Tag Archives: spent fuel storage

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

The Final Disposal of Nuclear Waste: Japan

Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant Japan

The Japanese government will select potential areas to host nuclear dump sites instead of waiting for communities to volunteer, according to the revised policy on permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste that was adopted by the Cabinet on May 22, 2015  The revision, the first in seven years, was prompted after towns, villages and cities throughout Japan snubbed requests to host nuclear waste dumps. The government has been soliciting offers since 2002.

The move is seen as a sign that the government wants to address the matter as it proceeds with its pursuit of reactor restarts. All commercial units have largely sat idle since the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011….Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is seeking to revive atomic power, although the majority of the public remains opposed in light of the Fukushima disaster, which left tens of thousands homeless. Critics have attacked the government for promoting atomic power without resolving where all the waste will end up.

Permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste requires that a depository be built more than 300 meters underground, where the materials must lie for up to 100,000 years until radiation levels fall to the point where there is no harm to humans or the environment.  About 17,000 tons of spent fuel is stored on the premises of nuclear plants and elsewhere in Japan, but some would run out of space in three years if all the reactors got back online.  Under the revision, the government said it will allow future generations to retrieve high-level waste from such facilities should policy changes or new technologies emerge.

Worldwide, only Finland and Sweden have been able to pick final depository sites.

Excerpts from METI changes tactics after search for nuclear waste host proves futile,  Japan Times, May 22, 2015

Nuclear Plants, Nuclear Waste and the War in Ukraine

Zaporizhia, Ukraine  with nuclear plant in background. Image from wikipedia.

UKRAINE, More than 3,000 spent nuclear fuel rods are kept inside metal casks within towering concrete containers in an open-air yard close to a perimeter fence at Zaporizhia, the Guardian discovered on a recent visit to the plant, which is 124 miles (200km) from the current front line.“

With a war around the corner, it is shocking that the spent fuel rod containers are standing under the open sky, with just a metal gate and some security guards waltzing up and down for protection,” said Patricia Lorenz, a Friends of the Earth nuclear spokeswoman who visited the plant on a fact-finding mission.“I have never seen anything like it,” she added. “It is unheard of when, in Germany, interim storage operators have been ordered by the court to terror-proof their casks with roofs and reinforced walls.”  

Industry experts said that ideally the waste store would have a secondary containment system such as a roof.  Ukraine’s conflict in Donbass is 124 miles away from the plant, but Gustav Gressel, a fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations thinks the front line is too far away – for now – to be at risk from fighting.

However, locals still fear for the potential consequences if the conflict was to spread in the plant’s direction. Just three decades ago, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kiev released a radioactive cloud that poisoned vast tracts of land…

Plant security at Zaporizhia is now at a ‘high readiness’ level, while air force protection and training exercises have been stepped up. Officials say that if fighting reaches the plant, there are plans for the closure of access roads and deployment of soldiers.  But they say that no containment design could take the stresses of military conflict into account. “Given the current state of warfare, I cannot say what could be done to completely protect installations from attack, except to build them on Mars,” Sergiy Bozhko , the chairman of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) told the Guardian…..

However, a dry storage container with a resilient roof and in-house ventilation would offer greater protection….

“Nuclear energy is the only possible option for us to replace the generated electricity that we lost [from coal and gas],” a government source told the Guardian. “After the start of open war with Russia, it was understood that all our other strategies in the energy sphere would become impossible.” Some 60% of Ukraine’s electricity is now produced by 15 ageing reactors – concentrated in four giant plants. Nine of these will reach the end of their design lifetimes in the next five years, and three have already.  Most of Ukraine’s nuclear fleet depends on Russia’s Rosatom to supply its enriched uranium fuel – and to whisk away the resulting radioactive waste for storage…

But as fear and loathing in the war-torn region grow, government sources say that in the long term, Ukraine aims to forge a three-way split in nuclear fuel supply contracts between US-company Westinghouse, European companies, such as Areva, and Rosatom. This creates its own safety issues….

Last December (2014), the US firm signed a memo with Ukraine to “significantly increase fuel deliveries” to Ukrainian plants, though the details are sketchy. A similar deal was signed with the French nuclear company Areva on 24 April.  But fears of Russian retaliation have dogged past plans to shift supply or disposal contracts to the West, and market diversification will be a slow process….

The US has provided technology, training and hundreds of millions of dollars to help Ukraine’s push for fuel diversification, according to a US diplomatic cable from 2009, published by Wikileaks.  Westinghouse has also lobbied the Ukrainian government at ministerial level to commit to buying their fuel for at least five reactors. Plant managers say that it will be used in Zaporizhia by 2017.

Excerpts from Nuclear waste stored in ‘shocking’ way 120 miles from Ukrainian front line, Guardian, May 6, 2015

Nuclear Waste in the United States; the harm that leaks portend

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted hastily in concluding that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants for the next century or so in the absence of a permanent repository, and it must consider what will happen if none are ever established, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday. (June 8, 2012, pdf)  In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that in deciding that the fuel would be safe for many decades, the commission did not carry out an analysis of individual storage pools at reactors across the country, treating them generically instead. The commission also did not adequately analyze the risk that cooling water will leak from the pools or that the fuel will ignite, the court wrote.   The commission has relied on its conclusion that spent fuel rods can be safely stored at plants to extend the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors in recent years and to license four new ones.

