Nuclear waste dump could earn South Australia “billions of dollars” (February 2015)

Building a nuclear waste dump in the Australian outback could earn the South Australian government “billions of dollars” in potential revenue, a leading nuclear physicist said on Monday.

Dr. Ziggy Switkowski, one of Australia’s most eminent scientists, said if the nuclear waste dump was approved and the South Australian government accepted and stored nuclear waste from Australia and abroad, then the economic benefits for the state would be huge.

Speaking on Adelaide radio on Monday, Switkowski also applauded South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill’s decision to form a royal commission to examine the future of nuclear power in South Australia.

The premier said in a news conference last week that South Australia’s continuing role in nuclear power over the last 25 years calls for discussion about the future, and how it can serve the state going forward.

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NRC will complete environmental review of Yucca project — chairman (February 2015)

Hannah Northey, E&E reporter, Greenwire: Tuesday, February 17, 2015
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission intends to complete an environmental review of the contentious waste repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada because the Energy Department has refused to do so, the NRC’s chairman said today.

“The decision is we will do that since [the Department of Energy] told us they won’t be doing it,” NRC Chairman Stephen Burns told reporters at the Platts 11th Annual Nuclear Energy Conference in Washington, D.C., today. “We have the funds that are left over from the carryover for high-level waste, will cover the preparation of the supplemental [environmental impact statement].”

Burns made the comments following his first public speech as chairman, in which he called for a leaner, more efficient agency to match a workload made lighter by a potential nuclear expansion in the United States that never materialized. Although the NRC ramped up for a raft of anticipated new reactors in 2006, the industry has since seen a sharp decline. Applications were pulled and work dissipated amid a recession and the United States’ discovery of cheap shale gas.

“Now, perhaps more than ever, the NRC is being scrutinized by its stakeholders for its responsible use of resources, as well as for the regulatory requirements it imposes on its licensees,” Burns said.

The NRC’s environmental review of the Yucca site is a critical step toward moving the project forward. The NRC last month found the project could be built and operated safely but recommended that the agency not authorize construction until the environmental review was complete and outstanding land and water rights issues were addressed (E&ENews PM, Jan. 29).

Fallout from Japan disaster continues (February 2015)

Paul Gorman, The Press, NZ – February 20, 2015

[Excerpt – Read Story]

The one-in-1000 year tsunami generated by that gargantuan quake smashed into coastal parts of the northeastern coast of Honshu, and 14-metre-high surges ultimately caused a meltdown or partial meltdown (depending on who you believe) at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.

Before the accident, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) nuclear plant had the capacity to generate 4680 megawatts of electricity, making it more than four times as big as Huntly power station, New Zealand’s largest plant, or nine times the size of Benmore power station. Its six reactors were among 54 operating in Japan and generating about 30 per cent of the country’s electricity. It was one of the 15 largest nuclear power stations in the world.

In a nutshell, sea-water swamped the generators, the cooling systems failed, temperatures in the reactors rose above 2500 degrees Celsius, fuel rods melted and then the roofs of the reactor structures exploded, allowing gases to vent into the atmosphere. Radioactive material also leaked from damaged pipes into soil and the sea.

Japan’s first nuclear emergency was declared and more than 100,000 people living within 20 kilometres of the power station were evacuated from an exclusion zone which is still in place, although some have recently chosen to move back inside it. Food supplies and water downwind of the plant were heavily irradiated and there was panic as far away as Tokyo about contamination.


On the International Nuclear Event Scale, the Fukushima-Daichi disaster rates just below Chernobyl as the world’s worst nuclear accident. It has been classified as a seven on a scale of seven for the “major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures”.

As well as failures and partial meltdowns at other nuclear plants caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, there has been a string of other accidents over the past 30 years, many of which the populace was unaware of due to information being suppressed or concealed, or even falsified by Tepco officials in the case of cracks found in 13 of its 17 reactor covers in 2002.

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Only one drum involved in WIPP release (February 2015)

13 February 2015 – World Nuclear News

Photographs taken inside the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) have confirmed that a single waste drum was the source of the contamination incident that has stopped operations at New Mexico facility since February 2014.

