Category Archives: Nuclear Energy

One Player, Many Pawns: the thirst for nuclear technology

The Hanhikivi plant in Finland will use Russian nuclear technology. model of the plant from wikipedia

The nuclear power industry, which had been in the doldrums since the 1980s, suffered a devastating blow in 2011 when a tsunami engulfed the Fukushima power plant in Japan, ultimately causing a meltdown. The amount of electricity generated by nuclear power worldwide plunged 11% in two years, and has not recovered since. Within this declining industry, one country now dominates the market for design and export of nuclear plants: Russia.

Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-power company,  is focused on what some call the “great grand middle”: countries that are close allies of neither the United States nor Russia. In April Russia started building Turkey’s first nuclear plant, worth $20bn. Its first reactor is due for completion in 2023. Rosatom says it has 33 new plants on its order book, worth some $130bn. A dozen are under construction, including in Bangladesh, India and Hungary…. Once completed the plants offer an obvious diplomatic lever in the form of sway over a large portion of a country’s electricty generation… The relationship betweeen exporter and customer is particularly close in a nuclear plant’s early years, when local employees are still being trained and the exporting country is direclty involved in the plant’s operation….

Russia’s nuclear programme has endured for two main reasons. Its designs are cheap, and Rosatom enjoys the backing of the state, which helps it absorb hard-to-insure risks like nuclear meltdowns. Its competitors trail hopelessly: France’s Areva (now Orano) has started building only two plants in the past ten years, in Finland and China; both are delayed and over budget. KEPCO, South Korea’s energy company, is facing a domestic backlash against nuclear power, while Westinghouse, in America, is only now emerging from bankruptcy.

Russia’s only real competitor is China..Yet although China will surely catch up, for now Russia has no serious rivals in the export of nuclear technology. In a world that needs to generate much more electricity from nuclear power if it is to take decarbonisation seriously, that is a sobering though

Excerpts from  Atoms for Peace: Russia and Nuclear Power, Economist, Aug. 4, 2018, at 43

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.”

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

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

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

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

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