Huge 8.9 quake plus tsunami - Japan


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Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Sep 5, 2012 - 11:54pm PT
so we have over a year of radioactive materials raining down on NW US forests, and now we have major forest fires burning all around northern California, filling the air with smoke

Overall radiation deposition in Oregon is being monitored pretty closely on an ongoing basis by USGS, state, and PDX agencies as well as some private groups and labs. So far, in milk from NW dairy cows, the fukushima-sourced levels haven't come close to the typical levels of the radiation from the potassium noramlly in the milk. I think most folks in the PNW are concerned about the ongoing accumulation of Fukushima radiation, but as radiation risks go here in the PDX it somewhat pales in comparison to the very real risks of aging Hanford storage tanks contaminating the Columbia River. Regardless, between Hanford issues and the number of 'downwinders' up this way there is no shortage of folks paying attention to the issue here locally.

Tony Bird

Northridge, CA
Sep 6, 2012 - 05:50am PT
people i know in alaska tell me that the local fish are checked with geiger counters. they don't rely on the state to do it for them, they do it themselves. so far, so good, i guess, but i've also heard that a common geiger counter will only pick up on a portion of the harmful radiation produced by the fukushima event. anyone know about that?

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
Sep 6, 2012 - 08:48am PT
my 93 yo uncle was a chief engineer at Hanford for many decades and in charge of disposing the contents of the tanks

i was part of a joint DOE/EPA project to review the tank sample management issues

my cousin is now a senior engineer at Hanford and handling the same issues with the Waste Isolation Plant

he tells me the most dangerous 'burp' tank 101SY has now been drained and processed

my uncle tells me the worst stuff is alpha emitting plutonium micro-particles that get ingested with air or food or water

he tells me a Geiger counter will not detect these in rain water, because the surface of the water in the droplet is able to block the alpha radiation...

so by the time you are able to detect contamination with a Geiger counter, it is too late for you

my post above is based on knowing this...

yesterday the smoke was so think in Mt Shasta town that you could not see the mountain
Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Sep 6, 2012 - 09:03am PT
Tom, Plutonium is usually detected in the field through Am-241 gamma-ray detection as the two elements are produced together.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Sep 6, 2012 - 09:18am PT
Here's another thing to worry about. I knew a guy years ago who worked for the Navy at Hunter's Point in San Francisco and he said they had disposed of barrels of radioactive waste inside of concrete casings only a few miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge and that it was only a matter of time before those leaked.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Sep 7, 2012 - 08:53am PT
Published on the NHK website today.

US panel questions Fukushima preparedness

A US panel investigating last year's Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan has raised questions about contingency measures at the troubled plant.

The US National Academy of Sciences set up the panel in July. Officials of the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Company took part on Thursday.

The Japanese officials told the panel the March 11th tsunami was bigger than plant was designed to withstand. They also said company officials were not aware that a backup cooling system was not working after the loss of power sources.

A panel member asked why there had been no experts stationed at the plant who could advise on the emergency cooling system at the time of the accident.

A representative from a US industry group of nuclear plant operators criticized safety standards in Japan. The panel member said it is vital to prepare for any eventuality, and that Japan seemed to lack this concept.

The United States introduced new measures at nuclear plants after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. It became mandatory for plants to have contingency manuals and additional backup power systems.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Sep 7, 2012 - 08:56am PT
Meanwhile, the cleanup of the non radioactive tsunami mess is going slowly as well.

Goshi Hosono told reporters on Friday that 4.4 million tons, or about 24.5 percent,
of debris from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures had been incinerated, buried or
recycled as of the end of last month.
Riley Wyna

Trad climber
A crack near you
Sep 14, 2012 - 11:50pm PT
pfftt - tell us something we dont least on this thread.

Flood Threat To Nuclear Plants Covered Up By Regulators, NRC Whistleblower Claims

Source: Huffington Post

In a letter submitted Friday afternoon to internal investigators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a whistleblower engineer within the agency accused regulators of deliberately covering up information relating to the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear power facilities that sit downstream from large dams and reservoirs.

