Friday, May 13, 2011

TEPCO concedes severe fuel damage at Fukushima

For the first time utility says fuel has "melted" and may be "crumbled" at bottom of the reactor pressure vessel for reactor 1

water cooling systemThe fuel assemblies in Fukushima reactor unit 1 are only partially covered by water. A TEPCO spokesman, Junichi Matsumoto, told a press conference in Tokyo Thursday May 12 that plant workers have poured enough water into the reactor to raise it to a level half covering the fuel assemblies, but that a faulty water level meter prevented the utility from making an accurate assessment of just how much water has been inside the damaged facility since the March 11 earthquake.

This means the millions of gallons of water that have been injected into the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) have leaked out of it. However, TEPCO is unsure about its migration path. One theory is that the nozzles, or guides, that allow control rods to enter the RPV from the bottom of the RPV were damaged or that other unknown breaches of the RPV may have taken place possibly as a result of contact with the melted fuel. This could include evaporation that accompanied venting the hydrogen from the reactor.

Damage worse than expected

The Wall Street Journal reported that overall damage to the reactor is much worse than previously reported raising questions about the damage to the reactor that might have been caused by the earthquake. TEPCO also said that similar levels of damage might be possible at reactor units 2 & 3.

Until now TEPCO had reported that the damage to the reactor was caused indirectly by the 15 meter high tsunami which swept over the five meter sea wall and destroyed diesel fuel for emergency generators and thus the loss of electricity for the cooling system.

This caused heat inside the RPV to rise beyond the melt point of the zirconium fuel cladding (1,855 C) and also the uranium oxide fuel (2,800 C). By comparison, the average operating temperature of the BWR design reactor is about 315 C.

BWR schematic (Image source: Wikicommons)

The new information means TEPCO's decommissioning plan for reactor units 1-3 may have to be revised causing further delay in stabilization of the damaged plants. At the press conference, spokesman Matsumoto said, "We can't deny the possibility that a hole in the pressure vessel caused water to leak."

The good news he said is that there is no danger of another hydrogen explosion. The temperatures recorded inside the RPVs for reactors 1, 2,& 3 on May 11 were - #1: 237F; #2: 239F, and #3:429F.

Another implication of the new damage assessment is that Japanese claims that the BWR reactor design withstood the impact of the 9.0 Richter scale earthquake may have to be reviewed once the units are in cold shutdown. It may turn out that there was more extensive damage to the cooling system pumps and pipes from the earthquake itself. The outcome of the review could raise earthquake safety and structural issues for other BWR reactors worldwide.GE BWR nuclear fuel assembly 2

How to cool down three hot reactors?

As far as getting the reactors into a state of cold shutdown, TEPCO had been planning to fill the primary containment structures that surround the RPV with water. This strategy was called the "water tomb" method.

Tadashi Narabayashi, a professor of nuclear engineering at Hokkaido University, told the Bloomberg wire service the "water tomb" idea won't work. He said a water circulation system is needed for the reactors.

Getting one in place won't be easy. The areas under the RPV are higher radioactive especially if they've been drowned by massive leaks from inside the RPV. According to TEPCO, 10.4 million liters (2.75 million gallons) of water are unaccounted for. The leaks would have to be fixed before TEPCO could install a cooling system and bring the reactor to cold shutdown.

Where has the water gone?

Evaporating steam fukushima Did this water boil off as steam? If temperatures did reach 2,800 C, the water could have evaporated very quickly during the first week of the crisis.

The water inside the RPV must be eight meters high to cover the fuel assemblies. In fact, the height of the water may be less important than the amount of crumbled fuel that has fallen into the base of the RPV and remains submerged there.

In any case. the amount of water leaking from the RPV is much greater than TEPCO has previously indicated was the case. It raises the question of whether a "meltdown" has occurred and how bad the situation real is inside the RPV.

What’s a meltdown and what’s not?

meltdownDefinitions of a "meltdown" vary, but it is generally understood in the nuclear industry to mean the fuel has become deformed by heat, partially melted, and some of it will have found its way outside the RPV.

It isn't clear in the case of the new information released by TEPCO this week that any of the fuel has migrated outside the RPV. However, TEPCO said in its press conference that 55% of the fuel in reactor #1 is destroyed by excess heat. Also, TEPCO said that it believes 90% of the fuel is still inside the reactor. Did the other 10% vaporize or if not, where did it go? If it migrated from the RPV to the primary containment what was the pathway?

TEPCO also said there are no cracks or ruptures of the primary containment structure surrounding the RPV. This means the risk of a massive release of radioactivity is not very high.

