Tag Archives: weapons-grade plutonium

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

Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

Testing a sheep's thyroid for radiation. Image from wikipedia

The Energy Department project to tear down the Plutonium Finish Plant at the Hanford Site was halted in mid-December 2017 after radioactive dust was discovered far off the plant site. T As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.  The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 work

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control.

The mishap occurred at one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989.
The exposures from the plutonium releases in 2017 were minuscule bestimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime…. As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said….Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9, 2018 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford… The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation’s largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department’s enforcement office in late March 2018…

In March 2018, the company released a preliminary analysis [pdf] of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a “fixative” that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.  The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.  In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off

The problems at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were not an isolated event at Hanford, which has struggled with its cleanup for more than a decade.
Work was stopped five years ago on key parts of a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. Several years ago, the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039, though it hopes to begin treating some less radioactive waste by 2022….In 2017, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

Smith, the Ecology manager, said a lot of cleanup progress has been made at Hanford. Hundreds of buildings have been torn down. Much of the soil along the banks of the Columbia River has been cleaned up enough for any future use. And the site’s nine nuclear reactors have been put in stable condition…

One of those facilities, known as 324 Building,[Chemical Materials Engineering Laboratory] was used to extract plutonium from spent fuel, said Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of Energy and a longtime critic of the cleanup. The facility has civilian waste from Germany, sent as part of a research project, as well as large amounts of radioactive waste that was placed in unlined burial pits, he said. Records of what lies in the pits were destroyed in 1988, he said.

Excerpts from RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible, LA Times, Apr. 16, 2018

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.