The letter also accuses the agency of failing to act to correct these vulnerabilities despite being aware of the risks for years.

These charges were echoed in separate conversations with another risk engineer inside the agency who suggested that the vulnerability at one plant in particular -- the three-reactor Oconee Nuclear Station near Seneca, S.C. -- put it at risk of a flood and subsequent systems failure, should an upstream dam completely fail, that would be similar to the tsunami that hobbled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan last year. That event caused multiple reactor meltdowns.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Huffington Post, Richard H. Perkins, a reliability and risk engineer with the agency's division of risk analysis, alleged that NRC officials falsely invoked security concerns in redacting large portions of a report detailing the agency's preliminary investigation into the potential for flooding at U.S. nuclear power plants due to upstream dam failure.


Read more:


Perkins was the lead author of the report which was improperly redacted.

Lots more information in the news article,
including a link to Perkins letter to the Inspector General.

Sep 15, 2012 - 12:28am PT
Have we quarantined Chicago yet?

It has elevated levels of radiation due to natural uranium ore under ground!

Hint: radiation isn't the boogeyman we've been lead to believe it is.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
Sep 30, 2012 - 05:47pm PT
From Jan Sacherer Turner

Another weekend, another super typhoon. That's two in two weeks. However, Typhoon Jelawat was the second strongest and most damaging typhoon in the 30 years I've been here. The winds weren't so high but it traveled right up the middle of the island south to north. We had winds at 130 going east to west for 12 hours then an hour of eerie calm as the eye passed over, then 12 more hours of the winds going west to east. One person dead and 145 injured. Over 200,000 without electricity including me, for 24 hours which is unheard of here. Down tree branches and debris everywhere.

Now it's nearing Tokyo and 600 flights have been cancelled, the Tokyo trains are shut down due to fallen trees, and tens of thousands have evacuated to higher ground to escape flooding from a foot and a half of rain.

Here's the cloud filled eye of the storm passing over the narrow island of Okinawa which is 7 miles wide and 60 miles long.

Typhoon hitting Okinawa and Japan
Typhoon hitting Okinawa and Japan
Credit: TomCochrane
corniss chopper

breaking the speed of gravity
Sep 30, 2012 - 06:55pm PT
If a typhoon had hit Santa Cruz we would have seen it.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
Oct 3, 2012 - 04:32pm PT

This Is How Russia Disposes Of Its Dated Nuclear Submarines

Business Insider : By Leandro Oliva
The question of how to dispose of nuclear-powered equipment and irradiated waste has been a nagging companion for the world’s advanced navies for decades, and in the case of the former Soviet Union one of its solutions was evidently to sink it into the Arctic Ocean.

Information now provided to the Norwegian daily Aftenposten by Russia’s authorities catalogue “enormous quantities” of Soviet-era nuclear reactors and radioactive waste dumped into the Kara Sea over the course of decades, far worse than previously known, and which include the experimental K-27 submarine that was eventually scuttled in 1981 once repairs to its liquid metal nuclear power plant were deemed impossible to complete.

That scuttling operation was allegedly performed at a far shallower depth than the International Atomic Energy Authority’s guidelines of 3,000 meters, and although its two experimental VT-1 reactors were sealed to avoid radioactive pollution there are now questions as to the real danger of contamination. According to the Bellona Foundation, a Norway-based environmental NGO with a long history of involvement with the Soviet Union’s nuclear dumping grounds, information that the K-27’s reactors could re-achieve critical status was released during a seminar with Rosatom (Russia’s nuclear regulatory body) in February of this year.

Norway’s Minister of the Environment, Bård Vegar Solhjell, immediately played down any dangers revealed by the report, though Bellona itself believes that the gradual publication of information by Russia is intended as a quiet call for help in dealing with a huge (and expensive) issue. In addition to the K-27 submarine, officials confirmed to Aftenposten the existence of some 17 thousand containers of radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors (five with spent nuclear fuel) and 735 pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery.

