Category Archives: nuclear weapons

The Process of Legitimation of a Nuclear Power

Soldier wears mask to protect against chemical weapons. Image from wikipedia

India on January 19, 2017 joined the Australia Group which aims to stop the development and acquisition of chemical and biological weapons, a move that may take the country an inch closer to joining the Nuclear Suppliers’ group (NSG).  This is the third multilateral export control group – after the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Arrangement – that India has become a member of.  The Ministry of External Affairs said that the series of multilateral export control groups that India has joined “helps in establishing our credentials” for joining the NSG. India joined the MTCR in June 2016, followed by the Wassenaar Arrangement in December 2017…

India’s application to the NSG has been pending largely due to opposition from China, which wants the group to first draw up guidelines for all the candidates who have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Pakistan has also applied to join the NSG, but has never been granted a waiver from the NSG’s export rules, unlike India, which was given one in 2008.

Excerpts from India Enters Australia Group, Inches Closer to Joining Nuclear Suppliers Group, https://thewire.in/,  Jan. 19, 2018

The Other Nuclear Korea

Artist’s concept of Shin-Kori Units 5 and 6.

The building of two South Korean nuclear reactors stopped suddenly in July 2017, after Moon Jae-in, the country’s left-leaning anti-nuclear president, ordered a pause to the project to give a citizen-jury time to consider its merits. …On October 20, 2017, after the jury endorsed the construction of the two reactors, Shin Kori 5 and 6….Mr Moon had pledged to scrap before he was elected in May. In June, however, he said he wanted to “generate a social consensus” by delegating the final decision to a 471-strong jury picked by a polling company. Its members were given a month to study materials prepared by scientists and activists before debating the project for three days. In the final vote, 60% backed the new reactors, although more than half of them said South Korea should reduce its overall reliance on nuclear energy. Only 10% said the nuclear industry should grow…

Anti-nuclear campaigners have voiced louder concerns since the Fukushima disaster in neighbouring Japan in 2011 and a 5.8 magnitude earthquake last year in the southern city of Gyeongju, close to some of South Korea’s 24 reactors. A corruption scandal in the industry and the revelation in 2012 that some safety certificates for reactor parts were forged amplified their doubts.

But the jury was probably swayed by economic arguments. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, the state-run company in charge of the Shin Kori project, claimed it had already spent 1.6trn won ($1.4bn) on the reactors, which were 30% complete. South Korea is the world’s second biggest importer of liquefied natural gas and its fourth largest importer of coal. Hydroelectric and renewable energy provides only 6% of its electricity. So nuclear, which accounts for 27% of its electricity supply, helps to guard against volatile import prices, says Kerry-Anne Shanks of Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy. “Nuclear plants are expensive to build but they’re cheap to run,” she says. The industry also argued that axing the reactors would threaten deals to export nuclear technology…[Owning of nuclear technology makes South Korea a Threshold Nuclear Weapons State.]

Excerpts from Energy in South Korea: People Power, Economist, Oct.28, 2017

Who is Afraid of North Korea

 USS Michigan, Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine. Image from wikipedia

President Trump agreed in September 2017 to send more of the Pentagon’s “strategic assets” to South Korea on a rotational basis to deter North Korean provocations, but what exactly that means remains something of a mystery.

The U.S. assets — typically defined as submarines, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons or bombers — have long been involved in the standoff that began with the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement after open warfare subsided between the two Koreas.

The U.S. Navy typically keeps the movements of its submarines secret, but it also has periodically sent them to port in South Korea. The USS Michigan, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine, has appeared at Busan Naval Base in South Korea at least twice in 2017. It is capable of carrying cruise missiles and elite Navy SEALs, although not ballistic missiles.

More recently, the Navy announced last week it has plans for a massive exercise involving three aircraft carriers — the USS Nimitz, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan — and their associated strike groups, each of which include dozens of aircraft and thousands of sailors and Marines.

Excerpts from  Dan Lamothe, In standoff with North Korea, the U.S. keeps deployment of ‘strategic assets’ mysterious, Washington Post, Oct. 29 at 6:00

The Deadly Combination

Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country’s chemical weapons program were intercepted in mid-2017 according to a confidential United Nations report on North Korea sanctions violations.  The report by a panel of independent U.N. experts, which was submitted to the U.N. Security Council in August 2017 and seen by Reuters gave no details on when or where the interdictions occurred or what the shipments contained.  “The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK (North Korea),” the experts wrote in the 37-page report.