The plaintiffs — four states, including New York, environmental groups and an American Indian organization — declared victory, although the precise implications were not clear. Still, it appeared that the commission would have to prepare and publicly defend an assessment that storage for many decades or even indefinitely did not entail large risks.

In the 1980s, Congress directed the Department of Energy to prepare a plan for creating a national repository at Yucca Mountain, a volcanic structure in the Nevada desert about 100 miles from Las Vegas. But that plan, decades behind schedule, was shelved in 2010 by President Obama, who had promised in his 2008 campaign to kill it if elected.  Some Republican lawmakers are now hoping to revive the idea of storage at Yucca but would face determined opposition, above all from the leader of the Senate’s Democratic majority, Harry Reid of Nevada.

“The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository,” the appeals court wrote.  If the federal government “continues to fail in its quest” to find a place for spent nuclear fuel, then the material “will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis,” the court said, and the commission will have to size up the environmental risks of this.  Failing to establish a repository is “a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the judges said……

Opponents of nuclear power have long cited the lack of a firm plan for a waste burial place in opposing license extensions for reactors. In the meantime, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year have sharpened a debate about how the fuel is stored now.  Most of it is kept in deep pools made of steel-reinforced concrete and lined with stainless steel, in water that is monitored and filtered. At most plants those pools have been packed full, and some older fuel has been moved into dry casks.Such casks have survived floods and earthquakes without apparent damage, and some experts have called for thinning out the pools and filling up more casks. The commission has said that either method is acceptable.  The fear is that if a pool leaked or if cooling failed and the pool boiled dry, the fuel could catch fire, although many experts doubt this is possible.

In its ruling on Friday, the court said the commission had reached its conclusions by examining past leaks. But that history “tells us very little about the potential for future leaks or the harm such leaks might portend,” it wrote.

Excerpts, MATTHEW L. WALD, Court Forces a Rethinking of Nuclear Fuel Storage,New York Times, June 8, 2012

Even Mongolia may Turn Radioactive

 The Obama administration has held informal talks with Mongolia about the possibility that the Central Asian nation might host an international repository for its region’s spent nuclear fuel, a senior U.S. diplomat said yesterday.U.S. Energy Department officials and their counterparts in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, are in the early stages of discussion and there has been no determination yet about whether to proceed with the idea, according to Richard Stratford, who directs the State Department’s Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security Office.  Speaking at the biennial Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Stratford said a spent-fuel depot in the region could be of particular value to Taiwan and South Korea, which use nuclear power but have few options when it comes to disposing of atomic waste.

“If Mongolia were to do that, I think that would be a very positive step forward in terms of internationalizing spent-fuel storage,” he said during a panel discussion on nuclear cooperation agreements. “My Taiwan and South Korean colleagues have a really difficult time with spent fuel. And if there really was an international storage depot, which I have always supported, then that would help to solve their problem.”

Stratford is Washington’s lead envoy for nuclear trade pacts, which are sometimes called “123 agreements” after the section of the Atomic Energy Act that governs them.The United States provides fresh uranium rods to selected trade partners in Asia, including South Korea and Taiwan. For Mongolia to accept and store U.S.-origin spent fuel from these or other nations would require Washington to first negotiate a nuclear trade agreement with Ulaanbaatar…

In most nations, the idea of accepting foreign spent fuel has seemed an even greater anathema [than  in the US]. Russian officials have discussed building an international repository on their territory, but the idea appears to have faded due to domestic opposition.  Nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis said he wonders if the situation would be any different in Mongolia.  “I think these guys are fooling themselves [if they] believe we will put a spent-fuel depot in Mongolia,” he told GSN in a brief interview, noting surprise at Stratford’s remarks. “I don’t think Mongolia is going to accept being a regional spent-fuel repository.”  Hibbs said that as “a country that’s surrounded by two big powers” — Russia and China — Mongolia is “trying to carve a niche out for itself economically in the region.”  Broadening its involvement in the nuclear energy sector might serve as just such an economic lever, Hibbs said.

Mongolia could seek to step up mining of its natural uranium deposits and potentially expand into a wider array of services, such as providing foreign nations with fresh fuel and then taking back the atomic waste at a later date, according to regional experts .  This type of move would come at a time when neither Russia nor China has acted on similar concepts for what is termed “leasing” of nuclear material.

There could also be interest among officials in and outside the Mongolian government in developing nuclear power to meet that nation’s own growing energy needs, according to some sources. Ulaanbaatar last week signed a memorandum of understanding with Seoul to cooperate on peaceful nuclear technologies and expertise….Hibbs said it is highly unlikely that Mongolia is exploring its atomic energy options with an eye toward eventually developing a nuclear weapon…Lewis had a slightly different take on the matter.“I don’t think Mongolia has any interest in developing a bomb right now,” he said. “But if Mongolia wants to move from uranium mining into the fuel cycle, that could contribute to an unwelcome spread of sensitive facilities.”

This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Excerpt, Elaine M. Grossman, Mongolia May Store Region`s Spent Nuclear Fuel, Senior U.S. Official Says, UB Post, April 5, 2011.