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 (www.ips-dc.org), 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?