Sunday, December 2, 2012

MOX Musings

How to dispose of more than 33 tons of fissile plutonium (P239), declared surplus from the nuclear weapons program?

Is it better to mix it with depleted uranium (U238), form the mixture into fuel rods (MOX), burn the fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, and then bury the exhausted, but still radioactive fuel in a deep pit for a very long time, essentially forever?

Or, is it better to combine the surplus Pu239 with waste from nuclear power plants, vitrify the highly radioactive mixture steel canisters, and then bury the canisters in a deep pit for a very long time, essentially forever?

Are either of these schemes guaranteed to permanently dispose of the surplus Pu239; i.e., such that it would be forever impossible to build a viable nuclear warhead from the nuclear wastes?

Well, maybe not! But, in this regard, details matter and much of the relevant information is classified as Secret Restricted Data; e.g., just what can be constructed successfully from waste materials of a given nuclidic composition is unknown to the general public.

Nevertheless, advocacy groups vouchsafe a variety of views on this topic. Across the spectrum of views there are, on the one hand, views associated with pessimistic  feelings about nuclear energy and, on the other, views associated with optimistic feelings about all things nuclear. Those who feel pessimistic about nuclear energy occasionally also express negative thoughts about other human attempts to control and exploit nature. Those who feel optimistic about all things nuclear also often express positive thoughts about scientific and engineering undertakings, generally.

Thus, do I reveal some of my own bias!

Now, a few quotes from websites advocating for and against MOX:

From Nuclear Information and Resource Service  (an antinuclear activist group):

Plutonium Proliferation and MOX Fuel

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) decision to mix 33 or more metric tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons with depleted uranium into a mixed-oxide fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors is a direct reversal of decades-old U.S. policy aimed toward non-proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. A plutonium fuel program will increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and the international proliferation of plutonium.

A decision on the part of the U.S. government to engage in a large scale civilian plutonium program would encourage the continuation of the messy and dangerous reprocessing programs in Europe and Japan. A plutonium fuel program would destroy any leverage the U.S. might have to influence non-weapons states from creating their own civilian reprocessing programs.

Irradiating weapons plutonium in a reactor does not make the plutonium unusable for weapons purposes. The U.S. government proved with a nuclear test in 1962 that so-called "reactor grade" plutonium can be used in nuclear bombs. Using weapons grade plutonium in reactors does not effectively safeguard plutonium, and it undermines disarmament efforts.

A U.S. plutonium fuel program would send a clear signal to other countries: the U.S. government approves of separated plutonium fuel programs. This would undercut the government's ability to discourage reprocessing in other countries and may encourage other countries to pursue plutonium programs. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum explained the situation clearly in a memorandum to former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary: "U.S. decisions on plutonium disposition are inextricably linked with U.S. efforts to reduce stockpiles as well as limit the use of plutonium worldwide. The multi-decade institutionalization of plutonium use in US commercial reactors would set a very damaging precedent for US non-proliferation policy."

The alternative, to encase the plutonium in ceramics or glass (immobilization), will not affect the government's non-proliferation goals, nor encourage civilian reprocessing in the U.S. or elsewhere. Immobilizing plutonium will send the proper signal that plutonium is a dangerous waste and needs to be treated as such.

From the National Nuclear Security Administration:

NNSA Completes Milestones for Initial Steps in Plutonium Disposition
Nov 16, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has announced that it recently completed two milestones towards production of early plutonium oxide feedstock for its Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility. In its second year in production, NNSA exceeded the FY 2012 goal of 200 kilograms of plutonium oxide production by disassembling nuclear weapons pits and converting them into plutonium oxide at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). NNSA also initiated operations at H-Canyon and HB-Line at the Savannah River Site (SRS) to begin plutonium oxide production. The oxide production at both LANL and SRS provides the initial feedstock for the MOX facility and demonstrates the first steps towards permanent plutonium disposition.

“The progress achieved at LANL and SRS in support of plutonium disposition demonstrates the benefits of utilizing existing facilities in support of NNSA’s efforts to eliminate surplus weapons plutonium,” said NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino.

“Feedstock for the MOX facility represents a critical component of the U.S. plutonium disposition strategy and will enable the U.S. to meet international nonproliferation commitments while advancing President Obama’s goal of permanently reducing the number of nuclear weapons across the globe.”

The disassembly, conversion and certification, which were completed at LANL, are significant accomplishments in an ongoing effort to safely dispose of surplus weapon-grade plutonium. NNSA used the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) at LANL to prepare, package and certify the plutonium oxide product. Following a rigorous product certification process, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, the prime contractor for the design, construction and start-up of the MOX facility, has officially accepted a total of 442 kilograms of plutonium oxide from LANL for the MOX facility.

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) initiated repackaging and dissolution of the non-pit plutonium material in H-Canyon this month, marking a significant milestone for H-Canyon's efforts to support the mission to produce early feed for the MOX facility. The H-Canyon Complex will eventually provide approximately 3.7 metric tons (MT) of plutonium oxide feedstock for the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility from the excess defense plutonium currently stored at SRS.

Under an agreement between NNSA and the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management (EM), the SRS H-Canyon and HB-Line, which are owned by EM and operated by the SRS management contractor SRNS, will process plutonium to meet the specifications for use in the MOX facility. Use of the SRS’s HB-Line and H-Canyon, the only operating production-scale, shielded chemical separation facilities in the U.S., takes advantage of the extensive plutonium experience among SRNS’s H-Canyon and HB-Line staff and allows for the conversion of this plutonium into feed material that will be readily available for the MOX facility’s first years of operation. The successful startup of the dissolution process is a key milestone in preparing the materials for conversion to MOX fuel.

Through the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the U.S. and Russia have agreed to each dispose of at least 34 MT of surplus weapon-grade plutonium, enough total material for 17,000 nuclear weapons. Once at the MOX facility, the plutonium oxide from LANL along with the oxide already at SRS from H-Canyon will be blended with depleted uranium, fabricated into MOX fuel and irradiated in domestic nuclear power reactors. After the MOX fuel is irradiated in civilian reactors, it is no longer suitable for use in nuclear weapons. [A question still remains as to whether or not a crude nuclear device could be fashioned successfully from MOX fuel that had been irradiated in civilian reactors.]

Also of interest is a related topic, presented by a well-known nuclear policy expert:

Op-Ed Contributor  / New York Times
Japan’s Nuclear Mistake
November 28, 2012  

THIS year has seen a lot of concern about the confrontation between China and Japan over a group of islets in the East China Sea.

Less attention, though, is being paid to what may be a more destabilizing development: next year Japan plans to bring its long-delayed Rokkasho reprocessing plant online, which could extract as much as eight tons of weapons-usable plutonium from spent reactor fuel a year, enough for nearly 1,000 warheads. That would add to Japan’s existing stockpile of 44 tons, 9 of which are stored in domestic facilities.

Japan has repeatedly vowed never to develop nuclear weapons, and there’s no reason to doubt that now. But there’s more to worry about: reprocessing not only creates a tempting target for terrorists, it also sets a precedent for countries around the world to follow suit — and pushes the world toward rampant nuclear proliferation.

Originally, Japan, like other countries, considered the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel necessary to obtain start-up plutonium for a new generation of plutonium “breeder” reactors that would use uranium more efficiently. But uranium remains cheap and abundant, and the planned reactors, so-called molten-sodium-cooled breeders, proved to be costly and unreliable.

Japan’s own Monju prototype breeder reactor operated for only four months in 1995 before a sodium fire shut it down. Its operators are still struggling to restart it.

Japan then shifted to a strategy of recycling separated plutonium back into the fuel of its existing reactors. That effort was delayed by technical problems and public opposition and, in the wake of last year’s Fukushima accident, appears completely unviable. Still, Japan continues to plan to reprocess its nuclear fuel.

And it does so despite international pressure. At a nuclear-security event in Seoul, South Korea, last March, President Obama said, “We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we are trying to keep away from terrorists.”

