Effect Measure

McCain wants to go full speed ahead for nuclear power (that’s a maverick’s way of dealing with climate change?) and Obama seems to feel friendly to it, too, as long as the waste disposal issue can be solved, satisfactorily (which it doesn’t seem it can be, but that’s another story). Everyone agrees that nuclear power has to be managed safely if we are going to rely on it to any extent and we are always given assurances that this is not only possible but what happens as a matter of course, no exceptions. To make sure, government plans are reviewed by independent experts. Too bad we can’t see the plans and the government doesn’t listen to the experts:

US regulators have ignored expert safety advice in an attempt to cut corners and fast track the completion of a $4 billion nuclear fuel facility currently under construction near Aiken, South Carolina.

The accusation is reported in the September issue of The Chemical Engineer magazine, published by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).
Nuclear disarmament treaties have resulted in a large surplus of weapons-grade plutonium. The US government has initiated moves to build and operate a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility (MOFFF) that will convert recovered plutonium into fuel rods for use in civil nuclear power generation. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has ‘hushed up’ a highly critical assessment of the plant’s engineering by its top independent reviewer according to Adam Duckett, a senior reporter on The Chemical Engineer.

The claims are made by Dan Tedder, Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. Tedder, who was hired by the NRC as an independent technical reviewer in April 2007, told The Chemical Engineer that basic chemical process design information was incomplete and presented serious safety implications. (Science Daily)

Tedder alleges the documentation paperwork is scant and uninformative and not consistent with what is generally considered good engineering practice. The NRC denies this. So who’s right? Sorry. The NRC won’t let anyone see the plans. “National security and proprietary business information,” of course.

Tempest in a teapot? Well, it’s a nuclear teapot and I’m not exactly up for a nuclear tempest to go with it. There’s also the issue of diversion of high level nuclear material for purposes of mayhem, but the Bush administration, which is obsessively interested in bottles of shampoo over 3 oz. on commercial airplanes seems to be OK with this.

Security aside, I guess we don’t need to worry, though. They have an independent scientist making sure everything is OK. Oh, wait . . .

Comments

  1. #1 Charlotte
    September 4, 2008

    I don’t know much about nuclear fuel technology – does this have any relations to MOX? We’ve not had much success with that in the UK – see http://www.buzzle.com/articles/216951.html (from the Guardian newspaper)

    This February Wicks admitted in parliament that the plant had only produced 2.6 tonnes in 2007 and a total of 5.2 tonnes since it opened in 2001, despite promises it would produce 120 tonnes a year. Sellafield Ltd told Brown that the accumulated financial losses at Mox were “commercially confidential”.

    Apparently a lot of the financial loss is because we have to buy fuel from other people to fulfil the supply contracts we’re signed up to. It’s all a horrible mess, and the industry either tries to keep it secret or lies about it. Not promising.

  2. #2 Erik D Johnson
    September 4, 2008

    It is not clear to me that these concerns are not exaggerated.

    Documentation of the licensing process for this facility is available from the NRC here.

    Incidentally, the project’s website also has some information about the purpose of this facility.

  3. #3 revere
    September 4, 2008

    Charlotte: My understanding is that this is what is called a MOX facility. MOX is Mixed Oxide Fuel, where the oxides that are mixed are uranium (mostly) and some plutonium. The idea is to get rid of the plutonium from nuclear weapons decomissioning. In other words, they are trying to solve the waste disposal problem created by nuclear weapons by moving it to the nuclear power industry, where it will become their waste disposal problem. Sounds like a shell game to me. And plutonium is pretty dangerous stuff.

    Erik: Thanks for the links. I couldn’t tell from your double negatives what you thought but I assume it is that you think the independent engineer’s concerns are exaggerated. Since apparently we aren’t allowed to see what they are based on I’m not sure how we would know, unless you have access and expertise we don’t. If so, naturally we would be interested.

  4. #4 daedalus2u
    September 4, 2008

    I am a chemical engineer who has read extensively about nuclear power and the safety issues concerning it. It is complete nonsense that there would be safety critical systems in a fuel producing facility that would have to be kept secret.

    The separation of plutonium from spent fuel is 60+ year old technology. They produced weapons grade plutonium from irradiated fuel and turned it into a bomb in 1945. There are no “secrets” about how to do it.

