 (the five in construction or any others) and power uprates of existing reactors toward meeting their emissions goals.
4. That means there is no incentive under the CPP to keep uneconomical reactors operating and no incentive to complete building new reactors. States can meet their goal with new nuclear (but not with existing nuclear), but they are given no justification for preferring nuclear over renewables. In fact, there are several statements in the rule that indicate just the opposite.
5. And only those new / additional amounts of nuclear can qualify to sell emissions offset credits in cap-and-trade programs. Existing reactors cannot qualify as emissions offsets for fossil fuel generation, because they do not actually reduce carbon emissions.
6. The CPP does not prevent states from creating subsidies for nuclear, but there is absolutely no incentive for them to do so.

The impacts of the EPA's decision are already being felt far and wide. The industry is upset, to put it mildly.2 Pro-nuclear commentators don't seem to know how to react: absurdly try to claim victory despite the plain language of the regulation, like Forbes columnist James Conca3; or go on the attack against the Obama administration as a bastion of anti-nuclear activism4, as did Breakthrough Institute founder and propaganda film spokesman Michael Shellenberger.5

In contrast, another Forbes columnist provided a much more objective report on the changes to nuclear in the Clean Power Plan, noting in particular that it "does not include aid to existing nuclear power plants at risk of closing because they can't compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables."6

For over a year now, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service has detailed concerns about the draft version of the Clean Power Plan that the EPA put out last summer:7

  • Promotion of nuclear power as a climate solution.
  • Underselling the demonstrated potential of renewables.
  • Continued overreliance on fossil fuels, especially natural gas.

We have reported most on how the rule deals with nuclear power and the nuclear industry's initial embrace of it, both because that is where our greatest expertise is, and it was the part most overlooked in the CPP.8 But the draft rule's promotion of natural gas was a very real problem: it could have blocked renewables just as much or more than nuclear and it terribly underestimated the climate change impacts as well as the environmental impacts of fracking. The final rule addresses a number of those problems, as well. For instance, new natural gas plants will not count toward reducing carbon emissions, recognizing the global warming impact of methane releases and forcing states to rely on renewables and energy efficiency to meet most of their emissions reduction goals. The natural gas industry is just as upset as the nuclear industry.9

And that is the other truly remarkable thing about the Obama administration's decision: essentially to take on the nuclear, coal, and natural gas industries head-on, rather than try to play favorites among them and pit powerful corporations against each other. Maybe the President recognized that, in the end, the whole energy system needs to change, so we might as well get on with it. Or maybe he realized that the fossil fuel and nuclear industries are all just different heads of the same hydra, and those corporations were going to resist change no matter what.

Either way, the fight is on, and we have a real Clean Power Plan to fight for. We are sure as the dust settles, there will be things that need to be fixed to strengthen the CPP. When the German government first adopted its Energiewende plan to reduce emissions and phase out nuclear, the plan wasn't strong enough. The politicians weren't committed enough to really close nuclear plants. The energy companies all resisted it, even putting new coal plants on order just to try and derail the government's plans.

But over a decade or more, the idea set in. Renewable energy became popular and affordable, created hundreds of thousands of jobs and new industries, and people got used to owning their own solar panels and making their own energy. And then, after the horror of Fukushima struck, even conservative leadership in the government realized that they just had to go for it.

To be sure, Germany still doesn't have it totally right, and it won't be an unqualified success until we actually get to a nuclear-free, carbon-free, sustainable energy world. Our counterparts in Germany still have to fight to keep the Energiewende on track. And the CPP is not an anti-nuclear policy. It's not even anti-fossil fuels, really. But it is a plan that promotes sustainable, renewable energy as the best solution to the climate crisis. And that is a good place to start.

References:

1. www.nirs.org/climate/background/backgrndhome.htm

2. www.fierceenergy.com/story/nei-ceo-cpp-nothing-without-nuclear/2015-08-03

3. www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/08/04/only-one-loser-in-obamas-clea...

4. www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2015/08/03/final-clean-power-plan-drops...

5. www.beyondnuclear.org/pandoras-false-promises/

6. www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2015/08/03/final-clean-power-plan-drops...

7. http://safeenergy.org/2014/06/02/epas-proposed-carbon-rules/

8. http://safeenergy.org/2014/08/11/industry-says-epa-rule-needs-more-nuke/

9. www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/03/obamas-clean-power-plan-will...

AP1000 - a bundle of trouble?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#807
4481
30/07/2015
Chris Goodall
Article

The AP1000 is the next generation design being developed by Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba. Westinghouse constructs the AP1000 projects in partnership with Chicago Bridge and Iron (CB&I), probably the world's most experienced builder of large power stations.

The AP1000 is a 1.1 GW plant using a design based on a much smaller power station developed by Westinghouse 20 years ago. One important fact is that no stations using the original design were ever built. However, the advantages of the AP1000 are said to include a relatively simple design, a high level of passive safety and modular construction.

Modular construction means that components can be manufactured elsewhere and then shipped to the power station site. However US sites have had 5,000 workers on site at the same time, posing the some of the same huge management challenges that were experienced at the Finnish EPR site.

Four AP1000 reactors are in construction in the US and four in China. The US plants are at two separate sites in the state of Georgia ('Plant Vogtle', two AP1000s) and South Carolina ('Summer', two AP1000s).

I focus here on the experience in Georgia, but note that similar three-year delays have also happened at Summer in South Carolina, where serious cost overruns have also taken place.

Plant Vogtle - construction times more than doubled

Vogtle 3 and 4 are being built in the same complex as two earlier nuclear power stations. After delays in final design approval, they were finally licenced in February 2012. Near-concurrent construction of the two plants started in May 2013 with completion of the first planned for April 2016.

Original estimates for the total price to the utilities buying the power stations were about US$14bn (about £9.5bn). The price to be paid was essentially fixed, meaning that most of the construction risk is borne by Westinghouse and CB&I.

The most recent announcement of construction delays came in February 2015 when the station's eventual 45% owner (Georgia Power) told the state regulator that the partnership building the station had recently estimated that the eventual completion date for Vogtle 3 would be June 2019. Vogtle 4 would be finished in June 2020.

The expected delay for Vogtle 3 is now 39 months, more than doubling the initially expected construction time. The project is not yet half complete.

Costs are rising

Although the contract price has not risen significantly because it is largely fixed, the cost to electricity customers in the state of Georgia has increased. This is because the utilities that will eventually own the two new stations have been granted electricity price increases by the state regulator to cover the higher financing costs of Vogtle 3 and 4.

The utilities have been paying for individual elements of the two new plants as they are completed. The long delays mean that the interest costs are higher than expected and the regulator has already granted rate increases to compensate the eventual owners.

People in Georgia are already paying a supplement of 6% of their bills to finance the new nuclear station − Indeed Friends of the Earth US suggests that as much as 11% of their electricity bills may be supporting the project.1

Although the deal was a fixed price contract, the company buying the largest share of the finished plants is in legal battles over extra costs that the contractors claim that the purchasers should bear.

We can reasonably expect that the cost to construct the stations has also increased. However industry estimates of the eventual final cost to the contractors are vague and imprecise. They currently seem to be around US$18bn (~£12bn). This seems low to me, given that the total project is now expected to take more than twice as long as originally expected.

CB&I says that Westinghouse will eventually pay most of the overrun costs but we can safely presume that this issue will also end up in court.

Georgia Power is losing faith in its contractors

Until recently the main buyer, Georgia Power, was reasonably content with the progress of the construction. However its 2015 submissions to the Georgia regulator have become increasingly concerned in response to the latest estimates of delay.

Note that Georgia Power has a difficult line to steer: it cannot be too critical of the contractors because otherwise the regulator that oversees it and grants its rate increases will question why it agreed to build the first new nuclear plant in the US for several decades in the first place!

Most recently, the company's May 2015 testimony2 prepared for a hearing has been openly critical of the contractors Westinghouse and CB&I:

"In general, the Company, like the other Owners, has been disappointed with the Contractor's performance under the revised IPS (project plan). The Contractor has missed several key milestones since the publication of the revised IPS in January 2015, including several milestones relating to critical-path or near-critical-path activities such as the assembly of CA01 (part of the central reactor), the delivery of shield building panels, and work on concrete outside containment.

"The Contractor has also encountered difficulties in ensuring that new vendors produce high-quality, compliant components per the IPS projections." (p.15)

Georgia Power is now indicating that it has little faith in the contractor's ability to keep to the new delayed timetable.2

"The Contractor's schedule performance on critical path work such as concrete placements to start shield building installation and inside containment installation are challenges to the Contractor's ability to adhere to the revised IPS.

"The Contractor must continue to improve its schedule performance, maintain these improvements, and successfully resolve RCPs / squib valves / CMTs (components with severe quality or delivery problems) in order to complete the Facility by the currently projected substantial completion dates." (p.15)

China's AP1000s - a three year construction delay

Cost data from the Chinese construction projects is difficult to find. But they have also experienced significant construction difficulties. Building at Sanmen began construction in August 2009 and was originally expected to be finished by August 2013.

As with Vogtle, construction was said to be on schedule a year into the project and even in March 2012 completion was still officially planned for 2013. Recent updates suggests that completion will actually take place in 2016, also a three year delay.

The design used in China is simpler than that used in the US, and it may well be possible for Chinese constructors to build much more quickly and cheaply. However the modifications are unlikely to be acceptable to Western regulators. For example, the power stations are not designed to survive a direct hit from an airliner, a US requirement.

