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Plutonium problems won’t go away

Plutonium problems won’t go away, By Chris Edwards, Engineering and Technology, February 15, 2022 

  Nuclear energy’s environmental image is as low as carbon’s,with its clean fuel potential being tarnished by legacy waste issues. Are we any closer to resolving this?

At the end of 2021, the UK closed the curtain on one part of its nuclear waste legacy and took a few more steps towards a longer-lasting legacy. A reprocessing plant, built at the cost of £9bn in the 1990s to repackage waste plutonium from pressurised water reactors in the UK and around the world for use in new fuel, finally converted the last remaining liquid residue from Germany, Italy and Japan into glass and packed it into steel containers. It will take another six years to ship it and all the other waste that belongs to the reactor owners, who are contractually obliged to take it back.

Even when the foreign-owned waste has headed back home, the UK will still play host to one of the largest hoards of plutonium in the world, standing at more than 110 tonnes. It amounts to a fifth of the world’s total and a third of the global civilian stockpile of 316 tonnes. Despite operating a smaller nuclear fleet than France’s, the UK has 1.5 times more plutonium.

It was never meant to end this way. The long-term dream was for fission-capable fuel to keep going round in a circle, only topped up with virgin uranium when necessary. The plutonium produced during fission could itself sustain further fission in the right conditions. However, fast-breeder reactors that would be needed to close the cycle remain largely experimental, even in countries such as Russia where their development continues. Driven by both safety concerns and worries about nuclear proliferation that might result from easier access to separated and refined plutonium-239, the West abandoned its fast-breeder programmes decades ago.

It is possible to reprocess spent fuel into so-called mixed-oxide fuel, but it is only good for one use in a conventional reactor. Other actinides build up and begin to poison the fission process. The only prospects for change lie in so-called Generation IV reactors, but these designs have yet to be tested and may continue to fall foul of proliferation concerns.

While operators around the world have mulled over the practicality of fuel reuse, containers of both processed and reprocessed fuel have lingered in storage tanks cooled by water despite, in some countries, being earmarked for deep burial for decades. In the late 1980s, the US Department of Energy (DoE) settled on Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the single destination for the country’s spent nuclear fuel, and scheduled it for opening a decade later. By 2005, the earliest possible opening date had slipped by 20 years. It remains unopened and will probably never open. In the interim, much of the fuel has lingered in water-filled cooling tanks while politicians consider more localised deep-storage sites.

Fukushima provided a wake-up call to the industry, not just about the problems of controlling reactors but their spent fuel. After the tsunami, engineers were concerned that without replenishment pumps, the water in the storage tanks for the spent fuel would evaporate. If the fuel then caught fire, it would likely release radioactive tritium and caesium into the atmosphere. In a stroke of luck, water leaked into the damaged ponds. Now the issue for operators of some older reactors is that the fuel canisters are just corroding into the water instead.Experts such as Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, recommend storage pools should only be used until the fuel is cool enough to be transformed into glass, immersed in concrete or both, and transferred to dry storage, preferably in a deep geological disposal facility (GDF).At a conference last November organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Laurie Swami, president and CEO of Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organisation, claimed “there is scientific consensus on the effectiveness of deep geologic repositories” for highly radioactive waste.

The UK similarly settled 15 years ago on a plan to build its own GDF for high-level waste in tandem with the establishment of a single government-owned body responsible for organising where the waste goes, in the shape of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The GDF took a small step forward at the end of 2021 when two candidate sites were announced, both close to the Cumbrian coast. The local communities have agreed in principle that the NDA can investigate where they are suitable for a set of tunnels that may extend under the Irish Sea. With the project at such an early stage, the country remains years away from opening a GDF. Finland, in contrast, has pressed ahead and expects its GDF to open in 2025, while Sweden is likely to have the second one in the world.

