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Seventy Years of Nuclear Fission: Short on Confidence; Long on Waste

5:55 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi's first atomic pile--and the start of the world's nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

On December 2, 1942, a small group of physicists under the direction of Enrico Fermi gathered on an old squash court beneath Alonzo Stagg Stadium on the Campus of the University of Chicago to make and witness history. Uranium pellets and graphite blocks had been stacked around cadmium-coated rods as part of an experiment crucial to the Manhattan Project–the program tasked with building an atom bomb for the allied forces in WWII. The experiment was successful, and for 28 minutes, the scientists and dignitaries present observed the world’s first manmade, self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. They called it an atomic pile–Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1), to be exact–but what Fermi and his team had actually done was build the world’s first nuclear reactor.

The Manhattan Project’s goal was a bomb, but soon after the end of the war, scientists, politicians, the military and private industry looked for ways to harness the power of the atom for civilian use, or, perhaps more to the point, for commercial profit. Fifteen years to the day after CP-1 achieved criticality, President Dwight Eisenhower threw a ceremonial switch to start the reactor at Shippingport, PA, which was billed as the first full-scale nuclear power plant built expressly for civilian electrical generation.

Shippingport was, in reality, little more than a submarine engine on blocks, but the nuclear industry and its acolytes will say that it was the beginning of billions of kilowatts of power, promoted (without a hint of irony) as “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.” It was also, however, the beginning of what is now a, shall we say, weightier legacy: 72,000 tons of nuclear waste.

Atoms for peace, problems forever

News of Fermi’s initial success was communicated by physicist Arthur Compton to the head of the National Defense Research Committee, James Conant, with artistically coded flair:

Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?
Compton: Very friendly.

But soon after that initial success, CP-1 was disassembled and reassembled a short drive away, in Red Gate Woods. The optimism of the physicists notwithstanding, it was thought best to continue the experiments with better radiation shielding–and slightly removed from the center of a heavily populated campus. The move was perhaps the first necessitated by the uneasy relationship between fissile material and the health and safety of those around it, but if it was understood as a broader cautionary tale, no one let that get in the way of “progress.”

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower's initiative in 1955.

By the time the Shippingport reactor went critical, North America already had a nuclear waste problem. The detritus from manufacturing atomic weapons was poisoning surrounding communities at several sites around the continent (not that most civilians knew it at the time). Meltdowns at Chalk River in Canada and the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho had required fevered cleanups, the former of which included the help of a young Navy officer named Jimmy Carter. And the dangers of errant radioisotopes were increasing with the acceleration of above-ground atomic weapons testing. But as President Eisenhower extolled “Atoms for Peace,” and the US Atomic Energy Commission promoted civilian nuclear power at home and abroad, a plan to deal with the “spent fuel” (as used nuclear fuel rods are termed) and other highly radioactive leftovers was not part of the program (beyond, of course, extracting some of the plutonium produced by the fission reaction for bomb production, and the promise that the waste generated by US-built reactors overseas could at some point be marked “return to sender” and repatriated to the United States for disposal).

Attempts at what was called “reprocessing”–the re-refining of used uranium into new reactor fuel–quickly proved expensive, inefficient and dangerous, and created as much radioactive waste as it hoped to reuse. It also provided an obvious avenue for nuclear weapons proliferation because of the resulting production of plutonium. The threat of proliferation (made flesh by India’s test of an atomic bomb in 1976) led President Jimmy Carter to cancel the US reprocessing program in 1977. Attempts by the Department of Energy to push mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication (combining uranium and plutonium) over the last dozen years has not produced any results, either, despite over $5 billion in government investments.

In fact, there was no official federal policy for the management of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel until passage of The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. And while that law acknowledged the problem of thousands of tons of spent fuel accumulating at US nuclear plants, it didn’t exactly solve it. Instead, the NWPA started a generation of political horse trading, with goals and standards defined more by market exigencies than by science, that leaves America today with what amounts to over five-dozen nominally temporary repositories for high-level radioactive waste–and no defined plan to change that situation anytime soon.

When you assume…

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End-of-Summer News Puts Nuclear Renaissance on Permanent Vacation

6:59 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, Units 1 & 2, near Lusby Maryland. (photo: NRCgov)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot issue a license for the construction and operation of a new nuclear reactor in Maryland–that is the ruling of the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) handed down Thursday.

In their decision, the ASLB agreed with intervenors that the Calvert Cliffs 3 reactor project planned for the shores of Chesapeake Bay violated the Atomic Energy Act’s prohibition against “foreign ownership, control, or domination.” UniStar, the parent company for the proposal, is wholly owned by French energy giant Électricité de France (EDF).