The questions in the minds of all concerned are surely these:

  • How many of the problems at Vogtle, Summer and elsewhere are inherent to the construction of a large third generation nuclear power station?
  • And how many simply arise because these are 'first of a kind' projects?
  • Will new nuclear projects around the world avoid the major problems that have affected the first eight AP1000s because the construction companies have learnt how to build these huge projects more efficiently?
  • Or is a safe third generation nuclear power station beyond the capacity of even the most experienced contractors to build to a tight timetable and at a predictable cost?

I'm afraid I don't think the answer is at all clear.

Chris Goodall is an expert on energy, environment and climate change. He blogs at Carbon Commentary (www.carboncommentary.com).

Abridged from The Ecologist, 17 July 2015, www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/Blogs/2952108/moorsides_ap1000_n...

References:

1. www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2240101/toshibas_nu...

2. www.psc.state.ga.us/factsv2/Document.aspx?documentNumber=158302

Checking in on the energy transition in the US

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#805
4475
11/06/2015
Michael Mariotte
Article

In Germany it's called the Energiewende − the energy transition. It's a deliberate decision to move away from nuclear power and fossil fuels in favor of renewables and energy efficiency. And it's working. Renewables are skyrocketing, nuclear reactors have closed and more shutdowns are on the way, and coal use is declining too1, despite the misleading claims of renewable energy haters.

Here in the US, it isn't called anything −  if we have an "official" government policy at all it's "all of the above", which is the same as saying meaningless. But an ad hoc energy transition is nonetheless taking place in the U.S.

In April, 100% of all new electric generating capacity in the US was wind and solar –511 MW of wind and 50 MW of solar.2 For the year so far, renewables account for 84.1% of new capacity, with natural gas supplying the rest. The amount of solar is understated, however, since it doesn't account for rooftop solar and other distributed generation. Nor, of course, do these numbers, compiled by the Energy Information Administration, attempt to quantify the effect of energy efficiency on avoiding the need for new generating capacity. There has been no new capacity from nuclear, coal or oil.

This is an energy transition already underway, quietly, with some government support but without an actual transition policy − indeed, with a policy that is inherently hostile to the transition.

As Ken Bossong of the Sun Day Campaign points out, "Renewable energy capacity is now greater than that of nuclear (9.14%) and oil (3.92%) combined. In fact, the installed capacity of wind power alone has now surpassed that of oil. In addition, total installed operating generating capacity from solar has now reached and surpassed the one-percent threshold −  a ten-fold increase since December 2010."

But it's an energy transition with a long ways to go. Germany is the clear global leader in solar power −  despite its relatively low solar potential −  with 38,200 MW of solar installed as of the end of 2014. The US ranked fifth then with 18,280 MW of installed capacity, also behind China, Japan and Italy −  although the US likely has passed Italy by now. Given solar's low capacity factor, that's only about 4.5 large nuclear reactors worth of power installed in the US.

And it looks worse when you look at solar from a per capita basis.3 The US barely cracks the top 20 of installed solar capacity per person, at 19th in the world, the US is behind nations like Bulgaria (8th), non-nuclear Austria (13th) and even nuclear-dominated France (15th).

Still, the US is a big country with a lot of generating capacity (China is even bigger, and thus doesn't even make the top 20 on a per capita basis). It takes a while to install that amount of any form of generating capacity. And solar is growing faster than any other form. Remember that 10-fold increase in solar capacity in less than five years. With no indications of slowing down, there's good reason to believe that before the end of this decade another ten-fold increase will occur. That would put solar alone above 10% of our electricity generation, and wind will provide even more.

Another ten-fold increase after that would be impossible of course, since it would make solar the only generating source in the US. But this is how the energy transition in the US is occurring: without formal policy, without significant government support. Even though the nuclear and fossil fuel industry hacks continue to carp about subsidies for renewables, the reality is that their industries have been far more heavily subsidized over the years than renewables. If renewables do get the majority of the subsidy crumbs left on the table by the budget-slashers these days, and that's by no means clear, it's simply because it's their due for being ignored so long while untold billions of dollars were heaped on dirty energy technologies.

The US can, must, and all indications are will continue to bring renewables online rapidly. And as that happens, higher-cost and dirtier nuclear and coal plants inevitably will continue to close. The rationale for keeping them open with ratepayer bailouts becomes thinner and thinner even to those expected to be warm to utilities clinging to expensive and outdated dirty power plants. In the last week of May alone, the Illinois legislature deferred action on Exelon's 18-month pursuit of a nuclear bailout4, while the Ohio Public Utilities Commission has put off its action on a similar request from First Energy to bail out the Davis-Besse reactor and some coal plants.5 Whichever way those entities end up deciding on those issues, it's clear that the old arguments aren't working for the utilities. Even skeptics are now having to acknowledge the economic and environmental benefits of clean energy technologies.

And so the transition continues, largely out of sight to the average American and perhaps even less so to the average politician. But that doesn't make it any less real.

Michael Mariotte regularly writes at www.safeenergy.org

References:

1. http://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/nuclear-isnt-the-only-energy-phase-out-h...

2. www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2015/05/wind-and-solar-account-for...

3. http://breakingenergy.com/2015/05/25/actually-the-us-is-a-dismal-solar-p...

4. www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150527/NEWS11/150529874/springfield-ne...

5. www.dispatch.com/content/stories/business/2015/05/28/issue-of-coal-plant...

About: 
Davis-Besse

Exelon plays dirty in Illinois

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#801
4459
09/04/2015
Michael Mariotte − President, Nuclear Information and Resource Service
Article

It should surprise no-one that a utility that relies on dirty energy to make its money also plays dirty when its money is threatened or when a state legislature is considering whether to bail out the company with its constituents' money.

So don't be surprised that yes indeed, gasp, Exelon is playing dirty in Illinois. And just about everywhere else too.

Dave Kraft of Illinois' Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS) reports that some NEIS members have received unidentified robocalls on their home phones, urging them to call their state legislators to "support clean renewable energy."

The problem is, the bill the robocalls support is Exelon's bill to establish a "low carbon portfolio standard" − that's the bill that was written to bail out Exelon's uneconomic reactors in Illinois and prevent the expansion of "clean renewable energy" in the state.1

NEIS, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and those honestly in favor of clean energy are supporting a different bill also before the legislature, SB 1485/HB 2607, that actually would encourage clean energy in the state − and wouldn't bail out Exelon's failing nukes in the process.

Crain's Chicago Business, which continues to be the best source of reporting on Exelon and its machinations, recently reported that Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison − the state's largest distribution utility − "wants to make it illegal in Illinois to count the benefits of lowering energy prices when deciding which energy efficiency projects should qualify for ratepayer-funded financial assistance."2

In other words, while even Commonwealth Edison can't discount the fact that energy efficiency is cleaner than electricity generation, it wants the other main benefit of improving efficiency − lower electricity prices for ratepayers − to be ignored entirely.

Why? Because holding back gains in energy efficiency would help out Exelon's six uneconomic reactors. Improving efficiency means less generation is needed. By attempting to sabotage the state's efficiency programs, Commonwealth Edison is trying to ensure that electricity demand goes up, making it at least somewhat more likely those reactors would be useful. In fact, those reactors still wouldn't be needed; but the numbers conceivably could be manipulated enough to make it appear so.

It is vital that we reach everyone possible in Illinois to counter Exelon's proposed nuclear bailout. That's a bailout that would cost ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars and provide them with nothing but the electricity they would receive even without the bailout. But instead of coming from cleaner energy sources, and helping to expand Illinois' clean energy programs, the bailout would ensure that Illinois' power would continue to come from dirty, aging and expensive nuclear reactors.

Stopping Exelon's efforts to promote nuclear power at the expense of renewables and energy efficiency is the most important state action this year − and the outcome will have national implications.3

If you have any friends at all, any relatives, business colleagues, if a part of any e-mail list you're on, includes anyone from Illinois, please send them this link to the NIRS action page: http://tinyurl.com/exelon-nukes

 

References:
1. http://safeenergy.org/2015/03/02/exelons-nuclear-bailout-dream-scheme/
2. www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150401/NEWS11/150339933/is-comed-doing...
3. http://safeenergy.org/2015/03/16/the-most-important-state-action-this-year/

Nuclear fantasy in the United States

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#800
4456
19/03/2015
Michael Mariotte − President of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service
Article

Back in 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain was calling for construction of 45 new reactors in the U.S. (and presidential candidate Barack Obama was calling for "safe" nuclear power), Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander outdid his colleague: he issued a call for construction of 100 new nuclear reactors.

In 2008, the nuclear "renaissance" was in full swing. McCain's call didn't seem − at least to nuclear backers − far-fetched in the least. After all, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the time already had some 30 applications for licenses for new reactors.

Nearly seven years later, McCain doesn't talk much about nuclear power. President Obama's Department of Energy approved a taxpayer loan for two new reactors at Vogtle, a move the Department of Energy may be beginning to regret as construction costs spiral and the schedule delays keep pushing the project further back. Otherwise, the President these days talks about promoting renewables.

Most people are able to adjust to reality − in this case the reality that the short-lived nuclear "renaissance" is over.

But not Senator Alexander, who is now chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development. In his first hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget, Alexander recently repeated his call: "I have proposed that we build 100 new reactors, which may seem excessive, but not if about 20% of our current capacity from coal goes offline by 2020 as projected by the Energy Information Administration. If this capacity were replaced entirely by nuclear power it would require building another 48 new, 1,250-megawatt reactors – which, by the way, would reduce our carbon emissions from electricity by another 14%. Add the reactors we may need to replace in the coming decades due to aging and other factors, and my proposal for 100 may not seem so high."

