Category Archives: Nuclear Energy

How Many Uranium Mines Do We Need?

Retired well heads used for ISL at Uranium One's operations in Johnson County., Wyoming

At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. In 2017, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.  The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year...

In July 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation's growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security....The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can't compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.
"It's been government-sponsored, government-subsidized just since the beginning. Trying to sort that out and find where there's a free market in uranium — I find that very questionable."-Luke Danielson, Sustainable Development Strategies Group president

The U.S. uranium mining industry is relatively young. It went through a brief golden age between about 1955 and 1980, beginning when the United States offered generous incentives to shore up its stockpiles of the nuclear weapons fuel during the Cold War....By the 1960s, the program had packed U.S. storehouses so full of uranium stockpiles that the government stopped paying the incentives. However, it left in place rules barring the use of foreign uranium until 1975, when it began to allow a growing percentage of overseas supplies into the market.  That opened the door to high-quality, low-cost supplies from Canada and Australia. By 1987, the United States was importing nearly 15 million pounds of uranium, and domestic output fell by about a third to roughly 13 million pounds.

While competition weighed on U.S. uranium production, the excitement around nuclear energy in the 1970s kept mines busy. However, the American love affair with atomic power proved short-lived. The 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked fierce backlash against nuclear energy. Seven years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned a Ukrainian city into a ghost town...

By the early 2000s, U.S. uranium production was at its lowest in a half century.  Around that time, the former Soviet state Kazakhstan was ramping up uranium mining. In just a few short years, it would become the world's top uranium producer and the second biggest supplier to the United States.
The Central Asian nation accomplished that feat in large part by exploiting a process called "in situ leaching" (ISL) or in situ recovery  (ISR)*** increasingly being used to extract uranium.  Along with countries like Niger, Mali and Mongolia, Kazakhstan has an advantage: lax regulations that allow it to process uranium cheaply from in situ leaching, which involves pumping chemicals into uranium reserves and carries serious risks to the environment if it's not carried out responsibly...

And then in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan created a backlash unlike anything seen since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the aftermath, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.  The U.S. nuclear renaissance has also fizzled as flagship projects have turned into costly boondoggles. The venerable Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy last year under the weight of billions of dollars in losses tied to its troubled nuclear power plant projects in Georgia and South Carolina. "There's such a glut of inventory in the market that it's just not profitable for some of the mines to produce, so the price has just really plummeted as a result of that," said Sean Davis, a research analyst at IHS Markit who tracks the chemicals used in uranium mining.

Since their peak in 2007, uranium prices have crashed from nearly $140 per pound to $20-$25.

Excerpts from Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining, CNBC, Aug. 4, 2018

***"No remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions."

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Floating Nuclear Graveyard Rests

Lepse in Nerpa shipyard where decommissioning takes place. image from https://thebarentsobserver.com/

Russia: The Lepse service vessel, Russia’s waterborne atomic graveyard, has inched a step closer to complete dismantlement as officials say they will begin extracting nuclear fuel rods from its irradiated holds in September 2018 -- a long awaited development involving robotic technology, thousands of technicians and a small city of radiation shelters surrounding the vessel’s hull.

The vessel, which technicians are carefully pulling apart at the Nerpa Shipyard near Murmansk, was used to refuel Russia’s nuclear icebreakers at sea – a job that eventually turned it into one of the world’s most dangerous radioactive hazards. Since its retirement, it has become a flagstone in Northwest Russia’s legacy of Cold War nuclear waste.

Removing spent fuel from the vessel ­– including the extraction of several damaged assemblies ­– is among the most complex nuclear cleanup operations Russia has ever undertaken. When it’s completed in 2020, it will be a decades-long culmination of high-tech preparation paid for by marshaling millions of dollars from nearly a dozen western countries, (the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development) often in the face of trying political circumstances.

The new phase in the Lepse dismantlement also marks another step toward cleaning up naval and civilian nuclear debris in Northwest Russia. Almost exactly a year ago, the first containers of spent nuclear fuel that accrued over fifty years at Andreyeva Bay were hauled away for storage. Both are projects that Bellona has long advocated for.

During its career, the Lepse amassed 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in its holds, many from refueling the Lenin, the flagship Soviet icebreaker, between 1965 and 1967. The bulk of those fuel rods are damaged, and defy removal by conventional means.