An editorial in Aftenposten mentions that as recently as 2006 Russia detected no leaks emanating from the K-27 submarine, and the country has assembled a commission to map the nuclear waste outlined in its report. Meanwhile, a Norwegian-Russian effort is set to begin charting nuclear waste in the Kara and Barents Sea, which was used as a radioactive dump by the Soviet Union into the early 1990s in violation
of the London Convention of 1972.

Exxon Mobile and Rosneft signed a deal in April of 2012 to jointly develop oil reserves in the Kara Sea, a prospect which may hold more than 37 billion barrels. According to Bellona’s Igor Kurdrik, Russia therefore has a vested interest in charting and cleaning up the area’s radioactive waste
before oil extraction begins.

Throughout its history with nuclear propelled submarines the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet lost a total of four of its vessels, though with the exception of the K-27 all others were lost in maritime accidents.
Riley Wyna

Trad climber
A crack near you
Dec 28, 2012 - 02:04am PT

US sailors sue Japan's TEPCO for post-quake radiation exposure

Source: NBC News

A group of U.S. Navy personnel involved in the humanitarian effort after Japan's March 2011 earthquake and tsunami have filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Co. for more than $200 million in compensation, punitive damages and future medical costs for exposure to radiation that leaked from the damaged Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant at the time.

The plaintiffs include eight troops serving on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier — one of whom was pregnant at the time of the alleged exposure — and her daughter.

They charge that the utility, known as TEPCO, "knowingly and negligently caused, permitted and allowed misleading information concerning the true condition of the (plant) to be disseminated to the public, including the U.S. Navy Department," according to the complaint filed on Dec. 21 in a U.S. federal court in San Diego.

The plaintiffs are suffering a variety of symptoms that attorney Paul Garner says were caused by the exposure, including rectal bleeding, thyroid problems and persistent migraine headaches, and all face an increased chance of developing cancer and requiring expensive medical procedures.

Read more:


The nuclear industry spin-machine will go into high gear over this.

This is a major story being covered by the Wall Street Journal, BBC, Japan Times, etc.

Be prepared for an onslaught of anti-science pro-nuclear PR.


Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Dec 28, 2012 - 03:07am PT
Funny this came up again, as I was just sending off some presents to the young Japanese girl I took climbing while she was here in PDX as part of the local Fukushima host family program in the immediate wake of the disaster. Her mother, with both young children in tow, relocated to Western Japan after much pressure on the father who, along with the in-laws, fought her leaving and stayed to try and salvage the extended family's orchard business which unfortunately just isn't going to be salvageable.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
Mar 9, 2013 - 11:53pm PT

NARAHA, Japan (AP) — Two years after the triple calamities of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster ravaged Japan's northeastern Pacific coast, debris containing asbestos, lead, PCBs — and perhaps most worrying — radioactive waste due to the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant looms as a threat for the region.

So far, disposal of debris from the disasters is turning out to have been anything but clean. Workers often lacking property oversight, training or proper equipment have dumped contaminated waste with scant regard for regulations or safety, as organized crime has infiltrated the cleanup process.

Researchers are only beginning to analyze environmental samples for potential health implications from the various toxins swirled in the petri dish of the disaster zone — including dioxins, benzene, cadmium and organic waste-related, said Shoji F. Nakayama of the government-affiliated National Institute for Environmental Studies.

Apart from some inflammatory reactions to some substances in the dust and debris, the longer-term health risks remain unclear, he said.

The mountains of rubble and piles of smashed cars and scooters scattered along the coast only hint at the scale of the debris removed so far from coastlines and river valleys stripped bare by the tsunami. To clear, sort and process the rubble — and a vastly larger amount of radiation-contaminated soil and other debris near the nuclear plant in Fukushima, the government is relying on big construction companies whose multi-layer subcontracting systems are infiltrated by criminal gangs, or yakuza.

In January, police arrested a senior member of Japan's second-largest yakuza group, Sumiyoshi Kai, on suspicion of illegally dispatching three contract workers to Date, a city in Fukushima struggling with relatively high radioactive contamination, through another construction company and pocketing one-third of their pay.