No China Syndrome

TEPCO spokesman Matsumoto said "we are not seeing a case of a 'China syndrome," which refers to the scenario of molten fuel melting its way through the RPV and through the primary containment structure.

While the hot fuel has a temperature of well over 2,000 C, the melt point of the steel for the RPV is much lower at about 1,400 C. However, if there is water in the bottom because of TEPCO's injection of 90 tons of water a day, or 217,000 gallons, it would rapidly cool any melting fuel and prevent it from impacting the steel RPV.

seesawThe New York Times reported that in a briefing to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week, William Borchardt said the new information from TEPCO was not a major development. He told the newspaper the condition of the reactors was "static," if not exactly stable.

With conditions in a see saw of progress and the revelation of news problems, it is clear TEPCO is a long way from being out of the woods at Fukushima.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kicking the spent fuel can down the road

Failure to open Yucca Mountain set backs a solution by 20 years

spent fuel canistersThe Bloomberg wire service today has a report that the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) will discuss options for management of spent nuclear fuel at its May 13 meeting. One of them is to consolidate all of the nation’s spend nuclear fuel at an interim storage site.

That site might be in use for decades until more permanent solutions are found, e.g., permanent geologic repository and reprocessing.

This looks like more “kicking the can down the road.” It will give anti-nuclear groups decades of being able to say “there is no solution to the problem of waste.” Do we really want that as the outcome of 18 months of meetings?

The New York Times also has a report today that cites a study by the General Accounting Office. It says failure to open Yucca Mountain has set back the resolution of the spent fuel issue by 20 years.

The situation is a case of political grid lock sealed with a deal between the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev). For Sen. Reid, any outcome which keeps Yucca Mountain from opening in his state is a good one.

There are both administrative and technical solutions to the problem. Here’s a technical approach that has little chance of being adopted, but may help readers put the problem in perspective. It sounds a lot better better than talking Mongolia into taking our spent fuel in place of Yucca.

Advice to the Blue Ribbon Commission

The BRC has failed to take into account the "shake & bake" technology developed by Betty Jo Bosons in Whitefish, MT. Her technology starts the process by removing the spacers in spent fuel bundles to reduce volume.

According to Ms. Bosons, getting the spacers out of the fuel assemblies removes half the storage requirements. "The spacers are just taking up too much room." she said.

fruit tin1The next steps involve heating the fuel assemblies over rows of U.S. Forest Service campfire grills until they crumble like three day old corn bread, and then packing the toasted particles in surplus Christmas fruit tins.

Betty Jo calculates the resulting compressed 65,000 tons of spent fuel would fit nicely in an abandoned Northern Pacific railroad tunnel located just outside Whitefish.

"If they want a geologic repository, I've got one for them." Betty Jo said. Plus she says the Christmas tins are an excellent shielding material. “Look how long they kept the original product from decaying,” she said.

railstotrails The plan may generate some opposition. Local environmental groups working on a rails to trails program want the tunnel for their project and have told Betty Jo to find another site.

Misty Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Whitefish Bicycle Club, said her group and the Montana Green Party think they can keep their trails open and nuclear waste out of the state by preserving the tunnel for recreation uses.

So it looks like another innovative technology will bite the dust.

What's your idea for the Blue Ribbon Commission?

Prior Coverage on this blog

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Will U.S. spent fuel find a home in Mongolia?

Japan, U.S. plan a nuclear waste site in the remote desert state

mg_locatorReuters reports that Japan and the United States plan to work together to build a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Mongolia. The announced purpose of the site would be to take back spent fuel from countries that buy new nuclear reactors from manufacturers in both countries, As a practical matter, this means exports by GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse (Toshiba) would benefit from the deal if it comes to pass.

Deal or no deal?

Work began on the radioactive waste deal between the U.S., Japan, and Mongolia shortly before the Fukushima crisis hit on March 11. However, the exact status of the talks is in doubt as the Mongolian embassy in Vienna, Austria, told the IAEA on May 10 no such talks have taken place.

According to Reuters May 8, a Trade Ministry official said Japan, U.S. and Mongolia officials discussed possible construction of a nuclear waste storage facility for countries with nuclear power plants but no spent fuel storage capability of their own. That mandate could also include the domestic spent fuel inventories of Japan and the U.S.

In its statement to the press May 10 the Mongolian embassy said, "As the Nuclear Energy Agency of Mongolia has pointed out in April, there have not been any talks with foreign organizations or individuals on the issue of accepting nuclear waste of other countries since there are no legal grounds for such talks."