EDF had originally partnered with Constellation Energy, the operator of two existing Calvert Cliffs reactors, but Constellation pulled out of the project in 2010. At the time, Constellation balked at government requirements that Constellation put $880 million down on a federal loan guarantee of $7.6 billion (about 12 percent). Constellation wanted to risk no more than one or two percent of their own capital, terms the feds were then willing to meet if Constellation and EDF could guarantee the plant’s completion. Constellation also found that requirement too onerous.

Constellation has since been purchased by Exelon.

The ASLB decision technically gives EDF 60 days to find a new American partner, but given the history and the current state of the energy market, new suitors seem highly unlikely. It marks only the second time a license has been denied by the ASLB. (The first, for the Byron, Illinois plant in 1984 was overturned on appeal. Byron opened the next year, and Illinois’s groundwater has never been the same.) The NRC also declined to grant a license to the South Texas Project late last year when US-based NRG Energy (corporate ID courtesy of the Department of Redundancy Department) pulled out of the project, leaving Japanese-owned Toshiba as the only stakeholder.

The Calvert Cliffs intervenors were led by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), which has been fighting Calvert Cliffs 3 almost since its inception. NIRS was joined by Beyond Nuclear, Public Citizen and Southern Maryland CARES.

Michael Mariotte, Executive director of NIRS, called Thursday’s decision “a blow to the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance,’” noting that back in 2007, when permit requests were submitted for Calvert Cliffs 3, the project was considered the “flagship” of a coming fleet of new reactors. “Now,” said Mariotte, “it is a symbol for the deservedly failed revival of nuclear power in the US.”

A symbol, yes, but far from the only symbol. Read the rest of this entry →

Fukushima One Year On: Many Revelations, Few Surprises

11:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Satellite image of Fukushima Daiichi showing damage on 3/14/11. (photo: digitalglobe)

One year on, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Fukushima crisis is that nothing is really that surprising. Almost every problem encountered was at some point foreseen, almost everything that went wrong was previously discussed, and almost every system that failed was predicted to fail, sometimes decades earlier. Not all by one person, obviously, not all at one time or in one place, but if there is anything to be gleaned from sorting through the multiple reports now being released to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami–and the start of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi–it is that, while there is much still to be learned, we already know what is to be done. . . because we knew it all before the disaster began.

This is not to say that any one person–any plant manager, nuclear worker, TEPCO executive, or government official–had all that knowledge on hand or had all the guaranteed right answers when each moment of decision arose. We know that because the various timelines and reconstructions now make it clear that several individual mistakes were made in the minutes, hours and days following the dual natural disasters. Instead, the analysis a year out teaches us that any honest examination of the history of nuclear power, and any responsible engagement of the numerous red flags and warnings would have taken the Fukushima disasters (yes, plural) out of the realm of “if,” and placed it squarely into the category of “when.”

Following closely the release of findings by the Rebuild Japan Foundation and a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (both discussed here in recent weeks), a new paper, “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response,” written by two members of the Rebuild Japan Foundation for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, provides a detailed and disturbing window on a long list of failures that exacerbated the problems at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi facility. Among them, they include misinterpreting on-site observations, the lack of applicable protocols, inadequate industry guidelines, and the absence of both a definitive chain of command and the physical presence of the supposed commanders. But first and foremost, existing at the core of the crisis that has seen three reactor meltdowns, numerous explosions, radioactive contamination of land, air and sea, and the mass and perhaps permanent evacuation of tens of thousands of residents from a 20 kilometer exclusion zone, is what the Bulletin paper calls “The trap of the absolute safety myth”: Read the rest of this entry →

San Onofre: One Leaks, the Other Doesn’t… Yet

11:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

For those who thought that, with the new year, nuclear power had turned a page and put its “annus horribilis” behind it–as if the calendar were somehow the friend America’s aging reactors–let’s take a quick look at January 2012.

First, a glance across the Pacific, where the month began with the revelation that the Japanese government purposely downplayed their assessments of the Fukushima disaster–hiding the worst projected scenarios from the public from soon after the March earthquake by classifying the documents as personal correspondence–and ended with discovery of yet another large leak of radioactive water from one of the crippled reactors.

Closer to home, the lone reactor at Wolf Creek, Kansas, was shutdown on January 13 after the failure of a main generator breaker was followed by a still-unexplained loss of power to an electrical transformer. Diesel generators kicked in to run the safety systems until external power was restored, but the plant remains offline while a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team tries to figure out what went wrong.

On the morning of January 30, a power failure caused a reactor at Exelon’s Byron Generating Station to scram, which in turn required a wee bit of venting: Read the rest of this entry →