Monthly Archives: March 2015

4 years after Fukushima, Japan considers restarting nuclear facilities

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Workers check storage tanks of radiation-contaminated water at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. (Kimimasa Mayama / European Pressphoto)

LA Times | Julie Makinen | Fukushima City, Japan | March 30, 2015

On many Friday evenings, 38-year-old Tomo Iwabuchi and six friends can be found on a street corner in Fukushima City, banging drums, chanting and singing. “Zero nukes!” Iwabuchi yells into a microphone as a few pedestrians stride by.

“The Fukushima disaster — it’s not over yet,” chimes in Kazushi Machida, another demonstrator, referring to the nuclear power plant about 50 miles southeast that experienced a triple meltdown after Japan’s massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. “The cleanup is still going on, and yet the government wants to restart other nuclear plants!”

Nearly four years after Japan shut down all of its atomic energy plants in the wake of the disaster, the country is inching toward a momentous decision on whether to bring some of them back on line, perhaps within the next year.

Such a move would have been unthinkable immediately after the disaster, which struck terror in the hearts of many Japanese and caused concern around the world. Though nuclear power provided 30% of Japan’s energy before the accident, the government of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan called on the country to give up its reliance on the technology, and opinion surveys showed that up to three-quarters of the public supported such a move.

An October poll by Kyodo News found 60% of respondents still opposed to restarts, but the conversation has started to shift because of a variety of factors, including the introduction of more robust regulation and the creation of new oversight bodies, and the installation in late 2012 of a government led by Shinzo Abe, who introduced a new energy policy last year backing nuclear power.

Japan is the only nation to have nuclear bombs dropped on it, and emotions about radiation here are deep and complex. But mounting concern about higher electricity costs, greater dependence on imported fossil fuels and rising carbon emissions are also figuring into Japan’s calculus. After an initial summer of brownouts, the country replaced lost nuclear power by revving up plants fueled by natural gas and coal.

Progress at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may be softening some opposition as well. The four damaged reactors have been in “cold shutdown” mode for more than three years, and about 7,000 people are on site doing decommissioning work. They reached a milestone in December by completing the removal of all spent and fresh fuel from the spent-fuel pool in Unit 4.

But decommissioning activities are expected to take at least two decades, and inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency said last month that the situation at Fukushima remains “very complex.” Worker safety is still a critical concern, and high radiation means technicians are still unable to enter some structures and must rely on robots to inspect some damaged reactors.

One of the most pressing issues highlighted by the IAEA is what to do with nearly 158 million gallons — or 600,000 cubic meters — of contaminated water being stored in an ever-growing tank farm on the site. With engineers still unable to stop groundwater from flowing into the damaged reactors, 300 cubic meters of water is added to the inventory each day. In January, a worker inspecting a tank fell and died.

This month, Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, said 750 tons of water contaminated with strontium-90 may have seeped from the tank area into the ground. Small amounts of contaminated water have also been leaking into the Pacific Ocean, Tepco acknowledged last month, though it called the amounts inconsequential.

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Tests in January found that only 0.3% of all seafood samples caught by the Fisheries Agency of Japan exceeded legal limits for radiation. But with fresh leaks occurring, concern about the effect on marine life has not abated, and coastal fishing off Fukushima prefecture remains suspended, as it has been since the accident.

Whether the government can find a technically feasible — and politically palatable — solution to the water issue is crucial both for reducing hazards for workers at the Fukushima site and building confidence at home and abroad that Japan is turning the corner on the disaster and is ready to restart other nuclear plants.

“This issue of water, it involves everyone — from fishermen, to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, to civil engineers at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism,” said Tatsuya Shinkawa, director of the Cabinet Office’s Contaminated Water and Decommissioning Issues Team. “Other countries are asking questions too, so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved as well.”

Edwin Lyman, coauthor of “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” and a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the post-accident management of water “has been a lot more complex than anyone imagined.”

“If they are going to be restarting plants in Japan, they need to think harder about it,” he said.

Over the last four years, Tepco and the government have tried, with limited success, to halt the inflow of groundwater, and now are even trying to freeze the ground around the reactors. They’ve installed systems to treat the contaminated water, removing a variety of radioactive contaminants, including cesium and strontium. The company said March 16 that 90% of stored water would be processed through those systems by May.

But those systems can’t remove radioactive tritium, which is closely related to hydrogen. Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, and tritium bonds like hydrogen with oxygen to produce “tritiated water.” Tritiated water is odorless and colorless, and the tritium is hard to isolate.

