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More tritium from commercial reactors needed for U.S. n-weapons

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

The United States' Department of Energy's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration plans over the next few years to more than triple capacity to produce tritium at the commercial Watts Bar reactor in Tennessee. A mix of tritium and deuterium is maintained in a small reservoir in each (U.S.) nuclear weapon to boost the warhead's explosive power. U.S. nuclear weapons policy calls on the Department of Energy to maintain fresh tritium in the deployed arsenal of atomic warheads carried by ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles and bomber aircraft.

This budget year alone, the NNSA is seeking a US$27.3 million boost for its "tritium readiness" effort, in which production will increase from 240 to 544 rods per cycle at a cost of US$77.5 million, the NNSA fiscal 2012 funding request to Congress states. By 2020, the agency intends to boost production to 1,700 rods each cycle. The Obama administration seeks to spend $270.5 million on tritium readiness between fiscal 2013 and 2016, producing no fewer than 240 rods per cycle as a minimum "sustaining rate" during that period.

The readiness program also includes the process of extracting tritium from the irradiated rods at the Energy Department's Savannah River Site and of maintaining military reserves of the gas.
Tritium production has gone a bit slower than anticipated because more of the gas than expected has leached from rods at Watts Bar into reactor coolant water. That has left slightly less tritium available to extract from each rod. The nuclear agency is thus exploring options for further increasing its production capacity, the notice states.

A mix of tritium - a radioactive isotope of hydrogen - and deuterium is maintained in a small reservoir in each U.S. nuclear weapon to boost the warhead's explosive power. Just a few grams of the gas, injected into the hollow pit of a warhead's primary stage, initiate a chain reaction and trigger a much more powerful secondary stage.

U.S. nuclear weapons policy calls on the Energy Department to maintain fresh tritium in the deployed arsenal of atomic warheads carried by ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles and bomber aircraft.

Continuing a policy from previous administrations, the Obama White House is also keeping roughly 2,290 warheads in an active hedge reserve force that receives regular maintenance and is kept stocked with tritium, according to Nuclear Matters. This stockpile hedge force constitutes more than one fully assembled backup warhead for each strategic warhead deployed at bomber aircraft bases, on ICBMs or on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. One key distinction between a warhead in the active force -- either deployed or hedge -- and one that has been deactivated is that the tritium reservoir in the active warhead is routinely replaced every few years to ensure that the weapon's radioactive gas does not expire.

But not everyone sees new production as a must. If the United States can deactivate warheads at an average rate of at least 5 percent every year, "there would be no need to produce additional tritium," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. That would offset the roughly 5 percent rate of annual decay in tritium in the remaining warheads, he said. Others raised additional tolls that tritium production might take. "I don't think people realize that this material is being produced in a commercial reactor and it does have environmental and health implications near the production sites," said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth. He said that heightened levels of tritium are present in groundwater near the tritium-handling facilities, and that the long-term consequences are not well understood even if the chemical levels fall within of government-approved limits.

Source: Global Security Newswire, 28 October 2011
Contact: Tom Clements, Friends of the Earth, 1100 15th Street NW, 11th Floor, Washington, DC 20005 USA
Tel: +1 202-783-7400


U.S.A.: Tritium leak at Pilgrim

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Mary Lampert

Safety and PR officials at Entergy, the Louisiana-based owner of the Pilgrim nuke plant at Plymouth, Mass., are scrambling to find the source of a radioactive tritium leak that, after new monitoring wells were dug in May, flared to unacceptable during levels July and continues to show evidence of a leak.

Published reports and sources tapped by Northampton Media reveal that state public health officials are holding urgent meetings to deal with the Pilgrim’s tritium leak, and that Pilgrim plant officials meet first thing every morning to deal with the issue.

While the Pilgrim leak, documented in late spring, amounts to far less of the radioactive material than was found at Vermont Yankee last year, the fact that the reactor is located next to Cape Cod Bay and is less than 40 miles from Boston, and 20 miles as the seagull flies from Provincetown, is cause for concern.