He told interrogators he came up with the plot to "make money out of clean-up projects" because the daily pay for such government projects, at 15,000-17,000 yen ($160-$180), was far higher than for other construction jobs, said police spokesman Hiraku Hasumi.

Gangsters have long been involved in industrial waste handling, and police say they suspect gangsters are systematically targeting reconstruction projects, swindling money from low-interest lending schemes for disaster-hit residents and illegally mobilizing construction and clean-up workers.

Meanwhile, workers complain of docked pay, unpaid hazard allowances — which should be 10,000 yen, or $110, a day — and of inadequate safety equipment and training for handling the hazardous waste they are clearing from towns, shores and forests after meltdowns of three nuclear plant reactor cores at Fukushima Dai-Ichi released radiation into the surrounding air, soil and ocean.

"We are only part of a widespread problem," said a 56-year-old cleanup worker, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Nakamura, out of fear of retaliation. "Everyone, from bureaucrats to construction giants to tattooed gangsters, is trying to prey on decontamination projects. And the government is looking the other way."

During a recent visit to Naraha, a deserted town of 8,000 that is now a weedy no-man's land within the 20-kilometer (12-mile) restricted zone around the crippled nuclear plant, workers wearing regular work clothes and surgical masks were scraping away topsoil, chopping tree branches and washing down roofs.

"They told me only how to cut grass, but nothing about radiation," said Munenori Kagaya, 59, who worked in the nearby town of Tomioka, which is off-limits due to high radiation.

Naraha's mayor, Yukiei Matsumoto, said that early on, he and other local officials were worried over improper handling of the 1.5 trillion yen ($16 billion) cleanup, but refrained from raising the issue, until public allegations of dozens of instances of mishandling of radioactive waste prompted an investigation by the Environment Ministry, which is handling decontamination of the 11 worst-affected towns and villages.

"I want them to remind them again what the cleanup is for," Matsumoto said in an interview. "Its purpose is to improve the environment so that people can safely return to live here. It's not just to meet a deadline and get it over with."

The ministry said it found only five questionable cases, though it acknowledged a need for better oversight. Another probe, by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry found rampant labor violations — inadequate education and protection from radiation exposure, a lack of medical checks and unpaid salaries and hazard pay — at nearly half the cleanup operations in Fukushima.

About half of the 242 contractors involved were reprimanded for violations, the ministry said.

An Environment Ministry official in charge of decontamination said the government has little choice but to rely on big contractors, and to give them enough leeway to get the work done.

"We have to admit that only the major construction companies have the technology and manpower to do such large-scale government projects," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue. "If cleanup projects are overseen too strictly, it will most likely cause further delays and labor shortages."

Minoru Hara, deputy manager at a temporary waste storage site in Naraha, defended the 3,000 workers doing the work — the only people allowed to stay in the town.

"Most of the cleanup workers are working sincerely and hard," Hara said. "They are doing a good job of washing down houses and cleaning up gardens. Such criticism is really unfair, and bad for morale."

Labor shortages, lax oversight and massive amounts of funds budgeted for the clean-up are a recipe for cheating. And plenty of money is at stake: the cleanup of a 20-kilometer (12-mile) segment of an expressway whose worst contamination exceeds allowable radiation limits by 10 times will cost 2.1 billion yen ($22.5 billion), said Yoshinari Yoshida, an Environment Ministry official.

"While decontamination is a must, the government is bearing the burden. We have to consider the cost factor," said deputy Environment Minister Shinji Inoue as he watched workers pressure wash the road's surface, a process Yoshida said was expected to reduce contamination by half.

The cleanup is bound to overrun its budget by several times, as delays deepen due to a lack of long-term storage options as opposition among local residents in many areas hardens. It will leave Fukushima, whose huge farm and fisheries industry has been walloped by radiation fears, with 31 million tons of nuclear waste or more. Around Naraha, huge temporary dumps of radioactive waste, many football fields in size and stacked two huge bags deep, are scattered around the disaster zone

The cleanups extend beyond Fukushima, to Iwate in the north and Chiba, which neighbors Tokyo, in the south. And the concerns are not limited to radiation. A walk through areas in Miyagi and Iwate that already were cleared of debris finds plenty of toxic detritus, such as batteries from cell phones, electrical wiring, plastic piping and gas canisters.