The Wall Street Journal reported May 10 that the U.S. Department of Energy denied that a deal to send spent fuel to Mongolia was in the works. A spokesman for the agency told the newspaper that informal talks had been misinterpreted by a Japanese newspaper.

Reprocessing and waste storage needs

Japanese language news media reports indicate the facility is needed to compete with Russian exports. The Russians take back their spent fuel reprocessing it at domestic facilities. Russia has recently signed deals with Vietnam and Turkey that contain that provision. It is already committed to taking back spent fuel from the four reactors it is building in India and for the 12 more it will build there.

The U.S. has no spent fuel reprocessing capability and has resisted building one despite decades of success in France with well-understood technology. Japan's efforts to build a reprocessing plant have met with repeated technical setbacks with some caused by the carelessness of construction workers.

Halting the Yucca football game?

The other problem both the U.S. and Japan have in common is that neither has a geologic repository for high level radioactive waste. Even if both countries had reprocessing capabilities, they would still need deep geologic disposal of remaining radioactive residuals. The U.S has turned the licensing of the proposed Yucca Mountain site into a political football.

Worse, the appearance of political motivations in the handling of the Yucca Mountain licensing issue by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko have now made him a target for House Republicans. They would like nothing better than to knock off the protégé of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Jaczko is a former aide to Reid, and before that to Rep, Ed Markey, the arch druid of the anti-nuclear faction among House Democrats. House Republicans, who support building new reactors, see Jaczko as a symbol of anti-nuclear sentiments in the Obama administration.

Mongolia sees value in spent fuel

Mongolia plans to have its first nuclear power plant by 2020. It also has plans to build nuclear fuel production plants (enrichment) to tap its rich uranium resources. The country has no public consultation process which means any decisions made by the government will direct the resources of state-own nuclear facilities.

Mongolia could solve the problem Japan and the U.S. have for disposing of spent nuclear fuel. This seems to be politically expedient in the short term, but economically unwise in the long-term. The spent fuel has tremendous energy value which Japan and the U.S. would be in effect handing over to Mongolia.

A plausible scenario is that the Mongolian government would welcome the opportunity to build a reprocessing plant for the spent commercial fuel from Japan and the U.S. to make MOX and re-sell it on global markets.

Are the political barriers to reprocessing so significant that Japan and the U.S. would give away such a valuable resource to resolve them?

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

NY Times holds BBQ at NRC

Nuclear regulator is roasted on a spit turned by its critics

bbqIt’s a springtime Sunday afternoon in America. With warmer temperatures and more sunlight later into the evening, the great American tradition of holding a BBQ is being upheld for yet another year.

A BBQ is normally a time to set aside the cares of the world, with its multiple threats of the apparent inexorable pace of climate change, the rage of delusional terrorists, and a faltering economy that even has WalMart worried about its customers running out of money.

So what’s a newspaper to do for news? Well, if you are the New York Times you take a swing at a federal agency. In Washington, DC., you can throw a rock in any direction and hit some dysfunctional aspect of how the federal bureaucracy does its job. In today’s editions, the newspaper takes on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Twice touted as one of the best places to work in the government, it is portrayed as another toothless regulator with top appointed officials just waiting to jump into the arms of the very industry it is supposed to keep an eye on.

Three critics, no waiting

UCS logoThe article is based on wide ranging criticisms from three staunch critics of the agency. The first is George Mulley, Jr., a former senior staff member of the NRC’s Office of Inspector General. The second is Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner, and the third is David Lochbaum, a former training instructor at the NRC and head of a self-appointed nuclear watchdog office at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Mr. Bradford also has long standing ties with UCS.

The newspaper article is unbalanced in many ways. It quotes the three critics at length, but cites agency officials in just two instances. It appears Gregory Jaczko, the current chairman, was interviewed for the article since he is cited several times. Also, an email from the public affairs office is cited deep inside the article.

Nowhere is there any indication the newspaper sought out an independent voice to assess the charges of the critics or the defenses put forward by the agency. A brief and equivocal quote from Marvin Fertel at NEI comes at the end of a very long article.

Are there no scholars of regulatory agency performance that the newspaper could have talked to? What about former NRC Commissioners who might have different ideas? Why weren’t the other current NRC commissioners interviewed by the newspaper?