Not only did Japanese authorities ignore him, but some reprocessing advocates claim that the Obama administration in fact supports Japan’s plutonium recycling program.

Japan insists that its stockpiles are safe, but just one successful theft by would-be nuclear terrorists would create a global crisis. Of even more concern is how reprocessing provides cover for other countries to acquire a nuclear option.

We learned this in 1974 when India took plutonium enriched with help from the American Atoms for Peace program and used it for “peaceful nuclear explosion.”

Thanks to sustained diplomatic efforts, starting with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and to the high cost of reprocessing, Japan is the only non-nuclear state that continues to reprocess its nuclear fuel. South Korea is insisting, however, in its negotiation of a new Agreement of Nuclear Cooperation with the United States, that it should have the same right to reprocess as Japan.

South Korea isn’t alone. South Africa’s energy minister recently reasserted her country’s interest in reprocessing. When asked

why the country would want to embark on such a costly venture, a South African nuclear official once responded, “Reprocessing is the currency of power in the modern world!” Meanwhile, Iran insists that it has the same rights as Japan and is building a reactor similar to the one India used to produce the plutonium for its first nuclear bombs.

Despite the added cost of reprocessing — about $2.5 billion a year for the new facility — Japan insists it is the only viable option for the spent nuclear fuel which is filling up the cooling pools at its reactors. But there are easier alternatives.

When nuclear power plants in most other countries need space in their pools, they remove some of the older, cooler fuel and place it in air-cooled casks within the plant’s security perimeter. That costs 5 percent as much as reprocessing does. Eventually, the spent fuel is to be shipped to an underground repository, as is to be done with the high-level radioactive waste from reprocessing.

Reprocessing advocates in Japan and South Korea say that communities around the nuclear power plants will not allow dry-cask

storage and that, when the spent fuel pools fill up, the power plants will have to shut down.

But in both countries those local governments receive large subsidies and taxes — typically 50 percent of a municipality’s revenue in Japan — for playing host to nuclear power plants. They are unlikely to force permanent shutdowns just because they don’t like extra spent fuel kept at the reactor site, especially if the safety advantages of dry-cask storage are explained to them.

The Obama administration should make it emphatically clear to Japan’s government that the separation of more plutonium is in no one’s interest. The two countries should instead jointly lead a global effort to reduce existing stocks of separated plutonium by discouraging reprocessing and encouraging safe disposal of already separated stocks, which could be done, for example, by immobilizing the plutonium and placing it in three-mile-deep boreholes.

The waste of trillions of taxpayers’ yen is Japan’s problem. The risk it presents, however, is the whole world’s concern.

Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton. Masafumi Takubo is a nuclear policy analyst based in Japan.

Other relevant info is available from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel in Pools and Dry Casks

    Radioactive Waste: Production, Storage, Disposal
    Materials Safeguards and Threat Assessment
    Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel
    Locations of Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations
    Dry Spent Fuel Storage Designs: NRC Approved for General Use
    Nuclear Fuel Pool Capacity
What We Regulate

There are two acceptable storage methods for spent fuel after it is removed from the reactor core:

    Spent Fuel Pools - Currently, most spent nuclear fuel is safely stored in specially designed pools at individual reactor sites around the country.
    Dry Cask Storage - If pool capacity is reached, licensees may move toward use of above-ground dry storage casks.

For additional information, see our Spent Fuel Storage in Pools and Dry Casks, Key Points and Questions & Answers page.

How We Regulate

The NRC regulates spent fuel through a combination of regulatory requirements, licensing; safety oversight, including inspection, assessment of performance; and enforcement; operational experience evaluation; and regulatory support activities.

For general information, see the How We Regulate page. For details, see the following:

    Regulations, Guidance, and Communications
    Public Involvement
    Waste Confidence

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, October 18, 2012

Finally, from the World Nuclear Association / Representing the people and organizations of the global nuclear alliance (a nuclear trade association)

Megatons to Megawatts /  Military Warheads as a Source of Nuclear Fuel   (last updated Aug, 2011)

•    Weapons-grade uranium and plutonium surplus to military requirements in the USA and Russia is being made available for use as civil fuel.

•    Weapons-grade uranium is highly enriched, to over 90% U-235 (the fissile isotope). Weapons-grade plutonium has over 93% Pu-239 and can be used, like reactor-grade plutonium, in fuel for electricity production.

•    Highly-enriched uranium from weapons stockpiles is displacing some 10,600 tonnes of U3O8 production from mines each year, and meets about 13% of world reactor requirements.

For more than three decades concern has centered on the possibility that uranium intended for commercial nuclear power might be diverted for use in weapons. Today, however, attention is focused on the role of military uranium as a major source of fuel for commercial nuclear power.

Since 1987 the United States and countries of the former USSR have signed a series of disarmament treaties to reduce the nuclear arsenals by about 80%.

Nuclear materials declared surplus to military requirements by the USA and Russia are now being converted into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The main material is highly enriched uranium (HEU), containing at least 20% uranium-235 (U-235) and usually about 90% U-235. HEU can be blended down with uranium containing low levels of U-235 to produce low enriched uranium (LEU), typically less than 5% U-235, fuel for power reactors. It is blended with depleted uranium (mostly U-238), natural uranium (0.7% U-235), or partially-enriched uranium.

Highly-enriched uranium in US and Russian weapons and other military stockpiles amounts to about 2000 tonnes, equivalent to about twelve times annual world mine production.

World stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium are reported to be some 260 tonnes, which if used in mixed oxide fuel in conventional reactors would be equivalent to a little over one year's world uranium production. Military plutonium can blended with uranium oxide to form mixed oxide (MOX) fuel.

After LEU or MOX is burned in power reactors, the spent fuel is not suitable for weapons manufacture.

Any questions?!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

WIPP: How It Gets Stuffed

The Los Alamos Monitor reported yesterday on a request filed by the Southwest Research and Information Center with the New Mexico Environment Department, regarding a SRIC lawsuit against NMED being adjudicated by the NM Court of Appeals. SRIC is requesting a stay of NMED's Nov. 1, 2012 grant of a Permit Modification Request by  the Department of Energy for the continued operation of its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

According to LAM: SRIC and Margaret Elizabeth Richards filed a Notice of Appeal in the NM Court of Appeals against NMED's decision of Nov. 1, 2012 to allow Remote Handled transuranic nuclear waste in shielded containers to be stored at  WIPP.

The appellants and approximately 200 individuals argue that the request to modify the state’s WIPP permit be subject to a public hearing because of the dangers posed by RH waste, the technical complexity of handling RH waste at WIPP and the substantial public interest in the request.

NMED approved DOE's Permit Modification Request although the state agency had in December, 2011 and January, 2012 rejected virtually the same request. [That is, whereas NMED under the outgoing Gov. Richardson had denied the request, NMED under the new Gov. Martinez has approved it.]

SRIC's website contains relevant information:

“SRIC feels that the permit request was incomplete and did not adequately address the real reason that DOE wants shielded containers — there is not enough space for RH waste because of the way the facility has been mismanaged."

In other words, SRIC objects to the proposal to store RH waste in shielded containers at WIPP on the grounds that there is no longer room at WIPP to store similar amounts of RH waste in unshielded containers. This issue has been clarified in a formal request filed with NMED for a stay of NMED's decision to allow the use of shielded containers to store RH waste at WIPP, pending a decision by the NM Court of Appeals of a suit filed by SRIC against NMED.

See SRIC's formal request to NMED for a stay of its grant of the PMR:

The following is excerpted (and contains paraphrasing) from SRIC's formal request to NMED for a stay of its grant of DOE's PMR:

SRIC shows, first, that we are likely to prevail in our Appeal.