Japan has the technology to safely burn up most toxins at very high temperatures, with minimal emissions of PCBs, mercury and other poisons. But mounds of wood chips in a seaside processing area near Kesennuma were emitting smoke into the air one recent winter afternoon, possibly from spontaneous combustion.

Workers at that site had high-grade gas masks, an improvement from the early days, when many working in the disaster zone had only surgical masks, at most, to protect them from contaminated dust and smoke.

Overall, how well the debris and contaminants are being handled depends largely on the location.

Sendai, the biggest city in the region, sorted debris as it was collected and sealed the surfaces of areas used to store debris for processing to protect the groundwater, thanks to technical advice from its sister-city Kyoto, home to many experts who advised the government in its cleanup of the 1995 earthquake in the Kobe-Osaka area that killed more than 6,400 people.

But Ishinomaki, a city of more than 160,000, collected its debris first and is only gradually sorting and processing it, said the U.S.-educated Nakayama, who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before returning to Japan.

"There were no technical experts there for the waste management side," he said. "They did some good work with chemical monitoring but in total, risk assessment, risk management, unfortunately they did not have that expertise."

Ultimately, just as they are choosing to live with contamination from chemicals and other toxins, the authorities may have to reconsider their determination to completely clean up the radiation, given the effort's cost and limited effectiveness, experts say.

Regarding the nuclear accident, "there has been so much emphasis on decontamination that no other options were considered," said Hiroshi Suzuki, a professor emeritus at Tohoku University in Sendai and chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Reconstruction Committee.

Some places, such as playgrounds, obviously must be cleaned up. But others, such as forests, should just be left alone, since gathering or burning radioactive materials concentrates them — the opposite of what is needed since the more diluted they are, the better.

To a certain extent, policy is being dictated by politics, said Suzuki.

Before the accident, residents believed they were completely safe, he said. "The authorities want to be able to tell them once again that the area is safe. To do this they need to return it to the state that it was in before the accident."

Naraha resident Yoshimasa Murakami, a 79-year-old farmer, said he has low expectations.

A month after the government started cleaning his spacious home he has not seen a major decrease in radiation, he said while sitting on a balcony overlooking his traditional Japanese garden.

He set a dosimeter on the grass. It measured radiation nearly five times the target level and almost the same as the 1.09 microsieverts per hour found when officials surveyed it in December.

Murakami had come to the house for the day. He, his wife and daughter now live 50 kilometers (30 miles) away in Koriyama city.

He visits a few times a week to keep an eye on the cleanup workers. At nearly 80, Murakami says he doesn't mind about the radiation, but his wife does. And if he returns, his other relatives and grandchildren will be afraid to visit.

"Then, what's the point?" he said.

"I don't think decontamination is going to work," Murakami said. "The nuclear crisis is not fully over, and you never know, something still can go wrong."


Yamaguchi reported from Naraha and Tokyo, and Kurtenbach from Tokyo and Minami Sanriku.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
Mar 19, 2013 - 10:06pm PT

Published: March 19, 2013

TOKYO — The stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant this week experienced its worst power failure since the disaster there in 2011, and though the plant’s operator said all electricity was restored by early Wednesday, the problem underlined its continuing vulnerability.
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This week’s partial blackout, which started Monday, halted crucial cooling systems for as long as about 30 hours at four pools where used fuel rods are stored. The company that operates Fukushima Daiichi, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, said the plant had not been in danger because the fuel rods were never close to overheating, a state that could have led to a new, catastrophic release of radioactive materials.

The company said that temperatures in the fuel pools would have remained at safe levels for at least four days.

But the cutoff of the vital systems appeared to support fears by some experts and critics that the plant remains dangerous in part because some vital safety systems were makeshift fixes devised at the height of the nuclear crisis.

