Tag Archives: 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

Plutonium and Space Travel

Plutonium 238 glowing from its own heat.  Image from wikipedia

In places where the sun’s rays do not penetrate…a different power source is required for space travel. One of the favourites used in space missions is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).  RTGs were developed by America in the 1950s and work by converting heat produced by the decay of a radioactive material into electricity directly. This is not the same as nuclear fission, a more complex process used in power plants to split radioactive material and release a much larger amount of energy. The former Soviet Union also used RTGs to run hundreds of lighthouses and navigation beacons in remote areas… While the isotopes used are not much use in bombs, they can still make people ill, even when partially depleted.

America’s RTGs use plutonium-238 (238Pu). The American plant that produced it closed in 1988 and the isotope was then imported from Russia. That stopped in 2009, leaving NASA with 35kg in stock, although only about 17kg of that is estimated to be still suitable for RTGs. After years of hand-wringing about being cut off from space without the material to make an RTG, a deal was reached in 2013 for NASA to pay the Department of Energy to resume production…

America has used RTGs in 27 space missions since 1961. Despite continuing improvements in collecting solar energy, NASA says it still needs RTGs—and not just to reach destinations beyond Saturn. The space agency’s planetary-science division has a list of places where solar power cannot be relied upon, including the dark side of Mercury, craters on the Moon and the poles of Mars, which are partly obscured from the sun.  NASA has been working on a system called the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, which offers four times the efficiency of a current RTG.

Excerpts from Powering space travel: NASA’s dark materials, Economist, Apr. 4, 2015, at  75

Frenemies with Nuclear Benefits: 2015 US-China Nuclear Deal

Coolant pump  Nuclear Reactor AP 1000

President Obama intends to renew a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. The deal would allow Beijing to buy more U.S.-designed reactors and pursue a facility or the technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel. China would also be able to buy reactor coolant technology that experts say could be adapted to make its submarines quieter and harder to detect.,,

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, argues that the new agreement will clear the way for U.S. companies to sell dozens of nuclear reactors to China, the biggest nuclear power market in the world.  Yet the new version of the nuclear accord — known as a 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — would give China leeway to buy U.S. nuclear energy technology at a sensitive moment: The Obama administration has been trying to rally support among lawmakers and the public for a deal that would restrict Iran’s nuclear program — a deal negotiated with China’s support.,,,

If Congress rejects the deal, “that would allow another country with lower levels of proliferation controls to step in and fill that void,” said a senior administration official…

{T}he current nuclear agreement with China does not expire until the end of the year (2015),…
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, has been urging lawmakers to insist on requiring advance consent for the reprocessing of spent fuel from U.S.-designed reactors into plutonium suitable for weapons. He also is concerned about the sale of certain nuclear energy technologies, especially coolant pumps with possible naval use.
Charlotte-based Curtiss-Wright developed advanced coolant pumps for the U.S. Navy’s submarines. The same plant produces a scaled-up version for the Westinghouse AP1000 series reactors, each of which uses four big pumps. These pumps reduce noises that would make a submarine easier to detect…..An Obama administration official said the reactor coolant pumps are much too big to fit into a submarine. However, a 2008 paper by two former nuclear submarine officers working on threat reduction said that “the reverse engineering would likely be difficult” but added that “certainly, the Chinese have already reversed engineered very complex imported technology in the aerospace and nuclear fields.”..

The United States has bilateral 123 agreements with 22 countries, plus Taiwan, for the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some countries that do not have such agreements, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Malaysia, have expressed interest in clearing obstacles to building nuclear reactors.

China and the United States reached a nuclear cooperation pact in 1985, before China agreed to safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA safeguards went into force in 1989, but Congress imposed new restrictions after the Chinese government’s June 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. The 123 agreement finally went into effect in March 1998; President Bill Clinton waived the 1989 sanctions after China pledged to end assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear cooperation with Iran.

In December 2006, Westinghouse Electric — majority-owned by Toshiba — signed an agreement to sell its AP1000 reactors to China. Four are under construction, six more are planned, and the company hopes to sell 30 others, according to an April report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS)….“Missile proliferation from Chinese entities is a continuing concern.” The United States wants China to refrain from selling missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, a payload of 1,100 pounds, as far as 190 miles

China has a pilot plant engaged in reprocessing in Jiu Quan, a remote desert town in Gansu province. Satellite photos show that it is next to a former military reprocessing plant, according to Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University physics professor who specializes in nuclear arms control.

Excerpts from Steven Mufson, Obama’s quiet nuclear deal with China raises proliferation concerns,   Washington Post  May 10, 2015

The Nuclear Lobby

The report of the Center for International Policy provides a profile of the nuclear weapons lobby, noting along the way that in a constrained budgetary environment different parts of the lobby may either collaborate to promote higher nuclear weapons spending or compete for their share of a shrinking pie.

• The Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration are scheduled to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear weapons projects over the next decade and beyond, including $68 billion to develop and purchase a new generation of nuclear bombers; $347 billion to purchase and operate 12 new ballistic missile submarines; and billions more on new nuclear weapons facilities.

• In the 2012 election cycle, the top 14 nuclear weapons contractors gave a total of $2.9 million to key members of Congress with decision making power over nuclear weapons spending. These firms have donated $18.7 million to these same members of Congress over the course of their careers.