An application for a Class 2 Permit Modification should be denied if it is a) incomplete, b) fails to comply with applicable requirements, or c) fails to protect human health or the environment. An application proposed for Class 2 procedures must be denied or reclassified as Class 3 if there is a) significant public concern or b) the modification is complex. each of these criteria provides grounds for vacating the Department's decision. We address them now in order.

a) The application is incomplete  -  because it does not fully explain why the modification is needed.

b) The application conflicts with present requirements  -  Under current regulations, WIPP may store up to 7080 m**3 of RH waste. However, according to a literal interpretation of the permit modification, WIPP will be authorized to store up to 93,750 m**3 of RH waste in shielded containers, which is the current limit for CH waste. That is, the proposed modification appears to confuse the limits for RH and CH waste, thus enabling the storage of much more RH waste than originally intended.

c) The application raises complex issues and issues of significant public concern  -  The changes in capacity limits for RH waste disposal, that will apply under this modification, are a complex issue.

d) Failure to stay the decision may cause irreparable injury  -  Without a stay pending appeal, Permittees will be able to introduce RH waste in shielded containers without realistic limit. Once emplaced, RH waste cannot be extracted without great difficulty, and such becomes more true the longer the waste is in place, and additional waste is emplaced in front of it.

e) A stay will not cause significant injury to Permittees  -  The only injury to Permittees from a stay would be some delay in introducing RH waste in shielded containers.

f) A stay is consistent with the public interest  -  The benefit to the public interest would be that no stranded RH waste in shielded containers would be created.

Thus, it is likely that the NM Court of Appeals will deny the requested Permit Modification. And for this reason, as well as for all of the reasons set forth herein, the Department should issue an order, staying effectiveness of the Nov 1, 2012 determination approving the Permit Modification Request for RH in shielded containers until the NM Court of Appeals acts upon the pending appeal.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

LANL Radiates Economic Benefits

The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities held their monthly meeting yesterday at Los Alamos Research Park Bldg in Los Alamos, NM; 9:30AM - 12:30PM.

The RCLC is a group of elected local public officials whose aim is to encourage the integration of DOE-LANS-LANL into the local community, so as to improve the economic outlook for local businesses, and perhaps also eventually for local citizens. This is a task which is critical now, according to individual RCLC members, when the many state and local economies are so distressed.

However, even in the best of times, NM is at the bottom of a list of the 50 states of the US in terms of per capita income, and at the very top of a list of the states in terms of federal dollars returned per dollar of federal taxes paid out. NM also leads the nation in the size of the disparity in income of its poorest citizens, in comparison to its richest.

Approximately 12 RCLC members and staff were in attendance today; the meeting was led by RCLC chairman, and Santa Fe mayor, David Coss. There are also ~30 members of the general public in attendance.

In his opening remarks, chairman Coss  recalled the recent tour taken by RCLC members of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in southern New Mexico. Mayor Coss allowed that RCLC members had been favorably impressed by the tour, and that he personally thought of WIPP as a technological marvel.

This will be the first meeting of RCLC in which the agenda contains an item entitled "Community Voices"; viz., a period of 75 min allotted to local community groups and individuals who signed up in advance, and will present ~5 min talks describing their perspectives on issues relating to LANL, its operations, and its interactions with the local community. Formerly, the general public had not been invited to speak at RCLC meetings.

Among the community voices being heard today were:

1) Ray Baca, the Executive Director fpr NM Building and Construction Trades Council, who spoke about the difficult future confronting the local construction and trades workforce, of which there are now ~700 members at LANL.

2) Jay Coghlan, ED for Nuclear Watch NM, talked about the continued devotion of LANL to the care and feeding of nuclear weapons; ~64% of LANL's current budget, he said, was spent on nuclear weapons work. He thought that,in the future, LANL should focus more on non-proliferation efforts (although not related to the preparation of MOX fuel), and on work connected to the ongoing clean-up of contaminated LANL dump sites.

3) Holly Beaumont, Head of Interfaith Worker Justice, spoke about worker justice issues as being age-old, and of her own perspective on such matters as emanating from the judaic-christian, or abrahamic, tradition.

4) Joni Arends ED of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety spoke about the importance of LANL's Storm Water Permit and the fact that LANL produces contamination that can be carried beyond LANL site boundaries by stormwater runoff. The contaminated stormwater is subject to agreements and oversights which are separate from the those described by the Consent Order, she said.

5) A representative of Tewa Women United spoke about the continuing threat to the traditions of Pueblo peoples presented by ongoing LANL operations. She noted that the threat of contaminated water emanating from LANL property is particularly serious for native women, and for their children, who are among the most vulnerable members of the local community.

6) William Enloe, Chair LA National Bank, and Kevin Holsapple, of the LA Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the importance for local businesses of ensuring stable LANL funding. This is especially critical now, they said, given that the  business climate is being stressed by the stumbling national economy.

7) Chip Chippeaux, Chair of Century Bank of Santa Fe, spoke about the need to ensure stable LANL funding, even though the type of work being performed at LANL is controversial within parts of the local community. He suggested that local community members needed to join forces in their efforts to help to secure stable LANL funding, in spite of the existence of this controversy.

A good deal of the meeting was spent discussing bureaucratic matters of interest to particular RCLC group members. Many of these matters, especially as related to the RCLC budget and to travel on RCLC business by individual RCLC members, were broached by the RCLC ED, De Anza Spaien, and took up `~1 hr of the Coalition's meeting time today.This is not to try to take anything away from Ms. Sapien, who appears to be a competent, and even formidable, ED. Rather, the problem here, if any, lies in the nature of the bureaucratic group.

Comparing the RCLC and the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board , there are some obvious similarities and differences.

1) Both of these groups are bureaucratic in form and spend a significant fraction of their time and effort in maintaining themselves as such. However, it seems interesting that the annual budget for the RCLC is much smaller than that of the NNMCAB; e.g., ~$200K for the RCLC vs $2 million for the NNMCAB, even though these two groups are of a similar size. (The NNMCAB budget number here may have recently been reduced.) Moreover, the sources of this funding are also different. Whereas, most of the money to run the RCLC now comes from local governments, with only a minor fraction from the DOE, the NNMCAB's entire budget comes from DOE.

2) Therefore, and unsurprisingly, the mandates of these two groups are different. The RCLC is apparently intended to deepen relations between DOE-LANS-LANL and the local community, while seeking to promote the health of LANL as an institution, for the purpose of trying to grow the local economy. By contrast, the NNMCAB is specifically mandated by the DOE to help to smooth relations between DOE-LANS-LANL and the local community, in order to promote the well-being of LANL, but only incidentally to promote the well-being of the local community.

3) Nevertheless, the NNMCAB occasionally entertains challenges by individual members to the notion that the influence of LANL on the local community is altogether benign. (The size of these challenges is kept within strict limits, normally, since DOE oversight of the NNMCAB is hands-on and almost always effective.) It remains to be seen whether or not the RCLC will allow the expression of active criticsm of LANL, and its programs, to become a regular part of the RCLC agenda. It is without a doubt that such critical views are a persistent part of the spectrum of views within the local community. What is unknown, however, in my view, is the degree to which such critical views may be prevalent.

4) The reinforcement of pro-LANL views is commonplace at NNMCAB meetings. Information about LANL operations is made available regularly at these meetings by informed and intelligent LANL presenters and the volume of information presented is large. The effect on NNMCAB members of these presentations is usually very positive. In a similar vein, the RCLC heard today from Kurt Steinhaus, LANL Director of the Community Programs Office. Mr. Steinhaus pointed out that LANS donates ~$3 million annually from its management fee (~$75 million, almost all of which is divided among senior LANS managers) to support educational development within the local community.

Finally, a new element in the ongoing drama of relations between DOE-LANS-LANL and the local community was added when the ED of the Energy Communities Alliance, Seth Kirshenberg, delivered a brief introduction to the ECA and its projects. The ECA is an group of communities, each one centered at a DOE laboratory. These labs are, of course, located all around the country. Hence, the ECA tries to express a community of interests and aims to expedite and improve the relations between the DOE, its laboratories, and the surrounding communities nationwide. It was decided today that the RCLC will become a member of the ECA, and that Mayor Coss will attend the upcoming ECA national convention in New Orleans. RCLC member F. Berting (who is an LA County Council member, as well as national secretary of the ECA) may also attend.