At the same time, there is an enormous volume of other irradiated material that cannot economically be put into deep storage. In a keynote speech at the IAEA’s conference, James McKinney, head of integrated waste management at the NDA, explained that a lot of radioactive waste is contaminated building material. The Low-Level Waste Repository at Drigg in Cumbria was designed for this kind of waste, but McKinney stressed that capacity is “precious” and in danger of running out if all the material is taken there. Over the past decade, the NDA and its subcontractors have been working to divert as much waste as possible from the Drigg site by reprocessing and repackaging it.

By bringing waste management under one umbrella instead of dividing it among power-station operators, the NDA has been able to change procurement strategies to favour the use of much more R&D for waste handling. “The destination of radioactive waste can be changed through interventions,” McKinney adds. “At this moment, we estimate some 95 per cent of potential low-level waste is being diverted away [from Drigg]. Twelve years ago, the opposite would be true.”

A recent example of this in action is the dismantling of pipes that were once installed at the Harwell research centre. More than 1,500 sections of metal pipe were delivered to oil-and-gas specialist Augean, which is using high-pressure water jets to remove radioactive scale so the metal can be recycled instead of needing long-term storage.

Getting less manageable waste away from the storage tanks presents another major challenge, particularly if it comes from the oldest reactors. For example in the UK, when spent Magnox fuel was taken out of the reactors, the magnesium cladding around it was stripped away and moved to Sellafield’s Magnox Swarf Storage Silo (MSSS). Though the swarf itself is just intermediate-level waste, Sellafield’s operator regards emptying the silo ready for transfer to long-term dry storage as one of the more hazardous projects on the site. Stored underwater to keep them cool, the packages of swarf gradually corrode and release hydrogen gas and contaminants, which can escape into the ground. Moving the waste for treatment can itself lead to more escapes.

To manoeuvre 11,000 cubic metres of waste out of the 22 chambers of the MSSS, it has taken more than two decades to design, build and install two out of three shielded enclosures and grabbing arms that can lift out pieces of the swarf and prepare it to be immobilised in concrete or glass.

The time it has taken to even begin to clean up the MSSS illustrates the core issue that faces decommissioning and clean-up programmes: the sheer difficulty of trying to handle even moderately radioactive materials in circumstances where access was never considered when these structures were first built and filled. Everything in this kind of decommissioning calls for ungainly long-distance manipulators because there is no other way to protect the clean-up crews.

As engineers struggled to deal with the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, many people in Japan thought the same thing, and expressed surprise that a country that had invested so much in robotics research had none that it could send into the reactors to even perform a survey.

Japan was not alone with this issue: no country had a dedicated nuclear-accident response robot. Work on robots began decades ago but continued only in fits and starts for the most part. After a serious incident in 1999 at an experimental reactor at Tokaimura, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry set aside $36m to develop remote-controlled machines. But the projects ended within a few years.

To help deal with the immediate problems at Fukushima, the US research agency DARPA was quick to repurpose the military and disaster robots to which it had access, originally planning to send them on Navy ships across the Pacific. But it quickly emerged that this would be too slow

At a conference organised by the International Federation of Robotics Research on the 10th anniversary of the accident, Toyota Research chief scientist Gill Pratt said the first robots “got there in the overhead luggage of commercial flights”. For all of them it was a baptism of fire.

(Here this aticle continues with a discussion on robot technology – which must be remotely done and turns out to be very problematic)

………………………………………….Deep burial seems to be the easiest way to deal with long-lived waste, assuming no-one tries to dig it up without heavy protection and good intentions hundreds or thousands of years into the future. But the question of how safe it is if the repository breaches accidentally is extremely hard to answer.

Plutonium is unlikely to be the biggest problem. Although it oxidises readily to dissolve in water, the short-lived fission products such as strontium-90 and caesium-137 could be more troublesome if they escape the confines of a storage site, according to analyses such as one performed by SKB as part of Sweden’s programme to build a deep burial site there.The half-lives of these isotopes are far shorter than those of plutonium, so the risk from them will subside after a couple of hundred years rather than the thousands for plutonium. But what if they could be shortened to days or even seconds? Any radiation could then be contained or used before the waste is repackaged.