Project Reach’s 90-foot boom is positioned over waste containers in the underground facility as its remotely operated video camera collects evidence (Image: WIPP)

The information was gathered through a project known as Reach, which has been using a specially designed and manufactured 90-foot (27 meter) composite boom equipped with a high resolution camera. All this was installed on a movable cradle and mounted on a support structure, allowing operators to examine waste stacks from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall. Waste at WIPP is stacked in six columns, with each column consisting of up to three layers of transuranic waste containers.

Initial analysis of the pictures obtained by Reach indicates that no additional breached waste containers contributed to the February 2014 incident. Ted Wyka, chairman of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Accident Investigation Board (AIB), said that the evidence obtained supported the idea that a single drum, referred to as LANL68660, was the source of the radiological release.

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Handwritten note could be source of WIPP incidents (February 2015)

Current Argus – By Sarah Matott POSTED:   02/12/2015 01:00:00 AM MST

Bad note taking and miscommunication at Los Alamos National Laboratory is what led to the mishandling of the transuranic waste drum that resulted in the Feb. 14, 2014 radiological release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

It had been suspected as early as last May the chemical reaction of one of the drums was caused due to using the wrong type of kitty litter to treat the waste.

The information was in a report by Department of Energy’s Inspector General released in September 2014, and was originally reported by the Albuquerque Journal last week.

The report confirmed that the kitty litter is part of what led to the chemical reaction of the waste drums at WIPP, but more so the wrong kitty litter was used because of handwritten note that called for “an organic” absorbent, instead of “inorganic.”

The use of organic kitty litter was implemented in August 2012 for the treatment of TRU waste at LANL, however, the Inspector General’s report shows that LANL officials do not seem to know when or how the use of organic kitty litter was permitted.

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With no frame of reference, WIPP crews must move slowly and carefully (April 2014)

By Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer – Las Cruces Bureau
PUBLISHED: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at 12:05 am

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Its been two months since a radiation leak shut down New Mexicos geologic nuclear waste repository and two weeks since crews first went underground to explore the cause.

So why is it taking so long to find out what happened?
On April 2, teams prepared to re-enter the WIPP underground nuc

On April 2, teams prepared to re-enter the WIPP underground nuclear waste storage facility for the first time since the Feb. 14 radiation release. (Courtesy of Department Of Energy)

The fundamental point is there is no example in the world of a radiologically contaminated underground salt mine, said Don Hancock, who runs the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. They really do have to make it up as they go, and they want to be careful.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has broken the investigation into three phases and, over the weekend, crews began the third and final phase: to make their way toward the suspected source of the radiation leak.

Its slow going for a number of reasons.

The distances underground are long and the investigation teams must travel on foot because vehicles could stir up contamination, Tammy Reynolds, deputy recovery manager, said at a recent town hall meeting. Additionally, crews are working to establish a clean base of operations as close as possible to the site of the contamination because the heavier protective gear they will wear as they approach the problem area will limit how long they can work.

a01_jd16apr_wippThey need to be concerned about getting into a contaminated environment without being prepared for it and they need to be sure that, from a mine safety standpoint, they are not getting into a place thats a problem, Hancock said. I applaud the fact they are going slow.

WIPP is housed in a sprawling mine excavated from ancient salt beds some 2,150 feet below the surface. Below ground, the waste disposal area is divided into eight panels containing seven rooms each each room the length of a football field stacked to the ceiling with sealed containers of transuranic waste, the leftovers of the countrys nuclear defense program.

WIPP managers believe the Feb. 14 radiation leak may have stemmed from either panel 6, nearly filled with waste, or panel 7, which recently began receiving waste.
A team member surveys conditions from the salt shaft station to

A team member surveys conditions from the salt shaft station to the air intake station, where exit locations would be established. (Courtesy of Department Of Energy)

The crews are inching toward a lunchroom situated a few hundred feet from the entrance tunnel to panels 6 and 7. If the lunchroom is not contaminated with radiation, crews will set up a base camp there, Reynolds explained during the town hall. Thats where they would potentially change from lightweight protective clothing into the heftier Level B suits, made of impermeable gray plastic, including a built-in hood with a clear plastic visor. Workers are wearing respirators now and will continue to do so, WIPP has said.

Although the temperature underground is cool, the plastic suits let no air in or out, making it easy for the workers, who are unaccustomed to wearing such gear, to become overheated, while perspiration can fog up the visor. Its enough of a problem that WIPP is now reconsidering whether to use Level B suits at all, said spokesman Ben Williams.