Excerpts from Charles Digges, Anna Kireeva,  Russia to start breaking down one of its most radioactive ships next month, Bellona. org, Aug. 1, 2018

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Diving into a Nuclear Pool

nuclear pool

United Kingdom: Specialist divers have completed their mission to deal with radioactive waste from Sizewell A Site’s nuclear fuel storage ponds, nearly two months ahead. The divers, who are shielded from radiation by the water in the ponds, successfully cut up and ‘size reduced’ all of the 35 waste storage containers left in Sizewell A’s ponds. They also cut up around 100 tonnes of other redundant equipment before removing all the radioactive sludge from the pond floor.

Conventionally, pond clean-out is done using remotely operated equipment to lift the whole radioactive skips  (waste containers) and other pond furniture clear of the water, exposing them to the air, where they are carefully cut and decontaminated. This process is slow with potential radiation dose risks for workers,” Magnox Sites said.  “Using this innovative underwater decommissioning technique, radiation levels for workers were around 20 times less than with conventional techniques of decommissioning the waste items in air,” it added. The diving technique also has a lower environmental impact, is quicker and more efficient and therefore cheaper.  The next phase of work is to take the waste out of the ponds where it will be treated and safely packaged. The ponds are set to be completely emptied and drained by the end of 2019.

The team of 12 nuclear divers was supplied by Underwater Construction UK Ltd. They tackled their first UK ‘nuclear dive’ at the Dungeness A Site in 2016 and arrived on site at Sizewell A in October 2017.

Sizewell A's two 210 MWe Magnox gas-cooled reactors operated from 1966 until 2006. Defuelling began in 2009, with fuel removed from the reactors placed in the site's used fuel storage ponds before being packaged in transport containers for shipment to the Sellafield complex for reprocessing. The final flask of fuel was shipped to Sellafield in August 2014. Sizewell A was declared completely fuel free in February 2015.

Excerpts from Divers Complete Radwast work at Sizewell A, World Nuclear News, Aug. 3,  2018

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Japan’s weapon: the plutonium exception

A container of MOX fuel (plutonium and uranium) is unloaded at the Takahama nuclear power plant , 2013
Japan's nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. -- the pillar of Tokyo's nuclear energy policy -- renewed automatically on July 15, 2018  after the current pact, which took effect in 1988, expire  The agreement allows Japan to be the sole non-nuclear-weapons state to use plutonium for peaceful purposes and underlies the country's policy of recycling spent nuclear fuel.

But the renewal comes at a time when Japan's "plutonium exception" is increasingly under scrutiny...Japan's neighbors have cried foul over Japan's plutonium exception. China has said it creates a path for Japan to obtain nuclear weapons. South Korea, which also has a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., has pressed Washington hard to be granted similar freedom on fuel reprocessing.  Countries such as Saudi Arabia that are looking to develop their own nuclear programs have also protested....Resolving the inconsistent treatment afforded Japan's plutonium stockpile would make it easier for the United States to convince Pyongyang to give up reprocessing capabilities as part of its denuclearization. On July 3, 2018, Japan's cabinet approved a new basic energy plan that includes reducing plutonium holdings, aiming to assuage American concerns...

So far, the U.S. has not called on Japan to abandon its plutonium entirely, or to speed up its reduction. And there is little chance the U.S. will end the cooperation agreement, as "Japan's nuclear technology is indispensable to the American nuclear industry," according to a Japanese government source.

Excerpts from YUKIO TAJIMA, Japan's 'plutonium exception' under fire as nuclear pact extended, NIkkei, July 14, 2018

Threshold Nuclear Weapon States

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Fukushima in 2018: Radioactive Mud

Radioactive cesium from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant continued to flow into Tokyo Bay for five years after the disaster unfolded in March 2011, according to a researcher.  Hideo Yamazaki, a former professor of environmental analysis at Kindai University, led the study on hazardous materials that spewed from the nuclear plant after it was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Five months after disaster caused the triple meltdown at the plant, Yamazaki detected 20,100 becquerels of cesium per square meter in mud collected at the mouth of the Kyu-Edogawa river, which empties into Tokyo Bay.  In July 2016, the study team detected a maximum 104,000 becquerels of cesium per square meter from mud collected in the same area of the bay, Yamazaki said.

He said cesium released in the early stages of the Fukushima disaster remained on the ground upstream of the river, such as in Chiba Prefecture. The radioactive substances were eventually washed into the river and carried to Tokyo Bay, where they accumulated in the mud, he said.

