Nuclear power as the solution to global warming

There are serious arguments that Nuclear power is the answer to global warming. In December 2013 Scientific American noted:

The low-carbon electricity produced by such reactors provides 20 percent of the nation’s power and, by the estimates of climate scientist James Hansen of Columbia University, avoided 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution. They also avoided spewing soot and other air pollution like coal-fired power plants do and thus have saved some 1.8 million lives.

And that’s why Hansen, among others, such as former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, thinks that nuclear power is a key energy technology to fend off catastrophic climate change. “We can’t burn all these fossil fuels,” Hansen told a group of reporters on December 3, noting that as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy source they will continue to be burned. “Coal is almost half the [global] emissions. If you replace these power plants with modern, safe nuclear reactors you could do a lot of [pollution reduction] quickly.”

Having James Hansen, a well-known climate change scientist, come out in favor of nuclear is of course a big win for the nuclear industry.

US “All of the above” approach

Also recently President Obama has touted the All of the above approach to energy “independence.” This approach is meant to invest in all energy sources but most challenging will be the restart the huclear industry in the US.

President Obama and his Administration are supporting the construction of the first new nuclear power plant in decades, which will provide clean electricity for nearly 1.4 million Americans.

Over the past three years, the Obama Administration has invested in grants at more than 70 universities for research and development of nuclear technologies to improve reactor design and safety.

But nuclear power is not safe

Those new design plants may be built at some time in the future, but what about NOW?

The Union of Concerned Scientists writes:

Fukushima wasn’t a “Japanese” nuclear accident—it was an accident that happened to occur in Japan.

In fact, if exposed to similarly complex challenges, all 100 operating reactors in the United States would likely have similar outcomes.

Worse, Japanese and U.S. regulators share a mindset that severe, supposedly “low probability” accidents are unlikely and not worth the cost and time to protect against.

Fukushima showed that unlikely events do occur.

And that doesn’t even account for the problem of spent fuel and other nuclear waste disposal, which I cover later in this post.

Fukushima ongoing nuclear disaster

Fukushima is mostly out-of-sight out-of-mind for the US mainstream press. I believe that the Fukushima disaster is our most important ongoing environmental problem. It is continuing to emit radiation into the air, into the water and into the ocean. And the levels of radiation emitted are NOT declining but increasing.

Where are the cores now?

TEPCO and the Japanese regulator say that the core from Reactor Number 1 at the plant has melted down and escaped through the wall of the Reactor Vessel into the surrounding Primary containment Vessel. They say that it is in the base of the containment vessel have “partially” melted through the concrete floor. The PCV is a concrete building around the reactor proper. TEPCO also maintains that the cores in units 2 and 3 also “partially” melted down but are still in the Reactor Vessels.

This is disputed by some of the evidence from the environment.

The black substance which has been seen all over Japan seems to have elements from the Core:

Marco Kaltofen, President at Boston Chemical Data Corp. & Doctoral student researcher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute: […] We kept hearing reports about something unusual, a black dust […] we finally got a very small sample of that […]

What’s different about this material is unlike a lot of the soil and dust samples we’ve gotten, there’s a real uniformity to this stuff. It’s a single substance. It’s not a mix of mineral particles and pieces of dead bugs and plant matter and dust particles. It’s actually very homogenous and uniform when you look at it under the microscope. And it doesn’t look like the surrounding soils. And it is much more intensely radioactive than any other soil or dust sample we’ve gotten from around Fukushima Daiichi. So this material is different. It’s not a natural soil. There’s something unusual happening with this stuff. […]

The sample had fairly high levels of radium 226. Now that’s not a radioisotope that we hear as much about. The radium 226 has almost as much activity as the radioactive Cesium in the sample. Radium 226 is a degradation product of uranium and we can’t really detect the uranium directly. […] And this tells me that this particle contains not only fission waste products from the reactor but very likely contains a concentrated unburned nuclear fuel. And that’s unusual. This sample had by far the highest level of uranium daughters that we’ve seen in a dust or soil sample.  We’re actually seeing material that might well have come from inside a failed fuel assembly.

This suggests that during at least one of the early explosions at the site a containment vessel leaked radioactive core materials into the atmosphere and deposited it as something like ash over much of Western Japan including Tokyo.

The amount and type of radiation going into the Pacific Ocean argues that the hot fuel melted through the concrete in the basement may have gotten all the way through and into the ground polluting the groundwater and washing out into the Pacific Ocean.

Japan Times reported on May 17, 2014

Radiation has spiked to all-time highs at five monitoring points in waters adjacent to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power station, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said Friday.

The measurements follow similar highs detected in groundwater at the plant. Officials of Tepco, as the utility is known, said the cause of the seawater spike is unknown.

Three of the monitoring sites are inside the wrecked plant’s adjacent port, which ships once used to supply it.

At one sampling point in the port, between the water intakes for the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors, 1,900 becquerels per liter of tritium was detected Monday, up from a previous high of 1,400 becquerels measured on April 14, Tepco said.

Nearby, also within the port, tritium levels were found to have spiked to 1,400 becquerels, from a previous high of 1,200 becquerels.

And at a point between the water intakes for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, seawater sampled Thursday was found to contain 840 becquerels of strontium-90, which causes bone cancer, and other beta ray-emitting isotopes, up from a previous record of 540 becquerels.