And thats another reason the investigation has taken as long as it has: Plans keep changing

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Nuclear waste heads into the virtual realm (April 2014)

Apr 16, 2014,

Illustration of the virtual underground laboratory at the Fraun
Testing ground: the virtual underground laboratory

A new computer-based tool designed to help find the best sites for nuclear-waste repositories and to win public confidence in them has been developed by researchers in Germany. The 3m VIRTUS virtual underground laboratory will allow scientists to explore the behaviour of highly radioactive materials inside specific rock formations, with the aim of making it cheaper to develop and build repositories. Critics, however, argue that the new software will do little to improve safety and might disrupt real laboratory studies of nuclear waste.

Underground disposal

Many scientists believe that the best way to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and other long-lived radioactive materials is to bury them hundreds of metres underground, with Sweden and Finland having both selected sites for national waste repositories next to existing nuclear power stations. France also plans to open its own facility in 2025, and, like Sweden, has built a major underground lab to test the geology and technologies to be used at the site.

However, there are severe technical and societal problems associated with repositories, not least that the waste they contain will remain harmful for hundreds of thousands of years. The development of a national repository in Germany, for example, has been mired in controversy. A formal site-selection process has still to be set up, even though exploratory work at the Gorleben salt mine in the north of the country began as far back as the 1970s. The nearby Asse mine, meanwhile, was set up in the 1960s as a research facility but was decommissioned in 1997 after a brine leak threatened to flood the complex and cause it to collapse.

Developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) in Magdeburg, together with Germany’s nuclear-safety organization (GRS), the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources and the waste-repository company DBE Technology, VIRTUS will attempt to partially address this issue. The software enables detailed models of specific rock formations or mine structures to be created and then fed into a simulation to calculate how a repository would evolve physically and chemically over time. The results of these calculations can then be visualized graphically, and it is planned that members of the public will in future be able to see those graphics inside a 360° projection system.

Modelling heat

Klaus Wieczorek from the GRS, who is head of VIRTUS, says that the software could, among other things, model the heat emitted by the radioactive decays taking place inside canisters, and the resulting temperature-induced stress that would build up in surrounding rocks. It could be used to better design laboratory experiments, he explains, and to simulate the performance of potential repositories ensuring that safety criteria, such as maximum-allowed temperatures, are met and that the position of tunnels can be optimized to minimize mining costs.

A prototype VIRTUS system was supposed to have been completed this spring, but unexpected difficulties associated with matching up the geological models with those simulating the behaviour of nuclear waste has now pushed that deadline back. "We are continually improving the prototype and we will present it to funding institutions in October this year," says Wieczorek. In fact, he admits that it might be "another two or three years" before it is ready for public use.

Arising uncertainities

Johan Swahn of Swedish nuclear-repository watchdog MKG believes that the new software has little or nothing to contribute to research on radioactive-waste disposal. He says that experiments carried out in underground laboratories continue to provide "a lot of surprises". For example, new uncertainties have emerged regarding how copper canisters designed to hold Sweden’s spent fuel behave in low-oxygen environments, and as a result the licence application for the proposed national repository may not be approved. "Creating a generic safety case with a nice visualization will in my opinion only enhance a dangerous belief in modelling, creating a false impression that we have understood more than we actually have, he says.

About the author

Edwin Cartlidge is a science writer based in Rome

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U.S. Seeks Nuclear Waste-Research Revival in light of WIPP nuclear accident (March 2014)

By Jeff Tollefson and Nature magazine, March 4, 2014

A radiation leak has raised questions about the safety of the United States only deep nuclear-waste repository, and has given fresh voice to scientists calling for more research into underground waste storage.

On 14 February, radioactive plutonium and americium leaked out of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, where thousands of drums of contaminated material from the US nuclear-weapons program are stored in salt beds more than half a kilometer below the surface. The health and environmental impacts seem to be minor, but 13 employees have tested positive for low-level contamination. The Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors are still working on a plan to re-enter the WIPP and find out what caused the leak.