On a per kilogram basis, the maximum level of radioactivity of cesium detected in mud that was dried in the July 2016 study was 350 becquerels.  The government says soil with 8,000 becquerels or lower of radioactive cesium per kilogram can be used in road construction and other purposes.  The amount of radioactive cesium in fish in Tokyo remains lower than 100 becquerels per kilogram, the national safety standard for consumption.

Excerpts from  NOBUTARO KAJI,  Cesium from Fukushima flowed to Tokyo Bay for 5 years, June 7, 2018

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A Nuclear Titanic? the First Floating Nuclear Plant

Akademik Lomonosov, image rosatom

A massive floating nuclear power plant is now making its way toward its final destination at an Arctic port (April 30, 2018)... It's the first nuclear power plant of its kind, Russian officials say.  Called the Akademik Lomonosov, the floating power plant is being towed at a creeping pace out of St. Petersburg, where it was built over the last nine years. It will eventually be brought northward, to Murmansk – where its two nuclear reactors will be loaded with nuclear fuel and started up in the fall of 2018.

From there, the power plant will be pulled to a mooring berth in the Arctic port of Pevek, in far northeast Russia. There, it will be wired into the infrastructure so it can replace an existing nuclear power installment on land.  Critics of the plan include Greenpeace, which recently warned of a "Chernobyl on ice" if Russia's plans to create a fleet of floating nuclear power stations result in a catastrophe.

Russian officials say the mandate of the Akademik Lomonoso is to supply energy to remote industrial plants and port cities, and to offshore gas and oil platforms.  "The nuclear power plant has two KLT-40S reactor units that can generate up to 70 MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during its normal operation," Rosatom said. "This is enough to keep the activity of the town populated with 100,000 people."

It will take more than a year for the power plant to reach its new home port. The original plan had called for fueling the floating plant before it began that journey, at the shipyard in central St. Petersburg – but that was scuttled in the summer of 2017, after concerns were raised both in Russia and in countries along the power plant's route through the Baltic Sea and north to the Arctic. Rosatom says it hopes the floating nuclear power plant will be online in 2019.

Excerpts from Russia Launches Floating Nuclear Power Plant; It's Headed To The Arctic, NPR, Apr. 30, 2018

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Nuclear Waste and Nuclear Energy, Uganda

Mukono- Residents of Kitoba village in Mukono District have opposed plans by the Uganda Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to construct a nuclear and atomic waste site in the area.  The residents fear the dump for non-functional atomic equipment, including X-rays and cancer machines, will compromise their safety.  Already, the residents at Canaan Sites are suspicious of a container that has been standing on the 11.5 acres of land acquired by the AEC in 2011.

But AEC executive secretary Deogratias Luwalira told the residents that the Energy ministry acquired the land to implement a five-year master plan.
He told the residents at Kichwa Primary School in Mpoma during a community awareness meeting on that the Energy ministry acquired the land to build AEC headquarters, staff accommodation, laboratories, atomic/nuclear storage facility, and sports fields.

“The equipment to be kept here has no safety hazards. The store will have a safety case that will be operated in a safe manner,” Mr Luwalira said.
He said radioactive wastes are currently scattered in different parts of the country and needed to be secured in one central location...

In the meantime, Uganda plans to be the first African nation to develop nuclear power, see IAEA gives node as Uganda pushes for nuclear power use (jan. 2018)

Excerpts Mukono rejects radioactive waste site, http://www.monitor.co.ug/, Apr. 10, 2018

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Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

Testing a sheep's thyroid for radiation. Image from wikipedia

The Energy Department project to tear down the Plutonium Finish Plant at the Hanford Site was halted in mid-December 2017 after radioactive dust was discovered far off the plant site. T As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.  The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 work

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control.

The mishap occurred at one of the nation's most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989.
The exposures from the plutonium releases in 2017 were minuscule bestimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime.... As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said....Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9, 2018 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford... The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation's largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department's enforcement office in late March 2018...

In March 2018, the company released a preliminary analysis [pdf] of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a "fixative" that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.  The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.  In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off...

