Thursday, May 15, 2014

US Gov't Fails at Nuclear Waste Disposal

US Government programs attempting to deal with the radioactive wastes and toxic chemical wastes generated by commercial nuclear power plants, and by the nuclear weapons industry, continue to be designed and administered with stupefying incompetence. Perhaps more serious than the failure to cope successfully with the host of technical problems encountered, has been the ongoing political incompetence; i.e., the inability to deal effectively with the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) phenomenon.

A) The attempt to create a repository for high level nuclear waste from electricity generating nuclear power plants has been a complete failure, as was admitted by the present Administration when it closed the pending Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. The consequences of this apparently wholly political action are now beginning to unfold.

To wit::
 Associated Press / By Jonathan Fahey / 15 May 2014

A fee that electric customers have been paying for 31 years to fund a federal nuclear waste site that doesn't exist will now end. The Energy Department will stop charging the fee by court order on Friday.

The amount is only a small percentage of most customers' bills, but it adds up to $750 million a year. The fund now holds $37 billion.

The money was collected to build a long-term disposal site for the highly radioactive nuclear waste generated by the nation's nuclear power plants that is, by law, the federal government's responsibility.

The site was supposed to have opened in 1998, but there is no such site nor even any tangible plans for one.
Don't expect a refund, however. The latest Energy Department strategy, laid out in a report last year, is to have a site designed by 2042 and built by 2048 using the money in the fund.

The fee, a penny for every 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity, is charged to nuclear operators and then passed on to customers, depending on how power is regulated and priced in each state. Based on the average amount of nuclear power produced across the U.S., a typical residential customer pays $2 a year into the fund.

This has long bothered state regulators. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners began suing the Department of Energy in 2010 to force DOE to stop collecting the fee.

"We never objected to paying the fee when there was a program," said Michigan utility commissioner Greg White, who has been fighting the fee for years. "But people shouldn't be paying for something that doesn't exist."

In a sharply worded opinion last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed, calling the DOE analysis of the fee collection "absolutely useless." The court also noted that there may be enough money in the fund to build a dump already: "The government apparently has no idea."

In 2002 Congress approved Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a site for a national nuclear waste dump and $9.5 billion was withdrawn from the fund to develop the project, according to the Government Accountability Office. But the project has been criticized as inadequate and flawed and is fiercely opposed by Nevadans. President Obama, fulfilling a campaign promise, cut funding for the program, withdrew its license application, and dismantled the office that was working on it.

"It's a victory for customers," said White of the end of the fee collection. "But it's bittersweet because we'd still rather see a (nuclear waste) site."

B) The attempt to finish with the disposition of excess plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons, until recently proceeding according to long ago negotiated plans with the Russians, has been abandoned by the present Administration, but without any viable alternative being offered. This appears to be a largely political ploy, but whose interests are being served and whose ox is being gored remain matters for speculation.

 Which is to say:
 Physics Today / David Kramer / May 2014

1.) Meeting in The Hague, the Netherlands, in late March, the US joined nearly three dozen nations in recommitting to secure weapons-usable nuclear materials that are scattered around the world and vulnerable to terrorist theft. But just weeks earlier, President Obama proposed scaling back by nearly one-quarter the administration’s signature effort to do just that.

In addition, the president indicated he would shelve a half-built $7.7 billion project to convert US surplus weapons plutonium into reactor fuel, a back-step that would jeopardize a 2011 pact with Russia for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of the bomb-usable material.

The administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget request (see special report on page 23) proposes to cut the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), the Department of Energy program charged with securing vulnerable bomb-usable materials around the world, by $109 million, to $333 million. According to budget documents released on 4 March, 5017 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium have been repatriated to the US, Russia, or secure locations since the GTRI’s 2004 inception. In addition, the program has verified that 88 HEU-fueled research reactors or isotope production facilities have been closed or converted to use low-enriched uranium. The program also has strengthened security measures at nearly 1900 buildings outside the US that house fissile materials.

Energy secretary Ernest Moniz told the House Appropriations Committee on 2 April that he was disappointed with the proposed reductions in the GTRI’s and DOE’s other nuclear nonproliferation programs, but he said they were necessary to offset proposed increases for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) nuclear weapons program. Overall, the nonproliferation budget is slated to drop 20%, or $399 million, to $1.6 billion. The 2015 request includes $8.4 billion for nuclear weapons, an increase of $534 million, or 6.9%. Most of the growth is for work on modifying and extending the lives
of three warhead types (see Physics Today, December 2013, page 26) and on maintaining the declining weapons stockpile.

2.) “President Obama’s Four Year Initiative to secure the most vulnerable nuclear material by the end of 2013 was completed successfully,” according to FY 2015 budget documents. However, the president’s original goal, as stated in a 2009 speech he delivered in Prague, Czech Republic, was “to secure all vulnerable material around the world within four years.”

In FY 2015 the GTRI plans to remove 125 kg of fissile materials, convert four reactors, and make security improvements to 125 buildings abroad. Some of that activity was forward funded with monies from FY 2014, Harrington told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 2 April.

“In this current fiscal environment, difficult decisions are inevitable,” Harrington said, adding that the budget will still permit a “robust set of activities” for the nonproliferation programs.