Friday, November 2, 2012

DOE-LANS: Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?

As of 10/29/12,  the Chromium Settlement Agreement of 2007, between DOE-LANS and NMED, has been terminated and the Consent Order of 2005 has been modified. The following link to an NMED page
( contains the related information:

"Approval of Consent Order Modification"

"Compliance Order on Consent March 1, 2005 (Revised 10/29/2012)"  [287 pages]

"Termination of Chromium Settlement (10/30/2012)"
The Settlement Agreement and Stipulated Final Order was accepted by the Parties in June, 2007.

Among other things, the Settlement Agreement stipulated that the RACER database would be subject to third party management by the New Mexico Community Foundation, for the duration of the Agreement. In particular, in Section IV of the Agreement, entitled RACER, the following language appeared:

"The project managers (Colorado State University and the Risk Assessment Corporation) will involve the public, including all interested stakeholders, in the project through public meetings and opportunities for public comment."

"The project will accumulate, consolidate, and organize all environmental data from the Laboratory and enter the data into a computer database. The database will allow the spatial display of the data, the comparison of the data to standards and reference values, and the plotting of trends in the data. the database will be functioning and accessible to the Department (NMED) and to the public by December 31, 2007."

"The database will be turned over to an independent manager, the New Mexico Commubity Foundation, by September 30, 2008."
However, the revised Compliance Order on Consent does not refer to third party management of the database; i.e., as described in the new Section III.Z, which appears below. Apparently, the new database  will be managed entirely by LANS, for the duration of the revised Consent Order.

"The Respondents shall maintain a publicly accessible database containing all data from environmental media (i.e., soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater, air, and biota) collected by the Respondents as part of environmental investigation and monitoring. The database shall include the capacity for the spatial display of data, the comparison of data to standards and reference values, and the plotting of trends in the data. Additionally, to the extent that data are collected pursuant to the requirements of the Consent Order, the database shall include the analytical quality assurance/quality control and data validation information. As new data becomes available, the Respondents shall enter such data into the public database through updates on no less than a monthly basis. The Respondents shall correct any inaccuracy in the data within 60 days of discovery of such inaccuracy."
Therefore, for the general public, the reliability of included environmental data will remain an open question. This is in spite of the fact that the purpose of a publicly accessible environmental database, must be to help to allay the fears and suspicions of the general public with regard to LANL operations. But, since there is no provision for independent oversight of the new database in the revised Consent Order, the public will probably continue to be skeptical of LANS' management of the data.

Is DOE-LANS' failure to provide for independent oversight of its publicly accessible environmental database simply a matter of money?  Or does DOE-LANS continue to think of independent oversight as an avoidable inconvenience?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

NNSA's Safety Culture: Does It Cost Too Much?

The 24th Annual "Nuclear Weapons Complex Waste Management & Cleanup Decision Makers’ Forum" took place recently, (October 15-18, 2012), in Jacksonville, Florida. The keynote address was presented by Peter Winokur, Chairman, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB). A summary of Winokur's address, entitled "DNFSB, DOE and the Contractors: Roles, Responsibilities, and the Road Ahead", follows:

Is the DOE defense nuclear facilities complex safer now than when the Board commenced operations in the late 1980's? Yes! ... However, we cannot ignore current and emerging challenges ... and the federal commitment to protect the health and safety of workers and the public. Past success is a poor reason to decide to lessen present safeguards ... and giving up now on any of the elements of success would be foolish.

History teaches us that organizations have responded to budgetary pressures by accepting lower standards in their daily operations, especially safety, maintenance, and training; viz., often, by allowing their safety culture to degrade.

Beset by budgetary stringencies, DOE is concerned that it has become too risk-adverse and that its safety strategies have become too burdensome. DOE seems to be signaling that it is now willing to accept more risk. Moreover, DOE has also failed to learn important recent lessons and to implement related corrective actions on major design and construction projects.

Apropos of which, there is an old Chinese proverb: to know the road ahead, ask about the experiences of those who have arrived along that road.

In particular, history teaches that a broken safety culture has all too often led to serious accidents:
(For each of the following six events, descriptive material from Wikipedia has been added.)

1) Tokai-mura criticality accident

    In 1999 three workers received high doses of radiation in a small Japanese plant preparing fuel for an experimental reactor. Two of these workers died from their exposure. The accident was caused by concentrating excessive amounts of enriched uranium (~20% U235), leading to a criticality excursion (a limited uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction), which continued intermittently for 20 hours.

    A total of 119 people received a radiation dose over 1 mSv from the accident. Three operators' doses were above all permissible limits and two of the doses proved to be fatal. The cause of the accident was "human error and serious breaches of safety principles", according to IAEA.

2) Davis-Besse NPS

    Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station is a nuclear power plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. It has a single pressurized water reactor, also known as a light water reactor. As of 2011, it was being operated by the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp.

    On March 5, 2002, maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole into the reactor vessel head at the Davis-Besse plant. Although the corrosion did not lead to an accident, this was considered to be a serious nuclear safety incident. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept Davis-Besse shut down until March 2004, so that FirstEnergy was able to perform all the necessary maintenance for safe operations. The NRC imposed its largest fine ever -- more than $5 million -- against FirstEnergy for the actions that led to the corrosion. The company paid an additional $28 million in fines under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

    According to the NRC, Davis-Besse has been the source of two of the top five most dangerous nuclear incidents in the United States since 1979.

3) NASA's two space shuttle disasters

    The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when the spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to impinge upon the adjacent hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the structural failure of the external tank, and aerodynamic forces then broke up the orbiter. The O-ring had been previously identified as a vulnerable component, but engineers who had sounded the alarm were ignored by management.

    The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003, when the spacecraft broke up during reentry into the atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven crew members. The loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation broke off from the external fuel tank. The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's thermal protection system, which shields the vehicle from the intense heat generated during reentry. It had long been recognized that foam shed during launch could jeopardize the integrity of the heat shield, but this had been discounted by management as an unlikely event.

4) BP Texas City Oil refinery disaster

    On March 23, 2005, a fire and explosion occurred at BP's Texas City Refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 170 others. BP was charged with criminal violations of federal environmental laws, and has been subject to lawsuits from the victims' families. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration slapped BP with a then-record fine for hundreds of safety violations, and subsequently imposed an even larger fine after claiming that BP had failed to implement safety improvements following the disaster.

5) Deepwater Horizon disaster

    The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico flowed unabated for three months in 2010, and is the largest marine spill in the history of the petroleum industry. It stemmed from a sea-floor oil gusher caused by the 20 April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The rig explosion killed 11 men working on the platform and injured 17 others. On 15 July 2010, the gushing wellhead was capped, after it had released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil. The platform was owned by Transocean, and operated for BP. Both transocean and BP have been heavily criticized for their failure to foresee, and to prepare for such an accident.

6) Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster

    The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster encompassed a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive material at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The nuclear disaster was caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, and is the largest such event since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

    It has been accepted by Power Plant authorities that the safeguards in place prior to the disaster were inadequate; i.e., in view of the fact that the reactor complex had been sited in an area where more than one devastating tsunami had occurred during the last ~500 years.

Winokur concluded his talk by pointing out that:

a) Even under severe budget constraints, DOE must continue to ensure that its priorities are well-balanced between mission and safety concerns.

b) DOE's current successful safety strategies have been developed with effort over many years and must not now be cast aside or downgraded.

c) Design basis accidents and beyond design basis accidents have already been analyzed extensively and should now be treated as real and imminent threats.

For more on this topic, see my blogpost of July 14, 2012 entitled "DNFSB Disagrees with NNSA Analysis"; also, the blogpost of Februrary 27, 2012 entitled "NRS Studies NNSA and its Nuke labs."

