Media Misses the Mark on North Korean Nukes

Fast Fission Podcast #14 – MP3 File I awoke this morning to news reports that North Korea has once again resumed their production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. I suspect that’s no real surprise to anyone who pays attention to such things. After all, they threw IAEA inspectors out this spring and told the world of their plans. All of the major news outlets carried the story, and virtually every one reported that the North Koreans obtained the plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel from their nuclear plant. The term “nuclear plant” in this instance refers to their small 5 MW test reactor, NOT a nuclear power plant designed to produce energy for industrial use or electricity generation. Nuclear reactors come in many sizes and shapes; test and training reactors at universities, research reactors for government and industry, reactors used to produce medical isotopes, reactors inside nuclear power plants, and reactors designed to produce weapons materials. Each type is uniquely suited for its purpose, and usable weapons-grade plutonium is not produced by accident. It can only be obtained by reprocessing a unique kind of nuclear fuel from a reactor is operated a very specific way. In episode 77 of “This Week in Nuclear” I explained the details of why this is true, so go back and take a look if you’d like the details. These are critically important differences. Imprecise reporting like this leads to misunderstanding on a broad scale. There is a huge misperception in the general population and among many otherwise well-informed policy makers that nuclear power plants can explode like atomic bombs, and that rogue nations could use their commercial nuclear power plants to kick start weapons programs. Both of these are wrong, and these misunderstandings are used to stoke anti-nuclear sentiments. In the end, failing to understand these differences can contribute to policy decisions and regulations that could deprive society of the benefits of nuclear energy. Here’s what you need to remember: Used fuel from commercial nuclear power plants can not be used to make atomic bombs. No nation has ever created a nuclear weapon from spent fuel that came from a commercial nuclear power plant.   John...

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“What nuclear waste problem?” (TWiN Podcast 77)

Get the MP3 Here Download printable version here I have a family member that I love dearly and have an infinite amount of respect for.  She is a fantastic mother, a caring person, respected in her chosen profession, and a good friend.  She would do anything she could to help someone in need.  When we first met she was strongly opposed to nuclear energy.  Over the years we have discussed it from time to time and I’ve had some influence on her perspective.  She’s not totally won over yet, but we’re making progress.  Not too long ago she asked me, “But what about the waste?  That really worries me!”  She really didn’t believe me when I said “There’s no such thing as a nuclear waste problem.  That’s nothing but a myth.” Let me explain. Used nuclear fuel is very safely stored in earthquake proof storage pools and dry storage casks at nuclear plants around the USA.  It can stay there until we’re ready to recycle it, and we WILL recycle it eventually because it would be a waste not to do so.  When we remove used fuel from a reactor more than 90% of the potential energy is still in the fuel.  It would be wasteful to even consider putting it in a hole a mile underground!  Also, when we do recycle it, the left over material is much smaller and is much easier to handle, but we’ll talk about that in a few minutes. First we need to look at the components of used power reactor fuel, and recognize that with recycling each of the components can be separated from one another.  A typical batch of used nuclear reactor fuel is made up of the following materials (not counting the structural materials): % Composition (approx) Uranium 93% Plutonium 1.5% Minor Actinides 0.2% Fission Products 5.3% When the fuel is new the concentration of the isotope U-235 is about 4% and U-238 is the rest.  After the fuel is burned in a reactor the uranium is mostly U-238 (very close to the isotopic mix of natural uranium) because most of the U-235 gets burned out by absorbing neutrons and fissioning.  There is also a small but important amount of plutonium that is formed when uranium atoms capture neutrons but do not fission.  This is called “breeding” and in fact at the end of life of a reactor fuel load more than 20% of the heat generated is from the fission of plutonium atoms formed by breeding.  All of this plutonium and uranium can be mixed back together to make new nuclear fuel.  This is what is commonly referred to as mixed oxide fuel,...

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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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Saber Rattling & Iran’s Nuclear Program (TWiN Podcast 75)

Get the MP3 File Here News outlets around the world were buzzing last week when Iran announced in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has built a second nuclear fuel enrichment facility deep under a mountain near the city of Qom.  The UN security council appeared outraged and the US government claimed it has known of the facility for “some time.” There continues to be deep disagreement between Iran and the UN Security Council about the Islamic Republic’s intentions and their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  Iran claims they are following the rules to the letter: they notified the IAEA about the facility 180 days before it is scheduled to go into operation, precisely as required by their agreement with the IAEA.  President Obama on the other hand, stated Iran is “breaking the rules all nations must follow.,” and other members of the Security Council seem to agree.  They cite a later UN provision that requires Iran to notify them before building any such facility. Herein lies the problem: there are TWO SETS OF RULES!  The earlier version required Iran to notify the IAEA before loading special nuclear material into a new facility – essentially they had to tell the IAEA (a branch of the UN) 180 days before beginning operation.  A later version of the rule requires notification before beginning beginning construction of an enrichment facility.  Iran claims they are not required to comply with the later version because other parties to the agreement (the USA and Europe) failed to meet their end of the deal.  Specifically, under what are called the “additional protocols” and the “Subsidiary Agreement” the USA and Western European nations were to recognize Iran’s legitimate right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and in exchange Iran would agree to notify the IAEA before BUILDING more enrichment capacity.  The earlier version of the agreements required notification later in the process – before OPERATING a new enrichment facility. At least one nuclear weapons expert says Iran is right.  Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector, says Iran is both legally and technically correct.  According to Mr. Ritter, Iran agreed to voluntarily follow the later agreement pending ratification by their Parliament.  Since their Parliament has never ratified the agreement, Iran is not legally bound to it.  Instead, Iran is bound by the earlier agreement requiring Iran to inform the IAEA about the facility before beginning operation. Mr. Ritter also says the IAEA currently has a 100% accounting for all of Iran’s nuclear material and none has been diverted to weapons production or enriched to weapons grade.  If Scott Ritter is correct,...

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Is “Pro-Nuclear” Becoming a Badge for Progressive Thinkers?

I’ve been enjoying the recent rash of pro-nuclear editorials in newspapers and other traditional media over the last several months.  I think this is a sign that momentum is building for transition from passive public support to a more active, vocal cry for more nuclear in our energy mix. Here are some examples: 5 Myths on Nuclear Energy On the comparison of nuclear power plants to atomic bombs A nuclear power plant is a radically different machine, designed with great care to convert nuclear fission into steady power over a period of years. You couldn’t turn a nuclear reactor into a bomb any more easily than you could power your house with a hand grenade. House Wrong to Rule Out Nuclear Regarding the recent vote in Minnesota to continue their ban on new nuclear plants… It is disturbing that the Minnesota House of Representatives has voted to sustain a 15-year moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants in the state. There are many reasons that nuclear power may not be an answer to Minnesota’s carbon pollution problems, but to simply rule it out of the equation does not make very much sense. Now is the Time to Go Nuclear And one of my favorites… Let’s get one thing straight.  Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are not the same thing.  It’s understandable that the term “nuclear” instigates fear.  After all, the nuclear arms race was central to the Cold War.   But fear should not excuse ignorance. It’s way too early to tell, but perhaps someday it will be “hip” to be “nuclear.” As a nuclear geek, I won’t get my hopes...

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