The FY 2015 budget documents added five years to the GTRI’s target date, now 2035, for conversion or shutdown of the 200 or so remaining HEU-fueled civilian facilities around the world. Last year’s budget set the date as 2030; as recently as 2010, the NNSA’s target date had been 2020. And the NNSA target date for securing the world’s radiological materials has been set at 2044. “When the president is asked what keeps him awake at night, he says a terrorist nuclear event. So there’s a disconnect, in my view, between what the president continues to restate that he wants and what the bureaucracy is providing,” says Kenneth Luongo, former director of DOE’s Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

“In a budget where we are spending hundreds of billions every year on national security, and when this is the third president in a row to say that nuclear terrorism is the biggest national security risk, to be slowed by cutting a few hundred million is really penny-wise and pound-foolish,” says Bunn.Luongo, who now heads the Partnership for Global Security think tank, puts it more strongly: “What they are doing in cutting the nonproliferation budget and increasing vulnerability in order to fund the weapons program is a crime against humanity, not just a crime against the taxpayer.”

3.) Proposed savings of $215 million, more than half the overall reduction to DOE’s nonproliferation budget next year, would result from suspending construction of a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina as the administration explores alternative and cheaper methods for disposing of surplus weapons plutonium. The US and Russia in 2011 agreed to each convert 34 tons of plutonium into fuel suitable for commercial reactors. But the MOX plant’s construction cost estimate has soared from $4.8 billion to $7.7 billion, and its lifetime cost to operate is $30 billion. Moniz told House appropriators the original estimate used assumptions that were based on a French MOX plant and failed to account for the two nations’ differing nuclear regulatory regimes and other standards. Although Moniz and NNSA officials have repeatedly insisted that the US will abide by its commitment, changing the US disposal method will require reopening negotiations with Russia. “That dialog right now is not so simple,” Moniz admitted.

The state of South Carolina filed a lawsuit against DOE on 18 March in a bid to prevent the mothballing. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Harrington that there is no viable option to MOX that would be cheaper and meet the 2018 target date for beginning disposition. Graham called the administration “incredibly irresponsible” for breaking agreements with the Russians and the state of South Carolina. He added, “It’s going to create problems with weapons-grade plutonium in the hands of the Russians at a time when we need no more problems with the Russians.”

 C) And, let's not forget the ongoing WIPP site debacle:
 Associated Press / Susan Montoya Bryan / 9 May 2014

 The head of the recovery effort at the federal government’s nuclear waste repository in Southern New Mexico said Thursday it could be up to three years before full operations resume at the underground facility.
Recovery manager Jim Blankenhorn made the announcement when answering questions from the public during a weekly meeting in Carlsbad. He said the timeline continues to be a moving target, but full operations are expected to resume no earlier than 18 months from now.

Crews continue investigating the cause of a radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad that exposed some workers and halted operations in February. Specially trained workers have been making trips into the repository in an effort to pinpoint the source of the release.

Based on those trips, the focus has turned to a set of waste drums that came from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Officials at the meeting reiterated the possibility that there may have been a chemical reaction inside the drums. They were then questioned about what would happen to that waste if it’s deemed unsafe to store.

“If we find a problem with this waste stream, it’s a chemistry problem,” Blankenhorn said. The Los Alamos lab has “some of the best scientists in the world. It would be up to them to develop a path forward to give us treated, safe waste.” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the theory of a chemical reaction is based on limited knowledge, and he urged officials during the meeting not to withhold any information. Flynn said he’s concerned the public will lose faith if federal officials change their story every couple of weeks about what might have happened.

“We need to know what happened. We absolutely need to know,” he said. “But we need to make decisions based on facts.” WIPP and Department of Energy officials vowed to continue to update the public on the recovery process and to keep the safety of their workers and the public in the forefront.

Officials have pointed to safety as the reason they decided earlier this month to halt shipments from Los Alamos to a temporary storage facility in West Texas. The shipments had been going on for about a month due to the closure of the plant. Los Alamos is under a tight deadline to get the plutonium-contaminated waste off its Northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season peaks. The state of New Mexico pressured the lab to hasten the cleanup after a massive wildfire in 2011 lapped at the edges of lab property.

Lab Director Charlie McMillan said Thursday during a news conference in Albuquerque that the recent developments “are very much a cause for concern.” But he said it was too soon to tell if they will have any effect on the lab’s ability to meet the state’s deadline.

 D) Finally, it is shocking that the US Government's incompetence in the area of radioactive waste disposal, worthy of much public derision, is accompanied by its desire for public approval in the area of radioactive waste generation.

In this regard, consider the following letter from US Senator T. Udall of NM, dated 25 April 2014:

 Thank you for contacting me regarding S. 507, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act. I appreciate hearing from you on this important legislation.

The Manhattan Project was a secret scientific research project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Various facilities throughout the United States were established to facilitate this research, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

S. 507 aims to establish a National Historic Park to preserve historically significant Manhattan Project sites, and allow public access to the sites at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington, for interpretive public tours. S. 507 was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (WA) on March 7, 2013, and was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee where hearings were held on June 27, 2013.  Since that time no further action has yet occurred.

I am a cosponsor of this bill because I believe the historical significance of the Manhattan Project warrants the preservation of the sites for future generations. Please know I will keep your thoughts* in mind as I continue to monitor the progress of this legislation.

*I had expressed very negative thoughts to Senator Udall about this pending legislation.

It is of some interest to speculate further about the makeup of this incompetence, on the part of the present Administration, as well as past Administrations, when it comes to the disposition of nuclear waste. This may be  a problem of the inability of a largely non-technical political leadership (principally the President) to cope with the technical parts of the nuclear waste disposal problem; e.g., to be able to understand and trust the technical advisers.  Or it may be a matter of the Administration's having been captured by its anti-nuclear power constituency, and/or by its anti-all-things-nuclear constituency. This would probably be more a problem for the present Administration than for the previous one and, as concerns the managing of the nation's nuclear waste disposal, this Administration does seem to be doing distinctly worse than its predecessor.