Friday, October 12, 2012

DOE/NNSA Assigns New Money to Nukish R&D

In the wake of the privatization of management contracts at the two senior US nuclear weapons laboratories, (Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2006, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory  in 2007, both during the G W Bush Administration) Department Of Energy's efforts to obtain more bang for its research buck is being thwarted. As a measure of the size of this problem, the National Research Council warned in a recent report that both the quantity and quality of research being conducted at the nuclear weapons labs has declined since the advent of privatization. (See: NRC report dated April 18, 2012 entitled "Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the DOE’s National Security Laboratories.")

It is unclear to NRC whether fault lies in the structure of the present management contracts, whether it is inherent in the for-profit management construct, as applied to the nuclear weapons labs, or if it is to be laid entirely at the feet of DOE and/or its daughter agency the National Nuclear Security Administration. Certainly, in their report, NRC revisited some of the complaints made by interested parties about DOE/NNSA micromanagement and mismanagement. But, these complaints are not new, and have been heard since DOE's founding during the Carter Administration, and since NNSA's founding during the Clinton Administration. Indeed, DOE was founded in order to correct management problems thought to exist in ERDA, its predecessor agency, and NNSA was founded in order to correct suspected management problems in DOE.

More specifically, those in the know assert that there has been a recent decrease at the labs in the amount of work supported by institutional funds redirected from day-to-day weapons work to research performed in support of the weapons program; i.e., so-called programmatic research. Prior to 2006, these funds had been redirected at the discretion of low-level technical management, and were expended in addition to Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) money, awarded through a competitive process and earmarked specifically for R&D work, not all of which was programmatic. Today, LDRD money continues to be supplied for this purpose by DOE to its nuclear weapons labs, but NRC considers that this is insufficient. Discretionary funds are no longer available to weapons research since they are being absorbed by out-sized management salaries and bonuses; e.g., to the tune of ~$70 million each, at LANL and LLNL.

In trying to overcome this perceived short-fall in discretionary funding for nuclear weapons research, the DOE has adopted a strategy of awarding research dollars directly to individuals; usually, ones who are either already employed at a nuclear weapons lab, or who work at an institution of higher learning where programmatic research is being conducted under contract. Thus, DOE is attempting to intervene in a faltering research process by "reaching over the heads" of its for-profit managers at the nuclear weapons labs. (See: DOE Press Release dated Sept 20, 2012, announcing "NNSA, DOE Office of Science Award $14M in Research Grants," available at: and

In any case, more money is going again into nuclear weapons R&D. Clearly, this is advantageous for the nuclear weapons industry, and for its present economic engine, the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. It is the SSMP which produces demand pull for ever more information about the operation of nuclear weapons. Thus, in the absence of nuclear weapons explosive testing, the USA has come to lead the world in the development of the means to test nuclear weapons indirectly via computer simulation, and indirectly via laboratory scale tests of related weapons components and concepts. Whether this work constitutes a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must be a matter for government lawyers to decide.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Burn Pu239 but Bury U233?

The New York Times reported today on a DOE plan to dispose of yet another detritus from the US nuclear weapons program; viz., ~2 tons of weapons grade U233. This dangerous fissile material had been created deliberately in specially designed nuclear reactors, and collected over decades during the course of the cold-war, primarily,in order to fuel new types of nuclear weapons. The production cost of this U233 has been estimated to be >$5 billion.

Currently, the DOE plans to dispose of this surplus U233 by burying it, in pits dug at the Nevada Test Site. Thus, the DOE's present plan for disposing of surplus U233 differs from their preferred method for disposing of surplus Pu239; e.g., by forming the surplus Pu into MOX fuel, and burning it in modified nuclear reactors, as described by DOE in a recent publication (Draft Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, July, 2012), and in several recent public meetings.

However, the DOE plan to dispose of surplus U233 by burial is being questioned by a least one expert. In a study by Robert Alvarez of the Instutute for Policy Studies (, dated Aug. 31, 2012, and entitled "Managing the U233 Stockpile of the US", possible complications attending such a plan are described. In particular, Alvarez points out that the chance that buried U233 could be unearthed by terrorists and formed into a crude nuclear weapon does not seem to be remote.

In fact, the DOE has said that their preferred plan for disposing of surplus Pu239 by burning it in nuclear reactors is the only way to ensure that it cannot be used to build more nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nix to MOX?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012; Northern New Mexico College, in Espanola, NM:

DOE/NNSA hosted another forum to describe its proposed schemes to dispose of 13.1 metric tons (MT) of plutonium (Pu), declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program, and to afford the general public a further opportunity to express its views on this subject. (The disposition of 34 MT, previously declared surplus, is not being reconsidered, at this time.)

DOE prefers to burn the surplus Pu, after first converting it into MOX fuel, in specially fitted nuclear power reactors, instead of  burying it in some immobilized form; i.e., from  which the recovery of weapons grade Pu would be impractical or infeasible. Various members of the general public, burdened by a strong bias against nuclear power for energy production, have objected to this proposal. They say that it should be possible instead to bury the surplus Pu, preferably at the site where the nuclear weapons are now being stored, or will be decommissioned; i.e., at least, for the 7.1 MT which is in the form of Pu pits.

5:30PM – 6:30PM /
Several poster displays were presented by DOE/NNSA and its contractors, describing aspects of their proposed schemes. DOE/NNSA and contractor experts were present to answer questions posed by members of the public. The posters were similar to those presented at the previous forum in this series (August 21, 2012 in Los Alamos, NM; see my blogpost dated August 22, 2012, entitled “MOX Mysteries: Better to Bury than to Burn?”), with the exception of a poster presented by Muon, Inc, a private, for-profit, company which is proposing a “new” approach to the disposition of surplus Pu; i.e., the so-called accelerator-based transmutation of radioactive waste.

6:30PM – 7:00PM /
A formal talk was presented by NEPA process document manager S. McAlhany describing DOE/NNSA’s proposed schemes for disposing of Pu declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program. This was identical to the talk by S McAlhany presented at the previous forum in this series..

7:00PM – 8:15PM /
The public was offered a new opportunity to present its views on DOE/NNSA’s  proposed schemes. Eighteen members of the public signed up to speak.

Each member of the public was allowed 4 minutes to speak at a microphone in front of the assembled crowd. Holmes Brown, an experienced facilitator hired by DOE/NNSA, attempted to enforce this rule.

The first two speakers were LANL staff members J Martz and D Clark. Both expressed their approval of DOE/NNSA’s proposals and gave it as their opinion that LANL was fully able to carry out safely the tasks being proposed.

The next two speakers were DOE would-be contractors, C Bowman and R Johnson, who described a new method for disposing of surplus Pu; viz., by the accelerator-based transmutation of radioactive waste. This process is being proposed to DOE by a private, for-profit, company (Muons, Inc), but is not a part of DOE/NNSA’s presently proposed schemes for the disposition of Pu, declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program.

The next eight speakers were local area citizens who all expressed strongly negative opinions about LANL, DOE/NNSA, and the schemes being proposed for the disposition of  Pu, declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program. Most of these speakers said that they were indeed in favor of the retirement of nuclear weapons from the US arsenal of nuclear weapons, but did not believe that the schemes being proposed by DOE/NNSA were reasonable or necessary. Instead, they thought that disposal of the Pu from these retired nuclear weapons should take place at the decommissioning site, by some form of direct burial. They were particularly opposed to the transportation of large amounts of Pu between the DOE’s nuclear weapons sites; e.g.,  over the nation’s highways, or by rail, or air, since this would expose it to the risk of unlawful diversion, and the dispersion into the environment as a result of accident. They were unconvinced that the burning of MOX fuel might not produce large amounts of high level nuclear waste which would present its own disposition problem.

The next speaker, G Maestas, spoke about his great esteem for LANL, and for the US nuclear weapons program; e.g., especially the role played by LANL in WW II, which he fervently believes to have been of the utmost importance. He also stated emphatically that there is absolutely no radiation hazard to the general public from LANL operations. He said that he attaches the greatest value to his grand children and would be the first one to loudly object if he thought that there were any such threat to their well-being. He notes, too, that his grand father and his great-grand father both lived happily in northern NM, throughout their lives. G Maestas, a former LANL management employee, is a well-known advocate for the economic benefits that LANL brings to the local northern NM community; i.e., albeit, only to a limited number of members of that local community.