The incident also brings renewed attention to a problem that policy-makers have been avoiding: what to do with a mounting stockpile of spent fuel from commercial reactors, which is currently stored at reactor sites. In 2010, the DOE mothballed plans to develop Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which since 1987 had been designated as the future site of an underground repository (see Nature 473, 266267; 2011). Researchers at the DOE and universities want to explore a variety of alternatives. But they say that they have been hobbled by small budgets and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which prevents the DOE from investigating any specific site apart from Yucca Mountain.
Basically, all of the old ideas have come back out of the woodwork, says Michael Driscoll, a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. But the first thing we need is Congress to wrestle with this and revise the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

For now, researchers are pursuing generic repository science that does not conflict with the law. In one large proposed experiment, DOE scientists wanted to assess whether salt beds at the WIPP could store radioactive waste that is hotter than the material they currently hold. In 2011, the team began developing a $31-million experiment that would have tested how the salt deforms when it is heated, and how water moves through it.

Other researchers are investigating the concept of dropping cylinders of nuclear waste into 5-kilometer-deep boreholes in hard rock such as granite. Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico is leading a consortium of researchers and companies seeking to drill an experimental borehole costing approximately $25 million. The hot-salt and borehole proposals are now competing for funding within the DOEs relatively small $15-million annual budget for this kind of research. Big tests like either of those would completely overwhelm the current budget, says Peter Swift, who heads the DOEs nuclear-waste science program at Sandia.
In Europe, scientists have developed expertise with other types of rock. Finland and France have homed in on proposed underground repositories in granite and shale, respectively. Germany has buried low- and medium-level wastes in underground domes of salt, and it is evaluating the terrain for a controversial high-level waste repository.
International collaboration gives researchers access to the basic science on all of these environments, says Jacques Delay, secretary-general of the Implementing Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste Technology Platform in Bure, France, a consortium that guides a roughly 10-million (US$14-million) joint research program under the European Commission. What is tricky is to make the link between the academic science and our projects, he says.

But basic research can go only so far, because the scientific assessment of repository safety is specific to local geology. After choosing a site, researchers must study the density, porosity and heat conductance of the rock there, and characterize any fractures and groundwater movement. Modeling and experiments help to determine how the rock will respond to the heat generated by the nuclear waste.

The United States spent more than $15 billion on Yucca Mountain before then-energy secretary Steven Chu pulled the plug, saying that the site was not a workable option broadly interpreted to mean that it was doomed politically, if not technically. The United States has evaluated few alternatives. The city of Carlsbad, which hosts the WIPP, is politically inclined to expand its nuclear-waste portfolio. But few other communities have shown interest in storing nuclear waste.
Some DOE researchers favor a serious exploration of borehole disposal, in part because no one has tested the idea, which dates back to the 1970s. Swift estimates that just 800 boreholes would take care of the existing US waste stockpile, as well as spent fuel from current reactors until about 2050. There is suitable rock at various depths across the country. You could spread these things out, and you wouldnt have to put all of your money on one site, says Patrick Brady, a geochemist at Sandia who is part of the labs borehole consortium.

Drilling constraints might limit these boreholes to less than 50 centimeters in diameter, so spent fuel rods, currently stored in large canisters, would need to be repackaged. However, a hole that size would be perfect for a major source of waste that the DOE is trying to dispose of: 2,000 highly radioactive capsules containing caesium and strontium from the Hanford Site, a decommissioned plutonium-production facility in Washington state. These capsules are 5256 centimeters long and up to 9 centimeters in diameter, and they contain 38% of Hanfords radioactivity. Swift says that they could all fit into a single borehole.
With research worldwide concentrating on underground repositories, Swift says that it is time to try a new concept: If we make a borehole, it will be the one that the rest of the world comes and looks at.

The article was first published on March 4, 2014 in the magazine Nature.
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13 workers exposed to radiation at New Mexico disposal plant

By Tom Watkins, CNN

updated 8:45 AM EST, Thu February 27, 2014

(CNN) — Nearly two weeks after a radiation leak was reported at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, 13 employees have been notified that preliminary test results show they were exposed to radiation, officials said.

“It is important to note that these are initial sample results,” DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Nuclear Waste Partnership, its contractor, said in a statement Wednesday. “These employees, both federal and contractor, will be asked to provide additional samples in order to fully determine the extent of any exposure.”

The release did not quantify the initial estimates of the exposure. “We can’t release that information,” said Nuclear Waste Partnership spokesman Donavan Mager, who cited the HIPAA privacy rule. But, he added, the preliminary results indicate that the employees were exposed to americium, a man-made, radioactive metal.

