Tag Archives: radioactive pollution

The Devil’s Scenario for the End of Tokyo: Fukushima

Spent fuel pool at nuclear plant ....before an accident.  Image from wikipedia

By late March 2011… after tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant—it was far from obvious that the accident was under control and the worst was over. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano feared that radioactive material releases from the Fukushima Daiichi plant and its sister plant (Fukushima Daini) located some 12 km south could threaten the entire population
of eastern Japan: “That was the devil’s scenario that was on my mind. Common sense
dictated that, if that came to pass, then it was the end of Tokyo.”

Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked Dr. Shunsuke Kondo, then-chairman of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, to prepare a report on worst-case scenarios from the accidenta .  Dr. Kondo led a 3-day study involving other Japanese experts and submitted his report (Kondo, 2011) to the prime minister on March 25, 2011. The existence of the report was initially kept secret because of the frightening nature of the scenarios it described. An article in the Japan Times quoted a senior government official as saying, “The content [of the report] was
so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist.” …
One of the scenarios involved a self-sustaining zirconium cladding fire in the Unit 4 spent fuel pool. Radioactive material releases from the fire were estimated to cause extensive contamination of a 50- to 70-km region around the Fukushima Daiichi plant with hotspots significant enough to require evacuations up to 110 km from the plant. Voluntary evacuations were envisioned out to 200 km because of elevated dose levels. If release from other spent fuel pools occurred, then contamination could extend as far as Tokyo,…There was particular concern that the zirconium cladding fire could produce enough heat to melt the stored fuel, allowing it to flow to the bottom of the pool, melt through the pool liner and concrete
bottom, and flow into the reactor building.

Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident for Spent Fuel Storage: The U.S. nuclear industry and its regulator should give additional attention to improving the ability of plant operators to measure real-time conditions in spent fuel pools and maintain adequate cooling of stored spent fuel during severe accidents and terrorist attacks. These improvements should include hardened and redundant physical surveillance systems (e.g., cameras), radiation monitors, pool temperature monitors, pool water-level monitors, and means to deliver pool makeup water or sprays even when physical access to the pools is limited by facility damage or high radiation levels….

[At nuclear power plants there must be…adequate separation of plant safety and  security systems so that security systems can continue to function independently if safety systems are damaged. In particular, security systems need to have independent, redundant, and protected power sources…

Excerpts from Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Accident for Improving
Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants: Phase 2, US National Academies, 2016

Stolen Nuclear Material Iraq

industrial radioagraphy camera. image from GAO

Iraq is searching for “highly dangerous” radioactive material stolen in 2015, according to an environment ministry document and seven security, environmental and provincial officials who fear it could be used as a weapon if acquired by Islamic State.

The material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer, went missing in November 2015 from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra belonging to U.S. oilfield services company Weatherford WFT.N, the document seen by Reuters showed and officials confirmed…

The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, according to the document and officials.  A U.S. official said separately that Iraq had reported a missing specialized camera containing highly radioactive Iridium-192 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog, in November 2015….The environment ministry document, dated Nov. 30 and addressed to the ministry’s Centre for Prevention of Radiation, describes “the theft of a highly dangerous radioactive source of Ir-192 with highly radioactive activity belonging to SGS from a depot belonging to Weatherford in the Rafidhia area of Basra province”…

A senior environment ministry official based in Basra, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak publicly, told Reuters the device contained up to 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of Ir-192 “capsules”, a radioactive isotope of iridium also used to treat cancer.

The material is classed as a Category 2 radioactive source by the IAEA, meaning that if not managed properly it could cause permanent injury to a person in close proximity to it for minutes or hours, and could be fatal to someone exposed for a period of hours to days….

Large quantities of Ir-192 have gone missing before in the United States, Britain and other countries, stoking fears among security officials that it could be used to make a dirty bomb…..“They could simply attach it to explosives to make a dirty bomb,” said the official, who works at the interior ministry…But the official said the initial inquiry suggested the perpetrators had specific knowledge of the material and the facility. “No broken locks, no smashed doors and no evidence of forced entry,” he said….

Besides the risk of a dirty bomb, the radioactive material could cause harm simply by being left exposed in a public place for several days, said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security…The senior environmental official said authorities were worried that whoever stole the material would mishandle it, leading to radioactive pollution of “catastrophic proportions”.

Excerpts from Exclusive: Radioactive material stolen in Iraq raises security fears, Reuters, Feb. 17, 2016

See also Nuclear Materials in Iraq and the 2014 Civil War


Los Alamos to WIPP: the full story of nuclear waste mismanagement

LANL container damaged at WIPP. image from doe

The Timeline

June 2011: Las Conchas Fire threatens transuranic nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos.

Jan. 5, 2012: New Mexico Environment Department and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) prioritize cleanup of above-ground legacy waste and agree on a June 30, 2014, deadline to ship all Cold War-era nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

June 26, 2012: Gov. Susana Martinez visits Los Alamos to celebrate the 1,000th shipment of waste to WIPP.

Aug. 1, 2012: LANL changes policy, requiring organic kitty litter instead of the clay-based variety to absorb liquids in packaging of nuclear waste.

September 2012: The lab begins using organic kitty litter exclusively as an absorbent in waste.

August 2013: LANL officials authorize waste packaging contractor EnergySolutions to add neutralizer to acidic waste, despite manufacturer’s warnings about incompatibility.

Dec. 4, 2013: Waste Drum 68660 is packaged at Los Alamos for shipment to WIPP.

Feb. 5, 2014: An underground truck fire forces evacuation at WIPP.

Feb. 14, 2014: A chemical reaction causes the drum to rupture, triggering a radiation leak that exposed more than 20 workers to contamination and indefinitely shut down WIPP.