The next five speakers expressed other very negative views about the DOE/NNSA proposals. One speaker said that he thought the number of options being proposed was too limited, and that DOE/NNSA must include at least ~20 options in order to be considered diligent, and/or to be taken seriously by himself, and by the general public.

In summary:

Of the 13 speakers expressing negative views about DOE/NNSA and its proposals, six were Santa Clara Pueblo members who talked about the threat that LANL operations present to the lives of Pueblo members, and to the survival of Pueblo people. The other seven speakers were local citizens also aggrieved by LANL/DOE/NNSA operations; e.g., especially by the danger that these operations present to the local environment and to local populations.

The contrast between the critical views expressed by the one former and two current LANL employees (very positive), and by the 13 speakers with no current or previous LANL affiliation (very negative), was stark. (The two speakers representing Muon, Inc expressed uncritical views since they were present at the forum only as would-be contractors, seeking economic support from DOE for their technical proposal.)

An obvious difference between those expressing positive views about LANL, and those expressing negative views, is the level of their economic advantage; i.e., those receiving significant economic advantage from their personal association with LANL expressed positive views about LANL, and those lacking economic advantage because of a lack of personal association with LANL expressed negative views. There seem to be many more negative views expressed than positive views, perhaps because there are many fewer members of the general public receiving economic advantage from their association with LANL than not. There is some indication of this difference of views regarding LANL among the local citizenry contained in a survey which I conducted a few years ago. See my blogpost of Dec 21, 2009 entitled “Community Survey Report for Northern New Mexico.”
A second difference between the two groups of speakers, holding nearly opposite opinions regarding LANL, might be the result of their difference in world-view. One the one hand, pro-LANL views were expressed by the two, very technically oriented, current LANL staff members. These reflected a view of the world based on numbers and on “accepted”, although often incompletely proven, scientific theories. On the other hand, there were the anti-LANL views expressed by an almost exclusively non-technical group of local citizens. These reflected a view of the world based on feelings and on cultural, or ancestral, wisdom. The two pro-LANL speakers referred mostly to technical matters, using technical language; the anti-LANL speakers addressed mostly personal, family, or cultural matters, and used emotive language while invoking subjective criteria. The sole pro-LANL, former LANL, employee referred partly to a technical matter, the alleged pollution of the local environment by LANL, but addressed this concern with an emotive expression; i.e., he denied completely the existence of any pollution. He too referred to family and cultural matters, but as a means of justifying his pro-LANL orientation.

Interestingly, the question of whether or not the burning of surplus Pu converted into MOX fuel, in specially fitted nuclear reactors, would result in less pollution of the environment than the principal recognized alternatives of coal, oil, and natural gas fired power plants, for the same amount of power generated, and by how much, was not discussed at this forum. In fact, during the poster presentation, I asked this question of one of the DOE/NNSA experts, but was told that the answer was unknown to that particular expert.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

US Senate: Fear of Things Nuclear Drives Policy

Today, two hearings took place in the US Senate dealing with the difficult politics of nuclear power generation:

First, in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, testimony was given on Bingaman's nuclear waste management bill (S. 3469*: Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012.) The bill is based on the recommendations of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Brent Scowcroft, co-chairman of that commission, was one of the experts testifying. According to independent analysis, the probability that this bill will become law is only ~3%.
(* / "A bill to establish a new organization to manage nuclear waste, provide a consensual process for siting nuclear waste facilities, ensure adequate funding for managing nuclear waste, and for other purposes.")

Second, in the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair and other Commission members were questioned about the NRC’s progress in ensuring nuclear power plant safety, while incorporating lessons learned from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster into new safety systems and procedures.

In both cases, the material discussed in these hearings seems to have been an outcome of anxieties expressed by members of the general public about the safety of, in the first case, procedures for the storage of spent nuclear fuel and, in the second case, the nuclear power generation process itself; i.e., when faced by the possibility of natural disasters which go "beyond the design basis."

Members of the general public, who seem to hold the view that zero risk is an attainable goal for nuclear power generation devices and procedures, continue to impede the development of a sensible national policy for nuclear waste disposal. This, in turn, complicates the attempt to continue to operate existing nuclear reactors, and to construct new reactors.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Boost-Phase BMD Untenable Says NRC

In a report released to the public today, a study committee of the National Research Council (NRC) made plain its view that the present US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system should be reorganized. In particular, it was the opinion of this panel of eminent scientists and engineers that the present tripartite BMD system, made up of boost-phase, mid-course, and terminal defense systems, is burdened by a boost-phase defense system which is untenable, by virtue of the inadequate state of present technology; i.e., for limited attacks by a rogue state armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the words of the NRC panel, in their Major Recommendation #1:

"The Department of Defense should not invest any more money or resources in systems for boost-phase missile defense. Boost-phase missile defense is not practical or cost effective under real-world conditions for the foreseeable future. All boost-phase intercept systems suffer from severe reach-versus-timeavailable
constraints. This is true for kinetic kill interceptors launched from Earth’s surface, from airborne platforms, or from space. It is also true for a directed-energy (laser) weapon in the form of the airborne laser, where reach is limited by problems of propagating enough beam over long distances in the atmosphere and focusing 
it onto a small spot, even with full use of sophisticated adaptive optical techniques. While there may be special cases of a small country such as North Korea launching relatively slow burning liquid-propellant ICBMs in which some boost-phase intercepts are possible, the required basing locations for interceptors are not likely  to be politically acceptable."

The NRC committee went on to say that savings accrued from the boost-phase program should be used to bolster more plausible options already available to both the mid-course and terminal defense systems. They said, in their Major Recommendation #2:

"The Missile Defense Agency should re-institute an aggressive, balanced mid-course discrimination research and development effort focused on the synergy between [ground-based] X-band radar data and concurrent interceptor observation while closing on the threat ['observations' being made by the interceptor itself]. ... "

"A continuing program of test and analysis should be implemented to maintain the technical capacity that will be needed to support an adequate level of discrimination as new countermeasures are developed and deployed."

"A serious effort to gather and understand data from past and future flight tests and experiments (including flights of U.S. missiles) from the full range of sensors and to make full use of the extensive data collected from past experiments to generate robust discrimination techniques and algorithms."

"The committee believes that the effort required for success in this endeavor does not need to be overlarge but does require that high-quality expertise be brought to bear. The annual budget outlay, if planned correctly, can be modest compared to current expenditures."

Also, in Major Recommendation #3:

"The Missile Defense Agency should strengthen its systems analysis and engineering capability in order to do a better job of assessing system  performance and evaluating new initiatives before significant funding is committed.  Cost-benefit analysis should be central to that capability. ... "

Then, in Major Recommendation #5:

"...  An additional interceptor site ... together with the recommended radar additions provides ... coverage of virtually the entire United States and Canada against the sort of threat that can prudently be expected to emerge from North Korea or Iran over the coming decade or so. The recommended evolution would add one additional site in the United States in the northeast, together with additional X-band radars to more effectively protect the eastern United States and Canada, particularly against Iranian ICBM threats should they emerge. This improved capability obviates the need for early intercept from bases in Europe, unless they are required for European defense."

(See: "Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternative", September 11, 2012,
ISBN / 978-0-309-21610-4 / 260 pages, available from The National Academies Press at

Although appearing to be at odds with parts of the Obama Administration's ongoing BMD program, this NRC report  does also encourage cost savings based on the termination of inadequate programs and failing strategies, and the strengthening of  those approaches to BMD which are arguably the most likely to succeed.

