MOX Fuel in Fukshima Daiichi Adds Little Risk to Public

There is a good deal of misinformation being circulated about the potential harm to people in Japan from plutonium present in mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in the unit 3 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.  The real story comes from an independent group of scientists who make up the American Nuclear Society Special Committee on Nuclear Non-Proliferation .  Their conclusion? Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel has been used safely in nuclear power reactors for decades.  The presence of a limited number of MOX fuel assemblies at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 has not had a significant impact on the ability to cool the reactor or on any radioactive releases from the site due to damage from the earthquake and tsunami. Here’s a link to their full report.  It’s a short read and provides an excellent explanation of the current situation and risks associated with MOX fuel. Back in TWiN Episode #77 I covered the topic of MOX fuel, where it comes from, and where it is used.  Here are some important facts about MOX nuclear fuel: MOX present in nuclear plant fuel changes some aspects of the fuel’s performance in accident conditions, but these changes are relatively minor (see the ANS letter for details on this). MOX fuel comes from two main sources; recycling former weapons material into nuclear fuel, and recycling used nuclear power plant fuel for reuse. Creating MOX for power reactors is a safe way to dispose of weapons grade plutonium. MOX fuel can not be used to make nuclear weapons.  The NRC states “Using the plutonium in the reactor as MOX fuel makes using it for any other purposes difficult.” Plutonium in nuclear fuel is not unique to MOX fueled reactors.  All nuclear reactors contain plutonium after the reactor has been in operation for any period of time.  In fact, at the end of life of a typical low enriched uranium core up to about 20% of the heat being generated is from the fission of plutonium atoms. Plutonium in MOX fueled reactors can not cause the reactor to explode.   John Wheeler This Week in...

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Government Experts Say There Are No Environmental Impacts That Would Prevent Indian Point Nuclear Plant From Operating for 20 More Years.

Download the MP3 File Here The environment would remain safe if Indian Point nuclear plant operates for another 20 years. That’s the opinion of a team of scientists and engineers on the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Operating licenses for the two reactors at Indian Point nuclear plant in New York will expire in 2013 and 2015. Entergy, the plant’s owner has applied for a license renewal to allow the plants to operate for an additional 20 years.  A major portion of the application is this detailed study of the environmental impact of allowing the plant to continue operation. This analysis has been underway for almost two years, and included analyzing public comments and issues raised by New York State and groups opposed to the plant. On December 3, 2010 the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission released the results of their assessment which concluded there are “no environmental impacts that would preclude license renewal for an additional 20 years of operation.” License renewals are routine.  In fact, last week the NRC issued the 60th such license renewal for a US commercial nuclear plant.  That one went to the Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska.  Indian Point’s environmental impact analysis is probably the most thorough ever done by the NRC.  It usually takes between 6 and 12 months for the NRC to collect public comments and conduct their environmental review.  In contract, Indian Point’s review took two years to complete.    It is a monstrous document; the report is more than 2,200 pages long compared to an average of 480 pages at other plants.  It’s worth noting that the plant’s owner pays the Federal Government more than $200 for every hour the NRC staff spent on the environmental analysis. So what’s unique about Indian Point that might require such an extensive review of the environmental impact? In short, it has nothing to do with the natural environment, and everything to do with the political environment in which the plant operates.  There is a very high profile and well funded anti-nuclear campaign being waged against Indian Point by organizations like Riverkeeper, the Radiation and Public Health Project, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. These organizations and others like them have taken advantage of the transparency of the license renewal process to intervene at every opportunity in an effort to slow or block the process. On one hand they claim nuclear plants are too expensive, yet they work hard to further raise the costs. For example, they claimed the plant is in violation of the US Endangered Species Act because the endangered shortnose sturgeon eggs and hatchlings are entrained in...

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Small Modular Reactors May Offer Significant Safety & Security Enhancements