An ironic agenda

Instead, the newspaper pursues an agenda intending to paint a picture of an agency that is “well-intentioned, but weak . . . incapable of keeping close tabs on any industry to which it remains closely tied.”

jaczkoThis is a somewhat bizarre charge since many in the nuclear industry would not think of the current leadership in those terms. Gregory Jaczko, the chairman, (right) is a product of having worked as a political aide for the rabidly anti-nuclear Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). It is widely assumed that the only purpose Jaczko has at the NRC, who at the time of his appointment was an aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is to insure the Yucca Mountain license never sees the light of day.

Otherwise, neither Reid, nor apparently the White House, have any interest in what else Jaczko does, or doesn’t do, on his watch. Reid has one price for his support of Obama’s legislative agenda in the Senate, and that is no action on Yucca Mountain. With Jaczko in place, the deal was done.

It is ironic that Jaczko, who may have once had a fantasy of quietly gliding through his service at the NRC doing Reid’s bidding, now must defend the agency against the very critics he once was friendly with while in service to Rep. Markey.

Counter intuitive results from bad press

Why do newspapers like the New York Times publish articles like this one? The conventional wisdom is that the paper wants “reform” of lackluster agency performance. With the spectacular images of hydrogen explosions at Fukushima still on the mind of the news media, the thought is that perhaps the newspaper, and the NRC’s critics, have the noble purpose of preventing them here.

By holding up the red meat of purported wrong doings, the paper hopes Congress will take action to get the regulatory agency to run a tighter ship. The New York Times even compares the NRC’s performance to the Minerals Managements Service relative to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, running a tight ship is exactly what got the NRC into hot water in 1998. Then Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) castigated the agency for being too tough on nuclear utilities and then NRC Chairwoman Shirley Jackson picked up his stick to give her staff a thorough thrashing with it.

According to the New York Times, Jackson said in a speech to her staff that the industry had sent a clear message:

“That we are inefficient, that we over-regulate, that we inspect too much, assess too much, enforce too much, take too long on licensing actions and employ an overly restrictive body of regulation.”

What about the budget?

A strong regulatory agency should be prescriptive, pro-active, and funded to do its job. In fact, Congressional raids on the fees the nuclear utilities pay the government for the privilege of being regulated result in the money being diverted to the annual earmarking frenzy of the appropriations process. An agency that gets 90% of its money from the regulated industry has checkbook problems that the NY Times never touched in its article. You want independence, how about starting with the money issue?

If the New York Times, and the trio of critics that must have spent hours with the newspaper’s reporter as he wrote the story, must know, if you want resident engineers inspecting pipes, pumps, and valves at a reactor, you have to pay for them. Other than Dominici’s empty threat of cutting the agency’s budget, there isn’t a peep about the funding issue.

Revolving doors are a problem

The issue of a revolving door between industry and the regulator is illustrated by the case of a former NRC commissioner. According to the newspaper, Jeffrey S. Merrifield sought employment from several nuclear industry firms while still in government service and accepted travel reimbursements of $3,500 from them. No criminal or civil charges were filed against Merrifield following referral of the case to the Justice Department.

Mr. Mulley, the former NRC Inspector General staffer, told the New York Times he was “outraged” by the lack of action against Merrifield. He said he thought the government should have made an example of him. The feds didn't which may be why he took the issue to the New York Times.

While high level officials may come and go through Washington’s perpetual motion machine that rotates political appointments and industry positions, for most of the rest of the NRC staff, a federal job is a pretty good deal and not easily matched in private industry. If the UCS wants better leadership at regulatory agencies, Congress needs to provide better funding to pay for them.

The New York Times deserves criticism for its handling of the charge of conflict of interest put against NRC Commissioner William Magwood. According to informed sources, the newspaper did not speak with Magwood about the claim made by Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Ms. Brian told the newspaper her group feels Magwood's industry experience would prevent him from acting independently in matters that came before the NRC.

The newspaper's failure to give Magwood an opportunity to respond to the charge from POGO is a shameful departure from the standards of ethics and fairness the newspaper claims to uphold.

What is the safest reactor?

In the end, the New York Times may actually produce exactly the opposite effect of what it might have as an outcome of the article. Instead of getting the agency to tighten its ship, the resulting level of congressional oversight will distract the five commissioners from doing their job and surely serve to demoralize the workforce.

Maybe what the critics of the NRC really want is to create a perception that the if the agency can’t do its job, that the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors should all be shut down. There is an old saying that the NRC’s vision of a safe reactor is one that is never built. Maybe now the Union of Concerned Scientists has a new mantra, and that is the safest reactor is one that never runs.

Turn out the lights. it’s time to say good night Lucy.

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