“Two member states interdicted shipments destined for Syria. Another Member state informed the panel that it had reasons to believe that the goods were part of a KOMID contract with Syria,” according to the report.

KOMID is the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation.  It was blacklisted by the Security Council in 2009 and described as Pyongyang’s key arms dealer and exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons. In March 2016 the council also blacklisted two KOMID representatives in Syria.  “The consignees were Syrian entities designated by the European Union and the United States as front companies for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a Syrian entity identified by the Panel as cooperating with KOMID in previous prohibited item transfers,” the U.N. experts wrote.  SSRC has overseen the country’s chemical weapons program since the 1970s.

The U.N. experts said activities between Syria and North Korea they were investigating included cooperation on Syrian Scud missile programs and maintenance and repair of Syrian surface-to-air missiles air defense systems….The experts said they were also investigating the use of the VX nerve agent in Malaysia to kill the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in February.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs…Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States. However, diplomats and weapons inspectors suspect Syria may have secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability.

During the country’s more than six-year long civil war the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said the banned nerve agent sarin has been used at least twice, while the use of chlorine as a weapon has been widespread. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

On September 7, Israel targeted and heavily damaged a SSRC weapons factory in Masyaf Syria.

Excerpts from Michelle Nichols North Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted: U.N. report, Reuters, Aug. 21, 2017

Excerpts from Israel Hits Syrian Site Said to be Linked to Nuclear Weapons, Reuters, Sept. 7, 2017

One-of-a-Kind Nuclear Complex: Sellafield

The Windscale Piles in 1985 Image from wikipedia

There is no other site like Sellafield in the world. It is where many major developments in the 20th century nuclear industry were pioneered.

It is home to:

–the Windscale Piles, which were used to create material for weapons

–the world’s first commercial-scale nuclear power station – Calder Hall, opened in 1956

–the world’s first large-scale advanced gas-cooled reactor, opened in 1963

–nuclear fuel storage ponds and waste silos, built in the 1940s and 50s

–nuclear fuel fabrication plants

–nuclear fuel reprocessing plants

–a fleet of nuclear waste storage facilities

Sellafield is a densely packed site of just 6sq km housing thousands of buildings. Many of them store highly hazardous waste. Its oldest facilities were built in great haste during the early years of the Cold War with no plans for how they would be decommissioned.  Record-keeping in the early days was poor by modern standards, meaning much work has had to be carried out to confirm the nature and state of the material kept in these facilities. There is no blueprint for decommissioning Sellafield’s oldest facilities. Staff and contractors had to come up with ground-breaking engineering projects in order to decommission these one-of-a-kind facilities.  And these highly complex projects have to be done on small parcels of land, often just feet away from buildings containing highly hazardous material, with all of the safety constraints this presents.

When an uncertain challenge is combined with highly constrained working conditions and a series of never-done-before projects, the result is a long, complex and costly decommissioning programme.  Huge strides have already been made at Sellafield, but it is fair to say the site will continue to test ingenuity in construction, engineering, nuclear science and project management for decades to come.

-Commissioned for use in 1952, the Pile Fuel Cladding Silo received and safely stored radioactive cladding―pieces of metal tubes—used for uranium fuel rods in some of the UK’s earliest nuclear reactors―first from military projects and later power plants. Other debris was added, and by 1964 the silo was full.  The Pile Fuel Cladding Silo is 69 feet (21 meters) tall and houses six compartments that hold some 4,200 cubic yards (more than 3,200 cubic meters) of intermediate-level waste. The job at hand is safely retrieving the waste and storing it in highly secure concrete containers.

The first of six holes on the silo were cut (August 2017). To remove the waste, a crane will extend through the cut holes, and a grabber will drop down to scoop the waste up.It will be lifted out of the container and into a specially-designed metal box.