Actually, 100 new reactors not only seems high, it's pure fantasy. With the experience of Vogtle, and the similar experience at two reactors under construction at the Summer site in South Carolina, no one is lining up to build new reactors. At this point, it's unlikely even the four under construction will be online by 2020, much less 96 more new ones.

If, by Alexander's logic, that 20% of coal plants going offline by 2020 needs to be replaced (and we certainly hope he's right that at least 20% of coal will be shut down by then), then nuclear reactors aren't going to replace it. For that matter, it's entirely possible 10−20% of our dangerous, aging and uneconomic reactors will close by then too.

So what's left? Perhaps some natural gas, but mostly the energy sources Alexander hates: solar and wind power. Alexander has been the Senate leader in trying to get rid of the production tax credits for renewables, especially for wind. Why? Because wind is cheaper than nuclear power, faster to install, and is pushing nuclear aside. As solar continues its rapid growth, you can be sure Alexander will go after it with the same passion. Both would reduce carbon emissions even more than nuclear power.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last May, Alexander made his position clear: he opposes wind power's tax credit because "The wind subsidy undercuts reliable "baseload" electricity such as nuclear and coal." Yep, wouldn't want to displace dirty energy with clean energy, would we now, Senator?

It is disconcerting to have someone so disconnected from reality as Senator Alexander possessing such great power over the NRC's budget and energy policy generally. But, in a way, it's almost reassuring. A powerful nuclear advocate who isn't living in fantasyland might be able to consider small steps that might actually help the nuclear industry. Small steps aren't part of the fantasy, however. Alexander's dream may be America's nightmare, but it is just fantasy. And in the world we actually live in, reality trumps fantasy every time.

Small modular reactors: a chicken-and-egg situation

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#800
4452
19/03/2015
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor
Article

According to James Conca, a nuclear enthusiast who writes for Forbes, the nuclear industry in the US is "abuzz" with the potential of small modular reactors (SMRs).1

Conca promotes pseudo-research from the 'Small Modular Reactor Research and Education Consortium', according to which a single SMR has the potential to result in US$892 million (€844m) in "direct economic benefits". In other words, the capital cost estimate is US$892 million. The Consortium estimates that the potential economic benefits from the establishment of an SMR construction business in the US could range from US$34−250 billion (€32.2−236.7b) or more.

Better grounded in reality is a report produced by Nuclear Energy Insider, drawing on interviews with more than 50 "leading specialists and decision makers". The report attempts to put a positive spin on the future development of SMRs, but an air of pessimism is all too apparent, even in the report's title: 'Small Modular Reactors: An industry in terminal decline or on the brink of a comeback?'2

Pessimism is also apparent in comments by the report's lead author, Kerr Jeferies: "From the outside it will seem that SMR development has hit a brick wall, but to lump the sector's difficulties together with the death of the so-called nuclear renaissance would be missing the point."3

In the US4:

  • Babcock & Wilcox has greatly reduced its investment in SMR development, despite receiving US$111 million (€105m) from the Department of Energy. B&W CEO Jim Ferland said that he sees the future of SMRS as "still being up in the air."
  • Westinghouse abandoned its SMR development program in February 2014.
  • Warren Buffet's MidAmerican Energy abandoned plans to build an SMR in Iowa after consumer groups prevailed in a legislative battle over 'construction work in progress' legislation that allows utilities to charge higher rates to cover reactor construction costs, even if the reactor is never built.
  • NuScale is the only company in the US with any forward momentum − it is aiming to submit documentation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2016 for design review.

Glenn George from KPMG recently discussed SMR development in the US with Nuclear Energy Insider: "I think that investors are in a wait-and-see mode regarding development of the SMR market. ... Investors will want to see SMR learning-curve effects, but a chicken-and-egg situation is at work: Decreased cost comes from production of multiple units over time, yet such production requires investment in the first place. So it's not surprising that, in the absence of commercial orders, Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox have slowed SMR development."5

Outside the US, just a few first-of-a-kind SMR projects are under construction − in Argentina (CAREM-25), Russia (KLT-40S) and China (HTR-PM).

The Nuclear Energy Insider report restates the familiar SMR rationale about mass production and streamlined supply chains bringing down costs. But it also calls into question the underlying logic: "SMR concepts face a real challenge in ensuring cost and energy efficiency. Making a power unit smaller also increases the need to have five, ten or even twelve modular reactors working in unison to create the same level of base load electricity as the large PWR's and fossil fuel plants they will replace. In reducing the size of reactor modules you also reduce the amount of thermal energy produced, if an SMR only has an energy efficiency of 30−40% then you require even further units to make up the shortfall."

The report also qualifies the usual SMR rhetoric about economies derived from mass factory production: "Factory assembly of small reactors is one of the core benefits of SMR's. They can be built off site in 'bulk', easily transported and then plugged into an infrastructure network promising a far quicker and cheaper alternative to large PWR's. However, in order to ensure a smooth transition from the drawing board to the construction site there are key questions to be faced in separating the expertise held in a reactor factory and the expertise required to install an SMR when it arrives on site. For an effective SMR supply chain to be developed it will need to be localized − despite the reactors being built off site, a great amount of the on-site infrastructure and materials will still require precision assembly."

If there was any remaining doubt that SMRs are not the 'game changer' they are so often portrayed to be, the report concludes: "Six decades of nuclear development have shown that nuclear energy can only be progressed if 'long-term' strategies are employed across the industry. In an economic climate where there are alternative energies offering far quicker returns on investment, clear questions need to raised and frank discussions held in order to ensure that SMR's do remain a realistic alternative for energy provision."

The report states that notwithstanding the "pervasive sense of pessimism" resulting from abandoned and scaled-back SMR programs, "we believe a more accurate picture is that 2014 has been a teething year, and that the SMR story hasn't even really begun."

Therein lies the problem − the story hasn't begun: no supply chains, no factories churning out identical reactors, and precious few customers. And another familiar problem that has long plagued the nuclear industry: a bewildering array of proposed designs.

SMR push in the UK

The UK has been bitten by the SMR bug. The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) has produced a feasibility study which argues that SMRs might eventually prove cheaper than large reactors, while also noting unresolved 'detailed technical challenges'. The House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has urged the government to spend public money to develop a demonstration SMR.6

Academics Gordon MacKerron and Philip Johnstone from the Sussex Energy Group write: "It [NNL] then suggests a potential UK market of between 7GW and 21GW in 2015, the latter number being frankly not credible under any conceivable circumstances. These hoped-for UK markets are also linked to the idea that the UK could become a major technological player in SMR technology, a view that seems tinged almost with fantasy, given that all significant SMR development to date has been outside the UK."6

South Korea's SMART reactor

South Korea may have found a model to unlock the potential of SMRs: collaboration with a repressive Middle Eastern state, extensive technology transfer, and if that fans proliferation risks and tensions in a volatile region, so be it.

On March 3, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) to carry out a three-year study to assess the feasibility of building two first-of-a-kind 'System Integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor' (SMART) reactors.7

SMART is a 100 MWe pressurized water reactor design which could be used for electricity generation and desalinization. The cost of building the first SMART reactor in Saudi Arabia is estimated at US$1 billion (€947m).7

Among other obstacles, the development of SMART technology has only lukewarm support from the South Korean government; it is no longer financially backed by Korea Electric Power Co. (Kepco); there is no intention to deploy SMART reactors in South Korea; and plans to build a demonstration plant in South Korea stalled.

South Korea launched 'SMART Power' on January 29 − an organisation tasked with marketing SMART technology overseas, conducting joint feasibility studies with interested customers, and continuing design work to make the reactor technology "more economically feasible".

KACARE says that SMART intellectual property rights will be co-owned and that, in addition to the construction of SMART reactors in Saudi Arabia, the two countries aim to commercialise the technology and to promote it world-wide.8

KACARE states: "Undisputedly, human capacity building for the production of nuclear power within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a national pursuit of paramount importance as it will essentially contribute to the sincerely devoted endeavors to devise a sustainable development future for Saudi generations."8

Failing that, the joint partnership − and the extensive technology transfer and training it entails − will take Saudi Arabia a long way down the path towards developing a latent nuclear weapons capability. Saudi officials have made no secret of the Kingdom's intention to pursue a weapons program if Iran's nuclear program is not constrained.9

Wall Street Journal reporters noted on March 11: "As U.S. and Iranian diplomats inched toward progress on Tehran's nuclear program last week, Saudi Arabia quietly signed its own nuclear-cooperation agreement with South Korea. That agreement, along with recent comments from Saudi officials and royals, is raising concerns on Capitol Hill and among U.S. allies that a deal with Iran, rather than stanching the spread of nuclear technologies, risks fueling it."10

A bilateral nuclear trade agreement between the US and Saudi Arabia has stalled because of the Kingdom's refusal to rule out developing enrichment or reprocessing technology. "We've been pressing them to agree not to pursue a civilian fuel cycle, but the Saudis refuse," said Gary Samore, a US government official working on nuclear issues during President Obama's first term.10

References:

1. James Conca, 16 Feb 2015, 'Can SMRs Lead The U.S. Into A Clean Energy Future?', www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/02/16/can-smrs-lead-the-u-s-into-a-...
2. Nuclear Energy Insider, 2014, "Small Modular Reactors: An industry in terminal decline or on the brink of a comeback?", http://bit.ly/smrscomeback
3. March 2015, 'SMRs "back on the agenda next year", says new report by Nuclear Energy Insider', www.prweb.com/releases/2015/03/prweb12549421.htm
4. Dan Yurman, 1 March 2015, 'Be careful about rose colored glasses when viewing the future of SMRs', http://neutronbytes.com/2015/03/01/be-careful-about-rose-colored-glasses...
5. Peter Taberner, 3 March 2015, 'SMRs: private investors call for track record and big government orders', http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/small-modular-reactors/smrs-pri...
6. Gordon MacKerron and Philip Johnstone, 2 March 2015, 'Small modular reactors – the future of nuclear power?', http://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/sussexenergygroup/2015/03/02/small-modular-rea...
7. WNN, 4 March 2015, 'Saudi Arabia teams up with Korea on SMART', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Saudi-Arabia-teams-up-with-Korea-on-SMART-...
8. KACARE, 3 March 2015, 'MOU's Signature', www.kacare.gov.sa/en/?p=1667
9. 18 Sept 2014, 'Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program and its weapons ambitions', Nuclear Monitor, Issue #791, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4195
10. Jay Solomon and Ahmed Al Omran, 11 March 2015, 'Saudi Nuclear Deal Raises Stakes for Iran Talks', www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-nuclear-deal-raises-stakes-for-iran-talks-142...