The problems at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were not an isolated event at Hanford, which has struggled with its cleanup for more than a decade.
Work was stopped five years ago on key parts of a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. Several years ago, the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039, though it hopes to begin treating some less radioactive waste by 2022....In 2017, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

Smith, the Ecology manager, said a lot of cleanup progress has been made at Hanford. Hundreds of buildings have been torn down. Much of the soil along the banks of the Columbia River has been cleaned up enough for any future use. And the site's nine nuclear reactors have been put in stable condition...

One of those facilities, known as 324 Building,[Chemical Materials Engineering Laboratory] was used to extract plutonium from spent fuel, said Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of Energy and a longtime critic of the cleanup. The facility has civilian waste from Germany, sent as part of a research project, as well as large amounts of radioactive waste that was placed in unlined burial pits, he said. Records of what lies in the pits were destroyed in 1988, he said.

Excerpts from RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible, LA Times, Apr. 16, 2018

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Let the Race Begin: Nuclear Saudi Arabia v. Iran

image from https://www.energy.gov.sa/ar/snaep/Pages/ov.aspx

In the desert 220km (137 miles) from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a South Korean firm is close to finishing the Arab world’s first operational nuclear-power reactor. The project started ten years ago in Washington, where the Emiratis negotiated a “123 agreement”. Such deals, named after a clause in America’s export-control laws, impose tough safeguards in return for American nuclear technology. When the UAE signed one in 2009, it also pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel into plutonium. Both can be used to make nuclear weapons. Arms-control wonks called it the gold standard of 123 deals.

Saudi Arabia... has its own ambitious nuclear plans: 16 reactors, at a cost of up to $80bn. But, unlike the UAE, it wants to do its own enrichment. Iran, its regional rival, is already a step ahead. The most controversial provision of the nuclear deal it signed with world powers in 2015 allows it to enrich uranium. Iran did agree to mothball most of the centrifuges used for enrichment, and to process the stuff only to a level far below what is required for a bomb. Still, it kept the technology. The Saudis want to have it, too... Indeed, critics of the Iran deal fear that a Saudi enrichment programme would compromise their effort to impose tighter restrictions on Iran. But Donald Trump, America’s president, is less concerned. He has close ties with the Saudis. He has also pledged to revitalise America’s ailing nuclear industry. Among the five firms bidding for the Saudi project is Westinghouse, an American company that filed for bankruptcy last year. It would not be able to join the project without a 123 agreement...One is Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company, which is pursuing a frenetic sort of nuclear diplomacy in the Middle East. In December it signed a $21.3bn contract to build Egypt’s first power reactor. Jordan inked a $10bn deal with the Russians in 2015. Despite their differences, particularly over Syria, the Saudis are keen to have closer ties with the region’s resurgent power [Russia]. King Salman spent four days in Moscow in October 2017, the first such visit by a Saudi ruler.

Excerpt from Nuclear Power in the Middle East: An Unenriching debate, Economist,  Feb. 10, 2018

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First Floating Nuclear Plant on the Block

Akademik Lomonosov artistic depiction. Image from wikipedia

Russian State Expert Examination Board (Glavgosexpertiza) has announced that the floating nuclear power plant  meets construction standards. The authority said on 9 December it had approved the project in Russia's northernmost city of Pevek that is being funded by Rosenergoatom, the nuclear power plant operator subsidiary of Rosatom.  Currently moored at the Baltiysky Zavod shipyard in Saint Petersburg, Akademik Lomonosov houses two 35 MW KLT-40S nuclear reactors, similar to those used in Russia's nuclear-powered ice breakers...

The plant is intended to replace the outgoing capacity of the Bilibino nuclear power plant in the Chukotka district. The first Bilibino unit is scheduled to be shut down in 2019 and the whole plant will be shut down in 2021.

Excerpts from First Floating Nuclear Power Plant Akademik Lomonosov, Nuclear News, Jan. 11, 2018

Environmental groups like Bellona are not convineced that the plant is safe.  According to Bellona,   in August 2017, Rosatom responded to pressure from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to delay fueling the plant with its uranium fuel until it had cleared its coast...It has now apparently been settled that the Akademik Lomonosov will be loaded at Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker in Murmansk, by fuel that will arrive separately...The overall cost for the Academic Lomonosov, both the plant and infrastructure for its Far Eastern port, are expected to top $530 million – which is almost four times as expensive as it was projected to be in 2006.  In the end, that may weigh in on the cheap side. The costs of decommissioning the vessel have not yet been weighed, nor have the costs of cleaning up a nuclear accident on a stretch of land as remote as the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Excerpts from Bellona.org

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