News and Facts: Nuclear Industry and Radioactive Science

Sandia National Laboratory Tests

June 11, 2009 By: John Category: radiation safety

SNL video of an F-4 Phantom II (68,000 pounds) smashing into a section of reactor containment vessel at over 500 mph. The result is barely a scratch on the inside of the vessel. This is how modern nuclear reactors are built, with a six-foot wall of steel-reinforced concrete that can resist this kind of impact. Nuclear reactors are designed damn tough, to keep contamination inside in the worst case scenario. This is not how Chernobyl was designed, and this is why the results were disastrous. This is how Three-Mile Island reactor was designed, and that is why the nearby city was unaffected and the plant still operates today. Well-built reactors are safe to live by, and safer and cleaner than alternative fuel sources.

Comparing Contaminants

June 11, 2009 By: John Category: radiation myths & misconceptions

Many people are eager to stop using fossil fuels, but they are very reluctant to accept that nuclear power can be a “greener” alternative. It’s true. Fossil fuels pump pollution and radiation into the atmosphere, but did you know that coal-fired plants release hundreds of times the radiation of a typical nuclear plant?

Here’s a study by ORNL on coal plant radiation releases:

Japan Gets Set to Burn Plutonium

June 10, 2009 By: John Category: In The News, Nonproliferation

[From IEEE Spectrum, Energy Wise.]

Two of the largest Japanese utilities, Kyushu Electric Power and Shikoku Electric Power, are preparing to fuel nuclear reactors with rods containing recycled plutonium starting this fall, John Boyd reports from Tokyo. In the middle of last month, two ships arrived from France with loads of mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) containing plutonium that originated in Japanese spent fuels, which Japan is contractually obligated to take back. The MOX consignment from France’s La Hague reprocessing complex weighed an estimated 1700 kilograms.

The recycling of nuclear fuels has been intensely controversial for decades, mainly because of concerns that fuel containing plutonium could fall into the hands of terrorists. Well before Al Qaeda appeared on the scene and fanatics were killing themselves in bomb attacks, experts worried about the ease with which the plutonium in MOX could be separated from uranium, to provide the explosive material for an atomic bomb. [Would you like to know more?]

LANL Ships RH-TRU Waste to WIPP

June 09, 2009 By: John Category: In The News

In exciting news, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) announced this past week the first shipments of remote-handled transuranic waste to the WIPP facility in southern New Mexico.

The Laboratory plans to prepare three to four shipments per week until all 16 canisters are gone.

Thanks to shielding and design, a loaded RH-TRU shipping cask meets the same Department of Transportation radiation safety requirements as a typical shipment to WIPP. Stringent handling procedures and satellite surveillance will keep the public safe.

The shipments will follow preapproved transportation routes. As with all shipments to WIPP, these operations will be coordinated with New Mexico law enforcement.

WIPP has conducted more than 7,200 shipments of transuranic waste since opening in 1999, including more than 200 shipments of RH-TRU.

[Read the rest of the story, here…]

The Irrational Fear of Radiation

June 08, 2009 By: John Category: radiation myths & misconceptions, video

[reprinted from]

Radiation is natural, yet the very word itself generates an irrational fear in most people. Why? Nuclear science is still a relatively young science, and people picture exploding atom bombs when they think of radiation. They think of Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl and a thermonuclear holocaust. Yet, as this BBC documentary points out, this fear is not rational and often it is the fear of radiation that causes psychological trauma.

Radiation is all around us. In nature, something is either matter or radiation. Electromagnetic radiation includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet light, x-rays and gamma rays. We are submerged in an ocean of radiation fields. Energetic charged particles are also all around us, from the breakdown of heavier elements, yet most do us no harm at all. There are four tons of uranium in the top foot of every square mile of land. People live in regions with higher background radiation than the well-known reactor accident caused in the Russian city of Chernobyl, and they thrive. Some even suspect, as I have suggested before, that some level of background radiation is important to the stimulation of the body’s immune system.

While the higher levels of exposure to radiation is known to be dangerous (such as the fluoroscopes that many children played with to view bones in their feet at the shoe stores in the 1940s and 1950s) - there is little radiation danger presented in modern nuclear reactors, yet the irrational phobia about radiation halted the construction of new US nuclear reactors nearly thirty years ago. There are very real risks that come from our continued use of fossil fuels. Nuclear power, today, is a very safe and reliable technology, and we need to leverage this plentiful source of cheap energy. This means we must overcome the uneducated fear of anything related to radiation or radioactivity.

Nuclear Nightmares

Safe Storage of Transuranic Waste

June 08, 2009 By: John Category: radiation safety


Safe Containment

The container, called Transuranic Packaging Transporter Model 2, or TRUPACT-II, is:

  • Eight feet in diameter and 10 feet high.
  • Doubly-contained, non-vented, and constructed of stainless steel.
  • Certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and meets U.S. Department of Transportation safety requirements.

A series of stringent tests conducted on the container included:

  • A drop from a height of 30 feet onto an unyielding surface.
  • Exposure to jet fuel fire at a temperature of 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  • A drop onto a steel spike from 40 inches to test puncture resistance.

The tests showed that the container would hold its seal and prevent release of radioactivity to the atmosphere.

Safe Storage at WIPP

Why Salt?

Let’s look at storage at the WIPP facility in New Mexico, as an example.

Government officials and scientists chose the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site through a selection process that started in the 1950s. At that time, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a nationwide search for geological formations stable enough to contain wastes for thousands of years. In 1955, after extensive study, salt deposits were recommended as a promising medium for the disposal of radioactive waste. Since then, bedded salt has been one of the leading candidates for the permanent disposal of radioactive waste.

Why is salt the material of choice for the planned disposal of some nuclear waste? Are there advantages to rock salt?

Salt offers the following advantages:

  • Most deposits of salt are found in stable geological areas with very little earthquake activity, assuring the stability of a waste repository.
  • Salt deposits demonstrate the absence of flowing fresh water that could move waste to the surface. Water, if it had been or were present, would have dissolved the salt beds.
  • Salt is relatively easy to mine.
  • Rock salt heals its own fractures because of its plastic quality. That is, salt formations will slowly and progressively move in to fill mined areas and safely seal radioactive waste from the environment.

Salt formations at the WIPP were deposited in thick beds during the evaporation of an ancient ocean, the Permian Sea. These geologic formations consist mainly of sodium chloride rock, the same substance that, in granular form, is in a salt shaker on the kitchen table. The primary salt formation containing the WIPP mine is about 2,000 feet thick, beginning 850 feet below the surface.

Formed about 225 million years ago during the Permian Age, large expanses of uninterrupted salt beds provide a repository free from the disturbances of large earthquakes. That proven stability over such a long time span offers the predictability that the salt will remain stable for a comparatively short quarter million years. That’s about how long the WIPP-bound waste will take to lose most of its harmful radioactivity and no longer be a threat to the environment.

At the depth of the WIPP repository, the salt will slowly encapsulate the buried waste in the stable rock. Relatively small amounts of brine, salt-saturated water, were trapped in the formations millions of years ago. Moisture and salt molecules in the brine will help the recrystallization process to naturally encapsulate the waste in the salt. Meanwhile, salt rock also provides shielding from radioactivity similar to that of concrete.

In a future post, I will review the Yucca Mountain facility and the reasons it was selected as a long-term waste storage facility. Because of political pressure, and public misconceptions due to unfair media portrayals and the dissemination of incorrect information from some environmental groups, it may be difficult to ever find a permanent waste storage facility in the US. I will also cover how the nuclear industry is dealing with a failure of the political system to approve new storage facilities, and how even this is tremendously safe!