    The only thing that could be “proprietary” is how small a safety factor the contractor is willing to risk. That should not be the contractor’s call.

    Producing nuclear fuel using weapons grade material is not uncommon. All nuclear submarines use weapons grade uranium as fuel because it reduces the size of the reactor and reduces the time between refueling. Many research reactors also use weapons grade uranium as fuel because it allows for a higher neutron flux.

    The major safety issues in making fuel include:

    preventing diversion
    preventing leaks
    preventing criticality issues
    preventing worker exposure
    producing fuel that can be used safely in the reactors it is designed for

    Transparency improves the reliability of all of systems used to accomplish these things. Secrecy impairs the reliability of all systems used to accomplish all of these things.

    The idea of “security through obscurity” is false. If the system is not transparently secure, it is not secure. If it is not secure, it needs to be made secure, not hide the fact that it is insecure. Pretending something secret can be secure simply because it is secret is a false sense of security. Did the fact that the US military was doing anthrax bioweapons research “in secret” prevent insiders from sending that anthrax to US citizens and killing 5? No, it was the secrecy that allowed it to happen.

    As I see it, the most dangerous time for fuel containing plutonium is before it is irradiated. Once it is irradiated, it becomes intensely radioactive due to the fission products. This intense radioactivity makes it difficult to handle. I think that all fuel containing plutonium (or other weapons grade fuel) should be irradiated before it leaves the factory where it is made. This does increase the degree of difficulty in shipping, but to no where close to the degree of difficulty of transporting spent fuel where levels of radiation and heat generation are many orders of magnitude higher.

    Irradiating the fuel would cost something and would make shipping the irradiated fuel more expensive. It makes it much more difficult to divert.

    The cost of diversion is paid by the inhabitants of what ever city is destroyed by the nuclear weapon produced. The cost of irradiating and shipping irradiated fuel is paid by the manufacturer of the fuel and the utility using it.

  5. #5 Erik D Johnson
    September 4, 2008

    I should clarify. I am not claiming that Tedder’s concerns are exaggerated. I am saying that there is not yet evidence to support them and so I am unconvinced. I think we may agree on this point. There is no evidence because, conveniently, the relevant documentation is classified and consequently we are left at “he said, she said,” with the NRC. It is hard to demonstrate there is no concern because no specific claims are made about what exactly the problem is and the supposedly relevant documents are not available to show otherwise.

    However, I do want to point out that the NRC’s licensing history with this project, which is publicly available, is not consistent with a regulator who fails to engage in due diligence. Quite the contrary: the NRC has several times asked the applicant for additional information for its review.

    I would await more information before crying foul.

    In general, the NRC is very concerned with the classification of sensitive information because it undermines public trust in its accountability (In fact, the NRC is holding a public meeting today to address this issue with regard to nuclear power plant security).

  6. #6 Ren
    September 4, 2008

    I wonder how the French do it? They seem to have a lot of nuclear power plants. Can we take their plans and just call them “Freedom Nuclear Power Plants”?

  7. #7 llewelly
    September 4, 2008

    All nuclear submarines use weapons grade uranium as fuel because it reduces the size of the reactor and reduces the time between refueling.

    Actually, use of weapons grade fuel increases the time between fueling, because the mass and volume of fuel carried by the submarines are strongly constrained by the size of the submarines.

  8. #8 daedalus2u
    September 4, 2008

    llewelly, thank you for the correction, a temporary brain glitch. It greatly increases the time, to on the order of 20 years or so. The reactors are actually welded shut.

    I downloaded the redacted license application and it doesn’t have very much detail. There is a lot on the seismology, geology, and weather, but very little on the actual design. Stuff on “these are the regulations we are going to meet” and very little on how they are going to be met.

    What I consider to be a pretty glaring poor way to do things is that they are using depleted uranium to mix with the plutonium. If they used natural uranium, they could make more fuel with the same level of fissionable material in it with the same amount of plutonium.

    Depleted uranium has about 0.3% U235, natural uranium has about 0.7%, fuel needs to be enriched up to between 3 and 4%. I don’t doubt that depleted uranium is cheaper than natural uranium, but you would end up with more usable fuel at less total cost using natural uranium instead of depleted uranium.