Based on hard-earned Israeli experience, it seems clear that BMD is a valuable resource, and not a fantasy, whenever area-defense against short-range, or even intermediate-range, missile attack is contemplated. But, whether BMD can eventually function satisfactorily against intercontinental range missile threats remains to be seen. And, although success against a limited attack of this sort by a rogue state is plausible, why would such a state focus such an attack on a position of such obvious apparent strength?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

MOX Mysteries: Better to Bury than to Burn?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 / Conference Room, Holiday Inn Express, 60 Entrada Dr, Los Alamos, NM:

The public was invited to meet with DOE officials in order to learn about the latest developments in the ongoing planning for the disposition of US surplus plutonium. This public hearing, or informational, was a part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, mandated by Congress as a way to involve the public in the planning for large projects sponsored and funded by the federal government.

5:30PM - 6:30PM / A set of ~6 posters, each attended by 1 or 2 DOE experts, were made available to inform the public about aspects of this program. Written handouts included DOE's "Summary of the Draft Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement," a 59 page document, and a collection of viewgraphs summarizing the talk to be given by the NEPA Document Manager.

6:30PM - 7:00PM / NEPA Document Manager Sachiko McAlhany gave a talk updating the government's program. No questions from the public were entertained by Ms. McAlhany, nor by any of the other DOE officials present in the room.

7:00 - 7:30PM / Members of the public were allotted 5 minutes each to present oral remarks about the program. The DOE officer-in-charge stated that no immediate DOE response to these remarks would be forthcoming.

The US government's approach to disposing of surplus plutonium (Pu) is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the amount of plutonium involved in the program is large, 61.5 metric tons (MT) over all, at present; which may increase in the future. This surplus is mostly Pu obtained from the decommissioning and disassembly of US nuclear weapons (41.1 MT); i.e., several thousand nuclear warheads which, in order to fulfill an agreement* with the Russians, must be removed from the nuclear weapons stockpile and destroyed. Second, the process of destruction must take place in such a way that it would be impossible at some future time to retrieve the Pu, and to reconstitute the warheads.

Initially, the US had wanted to blend the Pu with other highly radioactive materials, to encase the mixture in glass filled canisters, and to bury the canisters at some remote site. However, the Russians objected to this plan because, they claimed, it would be possible eventually to retrieve and purify the Pu from these canisters. Instead, the Russians argued that the Pu should be formed into reactor fuel rods, and burned in power generating nuclear reactors. It appears that the US has come to agree with the Russian point-of-view, and that the present DOE program reflects this latest belief.

*(In the "US-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2000", each government promised to destroy 34 MT of Pu from nuclear warheads. In 2010, another 7.1 MT of Pu from nuclear warheads was assigned for destruction by each side. In the future, still more Pu may be made available from retired nuclear weapons.)

In order to take Pu from nuclear weapons and turn it into so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, to be burned in commercial nuclear reactors, two essential steps are required: 1) Pu metal must be extracted from nuclear warheads and the metal transformed physically and chemically into plutonium oxide powder. 2) The powder must be processed, formed, and combined with other metals, principally uranium, into MOX fuel rods. Both of these steps require specially designed facilities, containing specialized tools, and must be performed while observing the strictest security safeguards.

Whereas it is now planned that step #2 will be performed at the DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS), there are two alternative locations still being considered for step #1; viz., Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and SRS.

Naturally, local citizenry in Santa Fe, NM are exercised by the idea of bringing more Pu to LANL, and tby the possibility of expanding the LANL's nuclear weapons mission. Most of the oral remarks presented by the public tonight reflected some part of this concern. However, one member of the public, identifying himself as a chemist currently working at LANL, opined that LANL's present plutonium facility (PF-4) was fully able to cope with the workload described in the DOE's plan to disposition surplus plutonium from decommissioned nuclear warheads. He said that he believed that the destruction of surplus PU by burning in nuclear reactors was much preferable to its disposition by blending, vitrification, and burial since the vitrified material could eventually be retrieved and reconstituted.

For more info, see my blogpost of February 4, 2012.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Special Farces Troupes Mock Policies

Special Farces troupes mock national security state policies in USA, and in Russia:

On August 2, 2012, a small group of anti-nuclear weapons activists invaded the grounds surrounding the USA's  repository of highly enriched uranium, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This uranium is intended to be used for the construction of a new generation of nuclear weapons, if such should be deemed necessary. The activists penetrated three layers of security fencing around the repository, sprayed the exterior walls of the repository with anti-nuclear weapons slogans, and draped the walls with crime-scene tape. This was a well-intentioned, albeit farcical performance, by a dedicated Special Farces troupe.

Three of the performers were arrested and incarcerated, and the US government is now reported to be considering harsh punishments for the felonious destruction of public property. The trial is scheduled to take place in October. Evidently, the desecration of a building (the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, at Y-12) dedicated to the perpetuation of the current nuclear weapons policies of the US national security state is not going to be tolerated.

Earlier, on February 21, 2012, a small group of political activists staged an impromptu concert inside a Moscow cathedral. They sang a song in which they implied the existence of unsavory relations between the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. Interestingly, and amusingly, these same clerics have been recently quoted as saying that Russia's arsenal of nuclear weapons should be regarded by the faithful as "our guardian angels." This was also a well-intentioned, and farcical performance, by another dedicated Special Farces troupe.

Three of the performers were arrested and incarcerated. Charged with hooliganism, and inciting religious hatred, their trials have just taken place in Moscow. Each has been sentenced to two years in prison. Evidently, a public challenge to the policies of the current leadership of the Russian national security state is not going to be tolerated.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

PCB Standards Disputed

A week ago Thursday (July 12, 2012, 5:30PM - 7:30PM) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) sponsored a community meeting at the Cities of Gold Conference Room in Pojoaque, New Mexico, to present material related to storm water contaminant control at LANL, to answer questions from the general public, and to satisfy legal requirements of the settlement of a lawsuit, filed against LANL by local citizen activists.

Particularly interesting was a talk by LANL staff member Armand Groffman who spoke about LANL's measurement of contaminant concentrations in groundwater, in the surrounding area, and the collection and interpretation of these data; e.g., especially as they related to polychloro biphenyls (PCB's). Evidently, Groffman was himself involved in the measurement and analysis of these data. A report has been issued: "PCBs in Precipitation and Stormwater within the Upper Rio Grande Watershed" (however, no author is listed on the report LA-UR-12-1081, ERID-21967, EP2012-0047, dated May 2012.)

At Thursday's Pojoaque meeting, Groffman described these PCB data, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to which they should be compared. Then, when prompted by a LANL staff member in the audience, he pointed out that the so-called Target Action Limit (TAL) for this contaminant was only 0.65 ppt (parts per trillion), which was ~20x smaller than the lowest level of PCB concentration found to exist in non-industrial areas, locally. He implied that the EPA standard seemed to be too low; i.e., since it was much lower than any northern NM "background" level.

He failed to make clear that the more relevant Drinking water Standard (DWS) for PCB is actually 500 ppt, according to both EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), a number ~ 5x greater than the largest PCB concentration found to exist at non-industrial sites, locally. The TAL, however, is the maximum level of PCB contamination suggested by EPA and NMED for streamwaters containing aquatic life forming a part of the food supply of local people; i.e., since aquatic life tends to accumulate and concentrate PCB's found in streamwater.

Which then is the appropriate standard to be applied to the population at large? Clearly, the DWS is already the  standard being applied, generally, for drinking water. Indeed, EPA says that if water contains PCB levels below 500 ppt, and all other contaminants are below the EPA standard as well, then it is safe for everybody to drink, with no restrictions. 

But, it is necessary to reconcile the DWS with the TAL, when drinking water and streamwater are one and the same, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, this is hardly a reason to imply that EPA standards are over-restrictive, generally.

Unfortunately, LANL and NMED seem to be  positioning themselves for future disputes with EPA over environmental monitoring. In their Framework Agreement of this past January, LANL and NMED have agreed to limit the future expense of "unnecessary" environmental monitoring, whenever this would seem to be possible. The following excerpts from the Framework Agreement are relevant. (The Agreement was announced by LANL and NMED on Jan. 6, 2012, though no actual date was afixed to the text of the Agreement, nor were the names of any responsible parties included.)