The radioactive element tritium is a byproduct of nuclear plants, and is measured in picocuries per liter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “acceptable level” for tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter, many times higher than the level considered safe by some states (including California, which uses 400 picocuries) and some countries (Canada’s standard is 540 picocuries).

Pilgrim’s radiation leak comes at an awkward time for Entergy, since the Pilgrim plant is nearing the end of a 20-year relicensing application for the 38-year-old nuclear power plant ­  especially after what happened at the Entergy’s other nuclear plant in the region, Vermont Yankee. Vermont Yankee’s operating license expires in a year and a half, but in February the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 against allowing the Public Service Board to issue a Certificate of Public Good, required for Entergy to operate the plant for an additional 20 years past March 2012 (see Nuclear Monitor 705, 12 March 2010: Vermont Senate shocks industry with 26-4 vote to close Vermont Yankee)

That turn of events came after dangerous tritium levels were found in groundwater last fall. Leaky underground pipes, like those suspected at Pilgrim, were blamed for tritium levels that were many times higher than federal limits. Although Entergy has said it has found, fixed and remediated the Vermont Yankee’s radioactive leak, relicensing is no sure thing.
In a report issued early September, the Vermont Department of Health detailed its investigation so far into the tritium leaks, and estimates that about 245,000 gallons of “tritium-contaminated groundwater” has been pumped from the plant site (1 U.S. gallon is 3.785 liter). The agency says the water contains tritium concentrations in the range of about 76,000 picocuries per liter. The report, however, documents that some monitoring wells there are detecting tritium levels as high as 370,000 picocuries.

At Pilgrim this May, a new groundwater monitoring well on the ocean side of the plant immediately began showing tritium levels 5-10 times higher than the other 11 test wells. And after that initial reading of 5,810 picocuries per liter, the well – dubbed MW-205 – continued to reveal rising tritium levels. On July 7, the numbers at MW-205 peaked at 25,552 picocuries, higher than even the EPA’s suspect standard of 20,000. By August 9, the state Department of Public Health’s latest published readings, tritium levels had dropped to a still-alarming level of over 12,000 picocuries.

Amazingly, groundwater monitoring at the Pilgrim plant was done voluntarily, and only started in 2007 when six test wells were dug; testing, though, was sketchy at best until April 2008. Critics of the plant’s monitoring, including the citizens group Pilgrim Watch, have called for the installation of many more wells to monitor ground water.

Samples taken by Entergy are separately analyzed by the company and by the Massachusetts Environmental Radiation Laboratory.

The Pilgrim plant is located on the edge of Cape Cod Bay, south of Boston  it was built by the Bechtel Corporation, opened in 1972, and was originally run by Boston Edison. Its maximum operating power capacity is about 688 megawatts. Over 100,000 people live within the ten-mile Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) radius. The area is the fastest growing in the state - over 600,000 live on Cape Cod, directly South of Pilgrim. New Orleans-based Entergy bought Pilgrim in November 1999. Entergy Corporation, 2004, is the second-largest nuclear generator in the United States with annual revenues of over $9 billion and approximately 14,000 employees. In 1999, Entergy paid US$80 million for Pilgrim, buying it from Boston Edison. Only US$13 million of the price was for the facility and the 1,600-acre plant site. The remainder of the price was for the nuclear fuel.

After high levels of tritium were discovered at Pilgrim, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was notified. The federal agency issued an incident report, which caught the attention of some journalists in Plymouth and Boston, but the news stories were generally ignored by other media sources in the region. Curiously, even the NRC’s own “Event Notification Report,” dated July 21, 2010, failed to document the peak levels of 25,000 picocuries, citing instead a level of 11,072 picocuries sampled a month earlier. No other incident reports could be found on a recent search of the NRC web site.