Michael Mariotte Legacy Fund

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#800
19/03/2015
Shorts

For over 30 years, Michael Mariotte − President of the Nuclear Information & Resource (NIRS) in the US − has helped build the movement to stop nuclear power, end the creation of radioactive waste, and hasten our sustainable energy future. Over a dozen organizations in the US recently presented Michael with a Lifetime Achievement Award, with the highest praise for his work.

But now Michael needs our support. For two years, he has been fighting his way through an aggressive form of cancer. Despite his illness, it has actually helped keep him strong to continue working throughout − just see the safeenergy.org blog for his prolific activity and inimitable voice. In honor of his incredible dedication and service, NIRS is committed to providing Michael whatever support he needs, just as he has sustained the movement all these years.

Therefore, NIRS is raising funds to ensure Michael has the support he needs and that his work continues. The funds raised will serve three purposes: to ensure Michael receives his full salary and benefits, regardless of whether he is able to continue working; to ensure NIRS has the capacity to advance the mission to which he has dedicated his career; and, at Michael's specific request, to ramp up NIRS' work on nuclear power and climate.

If you can donate, please visit: http://legacyfund.nirs.org

About: 
NIRS

Yucca Mountain opposition: it's not just Harry

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#802
4463
23/04/2015
Michael Mariotte − President of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS)
Article

The conventional wisdom scribes have been falling all over themselves since US Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced last month that he won't run for re-election to spout what is obvious to all of them: Reid's exit means Yucca Mountain will finally open.

After all, Super Harry has been single-handedly preventing Yucca from becoming the nation's single most lethal plot of land.

If you've never seen conventional wisdom in action, then you're in for a treat. Here it is, in all its shining glory, in The Hill: 'Reid's exit removes obstacle to Yucca nuclear waste site'.1

Ignore the 880, mostly inane, comments to the piece and focus on the intro: Reid's retirement "is removing one of the biggest obstacles" to Yucca. Find an anonymous Hill staffer to quote, preferably a Republican:

"There's no question that people are looking around and saying, 'Yeah, this news is good for solving the nuclear stalemate and having Yucca be part of that solution,' a Senate GOP aide said of Reid's planned departure in 2017. There's no reason to oppose Yucca beyond a political calculation, and the math on that just changed."

And make sure to get a quote from Yucca's biggest booster, Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus and add the tantalizing possibility that some Democrats support Yucca Mountain (as a few always have).

Bury the actual facts late in the story, after the ads. Like, the fact that likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also opposes Yucca Mountain. As does the state's other Senator Dean Heller, a Republican. And the Republican Governor, Brian Sandoval, as well. Oh, wait, the article does forget to mention that one.

Oh, and some environmental groups also oppose Yucca Mountain.

Actually, it's not just some; it's essentially all environmental and clean energy organizations across the country. When we tallied it up in 2002, more than 50 national organizations and 700+ regional, state and local organizations from across the nation had publicly stated their opposition to Yucca.2

So it's not just Nevadans either. And it's not like the number has gone down since 2002; if anything, the number has gone up.

Why is there such widespread opposition to Yucca? It's not because Harry Reid doesn't want the project. It's not blind support for President Obama, who began ending the project as soon as he came into office in 2009. It's because as one of the most studied places on Earth, it's the one place on Earth we know will leak if it becomes a radioactive waste dump − a fact NIRS and other environmental groups have been pointing out, with greater and greater scientific backing, for decades.

I mean no disrespect for Senator Reid here. He's done a terrific job on Yucca Mountain, on renewable energy and on a lot of other things. In fact, I have tremendous respect for Senator Reid.

But I remember when he was the junior senator from Nevada, and Senator Richard Bryan was the senior senator, and very effectively led the Congressional opposition to Yucca which culminated in the 2000 veto by President Clinton of a Yucca/Mobile Chernobyl bill − a veto that was sustained by one vote.

It was Bryan who spoke from the stage at our 1997 anti-Yucca concerts in Washington with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Indigo Girls and more. Not Reid.

During the debate on that 2000 legislation, I watched C-Span on my computer and fed Reid's office with information every few minutes to counter the pro-Yucca statements. Reid wasn't as ready then to effectively take on Yucca; Bryan, nearing the end of his political career, didn't need any help.

Indeed, it wasn't until after Bryan retired, and Reid and I had a private meeting in his office, that we became fully comfortable with him in his new role as the lead anti-Yucca spokesperson on the Hill. And he went on to far surpass all of our expectations.

But the opposition to Yucca isn't − despite the conventional wisdom − about Harry Reid. It's about the fundamental fact that putting the nation's lethal high-level radioactive waste in a highly seismically-active zone, where radioactive materials from weapons tests that went into the mountain in the 1950s have since leaked back out of the mountain, makes no sense.

It's about the fundamental fact that even the Department of Energy admits that the mountain provides essentially none of the required prevention of leakage of the waste; the casks − which will rust and decay and the unbuilt and quite possibly unbuildable titanium shields the DOE now says are essential − provide 95% of that protection. If that's the case, and it is, then the waste could go anywhere. Like underneath any of the nuclear reactor sites in the country.

That would be a stupid idea, of course; but it's no less stupid at Yucca Mountain. If we're going to have a permanent waste repository, and we need one sooner or later − sooner if we can end radioactive waste generation sooner − it should at least offer some measure of protection. We know it won't at Yucca Mountain.

The opposition to Yucca Mountain is deep, broad and national. It also has proven its effectiveness over the years. And it's not going away. Senator Reid knows that. That's why he can confidently say, as he did the day after his announcement, that "Yucca Mountain is dead."

The Las Vegas Sun knows that too; that's why their front page article last month on the opposition didn't focus on Reid, it focused on the grassroots.3 By the way, the Sun also put a kind article about me and the NIRS' Legacy Fund as a sidebar on the front page too.4

Heck, even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff know it. They won't even recommend that the project be pursued any longer.

The nuclear industry and its backers are persistent. That's why some battles have to be fought over and over again. But we're just as persistent. Yucca was named as the nation's only high-level radioactive waste site by an ignorant Congress in 1987, to be operational by 1998. It didn't happen, and it won't happen in 2018 or 2028 or any other date either.

We all owe Senator Harry Reid a lot for his efforts over the years. We owe each other a round of thanks too.

For some background on why Yucca Mountain is scientifically unsuitable as a high-level radioactive waste site, and a bit of history on the opposition, visit the NIRS Yucca Mountain page.5

 

References:
1. http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/237845-reids-exit-removes-o...
2. www.nirs.org/radwaste/yucca/yuccaopponentslist.htm
3. www.lasvegassun.com/news/2015/mar/06/preparing-renewed-battle-keep-yucca...
4. www.lasvegassun.com/news/2015/mar/06/yucca-opponents-fighting-old-friend...
5. www.nirs.org/radwaste/yucca/yuccahome.htm

 

There's no place for nuclear in the US 'Clean Power Plan'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#795
4436
05/12/2014
Tim Judson − Executive Director, Nuclear Information & Resource Service
Article

The US Environmental Protection Agency's plan for 'clean power' are welcome, writes Tim Judson − except for its inclusion of nuclear, and economic distortions and serious omissions that favour the technology. This open letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy calls on the EPA to ditch the 'false and irrational assumptions' used to justify both new and existing nuclear power.

Dear Administrator Gina McCarthy,

We strongly support the EPA's goals in the Clean Power Plan draft regulation, and we are grateful for the agency's leadership in setting a critical policy for reducing emissions from the electricity generation sector. We also appreciate the fact that the Clean Power Plan's purpose is to create enforceable goals for states to reduce emissions, and a framework (the Best System of Emissions Reduction / BSER) for them to implement and comply with the targets.

Unfortunately, the treatment of nuclear energy in the draft rule is unsupported by meaningful analysis, and would make it possible for states to implement the rule in ways that are counterproductive to the Clean Power Plan's purpose of reducing emissions.

The role of nuclear power must be re-evaluated

We are, additionally, very concerned about industry proposals to expand provisions to encourage nuclear. We urge the EPA to conduct a thorough and fact-based analysis of nuclear, and to do the following:

  • Remove the preservation of existing nuclear reactors from the BSER.
  • Do not force Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee to finish building new reactors.
  • Conduct a thorough and accurate analysis of the environmental impacts of nuclear power, from radioactive waste and uranium mining to reactor accidents and water use.
  • Recognize and incorporate the much greater role renewable energy and efficiency can, will, and must play in reducing carbon emissions and replacing both fossil fuels and nuclear.

We recognize that the EPA has undertaken a monumental task in developing the Clean Power Plan − perhaps the most important single step in setting the U.S. on the path to reducing emissions enough to avert the worst of global warming and climate change.