At two monitoring sites outside the port, seawater was found Monday to contain 8.7 becquerels and 4.3 becquerels of tritium. The second site was about 3 km away.

Strontium-90 is a by-product of nuclear fission and would have been in the cores. Back in August 2013 TEPCO was forced to report a nuclear fuel material release when water leaking from a storage tank on site was measured to have Strontium-90. Now we see it seeping under and around the plant through the ground water.

Water problems

Spent fuel and nuclear waste disposal

When nuclear fuel has been used up it has to be cooled down. The nuclear reactions continue to occur for many years. Initially spent fuel is placed in water pools at the nuclear plant site. These pools are sometimes above ground like the fuel pool at Fukushima. In the US there are currently about 70,000 tons of nuclear fuel. We don’t know for sure how much though, the US Energy Information Agency only has data up to 2002!

In 2002, the most recent year for which EIA has data, there were 161,662 fuel assemblies, or 46,268 metric tons (51,002 short tons) of spent fuel stored at U.S. commercial reactors sites.

It is important to note that all spent fuel is still on site at the nuclear plants. The United States has no currently funded and operating way to safely store spent fuel.

Indian Point

Indian Point is the reactor on the Hudson River just 30 miles north of New York City where I currently live. So anything that will make it safer is “close to home” for me. The NRC and Indian Point’s current owners Entergy refuse to talk much about the security and the safety at the plant due to “National Security.” What is known is that the spent fuel pools are in the bedrock at the plant and not in a containment building. The containment and safety features of the pools were mentioned by Jonathon Alter in the Daily Beast after a visit in 2011:

Instead it was the 38-foot-deep pools, with the spent rods lying at the bottom, that scared me. Unlike the reactor, the pools aren’t “hardened targets” protected from earthquakes or terrorists by a concrete containment dome. At least at Indian Point, the pools lie in bedrock. In the Fukushima facility, and at many American plants, they are above ground, with roofs not much thicker than those at your local swim meet.

I learned that day of a process called “dry cask storage” that seems to offer a safer alternative. In dry casking, a technology that dates to the 1980s but has only been adopted in recent years, the rods are housed outdoors in storage pads 3 feet thick and 100 feet by 200 feet wide. While this sounds promising, it turns out dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

At Indian Point, authorities only began dry casking in 2008 because the pools were so crowded that there wasn’t room for newly spent rods coming out of the reactor. According to Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point plant, “reconfiguration of the spent fuel pool is not part of the dry cask storage project.” In other words, the pools won’t be drained any time soon, at least not intentionally.

Yucca Mountain and the elusive repository for high level nuclear waste

The US does not have a repository for spent nuclear fuel. The long planned repository at Yucca Mountain has yet to be completed.

 In 1982, the United States Congress established a national policy to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal. This policy is a federal law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act,
which made the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for finding a site, building, and operating an underground disposal facility called a geologic repository. The recommendation to use a geologic repository dates back to 1957 when the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the best means of protecting the environment and public health and safety would be to dispose of the waste in rock deep underground.

The Department of Energy began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978 to determine whether it would be suitable for the nation’s first long-term geologic repository for over 70,000 metric tons (69,000 long tons; 77,000 short tons) (150 million pounds) of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste currently stored at 121 sites around the nation. 

But this plan has been dogged by political problems. Harry Reid, Majority Leader of the Senate from Nevada, has put his weight behind stopping the project. And President Obama while pushing nuclear power on the one hand has also pushed closing the Yucca Mountain waste facility.

WIPP and low level Nuclear Waste

A second site that was originally planned for high level nuclear waste was the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – WIPP – near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It however was only finally approved to take low and medium level waste.

In May of 2014 an explosion and release of radioactivity occurred at the WIPP. The problem was traced to 55 gallon barrels of waste that came from Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory (LANL). The barrels were filled with low and medium level nuclear waste containing among other isotopes plutonium and americium. They were filled with – of all things – organic kitty litter, which seems to have caused the explosion.

Last month, DOE investigators went into the cavern. Pictures showed that the … hypothesis was true; a waste container’s lid was unsealed, and dust around the lid had turned yellow from the unusual heat emanating from inside. Each barrel is labeled to track where it came from. The punctured barrel originated from Los Alamos National Labs.

Jim Conca, PhD, a geologist who worked for years at WIPP who now blogs at Forbes about energy issues, believes he knows what blew the lid off at least one of WIPP’s radioactive barrels. The culprit, he wrote, was kitty litter.

It seems that there are up to 500 barrels of LANL waste contaminated with this kitty litter spread across several sites both at WIPP and above ground at LANL. The problem has closed WIPP which was the only functioning nuclear dump site in the US.

The site was developed at first to take high level radioactive waste but was limited to lower level waste when it was finally agreed to by Congress.

Now it will take a considerable amount of time to get the facility back on line.

It could take two years or more for the federal government to seal off hundreds of potentially dangerous containers at its troubled underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a filing Friday. [May 30, 2014]

Responding to an order from the New Mexico Environment Department to detail its plans, the department gave broad ranges that indicate it could take a minimum of about 100 work weeks – and possibly twice that long – to secure the rooms at the now-shuttered plant where more than 350 containers of toxic waste from decades of building nuclear bombs at Los Alamos National Laboratory is stored.


We have lots of people clamoring for nuclear energy while we have no plan to deal with nuclear waste. Does that make any sense?

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