"3. DOE/NNSA and NMED agree that in order to achieve the most rapid progress feasible in completing the highest priority activities at the Laboratory, planning, characterization and implementation activities for all remediation actions must be carried out in a cost effective and efficient way that provides full protection of human health and the environment and takes advantage of lessons learned both from previous work performed at the site and nationally."

 "a. NMED will require the collection and reporting of characterization and monitoring data which is necessary and sufficient to assure protection of human health and the environment. NMED will reduce the frequency of data collection and reporting where prior results indicate very low or no risk (e.g., no results above applicable standards)."

"4. NMED commits to follow pertinent EPA guidance except where such guidance is not supported by sound science."

A related effort seems to be underway to limit the expense of certain safety and security procedures being performed at LANL and the two other primary US nuclear weapons laboratories, and of oversight of the safety of operations at these laboratories by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The National Research Council may have become a party to this effort. In a recent report NRC advised Congress that, since there have been no serious accidents at nuclear weapons facilities in recent times, the necessity for continued very rigorous safety controls might now be questioned. In particular, NRC questions the value of continued DNFSB oversight of safety procedures at the nuclear weapons labs. It appears that this may be primarily a matter of money. (See: "Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories", National Research Council, Feb. 15, 2012.)

To quote a few examples from the NRC report:

Example (1) - "Recommendation 5.1 - The Study Committee recommends that the NNSA, Congress, and top management of the Laboratories recognize that safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been strengthened to the point that they no longer need special attention. NNSA and laboratory management should explore ways by which the administrative, safety, and security costs can be reduced, so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential S&E activities."

Example (2) - "Appendix 3. - Evolving and Persistent Issues in the Management of the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories, such as ...  4. Excessive numbers of reviews and oversight by external organizations, particularly by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board."

Example (3) - (on p64) "The role that non-regulatory agencies (particularly the DNFSB) have had on the laboratories is excessive. Although the Board lacks independent regulatory enforcement authority, it has issued more than 30 recommendations to the Secretary of Energy since 1990 ... ."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

DNFSB Disagrees with NNSA Analysis

In December 2008, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) undertook the first major update to Los Alamos National Laboratory's plutonium facility (PF-4) safety basis since 1996. During this update, analysis revealed that a seismically induced fire at PF-4 could credibly lead to an offsite radiation dose to the general public of > 2000 rem. [This is a near-fatal radiation dose. See my blogposts of Nov. 24, 2011 "Accidental Fall-out from LANL", and Nov. 18, 2011 "DNFSB Criticizes LANL's Risky Practices."]

Because of this predicted, albeit improbable,  very large offsite radiation release, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board issued Recommendation 2009-2, "Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility Seismic Safety." In this Recommendation, DNFSB urged NNSA to execute immediate and long-term actions to reduce the risk posed by a seismic event at PF-4. This Recommendation is still open. See ( Activities/Recommendations/rec_2009-2_32.pdf.) Related to this is Recommendation 2010-1 "Safety Analysis Requirements for Defining Adequate Protection for the Public and the Workers", which is also still open.

NNSA responded to DNFSB Recommendation 2009-2 with a variety of corrective measures [see below], and now claims that the concerns of DNFSB have all been satisfied. But, DNFSB disagrees.

In a letter from DNFSB Chairman Peter Winokur to NNSA Chief Administrator Tom D'Agostino, dated June 18, 2012, the Board expressed its disagreement with the recent claims made by NNSA regarding the maximum credible radiation release from LANL's PF-4 plutonium facility, following a seismically induced fire burning over and through the facility. See

NNSA claims that 23 rem is now the maximum credible dose to the general public, in such an event; i.e., at the site boundary. DNFSB disagrees, claiming instead that the maximum credible dose at the site boundary is > 100 rem. Currently, DOE sets 25 rem as the maximum allowable dose to the general public, in the event of a major accident at a nuclear weapons facility.

According to DNFSB Chairman Winokur:

"The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) has reviewed the approved safety basis for the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and concludes that for one accident the mitigated dose consequences to the public exceeds 100 rem total effective dose equivalent (TEDE), which would require additional safety controls for the facility. The Board's analysis differs from Revision 1 of the 2011 Documented Safety Analysis(DSA) by LANL that presents a mitigated offsite dose of 23 rem TEDE. A detailed review by the Board's staff identified a number of deficiencies in the technical basis that supports the 2011DSA, including concerns with the quality review process for documents and analyses."

"The Board issued Recommendation 2009-2, Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility Seismic Safety, on October 26, 2009, to address the potential consequences associated with seismically-induced events at PF-4 and requested that the Department of Energy develop and implement an acceptable seismic safety strategy. The mitigated consequences associated with the seismically-induced fire scenario were two orders of magnitude higher than the Department of Energy evaluation guideline of 25 rem TEDE; i.e., >2000 rem. Subsequently, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and LANL personnel implemented near-term compensatory measures to reduce seismic risk, identified and implemented new safety controls, completed a series of physical upgrades to the PF-4 building structure, and developed a long term plan to seismically upgrade the ventilation and fire suppression systems."

"Laboratory personnel also refined the analysis of the seismically-induced fire scenario to support the 2011 DSA that was approved by the NNSA's Los Alamos Site Office (LASO) in October 2011 and is in the process of being implemented. The Board's staff identified multiple, substantial deficiencies of a non-conservative nature in this refined analysis, specifically with the technical basis for selection of key input parameters, analytical assumptions, and methodologies. The Board's estimate of this accident's mitigated dose consequence in excess of 100 rem TEDE accounts for conservatism in the leak path factor and respirable fraction for one material. Additional use of appropriately conservative parameters would further increase the dose consequence for this postulated accident. The staff also identified issues with the quality assurance process that was applied to documents and analyses that support the DSA. In particular,  key DSA input documents were not independently reviewed as required by laboratory procedures. The Board has discussed many of these issues with NNSA in its review of previous DSA revisions."

"Contractor development and submission of high quality DSA documents in accordance with Title 10 Code of Federal Regulations Part 830, Nuclear Safety Management; and thorough and critical review by NNSA, are fundamental elements for ensuring safe operations at defense nuclear facilities. The issues identified above and in the enclosed report require prompt action by NNSA. Therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2286b(d), the Board requests a briefing and report, within 30 days of the receipt of this letter, which contain the following:"

"1. NNSA plans for providing a sound and technically justifiable Safety Basis that includes correction of the non-conservative deficiencies identified in the enclosed report."

"2. Necessary actions to ensure that quality assurance requirements are adequately implemented at LANL for Safety Basis development."

"3. NNSA actions to ensure Safety Basis review and approval processes are performed with sufficient rigor to prevent technically deficient Safety Bases from being approved."

"In response to the Board's Recommendation 2009-2, NNSA and LANL personnel: (1) executed a series of near-term compensatory measures designed to reduce the risk of a seismically induced fire at PF-4; (2) identified a number of new safety-class engineered controls, including seismic cutoff switches for electrical power, seismically qualified material storage safes, and fire-rated material storage containers; and (3) developed a Project Execution Plan for longer-term upgrades to enable the confinement ventilation and fire suppression systems to perform safety class functions following a Performance Category (PC)-3 seismic event."

"In addition to physically upgrading the building structure and implementing new safety class engineered controls, laboratory personnel completely reanalyzed the seismically-induced fire scenario in the 2011 DSA. The new analysis in the 2011 DSA concludes that the mitigated offsite dose consequence for the seismically-induced fire scenario is 23 rem TEDE, which is less than the Department of Energy (DOE) Evaluation Guideline of 25 rem TEDE. This analyzed offsite dose consequence is two orders of magnitude lower than the mitigated offsite dose consequence calculated by the 2008 DSA. The roughly 100-fold decrease results from changes to four accident analysis parameters: the quantity of material at risk, airborne release fractions, respirable fractions, and leak path factor (LPF). Revision 1.0 of the 2011 DSA was approved by LASO on October 13, 2011, and the DSA and its associated technical safety requirements (TSR) are currently scheduled to be implemented by June 25, 2012."