Tritium is not considered as dangerous as cesium or strontium, because it emits very low-energy radiation, has a short half-life and if ingested leaves the body relatively quickly. Tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The IAEA has even called on Japan to consider releasing its stores of tritiated water, presumably into the ocean.

“But any release of radioactivity is very emotional,” said Lake Barrett, director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Three Mile Island cleanup site office from 1980 to 1984, who is now a special advisor to Tepco’s president.

“Fishermen will tell you if this is released, no one will buy our fish. South Korea and China may protest and act holier-than-thou, even though they have reactors that release tritium on a regular basis,” Barrett said. “My opinion is it should be released, but Japan is looking at all the available technology to deal with this.”

A tritium task force has been studying the issue.

“We’ve got about one year to figure this out,” said Teruaki Kobayashi, general manager in Tepco’s nuclear power and plant siting division. “As of now, inside the company, we have no certain direction about what to do, but after we hear the suggestions from them, we will decide our course of action.”

Central to the deliberations is an Orange County company, Kurion, which received a multimillion-dollar contract from Tepco last year to try to devise a solution for the tritiated water.

Gaetan Bonhomme, chief technical officer for Kurion, said the company has a system that can separate tritium from water but needs to show that it can scale it up to deal with the massive amounts of liquid at Fukushima. Kurion’s system, he believes, could remove the tritium from 800,000 cubic meters of water so that only about a cubic meter of the radioactive material remained.

By his estimates, the process would take five to eight years, and cost about $1 billion to set up, plus several hundred million dollars a year to operate.

“Some people will say that’s expensive, but compared to what? I’d be very interested to talk to someone who says you should release this water, and discuss the costs of that,” he said. “How would you do it? What would be the impact? And how would you compensate people who might be affected?”

(Decommissioning is already expected to cost $8.5 billion, Kobayashi said, but Tepco believes it will need an additional $8.7 billion over the next 10 years for “unanticipated” expenses.)

In Japan, cost considerations may take a back seat to other concerns, such as convincing the public that Tepco is adhering to national guidelines on releases of radioactive material.

Japan, Bonhomme said, has regulations both on the concentration of tritiated water that can be released and annual total volume limits. Tepco could find ways to dilute the tritiated water, he said, but the amount of tritium it has on hand now is 40 times the annual release limit.

Barrett said that the rules should be changed and that technology to remove tritium is “not practical.” But he noted that “the Japanese are much less sensitive to cost than we Americans.” The Three Mile Island cleanup cost about $2.3 billion in today’s dollars, he said, but the Fukushima cleanup “is much more expensive than I would have thought.”

No matter what Tepco or the government spends on remediation and decommissioning at Fukushima, it’s unlikely to convince people like Hiromitsu Ito that restarting nuclear plants is a good idea.

The fisherman from the northern town of Ogatsu near Sendai says he’s long been against nuclear power and he’s outraged by the fact that no one has been criminally prosecuted for the Fukushima meltdowns.

“I think the Tepco people are criminals but they have never been dealt with,” he said. “People in the nuclear industry have learned from this that they will never be punished.”

Eiju Hangai is another skeptic. A former Tepco board member, he retired from his position a year before the Fukushima disaster and now has thrown himself into promoting solar power.

In the city of Minamisoma, just north of the mandatory evacuation zone around the nuclear plant, he has built a small solar park and conducts workshops for schoolchildren, teaching them about green energy.

“I am one of the people responsible for this accident. I need to help the reconstruction of this area,” he said. “I don’t think we should even be talking about nuclear now — not until we do a much better job of raising awareness about renewable energy.”

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

Iran may run centrifuges at fortified site

AP | George Jahn and Matthew Lee | March 26, 2015

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The United States is considering letting Tehran run hundreds of centrifuges at a once-secret, fortified underground bunker in exchange for limits on centrifuge work and research and development at other sites, officials have told The Associated Press.

The trade-off would allow Iran to run several hundred of the devices at its Fordo facility, although the Iranians would not be allowed to do work that could lead to an atomic bomb and the site would be subject to international inspections, according to Western officials familiar with details of negotiations now underway. In return, Iran would be required to scale back the number of centrifuges it runs at its Natanz facility and accept other restrictions on nuclear-related work.