It is essential that we begin making substantial reductions in emissions immediately, and that the institutional inertia and narrow self-interest of utilities and major power companies do not stand in the way of deploying the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable energy solutions.

For that very reason, it is important the regulation ensures states do not get off on the wrong foot and implement the rule in ways that are counterproductive.

False and irrational assumptions

Unfortunately, the Clean Power Plan's treatment of nuclear incentivizes the preservation and expansion of a technology that is and has always been the most expensive, inflexible, and dangerous complement to fossil fuels.

The Clean Power Plan incorporates nuclear into the BSER in two ways:

  • Assumes five new reactors will be completed and brought online in the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and irrationally estimates the cost of doing so as $0. In fact, billions more remain to be spent on these reactors and there is a great deal of uncertainty about when, if ever, they will be completed, facing years of delays and billions in cost overruns. The cost assumption would force states to complete the reactors no matter the cost, rather than enabling them to choose better ways to meet their emissions goals. Even though renewables and efficiency could be deployed at lower cost than nuclear, the draft rule would make it look like they are much more expensive because of the zero-cost assumption about completing the reactors.
  • Encourages states to 'preserve' reactors economically at-risk of being closed, equivalent to 6% of each state's existing nuclear generation. While it is true that about 6% of the nation's operating reactors may close for economic reasons, this provision encourages every state to subsidize existing reactors, greatly underestimates the cost of doing so, and overestimates their role in reducing emissions. Uneconomical reactors have high and rising operating costs, and cannot compete with renewables and efficiency.

The rule also says states may utilize two other ways of adding nuclear capacity as options for achieving the goals, even though they are not incorporated in the BSER:

  • New reactors other than those currently in construction. EPA recognizes that new nuclear is too expensive to be included in the BSER, so it should not suggest states consider it as a way of meeting their emissions goals.
  • Power uprate modifications to increase the generation capacity of existing reactors. Power uprates are capital-intensive and expensive, and several recent projects have been cancelled or suffered major cost overruns, in the case of Minnesota's Monticello reactor, at a total cost greater than most new reactors (US$10 million/megawatt).1

Rather than suggesting states waste resources on nuclear generation too expensive and infeasible to be included in the BSER, EPA should include an analysis of these problems so that states can better evaluate their options and select lower-cost, more reliable means for reducing emissions, such as renewables and efficiency.

Serious nuclear concerns ignored

The Clean Power Plan also considers some non-air quality impacts of nuclear generation, as it is required to do under the Clean Air Act. However, the EPA's evaluation is both woefully incomplete and alarmingly inadequate. EPA dismisses concerns about radioactive waste and nuclear power's impact on water resources, simply characterizing them as equivalent to problems with fossil fuel generation.

In fact, radioactive waste is an intractable problem that threatens the environment for potentially hundreds of thousands of years. In addition, nuclear reactors' use of water is more intensive than fossil fuel technologies, and a majority of existing reactors utilize the most water-intensive once-through cooling systems.

Regardless, however, rather than only comparing them to fossil fuels, EPA should have compared these impacts to the full range of alternatives, including renewables and efficiency, which do not have such problems.

EPA leaves out a host of other environmental impacts unique to nuclear, including uranium mining and nuclear accidents. There are over 10,000 abandoned uranium mines throughout the US, which are subject to lax environmental standards, pose major groundwater and public health risks, present serious environmental justice concerns, and could entail billions in site cleanup and remediation costs.

The failure to consider the impacts of a nuclear accident is a glaring oversight, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. EPA must consider both the environmental and economic impact of nuclear accidents.

Renewables can do the job!

In general, the Clean Power Plan's consideration of nuclear appears to be based on a dangerous fallacy: that closed reactors must be replaced with fossil fuel generation, presumably because other low- / zero-carbon resources could not make up the difference.

In fact, renewable energy growth has surpassed all other forms of new generation for going on three years, making up 48% of all new electricity generation brought online from 2011 to July 2014.2

The growth rate of wind energy alone (up to 12,000 MW per year) would be sufficient to replace all of the 'at-risk' nuclear capacity within two years, at lower cost than the market price of electricity,3 let alone at the subsidized rate for nuclear the draft rule suggests.

Assuming that closed reactors will be replaced with fossil fuel generation both encourages states to waste resources trying to 'preserve' (or even build) uneconomical reactors rather than on more cost-effective and productive investments in renewables and efficiency.

While states are free to develop their implementation plans without using the specific energy sources included in the BSER, the rule should not promote such foolishness.

No amount of spending or subsidies for nuclear has been effective at reducing the technology's costs nor overcoming lengthy construction times and delays, whereas spending on renewables and efficiency has had the effect of lowering their costs and increasing their rate of deployment.

The economic problems facing currently operating reactors merely underscore the point that nuclear is not a cost-effective way of reducing emissions.

We believe that correcting the problems with the way nuclear is considered in the draft rule, and increasing the role of renewables and efficiency, will make the Clean Power Plan much stronger and lead states to implement it more productively and cost-effectively.

References

1. Shaffer, David. 'Xcel management blamed for cost overruns at Monticello nuclear plant'. Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 9, 2014, www.startribune.com/business/266353511.html
2. Sun Day Campaign. 'Renewables Provide 56 Percent of New US Electrical Generating Capacity in First Half of 2014'. July 21, 2014, www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2014/07/renewables-provide...
3. Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. '2013 Wind Technologies Market Report'. US Department of Energy. August 18,2014,http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/08/f18/2013%20Wind%20Technologie...

Nuclear News

20/11/2014
Shorts

Lifetime Achievement Award for Michael Mariotte

Michael Mariotte, President of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), was honoured on November 10 by 14 environmental organisations in recognition of his three decades of work to educate the public and lawmakers about the dangers of nuclear power. The award was presented by Ralph Nader.

Among his many achievements over 30 years, Michael led the successful fight to block the Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor project in Maryland. In the 1990s, he initiated a program to support fledgling anti-nuclear groups across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with tens of thousands of dollars in grants and visits by U.S. energy experts to Ukraine, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary. Drawing upon public awareness of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor disaster, Michael played a major role in the fight to defeat federal 'Mobile Chernobyl' legislation that would have permitted the mass transportation nationwide of nuclear fuel waste, with the outcome hinging on a one-vote margin of victory in the US Senate in 2000.

Michael influenced an entire generation of anti-nuclear activists by bringing the idea of "anti-nuclear action camps" from Europe to the US and helped organise six of them − three in New England and three in Midwest. The Vermont Yankee reactor shutdown announcement came 15 years to the day after the arrests of members of the first New England action camp.

The 14 groups supporting the award are Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, Beyond Nuclear, Center for Study of Responsive Law, Clean Water Action, Environment America, Friends of the Earth, The Guacamole Fund, Greenpeace, Independent Council for Safe Energy Fund, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, Sierra Club and World Information Service on Energy.

Former NIRS board chair Paxus Calta said: "MM was a visionary with respect to Eastern Europe, which is how we met. He was one of the few people in the US who saw what was completely apparent in Czechoslovakia, that without orders for new reactors in the 1990s in the west, the newly liberated former communist countries were the place nuclear engineering infrastructure could be maintained. And just as Westinghouse and GE's focus moved to eastern Europe. MM designed (with me) and implemented the east European small grant program, he got money from Ted Turner and others, recognizing that relatively small contributions from the west could have tremendous impact in the east. We gave out 40 grants, funding everything from bike tours, to direct action camps, micro anti-nuclear university and east/west internships. Some of the most important reactors in the world in this fight were the pair of units affectionately called K2R4, which were in Khmelnitsky and Rivne in the Ukraine.

"One of the most important interns to come to the micro anti-nuclear university was Tanya Murza also from Rivne. We stopped the western funding for the reactors at K2R4 and basically knocked the east European development bank (the EBRD) out of the business of paying western companies to complete 25 unfinished Russian reactors. And Tanya stayed and she an MM had two charming kids. MM has been a hero and inspiration to a whole bunch of people including me."

www.nirs.org/about/mmlifetimeachievementawardpr111014.pdf
http://funologist.org/2014/11/11/a-cardboard-hero-of-the-revolution-button/
http://safeenergy.org/2014/11/12/on-awards-and-elections/

UK: Waste transport ship fire

A ship carrying intermediate-level radioactive waste from Dounreay to Belgium which caught fire and began drifting in the Moray Firth, near Scotland, has raised new concerns about plans to move waste and fuel from Dounreay to Sellafield by sea. The MV Parida was transporting a cargo of cemented radioactive waste when a fire broke out in a funnel. The blaze was extinguished, but 52 workers were taken from the Beatrice oil platform by helicopter as a precaution. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority said the platform was evacuated because the ship may have crashed into it, but not out of any concerns about radioactive contamination.(1)

Questions were asked about why this ship set out given the severe weather warnings. Highlands Against Nuclear Transport said the incident was a warning about transporting radioactive cargoes by sea, and called for proposals to move other nuclear waste from Dounreay to Sellafield by sea to be scrapped. Angus Campbell, the leader of the Western Isles Council, said the Parida incident highlighted the need for a second coastguard tug in the Minch. "A ship in similar circumstances on the west coast would be reliant on the Northern Isles-based ETV [emergency towing vessel] which would take a considerable amount of time to get to an incident in these waters."(2) Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) say the contentious plans to ship some 26 tonnes of 'exotic' nuclear materials (irradiated and unirradiated plutonium and highly enriched uranium fuels) from Dounreay to Sellafield have moved a major step closer following recent sea and port trials in Scottish waters undertaken by the NDA's ship Oceanic Pintail which is based at Barrow-in-Furness.(3)

− Reprinted from nuClear news No.68, Nov 2014, www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/nuclearnews/NuClearNewsNo68.pdf

1. West Highland Free Press, 26 July 2014, www.whfp.com/2014/07/25/concern-over-nuclear-waste-shipments/
Stornoway Gazette, 3 Aug 2014, www.stornowaygazette.co.uk/news/local-headlines/concerns-raised-about-ra...
2. Herald, 30 July 2014, www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/plans-for-radioactive-waste-by-sea...
3. CORE, 8 Oct 2014, www.corecumbria.co.uk/newsapp/pressreleases/pressmain.asp?StrNewsID=346

UK: Leaked Sellafield photos reveal radioactive threat

The Ecologist has published a set of leaked images from an anonymous source showing decrepit nuclear waste storage facilities at the Sellafield nuclear plant. The images show the state of spent nuclear fuel storage ponds that were commissioned in 1952 and used until the mid-1970s to store spent fuel until it could be reprocessed. They were abandoned in the mid-1970s and have been left derelict for almost 40 years. The ponds are now undergoing decommissioning but the process is fraught with danger. Nuclear expert John Large warned that if the ponds drain, the Magnox fuel will ignite and that would lead to a massive release of radioactive material.