Excerpts from  Nuclear Provision: the cost of cleaning up Britain’s historic nuclear sites updated 19 July 2017 

Sellafield decommissioning: Nuclear waste silo opened, BBC, Sept. 5, 2017

SELLAFIELD PILE FUEL CLADDING SILO RETRIEVAL, Bechtel

When Price is Not the Issue: nuclear power

Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant Georgia, (current). image from wikipedia

Georgia Power Co. Thursday told state regulators it wants to continue the Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion in spite of sharply higher estimates of the cost to complete the project.

The recommendation from the Southern Co. subsidiary to the Georgia Public Service Commission means that at least part of the new wave of nuclear construction in the U.S. might be salvaged. Recently, owners of a plant in South Carolina abruptly halted construction of two new nuclear reactors due to cost overruns.

Georgia Power said that the total capital cost of the project is now expected to be about $19 billion, compared with an estimate of $9.7 billion in 2008. That figure doesn’t include financing costs.

Georgia Power Chief Executive Paul Bowers said the company took the long view…Once complete, the two new nuclear units will be in service for 60 to 80 years, he said. “There are naysayers in the marketplace but they are looking at it in the short-term perspective,” Mr. Bowers said. ..

Plant Vogtle in Georgia and V.C. Summer in South Carolina were supposed to be the leading edge of the next generation of nuclear reactors in the aging U.S. nuclear power fleet. They are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, and main contractor Westinghouse Electric Co. has filed for bankruptcy. In July 2017, owners abandoned work on the half-built South Carolina project, due to swelling costs.

Excerpts from  Georgia Power Persist in Project, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 2017

Here to Stay: the Nuclear Supply Chain

The smallest nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S. Navy's NR-1. image from wikipedia

The report from the Energy Futures Initiative released on August 15, 2017 by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calls for greater federal investment in the US huclear-power industry. The report calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, but the industry has been struggling.  Five nuclear plants, with a combined capacity of 5 gigawatts, have closed early since 2013, and an additional six plants are scheduled to shutter early over the next nine years. Of the two new nuclear plants under construction in the U.S., one was halted by Scana Corp. in July 2017 and backers of the other, Southern Co.’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, are seeking additional aid from the federal government.

Westinghouse Electric Co., the nuclear technology pioneer that is part of Toshiba Corp., went bankrupt in March, after it hit delays with its AP1000 reactors at each of those plants. After it declared bankruptcy, Westinghouse — whose technology is used in more than half the world’s nuclear power plants — said it shifted its focus from building reactors to helping dismantle them.

The U.S. needs companies and engineers that can both build and run nuclear enterprises…. The U.S. Navy’s reactors require supplies and qualified engineers, and American nuclear scientists fill vital national security roles, it said.  Companies, such as BWX Technologies Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia manufacture nuclear components for both the commercial nuclear industry and naval reactors. If the commercial business collapses, that may mean one less company able to process highly enriched uranium, according to the report.

“A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers,” according to the report.

In addition to extending a tax credit for new nuclear power and the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, the report says the federal government could also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “place a greater emphasis on the national security importance of nuclear power and its associated supply chain.”

Excerpts from Moniz: Nuclear Power’s Woes Imperil US National Security, Bloomberg, Aug. 15, 2017

 

Demise: nuclear plutonium alive

South Carolina is suing the U.S. government to recover $100 million in fines it says the Department of Energy owes the state for failing to remove one metric ton of plutonium stored there.  The lawsuit was filed on August 7, 2017.

Congress approved fines of $1 million per day for the first 100 days of each year through 2021, beginning 2016, if the weapons-grade plutonium was not removed from the Savannah River Site at the state’s border with Georgia, the attorney general’s office said.   The federal government cannot break its obligations and “leave South Carolina as the permanent dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium” said in the complaint.

Built in the 1950s, the U.S.-owned Savannah River Site processes and stores nuclear materialss.  A U.S. treaty with Russia in 2000 [The Plutonium Disposition Agreement]* required each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, left over from the Cold War.

The United States began building a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, known as the MOX project, at the Savannah River Site to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium to form safer fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors.  But the project is years overdue and billions over budget, and the technology for the new fuel fabrication is not fully developed. Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2016 pulled out of the plutonium pact amid rising tensions over Ukraine and Syria.  The Trump administration proposed in the fiscal year 2018 budget to scrap the project and pursue diluting the plutonium and disposing it underground, an alternative called for by the Obama administration.