Tokyo Electric, also known as Tepco, acknowledged the concern. “Fukushima Daiichi still runs on makeshift equipment, and we are trying to switch to something more permanent and dependable,” a Tepco spokesman, Masayuki Ono, told reporters Tuesday as the company worked to restore the cooling systems.

The latest problems at the plant come as the government and the nuclear industry have been trying to convince jittery citizens that the country still needs its many nuclear plants. All of Japan’s plants were shuttered after the 2011 disaster as the government worked on stricter safety regulations. Two reactors were later restarted.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently said that the plants would begin coming on line as they were deemed safe and began nudging Japan back to its reliance on nuclear power, which he said was a must for any economic recovery.

The disaster two years ago also started with a blackout, brought on by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, which crippled the cooling systems for both the reactors and the spent fuel pools. Over the next several days, three reactors had triple meltdowns, leading to a wide release of radioactive materials that made the nuclear crisis the world’s second worst.

This week’s blackout did not affect the cooling systems for the three reactors, according to Tepco. Still, much of the continuing concern about the plant has focused on the fuel pools, which contain far more radioactive material than the reactors and were built with less shielding.

The four pools affected by the latest blackout contain more than 8,800 highly radioactive fuel rods, Tepco said, enough to cause a release much larger than the original accident, which forced the evacuation of some 160,000 residents in northeastern Japan. However, experts say that as the rods have aged with time, they are producing less heat, reducing the prospect of a catastrophic fire or melting.

With the company as the only source of information, it was impossible this week to independently assess the conditions at the plant, which sits in a contaminated zone that is closed to the public. On Tuesday, the company was criticized for waiting three hours before revealing the power failure to the public.

Tepco said a faulty switchboard might have been to blame in the latest power failure. Though the company has backup generators at the site, it appeared to have been unprepared for a switchboard failure.

Experts have been especially worried about the plant’s makeshift cooling systems, which could be knocked out by another large earthquake. Tepco said the temporary blackout also briefly cut off electricity to the command center at the plant.

Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from Washington.

Trad climber
4 Corners Area
Apr 3, 2013 - 08:57am PT
It is effecting us as well:

Various reports indicate that the incidence of congenital hypothyroidism is increasing in developed nations, and that improved detection and more inclusive criteria for the disease do not explain this trend entirely. One risk factor documented in numerous studies is exposure to radioactive iodine found in nuclear weapons test fallout and nuclear reactor emissions. Large amounts of fallout disseminated worldwide from the meltdowns in four reactors at the Fukushima-Dai-ichi plant in Japan beginning March 11, 2011 included radioiodine isotopes. Just days after the meltdowns, I-131 concentrations in US precipitation was measured up to 211 times above normal.

It is nowhere near over, yet. We've just stopped paying attention. Hope none of you have to deal with this legacy in your own family.

We need clean energy, now!

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Apr 3, 2013 - 10:03am PT
The recent power outage at Fukushima which turned off power to all four cooling towers for 29 hours, was caused it has been concluded, by a small rat who managed to short circuit a switchboard.

The hapless rodent was found half fried on the floor below. Such is the advanced state of our technology and the safety precautions still.

The best laid plans of mice and men............
The best laid plans of mice and men............
Credit: Tepco

Trad climber
Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay
May 9, 2013 - 06:41am PT
Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup Plant May Be Too Dangerous
Scientific AmericanBy Valerie Brown | Scientific American – 2 hrs 34 mins ago

The most toxic and voluminous nuclear waste in the U.S.—208 million liters —sits in decaying underground tanks at the Hanford Site (a nuclear reservation) in southeastern Washington State. It accumulated there from the middle of World War II, when the Manhattan Project invented the first nuclear weapon, to 1987, when the last reactor shut down. The federal government’s current attempt at a permanent solution for safely storing that waste for centuries—the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant here—has hit a major snag in the form of potential chain reactions, hydrogen explosions and leaks from metal corrosion. And the revelation last February that six more of the storage tanks are currently leaking has further ramped up the pressure for resolution.