May 2014: The first public reports emerge that organic kitty litter may have been a factor in the radiation leak at WIPP, and WIPP officials learn details about the waste from LANL that indicate the lab hid certain truths about its contents and their volatility.

June 17, 2014: LANL scientists conclude heat from the ruptured drum at WIPP could have made up to 55 more drums stored nearby more volatile.

July 23, 2014: LANL officials acknowledge a lead-contaminated glove in the waste drum that burst at WIPP has been added to the factors being investigated as the possible cause.

Sept. 30, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy announces full resumption of activities at WIPP could be five years away and estimates the recovery cost at $500 million.

Oct. 1, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General issues a report condemning LANL for failing to follow its own internal safety procedures and warnings against mixing volatile components in the drum that ruptured at WIPP.

In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.  The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.

For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.
Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.
The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
On Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.

The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.

Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.
Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems….

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.  As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.,,,

More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.  “All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.
Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery…. Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.  A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held. “LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area. … A

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak, The New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2014

Nuclear Accidents of the Future: the preparations


Three major atomic accidents [Three Mile Island US 1979, Chernobyl USSR 1986, Fukushima Japan 2011] in 35 years are forcing the world’s nuclear industry to stop imagining it can prevent more catastrophes and to focus instead on how to contain them.  As countries such as China and India embrace atomic power even after the Fukushima reactor meltdowns in 2011 caused mass evacuations because of radiation fallout, scientists warn the next nuclear accident is waiting to happen and could be in a country with little experience to deal with it.

“The cold truth is that, no matter what you do on the technological improvements side, accidents will occur — somewhere, someplace,” said Joonhong Ahn, a professor at the Department of Nuclear Engineering of University of California, Berkeley. The consequences of radiation release, contamination and evacuation of people is “clear and obvious,” Ahn said. That means governments and citizens should be prepared, not just nuclear utilities, he said.

While atomic power has fallen from favor in some western European countries since the Fukushima accident — Germany, for example, is shutting all of its nuclear plants — it’s gaining more traction in Asia as an alternative to coal. China has 28 reactors under construction, while Russia, India, and South Korea are building 21 more, according to the World Nuclear Association. Of the 176 reactors planned, 86 are in nations that had no nuclear plants 20 years ago, WNA data show…

The problem is that the causes of the three events followed no pattern, and the inability to immediately contain them escalated the episodes into global disasters with huge economic, environmental and political consequences. Even if no deaths have yet been officially linked to Fukushima radiation, for example, cleanup costs have soared to an estimated $196 billion and could take more than four decades to complete.

If nuclear is to remain a part of the world’s energy supply, the industry must come up with solutions to make sure contamination — and all other consequences — do not spread beyond station grounds, Gregory Jaczko, ex-chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo….

Since the introduction of nuclear stations in the 1950s, the industry has focused safety efforts on design and planning. Research and innovation has looked at back-up systems, passive technology that would react even if no human operator did, and strengthened materials used in construction of atomic stations….

The official toll from the reactor explosion at Chernobyl was put at 31 deaths. Radiation clean-up work, however, involved about 600,000 people, while 200,000 locals had to be relocated.  The accident contaminated 150,000 kilometers of land and according to the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev it was a factor in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In Japan, the meltdown of three Fukushima reactors helped unseat premier Naoto Kan and forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people, destroying local fishing, farming and tourism industries along the way. It also brought tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters out onto the streets in the country’s biggest demonstrations since the 1960s. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator and once the world’s biggest non-state power producer, would have been bankrupted by the Fukushima accident but for billions of dollars in government aid…

Building a plant that would contain an accident within the facility boils down to cold cash, he said.  The review calls for new reactor designs to make a major release of radioactive fallout outside the station site “practically impossible,” the IAEA said. The standard would be “crucial for public acceptance and for the sustainability of nuclear energy.” Specialists on the review met for the first time in March and no conclusions are yet available, IAEA spokesman Greg Webb said by e-mail.

The problem with an engineering solution, an ever better reactor design or grander safety systems, is that based on the premise that all technology is fallible those defense systems can also fail, Berkley’s Ahn said.  “This is an endless cycle,” Ahn said. “Whatever is your technology, however it is developed, we always have residual risk.”  When the next nuclear accident occurs the world needs to have better knowledge of how to limit the spread of radiation and do the clean-up, including removing radiation from the soil, water and having an efficient evacuation drill for the population in danger zones, Ahn said. We also need more understanding of the impact of low-dose radiation on organisms, he said.  “This is about recovery from an accident, not preventing an accident,” Ahn said. “It’s completely different. And I think this concept is very necessary for the future of nuclear utilization.”

Excerpts from Yuriy Humber, World Needs to Get Ready for the Next Nuclear Plant Accident, Bloomberg, Apr. 4, 2014

23 Baseball Stadiums of Nuclear Waste: the Fukushima disaster

Japanese officials in towns around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant reacted guardedly to plans announced on Saturday (October 29, 2011) tobuild facilities to store radioactive waste from the clean-up around the plant within three years.  Saturday’s announcement, seven months after the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, came as towns near the plant are still coping with health fears and disputes over where to store huge amounts of unwanted waste…

Japan aims to halve radiation over two years in places contaminated by the crisis. To do so, it may have to remove and dispose of massive amounts of radioactive soil, possibly enough to fill 23 baseball stadiums…Local authorities would have to keep the contaminated waste in their towns until the facility is ready….

In Minami Soma, top soil scraped from school playgrounds and house yards is kept on site, piled up in corners or buried. The city has not been able to decide on a single storage location for the soil because of resistance from residents.

Fukushima towns struggle to store radioactive waste, Reuters, Oct. 29, 2011