Excerpts from   Harriet McLeod, South Carolina seeks $100 million from U.S. over plutonium removal, Reuters,  Aug. 9, 2017

*through which the United States and Russia agreed to immobilize 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

Mishandling Nuclear Materials: who is to blame

Plutonium in can.

Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times from 2012 to 2107 according to government documents.While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.

The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or – in the worst cases – after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.  Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.

In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory – a privately-run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico – admitted five weeks ago that in June 2017  it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes, instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident… According to the initial explanation Los Alamos filed with the government on June 23, 2017 the lab used air transport because one of the other labs – located in Livermore, California ― needed the plutonium urgently.

The incident – which came to light after a series of revelations by the Center for Public Integrity about other safety lapses at Los Alamos ― drew swift condemnation by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons work. It provoked the Energy Department to order a three-week halt to all shipments in and out of Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and a linchpin in the complex of privately-run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal.

In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly-enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive), or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which arguably has more experience with the handling and transport of radioactive materials than any other government entity, has no jurisdiction over nuclear weapons-related work by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) or its contractors. Instead, the Energy Department (of which the NNSA is a semi-autonomous part) regulates all the sites on its own, as well as the contractors that manage them.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials, Center for Public Integrity, Aug. 1, 2017

See also the Nuclear Weapons Establishment, Los Alamos to WIPP: the full story of nuclear waste mismanagement

The Unsellables and the Super-Acheivers

 Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi 2017

THE Barakah nuclear-power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi will never attract the attention that the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in neighbouring Dubai does, but it is an engineering feat nonetheless. It is using three times as much concrete as the world’s tallest building, and six times the amount of steel. Remarkably, its first reactor may start producing energy in the first half of this year—on schedule and (its South Korean developers insist) on budget. That would be a towering achievement.

In much of the world, building a nuclear-power plant looks like a terrible business prospect. Two recent additions to the world’s nuclear fleet, in Argentina and America, took 33 and 44 years to erect. Of 55 plants under construction, the Global Nuclear Power database reckons almost two-thirds are behind schedule .  The delays lift costs, and make nuclear less competitive with other sources of electricity, such as gas, coal and renewables.
Not one of the two technologies that were supposed to revolutionise the supply of nuclear energy—the European Pressurised Reactor, or EPR, and the AP1000 from America’s Westinghouse—has yet been installed, despite being conceived early this century. In Finland, France and China, all the EPRs under construction are years behind schedule. The main hope for salvaging their reputation—and the nuclear business of EDF, the French utility that owns the technology—is the Hinkley Point C project in Britain, which by now looks a lot like a Hail Mary pass.

Meanwhile, delays with the Westinghouse AP1000 have caused mayhem at Toshiba, its owner. The Japanese firm may announce write-downs in February of up to $6bn on its American nuclear business. As nuclear assets are probably unsellable, it is flogging parts of its core, microchip business instead.

YThis month, Oregon-based NuScale Power became the first American firm to apply for certification of a small modular reactor (SMR) design with America’s nuclear regulators.

“Clearly the momentum seems to be shifting away from traditional suppliers,” says William Magwood, director-general of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Both small and large reactors are required. In places like America and Europe, where electricity demand is growing slowly, there is rising interest in small, flexible ones. In fast-growing markets like China, large nuclear plants make more economic sense.
If the South Koreans succeed with their first foreign nuclear programme in Abu Dhabi, the reason is likely to be consistency. Nuclear accidents such as Three-Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 caused a long hiatus in nuclear construction in America and Europe. But South Korea has invested in nuclear power for four decades, using its own technology since the 1990s, says Lee Jong-ho, an executive at Korea Electric Power (KEPCO), which leads the consortium building Barakah. It does not suffer from the skills shortages that bedevil nuclear construction in the West.

KEPCO always works with the same, familiar suppliers and construction firms hailing from Korea Inc. By contrast, both the EPR and AP1000, first-of-a-kind technologies with inevitable teething problems, have suffered from being contracted out to global engineering firms. Also, South Korea and China both keep nuclear building costs low through repetition and standardisation, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA), an industry group. It estimates that South Korean capital costs have remained fairly stable in the past 20 years, while they have almost tripled in France and America.

Excerpts The nuclear options: How to build a nuclear-power plant, Economist, Jan. 28 2017, at 57