After decades of research, experimentation and political inertia, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) started building the “Vit Plant” at Hanford in 2000. It’s intended to sequester the waste in stainless steel–encased glass logs, a process known as vitrification (hence “Vit”), so it cannot escape into the environment, barring natural disasters like earthquakes or catastrophic fires. But progress on the plant slowed to a crawl last August, when numerous interested parties acknowledged that the plant’s design might present serious safety risks. In response, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed an expert panel to find a way forward. Because 60 of the 177 underground tanks have already leaked and all are at increasing risk to do so, solving the problem is urgent.

Vitrification prep 101: Some tough homework

The plant’s construction, currently contracted by the DoE to Bechtel National, Inc., may be the most complicated engineering project underway in the U.S. But back in 2000 the DoE and Bechtel decided to save time and money by starting construction before crucial structures and processes had been designed and properly tested at a scale comparable to full operation. This wasn’t such a good idea, says Dirk Dunning, nuclear material specialist with the Oregon Department of Energy. “The worst possible time to save money is at the beginning. You’re better off to be very nearly complete on design before you begin construction.”

The vitrification project calls for the waste to be analyzed chemically and radiologically before it enters a pretreatment facility to be separated into various constituents such as cesium 137, strontium 90 and metals. After that, each separate waste stream is channeled as either high-level or low-activity waste into designated melters. The glass is created by mixing sand with a few additives like boron; the waste is stirred in, and the whole mess is melted, then decanted into the steel canisters. After the glass logs solidify the waste is trapped and should be isolated from the environment for long enough for most of the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

The low-level waste canisters will be stored permanently at Hanford. Because the planned Yucca Mountain geologic repository project was halted by the Obama administration, the high-level waste canisters will be kept at Hanford in an as-yet unconstructed building. In January the DoE announced it is beginning work on a new “comprehensive management and disposal system” that will make a permanent geologic repository available by 2048. Yet even if all goes perfectly from now on, it will take until 2062 to vitrify all the waste.

The waste presents significant challenges for Vit Plant project engineers and nuclear chemists. For one thing, the waste varies wildly from tank to tank. The former nuclear weapons facility at Savannah River, Ga.—also part of the Manhattan Project—has been successfully vitrifying weapons waste for years, but only one fuel separation process was used there. At Hanford there were nine production reactors making plutonium and uranium fuel using at least six different radiochemical processes whose chemistry, and thus constituents, were very different. This remains true of the waste as well. There are large differences in composition from tank to tank that necessitate chemically profiling the waste in batches before it enters the Vit Plant, which may also require changes to the glass formula at the other end of the process.

Overall, the tanks hold every element in the periodic table, including half a ton of plutonium, various uranium isotopes and at least 44 other radionuclides—containing a total of about 176 million curies of radioactivity. This is almost twice the radioactivity released at Chernobyl, according to Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, by Kate Brown, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The waste is also physically hot as well as laced with numerous toxic and corrosive chemicals and heavy metals that threaten the integrity of the pipes and tanks carrying the waste, risking leakage.

The physical form of the waste causes problems, too. It’s very difficult to get a representative sample from any given tank because the waste has settled into layers, starting with a baked-on “hard heal” at the bottom, a layer of salt cake above that, a layer of gooey sludge, then fluid, and finally gases in the headspace between the fluid and the ceiling. Most of the radioactivity is in the solids and sludge whereas most of the volume is in the liquids and the salt cake.

Going with the flow

All of these considerations contribute to the overall problem, which can be summed up in one word: flow. To get to the glass log stage the waste has to travel through an immense labyrinth of tanks and pipes. It has to move at a fast enough clip to avoid pipe and filter clogs as well as prevent solids from settling. This is quite a challenge given the multiphasic nature of the waste: solids, liquids, sludge and gases all move differently. The waste feed through the system will be in the form of a “non-Newtonian slurry”—a mixture of fluids and solids of many different shapes, sizes and densities. If the solids stop moving, problems ensue.