He said a news conference would be held at 4 p.m. ET Thursday.

On Monday, DOE reported that tests on samples collected from numerous areas in the plant three and four days after the February 14 incident had found “slightly elevated” levels of airborne radioactivity.

“These concentrations remain well below a level of public or environmental hazard,” the department said.

Dose assessment modeling of the leak “showed a potential dose of less than one millirem at each of the environmental sampling locations,” about a tenth of the amount a person would receive from a chest X-ray, the DOE statement said.

“The average person living in the United States receives an annual dose of about 620 millirem from exposure to naturally occurring and other sources of radiation,” it said.

According to its website, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) “safely disposes” of the nation’s defense-related radioactive waste.

Waste shipped to WIPP, which is 26 miles outside of Carlsbad, is “permanently” disposed of in rooms mined out of a salt formation 2,150 feet (0.4 miles) below the surface of the desert.

The waste generally consists of clothing, tools, equipment, sludge, soil or other materials contaminated with man-made radioactive elements that are heavier than uranium.

An alarm late on February 14 indicated higher than usual levels of airborne radiation and led to a first-of-its-kind response since the nuclear disposal facility began accepting waste in 1999.

An air monitor at the plant detected the spike in an isolated area below ground, which prompted the shutoff of filtered air from the facility into the environment around it.

“This is the first time we had to close off air filtered by the facility to the outside,” Energy Department spokesman Gregory Sahd told CNN last week.

The radiation was first detected at 11:30 p.m., according to Sahd. He said the facility’s ventilation system, which monitors air quality, automatically switched to “filtration mode” when the leak was discovered.

Because of the location of the incident, Sahd said, there was little risk to employees. Those who were inside the above-ground area of the facility were quarantined until radiological control technicians cleared them to go home.

“No one was underground when the alarm went off,” Sahd said. “And everyone that was in the facility (at the time), we know where they are and we’ve tested them.”

Since the incident, access to the site has been limited to “essential personnel,” and employees are checked for any external contamination when they leave.


Plutonium detected half-mile outside New Mexico nuclear waste facility

February 20, 2014 11:00AM ET
Aljazeera America

Disclosure comes four days after leak at same underground storage repository; officials say no threat to human health

Four days after a radiation alert shut the nation’s only underground nuclear waste facility, an independent monitoring center said Wednesday it found radioactive isotopes in an air sensor about a half mile from the southeastern New Mexico plant.

A filter from a monitor northwest of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad had trace amounts of plutonium and americium, said Russell Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center.

“It’s still below what EPA considers actionable levels, but it’s important to know that some material d


id get out of the facility,” Hardy told the Albuquerque Journal.

The levels are the highest ever detected at or around the site, he added.

A WIPP air monitor detected airborne radiation underground late Friday night, setting off an alert, the Journal reported. WIPP reported the next day that its ventilation system had immediately switched to filtration mode, minimizing any potential release of radiation.

WIPP said in a statement Wednesday that its filters remove at least 99.97 percent of contaminants from the air, “meaning a minute amount still can pass through.”

“There is a lot more that needs to be known,” Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, told local media.

“The big problem is, does anybody really know what happened in the underground and how much was released or is continuing to be released? And, therefore, how much is being captured by the filters and how much is getting into the environment?”

WIPP said Wednesday that it is developing a plan to safely re-enter the underground facility and that radiological professionals from other Energy Department locations and national laboratories will assist in the recovery.

Department of Energy (DOE) officials say most operations remain closed, but they have not released any further information.

In early February, a truck hauling salt in an underground mine at the site caught fire, shuttering operations for a few days. Officials said that fire was in an area separate from where nuclear waste is stored. In both instances, the DOE has said public safety has not been threatened.

Hardy said his center, an arm of New Mexico State University that monitors air, ground, and water samples from in and around WIPP, didn’t get the filters from the underground radiation sensor that was activated Saturday until Tuesday. He said he expects to have a reading from air sampling station closer to the plant next week.

He also noted that a second air sampling station 11 miles from the plant showed no radioactive particles.

WIPP is the nation’s first and only deep geological nuclear facility. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory, and other defense projects, and buries it in rooms cut from underground salt beds.

Al Jazeera and wire services