• More than half of the contributions cited above went to members of the four key subcommittees with jurisdiction over nuclear weapons spending – the Strategic Forces Subcommittees of the Armed Services Committees in each house and the Energy and Water Subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees in each house. Total contributions by major nuclear weapons contractors to members of these four subcommittees have been over $1.6 million in the 2012 election cycle thus far, and $11.7 lifetime to these same members.

• Of the 14 nuclear weapons contractors tracked in this report, Lockheed Martin has been the biggest contributor to key members of Congress with influence over nuclear weapons spending. So far during the 2012 election cycle, Lockheed Martin has donated $535,000 to these key members; other major donors include Honeywell International, $464,582; Northrop Grumman, $464,000; and Boeing, $336,750.

• Leading advocates of high levels of nuclear weapons spending have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from major nuclear weapons contractors in the course of their careers…..

Policy Recommendations

• Reduce the ballistic missile submarine force. The ballistic missile submarine force should be reduced from 12 boats to eight, with additional warheads carried in each boat. This would save $18 billion over the next decade while sustaining the capability to deploy the number of warheads called for under the New START treaty.

• Postpone new nuclear bomber plans. Plans for a new nuclear bomber should be shelved, at a savings of $18 billion over the next decade. At a minimum, the bomber should not be made nuclear-capable.

• Cancel the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility.  There is no circumstance under which it will be necessary to build large numbers of new plutonium “pits” or triggers for nuclear warheads. Therefore, the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at Los Alamos National Laboratories should be cancelled, at a savings of $5 billion over the next decade.

• Cancel building the Mixed Oxide (MOX ) facility.  Plutonium waste from nuclear warheads can be neutralized without building the multi-billion dollar MOX facility. It too should be cancelled, at a savings of at least $4.9 billion in construction costs over the next twenty years.

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The top 14 nuclear weapons contractors employ 137 lobbyists who formerly worked for key nuclear weapons decision makers. The majority of the revolving door lobbyists – 96 – worked for key members of Congress or key Congressional Committees; 26 revolving door lobbyists worked for one of the military services; and 24 revolving door lobbyists worked for the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy. Some lobbyists worked for one or more Congressional offices or agencies before leaving government, and many now work for more than one major nuclear weapons contractor.   There are 19 revolving door lobbyists working for major nuclear weapons contractors who were staffers for members of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee – the committee that controls spending on the nuclear warhead complex.

Excerpt William D. Hartung and Christine Anderson, Bombs Versus Budgets: Inside the Nuclear Weapons Lobby, Center for International Policy, June 2012

See also Nuclear Weapons Establishment

Zero nuclear weapons?

The Public has the Right to Know who has Nuclear Weapons

Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building (pdf)

 

Plutonium Production after Fukushima; the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

Last year’s tsunami disaster in Japan clouded the nation’s nuclear future, idled its reactors and rendered its huge stockpile of plutonium useless for now. So, the industry’s plan to produce even more has raised a red flag.  Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing a half-ton of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 35 tons Japan already has stored around the world. That’s even though all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable or offline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after the tsunami-generated Fukushima crisis.

“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”  Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclear weapons — by reprocessing spent, uranium-based fuel in a procedure aimed at decreasing radioactive waste that otherwise would require long-term storage.  The industry wants to reprocess more to build up reserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors that run on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that can be reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayed day is still far off.  Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, the reactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by 2030.  “There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said Koichi Imafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. “It’s not just lying around without purpose.”

In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclear policy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn away from plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industry that wants to push forward with it.  Other countries, including the United States, have scaled back the separation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern and is more expensive than other alternatives, including long-term storage of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whether it is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spent fuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professor specializing in energy issues.  “Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. “Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear non-proliferation.”

Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to stop. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already the fifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to make about 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does not manufacture them.  Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, government regulations require industry representatives to announce by March 31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead and explain how they will use it.

But, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to do so. They blame the government for failing to come up with a long-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want to make more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going by October.  Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — a mixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded back into reactors and reused in a cycle. But technical glitches, cost overruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually putting the moving parts of that plan into action.

In the meantime, Japan’s plutonium stockpile — most of which is stored in France and Britain — has swelled despite Tokyo’s promise to international regulators not to produce a plutonium surplus.  Its plutonium holdings have increased fivefold from about 7 tons in 1993 to 37 tons at the end of 2010. Japan initially said the stockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cycle kicked in, but that hasn’t happened.

Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created, and there are questions about how the plutonium would be used, this is not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes no sense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a “stockpile” rather than a “surplus.”  “It’s a simple accounting trick,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s laughable. And it sends the wrong signal all around the world.”

Officials stress that, like other plutonium-holding nations, Japan files a yearly report detailing its stockpile with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has repeatedly failed to live up to its own schedules for how the plutonium will be used.  From 2006 until three years ago, the nuclear industry said the plutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16-18 conventional reactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOX that year. By the time of the earthquake and tsunami last year, the number was still just three — including one at the Fukushima plant.  In response to the delays, the industry has simply revised its plans farther off into the future. It is now shooting for the end of fiscal 2015.

“There really is a credibility problem here,” said Princeton’s von Hippel, who also is a member of the independent International Panel on Fissile Materials. “They keep making up these schedules which are never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”

By ERIC TALMADGE and MARI YAMAGUCHI, Japan to make more plutonium despite big stockpile, Associated Press, June 2, 2012

See also http://www.jnfl.co.jp/english/

Storage of Nuclear Waste in the United States: giant casks

The nuclear disaster in Japan and the abandonment of a spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., have prompted TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority)-