For one thing, there’s a chance that enough plutonium could congregate to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, or criticality—the self-sustaining cascade of atomic fission that releases massive amounts of energy. That would be a serious event even if an explosion did not breach the concrete containment building. Hot slurry could surge backward through the piping, spreading the problem to other parts of the system. Waste solids could also clog pipes, along with ion-exchange filters designed to grab the most radioactive constituents from the low-level waste for addition to the high-level stream.

Whether the solids pile up in the vessels, the pipes or the filters, says Donna Busche, nuclear and environmental safety manager for Hanford contractor URS Corp., “that’s where I’ve got the problem.” Further construction of the Vit Plant’s flawed components cannot proceed unless Busche issues an operating permit, which she is loath to do. She calls the DoE’s failure to require that Bechtel resolve the safety issues sooner “obscene.”

A second explosive risk could arise because both heat and radiation can disassemble water into oxygen and hydrogen. If there are not places along the piping and in the vessels for hydrogen to exit the flow of waste, enough could build up to explode.

And then there’s the extreme radioactivity of the waste, which is far too high for direct human exposure. Enter the Vit Plant’s notorious “black cells.” These are 18 massive concrete enclosures populated by smaller stainless steel vessels. The idea is to guide the waste through the vessels without any human intervention over the 40 years officials believe it will take to process all the waste. The only way to do this is to ensure that the black cells have no moving parts. But because the waste has to be constantly stirred to prevent settling of the noxious and radioactive solids, the plan calls for pulse jet mixers—described as “turkey basters”—to keep the solids suspended.

The pulse jet mixers suck waste into their vertical tubes and then eject it forcefully back into the tanks. Unfortunately, they have not yet been shown to provide sufficient mixing at the scale necessary for the Vit Plant. They do, however, apply enough force to the slurry for the solids to grind away at the stainless steel of tanks and pipes, weakening them enough to risk leakage. Besides this erosion, there’s also potential for chemical corrosion. The Defense Nuclear Safety Board, which advises the White House, has called these problems “a show-stopper.”

“The way [the plant] is currently designed poses unacceptable risks. DoE now admits that,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge. In December the Government Accountability Office issued a highly critical analysis of the Vit Plant’s unresolved safety issues

Disagreements over the safety risks have also prompted outspoken protests from several senior Hanford officials. Chief project engineer Gary Brunson resigned in January. Busche and former deputy chief process engineer Walter Tamosaitis filed whistleblower complaints alleging that their concerns about safety were suppressed by Bechtel. (Bechtel declined to be interviewed for this story, citing nondisclosure agreements signed with Chu’s expert panel.)

But Langdon Holton, DoE’s senior technical authority for the Vit Plant and a member of Chu’s expert panel, believes the project’s problems are technical snags, rather than the insoluble consequence of incompetence or hubris. He also thinks that although the current risks are real, they are unlikely and would be of low magnitude if they did occur. For example, he says, “You’d have to have a vessel unmixed for half a year” for enough hydrogen to accumulate for a significant explosion. “Do I have concern we won’t be able to resolve the issues? No, but it will take some time,” he adds. (Chu’s panel does not expect to issue a formal report, according to Holton.)

Time may be limited. The 177 tanks, built between 1943 and 1986 and most intended for only about a 20-year life span, are decaying; at last count, six are leaking. The Vit Plant was supposed to start operating in 2007 and is now projected to begin in 2022. Its original budget was $4.3 billion and is now estimated at $13.4 billion. Nobody is suggesting the project be abandoned, yet forging ahead without confidence in the plant’s safe operation is not really an option either. The real question, many Hanford watchers say, is whether the country wants to pay for doing it right.

Busche is adamant that the safety issues must be solved before plans proceed further. “The level of robustness we have to put in all our systems is derived from the waste itself,” she says. “It’s the gift that keeps giving until it’s in a glass log.”

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Trad climber
Auburn, CA
May 9, 2013 - 01:05pm PT
Thanks for the updates Tom. The SA article is compelling.
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