Oliver Tickell, 27 Oct 2014, 'Leaked Sellafield photos reveal 'massive radioactive release' threat', www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2611216/leaked_sellafield_photos...

143 states support UN call for DU clean-up assistance

143 states voted in favour of a fifth UN General Assembly First Committee resolution on DU weapons, which calls for states to provide assistance to countries affected by the weapons. Four states opposed the resolution, and 26 abstained (including Germany, which has previously supported similar resolutions). The resolution, which built on previous texts with the addition of a call for 'Member States in a position to do so to provide assistance to States affected by the use of arms and ammunition containing depleted uranium, in particular in identifying and managing contaminated sites and material' was submitted by Indonesia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement. The resolution also recognised the need for more research on DU in conflict situations. Predictably, the UK, US, France and Israel voted against the resolution. It has recently emerged that the US may again use DU in Iraq. International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons coordinator Doug Weir said: "The reasons given for abstaining have become increasingly feeble, and now seem to revolve around paradoxical arguments calling for more research while opposing a text that calls for exactly that. The people of Iraq and other affected states deserve far better."

www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/143-states-support-call-du-vote-at-un-1comm
www.counterpunch.org/2014/11/06/inside-the-un-resolution-on-depleted-ura...

Activists hold up uranium train in Hamburg

Anti-nuclear activists stopped a trainload of "yellow cake" uranium in Hamburg harbour, Germany, for more than seven hours earlier this month.1 The train was taking 15 containers of the ore from Kazakhstan to Malvési in southern France for processing, a frequent run. While two activists suspended themselves over the railway track, eight were temporarily arrested on the ground. Activists have demanded that Mayor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, close Hamburg harbour to nuclear shipments, as the city of Bremen has done. From November 28−30, an international meeting to oppose uranium transportation will be held in Münster, hosted by SOFA Münster (www.sofa-ms.de/home.html).

Meanwhile, an alliance of German environment activists plans to try to prevent the export of CASTOR containers with highly radioactive fuel pebbles to the USA from Jülich and Ahaus. When the supervisory board of the Jülich research centre met on November 19 to discuss what to do with the CASTORS there, activists mounted a protest outside. The catchcry of the anti-nuclear movement, "Nothing in, nothing out!" is the basic tenet of the new alliance, currently comprising 13 groups, with more likely to come on board.

1. http://nuclear-news.net/2014/11/12/activists-hold-up-uranium-train-in-ha...

German authorities stuff up nuclear exercise

A secret large-scale simulation of an atomic disaster at a German nuclear power plant in Lingen ended poorly on 17 September because crisis managers at national and state levels fought over responsibilities. The outcome was revealed by the investigative newspaper Taz in October, citing 1,000 pages of internal ministerial protocols and files. In a real situation a radioactive cloud would have moved southeast from Lingen across Osnabrück, Steinfurt, Warendorf, Gütersloh and Bielefeld before authorities had alerted people to the danger. Only because of the assumed wind direction, cities like Münster and Hamm were spared the first atomic cloud; had a different wind been assumed they, too, would have been hit by the fallout unprepared. Taz reported that despite this disaster the federal environment ministry had drawn no conclusions from the failure of the emergency exercise by time it published its story.

Willi Hesters of the Aktionsbündnis Münsterland gegen Atomanlagen (Münsterland Alliance Against Atomic Installations) said: "This exceeds the worst fears. It appears that in a real situation the German authorities appear to be unable to adequately inform and protect the population in case of a maximum credible accident. Why was this exercise kept secret? Why have no consequences been drawn yet? If the authorities are unable to protect the population in case of grave atomic accidents, the federal environment ministry must immediately close down all atomic installations." The simulated worst case scenario in Lingen, where there is also a nuclear fuel factory, is particularly controversial because earlier this year the precautionary areas for atomic accidents were drastically enlarged. Under the new rules, all areas within a 20 km radius of nuclear power stations would have to be evacuated within 24 hours; within a radius of 100 kilometres people would have to stay indoors and take iodine tablets. Matthias Eickhoff from the activist group SOFA (Immediate Atomic Shutdown Münster) said: "If communication doesn't work at the highest level between federal and state governments, how is it supposed to work at lower level between the states, counties and municipalities? A disaster beyond all expectations is unmanageable at administrative level."

www.taz.de/Geheime-Uebung-von-Bund-und-Laendern/!148295/
https://linksunten.indymedia.org/en/node/127362

WIPP waste accident a 'horrific comedy of errors'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#794
4430
20/11/2014
Jim Green
Article

The precise cause of the February 14 accident involving a radioactive waste barrel at the world's only deep geological radioactive waste repository has yet to be determined, but information about the accident continues to come to light.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA, is a dump site for long-lived intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program. More than 171,000 waste containers are stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 meters) underground.

On February 14, a heat-generating chemical reaction − the Department of Energy (DOE) calls it a deflagration rather than an explosion − compromised the integrity of a barrel and spread contaminants through more than 3,000 feet of tunnels, up the exhaust shaft, into the environment, and to an air monitoring approximately 3,000 feet north-west of the exhaust shaft.1 The accident resulted in 22 workers receiving low-level internal radiation exposure.

Investigators believe a chemical reaction between nitrate salts and organic 'kitty litter' used as an absorbent generated sufficient heat to melt seals on at least one barrel. But experiments have failed to reproduce the chemical reaction, and hundreds of drums of similarly packaged nuclear waste are still intact, said DOE spokesperson Lindsey Geisler. "There's still a lot we don't know," she said.2

Terry Wallace from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) said: "LANL did not consider the chemical reactions that unique combinations of radionuclides, acids, salts, liquids and organics might create."3

Determining the cause of the accident has been made all the more difficult because the precise composition of the waste in the damaged barrel is unknown.4,5 A former WIPP official said: "The DOE sites that sent in the waste got careless in documenting what was being shipped in ... The contractors at the sites packing the waste were not exactly meticulous. When we complained to DOE, it was made clear we were just to keep taking the waste and to shut up."6

Operations to enable WIPP to reopen will cost approximately US$242 million (€193m) according to preliminary estimates by the DOE. In addition, a new ventilation system is required which will cost US$65−261 million (€52−208m).7 Taking into account indirect costs such as delays with the national nuclear weapons clean-up program, the total cost could approach US$1 billion (€800m).4 Further costs could be incurred if the State of New Mexico fines DOE for its safety lapses at WIPP.5

The DOE hopes WIPP will reopen in 2016 but the shut-down could extend to 2017 or beyond.8

A 'horrific comedy of errors'

British academic Rebecca Lunn, a professor of engineering geosciences, describes how waste repositories would work in a perfect world. "Geological disposal of nuclear waste involves the construction of a precision-engineered facility deep below the ground into which waste canisters are carefully manoeuvred. Before construction of a geological repository can even be considered, an environmental safety case must be developed that proves the facility will be safe over millions of years."9

Prof. Lunn's description is far removed from the situation at WIPP. Robert Alvarez, a former assistant to the energy secretary, said that a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted accidents such as the February 14 deflagration once every 200,000 years, yet WIPP has been open for merely 15 years.5 WIPP is on track for not one but over 13,000 radiation release accidents over a 200,000 year period.

The WIPP accident resulted from a "horrific comedy of errors" according to James Conca, a scientific adviser and WIPP expert: "This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge."4

The problems began long before February 14, and they extend beyond WIPP. Serious problems have been evident across the US nuclear weapons program. Systemic problems have been evident with DOE oversight. The problematic role of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) − a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE − is emphasised in a detailed analysis by investigative journalist Joseph Trento.6

A DOE official quoted by Trento said a root problem is "the fact that DOE has no real operational control over the NNSA. Under the guise of national security, NNSA runs the contractors, covers up accidents and massive cost overruns and can fire any DOE employee who tries to point out a problem. Because they control so many jobs and contractors, every administration refuses to take them on."

Trento explains the realpolitik: "The contractor game at NNSA is played this way: Major corporations form LLC's [limited liability companies] and bid for NNSA and DOE contracts. For example, at SRS [Savannah River Site] they bid to clean up waste and get some of the billions of dollars from Obama's first term stimulus money. Things go wrong, little gets cleaned up, workers get injured or exposed to radiation and outraged NNSA management cancels the contract. A new LLC is formed by the same NNSA list of corporate partners and they are asked to bid on a new management contract. The new LLC hires the same workers as the old management company and the process gets repeated again and again. The same mistakes are made and the process keeps repeating itself. These politically connected DOE contractors, responsible for tens of billions of dollars in failed projects and mishandling of the most deadly materials science has created, have been protected by the biggest names in both the Republican and Democratic parties at an enormous cost to the U.S. taxpayers, public health and the environment."

