Nuclear Newsreel, Wednesday, May 21, 2014

It’s mid-week, a good time to catch up on some of the news–and there has been a lot of it recently.

Uranium Forecast

If you want to know what the nuclear industry really thinks about the future of nuclear power, it always pays to look at the uranium mining industry, which has to forecast future demand for its product. Last week, the giant uranium mining firm Cameco ended the permitting process for a major proposed new mine in Saskatchewan “because of slumping demand for the metal used to fuel nuclear power plants.” The company not only asked the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to postpone a schedule June hearing on the environmental assessment of the project, it withdrew its application for the mine entirely. Uranium prices are at an eight-year low because of large supply and poor demand–and forecasts for increased demand are bleak. So much for the global nuclear “renaissance.” 


So it’s perhaps fitting that the global nuclear “renaissance,” which began in 2005 in Finland with the beginning of construction of the still-unfinished Olkiluoto-3 Areva EPR reactor–now seven years behind schedule and more than 100% overbudget–has stalled there. Yesterday, the Finnish utility TVO told the government it won’t be ready to submit a license for its planned Olkiluoto-4 reactor in 2015 as scheduled and asked for a delay in submitting its licensing documents until 2020. Meanwhile, another proposed Finnish nuclear project, at Fennovoima, also experienced a delay with a scheduled June decision by the government on the reactor pushed back to August. The reactor is supposed to have majority Finnish ownership, but potential investors have been backing out and Russia’s Rosatom has instead become a major investor for the project. One of those investors that dropped out, the small utility ESE, which had a one percent interest in the reactor, has chosen a different path that may show the way for Finland to take a new course. ESE has partnered with Cerncorp to build a small pilot solar power plant using home-grown Finnish solar modules–the first step in what the companies say will be an expanded effort to use solar power effectively in Northern European countries.



Damaged radioactive waste barrels deep inside the WIPP facility.

Damaged radioactive waste barrels deep inside the WIPP facility.

At least 57, and perhaps as many as 500, barrels of nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility and elsewhere are at risk of chemical reactions that could cause radiation leaks similar to those that occurred at the site in February and March. The barrels, which came from New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, were packed with nitrate salts and organic kitty litter different from that previously used. It’s believed the combination of materials set off a chemical reaction that caused at least one barrel inside WIPP to fail, spewing radiation into the environment. At least two more of the barrels are known to be inside WIPP, but it is unclear where the rest of the potentially deadly barrels are. Some of them may be at Texas’ Waste Control Specialists “low-level” radioactive waste site on the New Mexico border. Los Alamos had been shipping some of its waste there when WIPP was closed following the radiation leaks.

New Mexico is taking the situation seriously. Yesterday the state ordered the federal Department of Energy to submit a plan within 10 days to permanently seal two rooms where the barrels are located. The state’s Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said in issuing the order, “Based on the evidence presented to NMED, the current handling, storage, treatment and transportation of the hazardous nitrate salt bearing waste containers at LANL may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.” It’s not clear whether the state actually has the authority to issue an order to the DOE, but the agency may well comply anyway. However, it would not make sense to permanently seal the rooms until there is greater confidence that the causes of the release are fully understood and steps are taken to prevent further releases.

WIPP is expected to be closed to new waste shipments for at least another year, but given the scope of the problems–which include at their core a deteriorating safety culture blamed by environmentalists like Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque on a focus on expanding the WIPP site to take more types of waste rather than on properly storing the waste already being sent there–the site could be closed much longer than that. All of which bodes poorly for the entire concept of geological waste disposal: WIPP is the only such site operating in the world and its troubles and fumbled response are likely to set back any new such sites across the globe by quite a long time.


In a major victory for Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, a Japanese court ruled this morning against restart of Kanzai Electric’s Ohi-3 and -4 reactors. The court’s decision, which will be appealed by the utility, found that the utility’s safety assurances of the reactors being able to withstand an earthquake do not hold up. Said the decision, “From the perspective of protecting personal rights and health from radioactive substances, this leaves doubts about whether safety technology and equipment will be sufficient….To the contrary, it forces us to admit that this is a fragile notion without a firm basis, predicated on an optimistic outlook.” The decision is likely to complicate the potential restart of other reactors in Japan as well, since it calls into question the work of Japan’s new nuclear safety agency which is trying to vet the safety of reactors wanting to restart. All of Japan’s 48 existing reactors are shut down and most will never restart in any case, but the decision is a big blow to those few waiting for restart permission.

Japan’s Fukushima evacuees are hoping the courts will rule in their favor as well. Nearly 7,000 people have filed 20 separate class action lawsuits against Tepco and the Japanese government over the loss of their homes because of the Fukushima disaster. The fundamental issue is whether the two entities can be held legally responsible for the “loss of one’s homeland.” But never underestimate the callousness of a nuclear utility or nuclear-supportive government: both claim that they aren’t legally responsible for the disaster and can’t be held liable for the loss of thousands of homes.

Meanwhile, the Mainichi newspaper late last week ran a strongly-worded article by a senior writer expressing serious doubt that the battle against the “relentless flow” of radioactive groundwater at the Fukushima site can be won. “The enemies in this battle are high radiation levels and the ceaseless flow of groundwater. If this water pours into the reactor buildings and touches the atomic fuel inside, it picks up high concentrations of radioactive material, turning toxic. At the moment, this radioactive water is impossible to deal with….However, serious doubts have been raised over the feasibility of this battle plan. The water tanks that now cover much of the plant grounds have sprung leaks, and the ALPS system is plagued by seemingly endless breakdowns. Meanwhile, experts have questioned both the safety and effectiveness of the proposed subterranean ice wall. The sheer number of news reports of “yet another leak” and countermeasures that were ‘unreliable’ risks numbing the public to their significance, but the battle at the plant continues nonetheless.”

Abandoned golf courses have been put to different uses in Fukushima prefecture. ON the left, thousands of bags of radioactive waste fill one course; on the right, a golf course has become a solar energy farm.

Abandoned golf courses have been put to different uses in Fukushima prefecture. On the left, thousands of bags of radioactive waste fill one course; on the right, a golf course has become a solar energy farm.

In Fukushima prefecture itself, there will be no nuclear restarts. Instead, the prefecture has committed to a 100% renewable energy system by 2040, and it’s already making a lot of headway. Very interesting article, with a lot of photos on the new solar-powered Fukushima.

Broken bolts at Salem-2

At least 15 broken bolt pieces were found in a key cooling pump and at the bottom of the reactor vessel of New Jersey’s Salem 2 reactor during an outage inspection this week. The original bolts were about four inches long and one inch wide, and made of stainless steel. The problem is being blamed on stress corrosion cracking, but it is not yet known whether the problem is larger than has been detected so far. Salem-2 went into a refueling outage on April 12; its restart has been delayed indefinitely. But don’t worry, the NRC claims it has asked a lot of “hard questions” about the issue.

Michael Mariotte

May 21, 2014


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