Some news stories gave brief, one-time reports citing much lower tritium-level readings and quoting only plant spokesman David Tarantino, who said public health and safety were not impacted “in any way.” There was no follow-up. The Boston Globe ran a few stories which, while not exactly hard-hitting, did reveal some startling items. One, in a July 14 Globe story, was a statement by plant flack Tarantino, who claimed the high tritium levels were due to “washout” from water vapor returning to the ground as rain. The same article quoted Ralph Anderson, a top official for The Nuclear Energy Institute, trade-group organization for the nuclear industry, as saying the discovery of tritium showed the safety systems in place worked just fine.

Dissatisfied with the official oversight of Pilgrim, Pilgrim Watch has stepped into the breach on a number of fronts. While continuing its opposition to Pilgrim’s relicensing, the group filed a petition in August asking the NRC to order Entergy to immediately perform an updated hydrological assessment of the area under and around the Pilgrim plant. “This is necessary,” the Pilgrim Watch petition reads, “to provide reasonable assurance that the leaks are not occurring so that piping and other buried components are able to perform their intended safety function (and) for Entergy to [be] in compliance with the Industry Ground Water Protection Initiative at Pilgrim Station that they agreed to follow. . ..”

The petition includes testimony on groundwater monitoring by Dr. David Ahlfeld, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst engineering professor who heads the university’s Groundwater Management Group and is also an expert working with Pilgrim Watch. Pilgrim Watch Director Mary Lampert cites Ahlfeld’s analysis that Pilgrim’s 12 monitoring wells may have been dug in the wrong spots. The monitoring-well placement, she writes, were fixed using a 1967 hydrology study, conducted long before the power plant was built. “No subsurface investigations have been performed for over 40 years, as they clearly should have been,” Lampert concluded.

Massachusetts’ Governor Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey have also gotten into the act this year, asking the NRC to get tough on radioactive leaks; Patrick called for the NRC to suspend relicensing of both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim until the leak issues are resolved. In Patrick’s Feb. 9, 2010 letter to the NRC Chairman and other commissioners, he asked the NRC to order “extensive testing for leaks of tritium and other radioactive substances at both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim” and to halt “any further consideration of the relicensing of both plants until the leak issues are resolved.”

In his position as chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and The Environment Subcommittee, Markey wrote NRC Chairman Jaczko on July 15 this year, after reading a Globereport on Pilgrim’s tritium leak. “Sadly, this appears to be just another in a long line of failures of buried piping systems and our nation’s nuclear plants,” Markey wrote. “This lack of a serious and comprehensive (NRC) inspection regime for buried piping systems has long been a concern of mine.. . .The current inspection regime for buried pipes – physical inspections conducted only in those rare instances when pipes are dug out for other purposes – is incapable of ensuring the integrity of decades-old piping systems.. . . “Other industries have figured out how to inspect their buried pipes in a proactive and comprehensive fashion,” Markey concluded. “How many more failures does the nuclear industry and the NRC need before they admit that aging buried systems need additional attention?”

Sources: 'Pilgrim we have a problem', 6 September 2010 at /
Contact: Pilgrim Watch,   c/o Mary Lampert, 148 Washington Street, Duxbury, MA 02332, USA.


In brief

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Flamanville-3 two years behind schedule. The construction of the second EPR at Flamville (France) faces the  same problems as the first in Olkiluoto (Finland). Flamanville-3 is now two years behind schedule and at least 1 billion euro (US$ 1.3 billion) over budget, EDF Group announced on 30 July. The company said “the target for beginning marketable output” from the French utility’s first Areva EPR “is now set at 2014, with construction costs now re-estimated at around 5 billion euro. The original date for operation was June 2012 and the most recent cost estimate was 4 billion euro, although the original estimate was 3.3 billion euro.