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Of immediate relevance to the February 14 WIPP accident are problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The waste barrel involved in the accident was sent from LANL to WIPP. LANL staff approved the switch from an inorganic clay absorbent to an organic material in September 2013. That switch is believed to be one of the causes of the February 14 accident. LANL also approved the use of a neutraliser that manufacturers warned shouldn't be mixed with certain chemicals.10

A September 30 report by the DOE's Office of Inspector General identifies "several major deficiencies in LANL's procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed" to the February 14 WIPP accident.11 The report states:

"Of particular concern, not all waste management procedures at LANL were properly vetted through the established procedure revision process nor did they conform to established environmental requirements. In our view, immediate action is necessary to ensure that these matters are addressed and fully resolved before TRU [transuranic] waste operations are resumed, or, for that matter, before future mixed radioactive hazardous waste operations are initiated.

"In particular, we noted that:

  • Despite specific direction to the contrary, LANL made a procedural change to its existing waste procedures that did not conform to technical guidance provided by the Department for the processing of nitrate salt waste; and
  • Contractor officials failed to ensure that changes to waste treatment procedures were properly documented, reviewed and approved, and that they incorporated all environmental requirements for TRU waste processing. These weaknesses led to an environment that permitted the introduction of potentially incompatible materials to TRU storage drums. Although yet to be finally confirmed, this action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications."

WIPP failings

The February 14 accident has shone a light on multiple problems at WIPP (discussed in greater detail in Nuclear Monitor #787).12

A DOE-appointed Accident Investigation Board released a report into the accident in April.13 The report identified the "root cause" of the accident to be the many failings of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the WIPP site, and DOE's Carlsbad Field Office. The report criticized their "failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard. The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed / ineffective recognition and response to the release."

The Accident Investigation Board report states that personnel did not adequately recognize, categorize, or classify the emergency and did not implement adequate protective actions in a timely manner. It further noted that there is a lack of a questioning attitude at WIPP; a reluctance to bring up and document issues; an acceptance and normalization of degraded equipment and conditions; and a reluctance to report issues to management, indicating a chilled work environment.

Trento said: "The report has a familiar litany and tone: Ignored warnings from the Defense Facilities Board, lack of DOE contractor supervision, and a missing safety culture. There are hundreds of similar reports about the Savannah River Site, LANL, Oak Ridge, Hanford and other DOE national laboratories and sensitive national security sites. The Department of Energy is in serious trouble."6

A US Environmental Protection Agency review of air testing at WIPP in February and March found discrepancies in recorded times and dates of sample collections, flawed calculation methods, conflicting data and missing documents. It also found that WIPP managers sometimes said air samples contained no detectable levels of radiation when measurable levels were present.14

A degraded safety culture was responsible for the accident, and the same failings inevitably compromised the response to the accident. Among other problems:4,6

  • The DOE contractor could not easily locate plutonium waste canisters because the DOE did not install an upgraded computer system to track the waste inside WIPP.
  • The lack of an underground video surveillance system made it impossible to determine if a waste container had been breached until long after the accident. A worker inspection team did not enter the underground caverns until April 4 − seven weeks after the accident.
  • The WIPP computerized Central Monitoring System has not been updated to reflect the current underground configuration of underground vaults with waste containers.
  • 12 out of 40 phones did not work so emergency communications could not reach all parts of WIPP in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
  • WIPP's ventilation and filtration system did not prevent radiation reaching the surface, due to neglect.
  • The emergency response moved in slow motion. The first radiation alarm sounded at 11.14pm. Not until 9.34am did managers order workers on the surface of the site to move to a safe location.

Everything that was supposed to happen, didn't. Everything that wasn't supposed to happen, did.

References:

1. Southwest Research and Information Center, 12 Sept 2014, 'WIPP Radiation Release', www.sric.org/nuclear/docs/WIPP_Leak_09122014.pdf
2. Laura Zuckerman / Reuters, 30 June 2014, 'Scientists unable to recreate chemical reaction suspected in New Mexico radiation leak', http://planetark.org/enviro-news/item/71786
3. Alex Jacobs, 1 Oct 2014, 'Radiation Leak Linked to Los Alamos; Do We Really Want Biological Agents There?', http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/10/01/radiation-leak-link...
4. Ralph Vartabedian, 24 Aug 2014, 'Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery', www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-nuclear-waste-accident-20140824-story.html
5. Matthew Wald, 29 Oct 2014, 'In U.S. Cleanup Efforts, Accident at Nuclear Site Points to Cost of Lapses', www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/us/in-us-cleanup-efforts-accident-at-nuclear-...
6. Joseph Trento, 5 June 2014, 'Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster', www.dcbureau.org/201406059835/natural-resources-news-service/breaking-ba...
7. Department of Energy, 30 Sept 2014, 'Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan', www.wipp.energy.gov/Special/WIPP%20Recovery%20Plan.pdf
8. Caty Enders, 30 Sept 2014, 'Congress pushes nuclear expansion despite accidents at weapons lab', www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/29/congress-nuclear-weapons-new-mexic...
9. Rebecca Bell, 2 Nov 2014, 'Nuclear waste must be out of sight, but not out of mind', www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/01/nuclear-waste-underground-st...
10. Staci Matlock, 2 Sept 2014, 'Review, relabeling of LANL waste raises questions about scope of problem', www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/review-relabeling-of-lanl-wast...
11. DOE Office of Inspector General, 30 Sept 2014, 'Remediation of Selected Transuranic Waste Drums at Los Alamos National Laboratory – Potential Impact on the Shutdown of the Department's Waste Isolation Plant', http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/10/f18/DOE-IG-0922.pdf
12. 'Fire and leaks at the world's only deep geological waste repository', 6 June 2014, Nuclear Monitor #787, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4067
13. http://energy.gov/em/downloads/radiological-release-accident-investigati...
14. Laura Zuckerman / Reuters, 22 Aug 2014, 'Air Testing Lapse At New Mexico Nuclear Waste Dump Blamed On Staff Vacancy', http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/23/air-testing-nuclear-waste-dump_...

More information:

Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC): www.sric.org/nuclear/wippleak2014.php
SRIC, 'WIPP Radiation Release', 12 Sept 2014, www.sric.org/nuclear/docs/WIPP_Leak_09122014.pdf
SRIC, 'Nuclear Waste Documents', www.sric.org/nuclear/nuclear2.php
SRIC, 'What the WIPP Recovery Plan Says − And What It Doesn't', 10 Oct 2014, www.sric.org/nuclear/docs/WIPP_Leak_10102014.pdf
Department of Energy: www.wipp.energy.gov
DOE, 30 Sept 2014, 'Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan', www.wipp.energy.gov/Special/WIPP%20Recovery%20Plan.pdf
US EPAwww.epa.gov/radiation/wipp/index.html
www.epa.gov/radiation/news/wipp-news.html
Carlsbad Environment Monitoring & Research Center − New Mexico State University: www.cemrc.org
New Mexico Environment Departmentwww.nmenv.state.nm.us/wipp/index.html
www.nmenv.state.nm.us/NMED/Issues/WIPP2014.html
'LANL Documents Related to WIPP': www.nmenv.state.nm.us/NMED/Issues/LANL-WIPPDocs.html
Santa Fe New Mexican: www.santafenewmexican.com/special_reports/from_lanl_to_leak/
Nuclear Watch New Mexico: http://nukewatch.org/activemap/NWC-WIPP.html
Los Alamos Study Group: www.lasg.org, www.lasg.org/waste.htm

USA: nuclear security lapses

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#775
13/12/2013
Article

These news items draw heavily on resources produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. You can subscribe to the NTI's daily Global Security Newswire at www.nti.org/get-involved/subscribe

A number of nuclear security problems in the US were discussed in Nuclear Monitor #769, including[1]:

  • an Air Force unit that oversees one-third of the US land-based nuclear missiles failed a safety and security inspection;
  • in March, the deputy commander of the 91st Missile Wing complained of "rot" in the group after an inspection gave its missile crews the equivalent of a "D" grade on Minuteman 3 launch operations, resulting in the suspension and retraining for 19 officers;
  • a B-52 bomber flight over several US states during which the crew was unaware that actual weapons were onboard;
  • a US Air Force crew ejected from a B-1 bomber that ran violently aground during a training flight;
  • Energy Department personnel pretending to be terrorists reached a substance representing nuclear-weapon fuel after they fought through defenses in an exercise at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina;
  • an Inspector General audit found over two dozen files with evidence of incidents involving Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff that should have been reported to NRC security officials, but weren't; and
  • foreign visitors allowed "unaccompanied access to numerous buildings" at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

 

Here we summarise some further lapses.