Download the Audio File Here Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are getting a lot of attention in the nuclear industry because they offer great potential for lower initial capital investment, scalability, and they come in sizes more appropriate for locations unable to accommodate larger 1000+ MW units.  However, there are some big potential advantages that have not been widely discussed that could make SMRs a game-changer.  These advantages are the potential for enhanced safety and security. Let me explain. The goal of nuclear plant emergency planning is to protect people from exposure to radiation they might receive during a reactor accident. That radiation exposure would come (mostly) from radioactive gas released into the air from a damaged nuclear plant. There are three physical barriers in all modern nuclear plants that keep radioactive gas inside the reactor: the metal cladding that encases the ceramic uranium fuel pellets, the thick steel reactor vessel and piping and that contains the reactor and coolant, and the concrete and steel containment building that encloses the reactor. For people to be in danger from a reactor accident first the fuel must overheat to create the radioactive gas. Then all three barriers (clad, system piping, and containment building) must be breached to provide a pathway for the radioactive gas to reach the atmosphere. Finally, there has to be a pressure difference to push the gas out of the plant and into the atmosphere. In water cooled reactors like most in use today, the hot water turns to steam and steam pressure builds up inside the containment.  If the containment is breached this pressure pushes the radioactive gas through the hole to the air outside. With this in mind, small modular reactors offer several big advantages that make them safer: They are smaller, so the amount of radioactivity contained in each reactor is less. So much less in fact, that even if the worse case reactor accident occurs, the amount of radioactive material released would not pose a risk to the public. In nuclear lingo we say SMRs have a smaller “source term.”  This source term is so small we can design the plant and emergency systems to virtually eliminate the need for emergency actions beyond the physical site boundaries.  Then, by controlling access to the site boundary, we can eliminate the need for off-site protective actions (like sheltering or evacuations). These smaller reactors contain less nuclear fuel.  This smaller amount of fuel (with passive cooling I’ll mention in a minute) slows down the progression of reactor accidents.  This slower progression gives operators more time to take action to keep the reactor cool.  Where operators in large reactors have...

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Huge Untapped Uranium Reserves in Virginia

Podcast – Download the MP3 Here  This has been a deadly year for fossil fuels in the United States.  In February five workers lost their lives in an explosion at the Kleen Energy natural gas power plant in CT.  Then in April 29 coal miners perished in a mining accident at the Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia.  Of course that was followed by the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that killed 11 workers and caused a massive oil spill that is contaminating hundreds of miles of coastline. With events like these (and others similar events around the world), and our growing reliance on huge quantities of imported oil and natural gas, it is time for America to expand its domestic supply of uranium.  On this show I was joined by a panel of experts who discussed efforts underway in Virginia to unlock the vast potential of uranium resources that have been discovered there.  My guests were: Aaron Ruby from the Virginia Energy Independence Alliance Patrick Wales, the project manager and geologist for Virginia Uranium, Inc, and Lisa Stiles, a nuclear engineer with many years experience in the nuclear industry, and a former president of NA-YGN and the International Youth Nuclear Congress. Topics we discussed included why allowing safe uranium mining in Virginia is so important,  the huge untapped Coles Hill uranium deposit, uranium mining safety, and the many benefits that developing the Coles Hill mine would bring to an economically depressed region. Enjoy! John Wheeler “This Week in...

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More Nuclear Regulations with No Added Safety Benefit (Fast Fission Podcast 8)

Get the MP3 Here The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue regulations making it a Federal crime to introduce explosives into facilities and installations containing nuclear materials.  The new rules go into affect in April 2010 and specify fines of up to $5,000 and jail time up to one year for anyone who “willfully” introduces firearms or explosives into a facility regulated by the NRC.  The new rule authorizes the FBI and other federal agencies to investigate and prosecute the cases. The new rule also requires the plant and facility owners to post signs warning of the legal consequences of violating the new rule. On the surface it seems like a good idea, right?  Unfortunately, it’s yet another example of regulation without added safety benefit.  Anyone who has ever been in a nuclear facility knows it is illegal to bring weapons and firearms through the gate.  There are already signs posted, and violators of the rules could already be charged and prosecuted under state laws.  According to the NRC, there have been occasions where workers or vendors accidentally brought weapons on site, but never intentionally or with intent to do harm, so I have to wonder what problem they are trying to fix? Several companies and individuals asked the NRC to be more specific regarding the definition of “willful” and “readily visible day and night” signs.  The NRC declined these requests and instead referred to other regulations and standards already in place; for example they deferred to the American Disabilities Act for signage standards, and they left the term “willful” for prosecutors and courts to define.  By the way, although the new rules say the signs are required to be readable at night, the ADA does not provide standards for night readability. If the goal is increased safety, do they really think that a $5,000 fine or a year in jail will be a deterrent to a terrorist or saboteur?  This is nothing more than a “feel good” rule that will increase costs and administrative burdens on nuclear facilities without any benefit what so ever.  Oh, and by the way, the new rule also applies to hospitals, universities, laboratories, and manufacturing facilities where radioactive materials are kept, so everyone can share in the pain and the added...

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