The delay at Flamanville-3 was confirmed as part of the release of information on EDF’s first-half 2010 financial results. EDF reported that first-half net income of 1.659 billion euro was down 46.9% from 3.123 billion the same time last year. First-half 2010 earnings before interest and taxes were 5.289 billion euro, down from 6.784 billion in first-half 2009, although revenues rose, EDF said.
Nucleonics Week, 5 August 2010

Canada: contaminated turbines to Sweden? Bruce Power plans to ship 16 radioactive steam generators through the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River, and across the Atlantic Ocean to Sweden, later this year. Each generator weighs 110 metric tons and contains over 50 trillion becquerels of long-lived man-made radioactive materials, including five isotopes of plutonium. In Sweden, Studsvik plans to melt up to 90 percent of the radiation-laced metal and sell it as 'clean' scrap intended for unrestricted use. In this way, some of the radioactivity will be dispersed into the air (atmospheric emissions), some will be dispersed into the Baltic Sea (liquid effluents), and some will be incorporated into consumer products of all kinds -- razor blades, hair dryers, paper clips, you name it. The remaining 10 percent will be shipped back to Bruce Power for storage as radioactive waste.

Bowing to public pressure, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission recently agreed to a one-day public hearing in Ottawa on September 29 on this issue.
Gordon Edwards, CCNR, 6 August 2010 / Press release Great Lakes United, 18 August 2010

China: Criticality for fast reactor. The Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) achieved sustained fission for the first time on July 21, according to the owner the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIEA). The reactor will go on to reach a thermal capacity of 60 MW and produce 20 MW in electrical power for the grid. The first sodium-cooled fast reactor in the country, it was built by Russia's OKBM Afrikantov in collaboration with OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute.

Beyond this pilot plant, China once planned a 600 MWe commercial scale version by 2020 and a 1500 MWe version in 2030 but these ambitious ideas have been overtaken by the import of ready-developed Russian designs. In October last year an agreement was signed by CIAE and China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation (CNEIC) with AtomStroyExport to start pre-project and design works for a commercial nuclear power plant with two BN-800 reactors with construction to start in August 2011, probably at a coastal site.
World Nuclear News, 22 July 2010

Funny. Or not…? From a local Cumbrian (U.K.) newspaper: "The issue of councilors declaring an interest during debates about the nuclear industry is again causing concern due to the amount of time it takes. At August 17th full council meeting at Millom, numerous members of Copeland Council were obliged to stand and declare a prejudicial interest in an agenda item about nuclear new builds. Coun Henry Wormstrup, who has become increasingly frustrated by the practice, said the current system needed reform due to the number of councilors employed by or linked to the industry."
Whitehaven News, 18 August 2010

Danger of tritium underestimated. The health risks of tritium may be undervalued because its possible damage to DNA may lead to genetic mutations, says an expert who participated in a White Paper published by the French Institute of Radiation Protection and Nuclear Monitoring (IRSN) on nuclear safety. This radioactive isotope of hydrogen was released in the past by atmospheric testing of atomic weapons and is now produced by nuclear reactors and the reprocessing of nuclear fuels. Its radiotoxicity is low and the impact of its waste, gaseous or liquid, is considered unimportant. However, the IRSN is calling for "further studies" including on "possible hereditary effects". The IRSN added that further research was necessary which was "representative of the actual conditions of exposure."
Le Monde (Fra.) 8 July 2010

Any plutonium in the basement? In Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic Georgia, a container with plutonium was found at a depot of the now defunct Isotope Institute. The plutonium had not been registered with any state entity. Employees of the former institute told the Georgian Public Broadcaster that they had no idea that plutonium was stored at the depot. The plutonium-beryllium was discovered inside a “special container stored in wax and lead, which was quite safe and presented no danger for the environment,” according to Giorgi Nabakhtiani, a nuclear expert with Georgia's Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Ministry.

"Georgia plans to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency about the unregistered plutonium." Not mentioned is how many plutonium is in the container, although Nabakhtiani said that the laboratory did not contain enough plutonium-beryllium for use in a radiological "dirty bomb."; 30 July 2010 / Bloomberg, 2 August 2010

Energy Solutions opts not to store Italian nuclear waste in Utah, US. U.S. company Energy Solutions will no longer pursue agreements to dispose of Italian nuclear waste in the state of Utah. The Salt Lake City based company told Utah US Representatives of their plans not to store the imported material at the Clive Facility, 75 miles west of metropolitan Salt Lake City in the Tooele Valley. The company maintains it is not bowing to public pressure, but is making a solid business decision. Environmentalists are calling this a huge victory for the people of Utah.