Los Alamos accused of disregarding security during VIP visits. A Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, employee with responsibility for site security is charging that the facility suspended some safety procedures during VIP visits in 2011, and then retaliated against him after he complained. The employee, Michael Irving, filed a lawsuit in the federal court in October 2013, asserting that he has the right to criticise breaches of security that impact safety around nuclear weapon materials.[2]

Two plead guilty to communication of classified nuclear weapons data. The US Justice Department announced on June 21 that a scientist and his wife, who both previously worked as contractors at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, have pleaded guilty to charges relating to their communication of classified nuclear weapons data to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official.[3] Physicist Leonardo Mascheroni and his wife Marjorie Mascheroni face prison terms. Later reports indicate that Leonardo Mascheroni may withdraw his guilty plea.[4]

Security personnel cheating on tests. More than a year after three peace activists broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, security continues to pose a "significant management challenge" for the Energy Department, the Inspector General said in a report issued on November 26. The report refers to a number of unspecified "policy issues" that have not been resolved since the July 2012 break-in at the nuclear weapons facility. Responses to the break-in have included employee retraining and follow-up investigations that uncovered other security concerns such as security personnel cheating on tests.[5]

Guard dogs accused of cheating on tests. The Y-12 National Security Complex could be working its guard dogs to exhaustion and skipping steps in their training, raising the risk that intruders or explosives could slip into the facility unnoticed, the Energy Department Inspector General said in a report released in April. "We found that half of the canine teams we observed failed explosive detection tests, many canines failed to respond to at least one of the handler's commands, and that canines did not receive all required training," the report says. Auditors were unable to confirm claims that the guard dog company had cheated on canine proficiency tests, possibly by ordering animals to sit when they failed to do so on their own to signal detection of contraband.[6]

Lost driver enters nuclear weapons complex. An apparently lost driver entered the Y-12 National Security Complex on June 6 and proceeded roughly 3 kms across its restricted grounds before protective forces blocked her progress. The Complex allowed the driver onto the grounds during an early morning surge in employee traffic. Questioning of the driver revealed "there were mental issues involved," an Oak Ridge police officer said, adding that the dirver "thought that there must have been a crash because there were nice officers waving her through with illuminated flashlight cones." Seven protection workers and a manager were removed from duty pending the outcome of an investigation.[7]

Air Force to more closely examine candidates for top nuclear posts. The US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said on November 13 that candidates for senior nuclear positions in the service would be subjected to a more rigorous screening process. The decision comes after the Air Force general in charge of intercontinental ballistic missiles was discharged from his position in October due to concerns about his alcohol consumption.[8]

Former Dresden nuclear plant workers banned by NRC. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued orders on October 28 prohibiting two former employees of the Dresden Nuclear Power Station in Illinois from participating in nuclear work under its jurisdiction. The incident involved two senior reactor operators who worked at the Dresden plant. One of the men, Michael J. Buhrman, planned to rob an armoured car and recruited the assistance of a colleague, Landon Brittain. The plan was foiled when Buhrman was apprehended following a car-jacking on 9 May 2012. The pair fled the country while free on bail but were recaptured in Venezuela. Dresden personnel who knew about Buhrman's plan to commit an offsite crime failed to report the situation to plant management.[9,10]

US missile officers leave blast doors open while napping. US Air Force officers responsible for launching land-based nuclear missiles twice violated security policy by leaving blast doors open while napping. The incidents took place in April and May at the Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and the Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. Two launch crew commanders and two deputies received administrative punishment for the breaches. Officials with personal knowledge of the incidents say that similar transgressions have likely taken place and not been discovered. The Associated Press was alerted to the blast-door violations at Malmstrom by an official who wanted the incidents publicised out of a belief they show just how problematic discipline among ICBM crews has become.[11]

Analysis finds 'burnout' plaguing US nuclear-missile crews. A draft US Air Force-commissioned study found a significant number of personnel who oversee the service's ground-based, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles suffering from "burnout" over what they described as a high-pressure job environment offering few opportunities for advancement. RAND Corp. gathered the findings over three months earlier this year in a bid to explain why the nation's ICBM crews show a high rate of on- and off-duty misconduct relative to other Air Force personnel.[12]

References:
[1] 10 Oct 2013, 'US reactors vulnerable to terrorist attack', Nuclear Monitor #769, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4030
[2] 16 Oct 2013, Los Alamos Accused of Disregarding Security During VIP Visits, www.nti.org/gsn/article/los-alamos-accused-disregarding-security-during-...
[3] US Department of Justice, 21 June 2013, 'Former Workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory Plead Guilty to Atomic Energy Act Violations', www.fbi.gov/albuquerque/press-releases/2013/former-workers-at-los-alamos...
[4] 5 Dec 2013, 'Ex-Lab Scientist May Reverse Plea in Nuclear-Secrets Case', www.nti.org/gsn/article/ex-los-alamos-scientist-may-reverse-his-guilty-p...
[5] Diane Barnes, 3 Dec 2013, 'Nuclear-Arms Security Concerns Persist After Y-12 Break-In', www.nti.org/gsn/article/nuclear-arms-security-concerns-persist-after-y-1...
[6] Diane Barnes, 29 April 2013, 'Tired, Poorly Trained Guard Dogs Could Endanger Y-12 Nuclear Arms Site', www.nti.rsvp1.com/gsn/article/y-12-guard-dogs-exhausted/
[7] 10 June 2013, 'Unauthorized Driver Gets Past Y-12 Nuke Site Security', www.nti.org/gsn/article/guards-wave-unauthorized-driver-y-12-nuke-facility/
[8] 14 Nov 2013, 'Air Force to More Closely Examine Candidates for Top Nuclear Posts', www.nti.org/gsn/article/air-force-subject-candidates-top-nuke-command-jo...
[9] Aaron Larson, 30 Oct 2013, 'Former Dresden Nuclear Plant Workers Banned by NRC', www.powermag.com/former-dresden-nuclear-plant-workers-banned-by-nrc
[10] 18 Nov 2013, 'Bungling nuclear worker-turned-armed-robber jailed', www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2509317/Michael-J-Buhrman-sentenced-40-...
[11] 23 Oct 2013, 'U.S. Missileers Left Blast Doors Open in Security Breach', www.nti.org/gsn/article/us-missileers-found-leaving-blast-doors-open-bre...
[12] 21 Nov 2013, 'Analysis Finds 'Burnout' Plaguing U.S. Nuclear-Missile Crews', www.nti.org/gsn/article/air-force-backed-study-finds-burnout-among-icbm-...

Pakistan: nuclear security concerns

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#775
13/12/2013
Article

In September, documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that keeping tabs on the security of Pakistan's nuclear, chemical and biological facilities was consuming a growing share of the budgets of US intelligence agencies.[1]

"Knowledge of the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and associated material encompassed one of the most critical set of ... intelligence gaps," according to a leaked budget document, and this lack of information is especially troubling in light of "the political instability, terrorist threat and expanding inventory [of Pakistan's nuclear weapons]."[2]

US agencies are concentrating on two possibilities: the chance that nuclear sites in Pakistan could be assaulted by local extremist groups, and that radical militants could to infiltrate the military or intelligence agencies, giving them a better position to gain access to nuclear materials or to mount an insider attack.[2]

Another concern is that Pakistan's recent focus on developing compact lower-yield nuclear weapons might make it easier for extremists groups to steal an entire warhead.[1]

In September 2012, former nuclear weapons developer and proliferator A.Q. Khan said he was directed by Pakistan's now-deceased prime minister Benazir Bhutto to sell sensitive technology to two foreign nations, undermining the view that he was a rogue operator. Khan's claim was quickly denied by the governing Pakistan People's Party.[3]

In January 2012, a Pakistani national living in the US received a three-year prison sentence for plotting to provide Pakistan with technology and substances with atomic uses in violation of US nonproliferation controls. Nadeem Akhtar was charged with attempting to export radiation sensors, calibration equipment, specialised resins, attenuators and surface refining materials. Akhtar admitted receiving directions from a trading firm in Karachi, which received its directions from persons or entities within the Pakistani government. Some of the technology may have been destined for Pakistan's Khushab complex, where plutonium is produced.[4]

In 2010, docucments released by Wikileaks revealed numerous concerns about nuclear security in Pakistan. "Despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world," a December 2008 US intelligence document prepared for NATO noted. A White House strategy meeting in 2009 addressed potential threats to the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in great detail. "Why is it that we're trying to prevent the Pakistani government from collapsing?" one official said. "Because we fundamentally believe that we cannot afford a country with 80 to 100 nuclear weapons becoming the Congo."[5]

Recently declassified US documents show that the Reagan administration put Cold War considerations above nonproliferation concerns in the late 1980s when it decided to continue providing foreign aid to Pakistan even after the discovery of a nuclear-technology smuggling operation. Proposals from arms control officials to punish Islamabad by ending US$4 billion in annual economic and military aid were rejected because of Islamabad's support for Afghan forces fighting the Soviet Union.[6]

References:
[1] 24 Oct 2013, 'Obama Says He is Confident About Pakistani Nuclear Security', www.nti.org/gsn/article/obama-says-he-confident-about-pakistani-nuclear-...
[2] 3 Sept 2013, 'U.S. Concerned About Pakistani Nuke Security, Secret Budget Reveals', www.nti.org/gsn/article/us-has-heightened-monitoring-pakistani-nuke-bio-...
[3] 17 Sept 2013, 'Khan Says Pakistani Nuke Tech Sold on Bhutto's Orders; Party Denies Claim', www.nti.org/gsn/article/k-khan-claims-he-sold-nuke-tech-former-leaders-o...
[4] 9 Jan 2012, 'Man Gets 3 Years For Plotting to Send U.S. Nuke-Related Goods to Pakistan', www.nti.org/gsn/article/maryland-man-gets-3-years-plotting-export-nuke-r...
[5] 1 Dec 2010, 'Leaked Memos Reveal Further Concerns on Pakistani Nukes', www.nti.org/gsn/article/leaked-memos-reveal-further-concerns-on-pakistan...
[6] 26 Nov 2013, 'U.S. Ignored Attempted Pakistani Nuclear Smuggling in 1980s: Records', www.nti.org/gsn/article/us-decided-1980s-ignore-apparent-nuclear-smuggli...

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