  9. #9 Erik D Johnson
    September 4, 2008

    Ren, this plant is actually based on a French design, specifically AREVA’s MOX plants at La Hague and Mercoule that have been operating for decades.

    daedalus2u, the use of depleted uranium rather than natural uranium in MOX is intentional. Depleted uranium is a “waste” product of uranium enrichment. If natural uranium were used instead, this would require additional mining whereas the depleted uranium is already available for this program. The fissile component of the fuel is the plutonium so no enrichment of the uranium is necessary. Actually, having more U-238 in the fuel allows for breeding of additional fissile Pu-239 while the fuel is being burned. Elsewhere in the world, natural or enriched uranium is also used in MOX.

    The goal of this program is not the reduction of fuel cost but rather the safe and secure removal of plutonium from US stockpiles. By combining plutonium from weapons with depleted uranium, the plutonium can be used in a fuel without being attractive as a weapon. In fact, MOX fuel is presently much more costly than enriched uranium fuel.

  10. #10 travc
    September 4, 2008

    Great specific info folks… My more general take…

    Watch The China Syndrome again. It isn’t an ‘anti-nuclear’ tale per se. The crisis in that film is firmly rooted in corporate corner-cutting and cover-up (with government help).

    Nuclear power could be relatively safe if properly regulated. The real question is whether you think we could every trust the regulators.

    PS: Anyone who advocates ‘fast tracking’ a nuclear power project should be put in an insane asylum.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    September 5, 2008

    The only way that MOX fuel could be more expensive than enriched uranium fuel is if the transfer price of plutonium is too high. I suspect the “real” reason MOX is more expensive is because it is a political boondoggle. The plutonium should be destroyed. But that destruction should not be used as a mechanism to unjustly enrich political insiders simply because of their political connections.

    I appreciate that the U238 does get bred into plutonium, but there is fissile U235 that ends up in depleted uranium that is currently being wasted, something like half of the U235 in natural uranium ends up in the depleted uranium.

    To me it makes no sense to enrich uranium, make depleted uranium and then mix the depleted uranium with plutonium to make the fissile content high enough to make fuel. The only way it could be cheaper to use depleted uranium is though how costs are accounted for. Making the MOX fuel gigantically expensive does increase the amount of profit that the political insiders can make from it. Waste $100 so that the insiders can make $5 profit. That is the essence of war profiteering.

  12. #12 Ren
    September 5, 2008

    Can we trust the regulators? Kind of a “who’s watching the watchmen” type scenario, eh?

  13. #13 Paul Murray
    September 9, 2008

    “As I see it, the most dangerous time for fuel containing plutonium is before it is irradiated. Once it is irradiated, it becomes intensely radioactive due to the fission products.”

    I am not sure about this – what if the handler doesn’t care if they die from the exposure?

  14. #14 daedalus2u
    September 9, 2008

    Fuel that has been irradiated has multiple isotopes that are volatile, characteristic of fission products and easily measured and traced. Fuel containing 4% plutonium would have to be reprocessed to make nuclear weapons from. To reprocess that fuel requires dissolving it, a process which would release the volatile isotopes (unless it was done in a facility that could contain them). One could then follow the plume back to the place where the fuel is being reprocessed.

    Fuel could be made radioactive enough that if you held it in your hand it would kill you in a few hours. That is you would be dead within a few hours. You would be incapacitated in a few minutes.

    It might still be possible to divert plutonium containing fuel that was radioactive, but it increases the degree of difficulty. Instead of needing a few people, you need a few hundred. Instead of being able to do the reprocessing and production of a nuclear weapon in weeks or months, you need to do it in days or even hours.

    How much does making the fuel radioactive increase the shipping cost? Instead of putting it in 1 ton containers you need 5 more tons of shielding. The cost in the shipping isn’t in the weight of what is being shipped, it is in the labor for the security details required to prevent diversion. Power plants already have the capability of taking out fuel that is highly radioactive. Spent fuel is extremely radioactive. Reversing that capability to put fuel that already is highly radioactive would be a trivial exercise.

    There is an incremental cost, but it is tiny compared to the cost of diversion, tiny compared to the increased cost to do the diversion. Tiny compared to what is being spent on “anti-terrorism”.

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