Energy Solutions was hoping to import 20,000 tons of low level waste from Italy that would have been processed in Tennessee, and then the remaining 1,600 tons would have been held in storage in Utah. The company is hoping to consult with Italian nuclear power authorities to reach an agreement on opening a facility in Italy instead.
Fox13News, Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press, 14 July 2010

Dangerous censorship. Russian authorities removed information on forest fires in radioactive contaminated regions from internet. Removing of important information may help officials to escape from responsibilities, but can not help to improve situation with forest fire.

On Augusts 13, the head of Russian Emergency Ministry Sergey Shoigu publicly demanded to stop the rumours about radiation danger as a result of forest fires in the region of Bryansk. Immediately after this statement, the governmental organization "Roslesozaschita", responsible for protecting forests, removed information about forest fire in radioactively contaminated zones in the west of Russia from its website. A week earlier, on August 6, "Roslesozaschita" officially announced that since June it registered 507 forest fires in regions partly radioactive contaminated. Moreover, the organization strongly recommended the authorities to inform local population about radiation danger. Also, "Roslesozaschita" it published a list of radioactively contaminated forests on fire (for instance 401 fires in the Chelyabinsk region)

"The Emergency Ministry and "Rosalesozaschita" are acting against Russian Constitution when removing information on fires in radioactively contaminated zones from public use. It is very well known that many fires already happened there and that radiation could be re-distributed into new areas. Instead of censorship, authorities must fully inform Russian citizens and other countries about radioactive danger in Chelyabinsk, Bryansk and other regions," said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman for the Russian environmental group Ecodefense.
Press-release Ecodefense, 14 August 2010

Sutyagin Freed in "Spy" Swap. After serving more than ten years of a 15 year sentence for espionage, Russian arms researcher Igor Sutyagin was freed on July 9 in what is being reported as the largest spy swap between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War. Sutyagin was not a spy, but reportedly shared sensitive information about Russian nuclear weapons from public sources with a London firm. His research drew the unwelcome attention of the FSB, Russia¹s secret police successor to the Soviet KGB. His case was taken up by human rights organizations, and the U.S. State Department declared he was a political prisoner. As part of the deal for his release, Sutyagin signed a confession. The Guardian (UK) reports that "Sutyagin's family said he maintained his innocence but agreed to the deal rather than face another four and half years in the 'harsh regime' of the penal colony at Kholmogory near Arkhangelsk." Sutyagin, a father of two girls, had been in prison since in arrest on October 27, 1999.
Nuclear Resister, 9 July 2010

Global Day of Action on Radioactive Waste.
US groups are calling for a radioactive waste action day on September 29, and would like it to be an international day of action! Aim is to push-back on new proposals that would expand radioactive waste production in both the civilian and military sectors

September 29 is the anniversary date for the worst radioactive waste accident (that we know of). In 1957 a tank of liquid, highly radioactive waste left from reprocessing nuclear fuel, exploded in a region of the Soviet Union called Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains of Siberia. The accident was kept secret for several decades, but we now know that it was at a secret nuclear reprocessing site called Mayak. This accident resulted in a regional disaster and a radioactive cloud that contaminated more than 300  square miles…many people received very high radiation exposures, some suffered acute radiation syndrome. Because of secrecy in the nuclear establishment it is not clear what exactly happened but estimates are at least 200 people died of “excess” cancer and scores of villages and towns were permanently abandoned due to the sever radioactive contamination.

Please sign up if you plan to participate so we can have a “master list” of coordinated action – and we can send you any materials we generate…

Contact: Mary Olson, Nuclear Information and Resource Service Southeast Office, PO Box 7586, Asheville, North Carolina  28802  USA.
Or: Kevin Kamps. Radioactive Waste Watchdog, Beyond Nuclear. 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 400, Takoma Park, Maryland 20912, USA