This is the promise of laser transmutation, which uses high-energy beams to displace neutrons in donor atoms that then, with luck, smash into those unstable isotopes to produce even more unstable atoms that quickly decay. In one experiment performed by Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, a laser transmuted atoms in a sample of iodine-129, with a half-life measured in millions of years, to iodine-128. A similar experiment at Cambridge converted strontium-90 to the medical labelling chemical strontium-89.

The bad news is that the energy required to perform transmutation at scale is enormous and not all isotopes are cooperative: their neutron-capture volumes are so small the process becomes even less efficient.Nobel laureate Gérard Mourou believes careful control over high-energy pulsed lasers will bring the energy cost of transmutation down significantly. He is working with several groups to build industrial-scale systems that could begin to clean up at least some of the high-activity waste.

Even if lasers can be made more efficient, there are further problems. For one, the waste needs to be separated as otherwise the stray neutrons will transmute other elements in the sample, generating unwanted actinides. This will not only increase the cost of reprocessing, it will increase the risk of proliferation, as it will lead to plutonium that is far easier to handle and move around, the one outcome that deep burial is meant to avoid……………………https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2022/02/plutonium-problems-won-t-go-away/

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February 17, 2022 - Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, UK

1 Comment »

  1. The tip of the iceberg

    There has been lying, and cover-up, of the true extent of Fukushima.  Fukushima and Chernobyl sad are the tip of the iceberg of the now ubiquitous dispersion by humans, of manmade and purified Radionuclide.

    Half extracted from the ground and, the really deadly stuff allowed to breed in reactors. There are 20 nuclear reactors in orbit, around the earth.

    There was jackass flats, where the army purposefully hosted a reactor into the air and melted it down to see observe the wind pattern carrying radionuclides irradiated the southwest usa.

    The green run. Puropselt releasing radioactive iodine into the site at handford to see how much stllborths, and cancers, and birthdefects and thyroid destruction is caused. Done at hanford.

    The daily effuse of 421 reactors around the world. The millions of tons of high level and medium level nuclear waste in the world in casks, by reactors some of it has already caught fire.

    The  Japanese, burn nuke waste from fukushima and dissipate it further. They are getting ready to unleash millions of gallons of Fukushima contaminated water into the Pacific that will contamnitae Pacific and, can never be reclaimed.
    There were The dozens of h- bomb explosions in the s Pacific and a bomb explosions, all over the world.

    Hanford accidents and releaseses of plutonium, cesium 137, and radioactive iodine into the Columbia River for 70 years. The mayak explosions in Russia.  The sellafield meltdown in England. The la Hague plutonium plant dumping plutonium uranium, anmericoum cesium 137 etc into the English channell., Canadian nuclear accidents every dacade coinciding with usq nuclear accidents.  A swedish accident in 2005.  The Norwegian test reactor in 2015 for the second time.

    There waa probable,  partial meltdown in Russia two years ago close to mayak.
    China had a nuclear accident and release, a years ago. Hundreds of nuke bomb tests all over the world. Dozens of dead and operational nuke subs . Multiple nuke sub explosions. The Russians dumping 17 nuclear reactors and waste, into the attic ocean. Multiple wildfires in sibera, at mayak, at Idaho National labs, at Los Alamos, Hanford, Kazakhstan, by Los Angeles at santa Susana, Hanford, in Canada, France, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Hypersonic nuke explosions in Russia testing hypersonic missiles. American, British, french, Russian, nuke sub explosions. Thousands of tons on nuke waste put in the ocean, by the europeans USA and russians
    Multiple large plutonium fires in the major city of Denver in the 1960s,70s,and 80s from rocky flats in Arvada. Their ghastly paychopathy and mass murder, knows know bounds. And this is still the tip of the iceberg

    Comment by Jeremy Frehly | February 18, 2022 | Reply


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