Instead of uranium, which can be enriched to be the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, any centrifuges permitted at Fordo would be fed elements such as zinc, xenon or germanium for separating out isotopes used in medicine, industry or science, the officials said. The number of centrifuges would not be enough to produce the amount of uranium needed to produce a weapon within a year — the minimum time-frame that Washington and its negotiating partners demand.

The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the sensitive negotiations as the latest round of talks began between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. The negotiators are racing to meet an end-of-March deadline to reach an outline of an agreement that would grant Iran relief from international sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30.

One senior U.S. official declined to comment on the specific proposal but said the goal since the beginning of the talks has been “to have Fordo converted so it’s not being used to enrich uranium.” That official would not say more.

The officials stressed that the potential compromise on Fordo is just one of several options on a menu of highly technical equations being discussed in the talks. All of the options are designed to keep Iran at least a year away from producing an atomic weapon for the life of the agreement, which will run for at least 10 years. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has joined the last several rounds as the negotiations have gotten more technical.

Experts say the compromise for Fordo could still be problematic. They note it would allow Iran to keep intact technology that could be quickly repurposed for uranium enrichment at a sensitive facility that the U.S. and its allies originally wanted stripped of all such machines — centrifuges that can spin uranium gas into uses ranging from reactor fuel to weapons-grade material.

And the issue of inspector access and verification is key. Iran has resisted “snap inspections” in the past. Even as the nuclear talks have made progress, Iran has yet to satisfy questions about its past possible nuclear-related military activity. The fact that questions about such activity, known as Possible Military Dimensions, or PMDs, remain unresolved is a serious concern for the U.N. atomic watchdog.

In addition, the site at Fordo is a particular concern because it is hardened and dug deeply into a mountainside making it resistant — possibly impervious — to air attack. Such an attack is an option that neither Israel nor the U.S. has ruled out in case the talks fail.

And while too few to be used for proliferation by themselves, even a few hundred extra centrifuges at Fordo would be a concern when looked at in the context of total numbers.

Robert Menendez, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said such a compromise demonstrates that the U.S. is negotiating “any deal for a deal’s sake.”

“An undue amount of trust and faith is being placed in a negotiating partner that has spent decades deceiving the international community,” denying inspectors access and actively destabilizing the region, he said.

As negotiations stand, the number of centrifuges would grow to more than 6,000, when the other site is included. Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the Iran nuclear file as a deputy director general of the U.N’s International Atomic Energy Agency until 2010, says even 6,000 operating centrifuges would be “a big number.”

Asked of the significance of hundreds more at Fordo, he said, “Every machine counts.”

Iran reported the site to the IAEA six years ago in what Washington says was an attempt to pre-empt President Barack Obama and the prime ministers of Britain and France going public with its existence a few days later. Tehran later used the site to enrich uranium to a level just a technical step away from weapons-grade until late 2013, when it froze its nuclear program under a temporary arrangement that remains in effect as the sides negotiate.

Twice extended, the negotiations have turned into a U.S.-Iran tug-of-war over how many of the machines Iran would be allowed to operate since the talks resumed over two years ago. Tehran denies nuclear weapons ambitions, saying it wants to enrich only for energy, scientific and medical purposes.

Washington has taken the main negotiating role with Tehran in talks that formally remain between Iran and six world powers, and officials told the AP at last week’s round that the two sides were zeroing in on a cap of 6,000 centrifuges at Natanz, Iran’s main enrichment site.

That’s fewer than the nearly 10,000 Tehran now runs at Natanz, yet substantially more than the 500 to 1,500 that Washington originally wanted as a ceiling. Only a year ago, U.S. officials floated 4,000 as a possible compromise.

One of the officials said discussions focus on an extra 480 centrifuges at Fordo. That would potentially bring the total number of machines to close to 6,500.

David Albright of Washington’s Institute for Security and International Security says a few hundred centrifuges operated by the Iranians would not be a huge threat — if they were anywhere else but the sensitive Fordo site.

Beyond its symbolic significance, “it keeps the infrastructure in place and keeps a leg up, if they want to restart (uranium) enrichment operations,” said Albright, who is a go-to person on the Iran nuclear issue for the U.S. government.

Technical Assessment Team Report

US Office of Environmental Management | March 2015

The Technical Assessment Team (TAT) is an independent team of technical experts that evaluated the mechanisms and chemical reactions contributing to the failure of a waste drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). In its report, the TAT concluded that one drum, Drum 68660, was the source of radioactive contamination released during the February 14, 2014, radiological event at WIPP.

NDA lays out plans for years ahead

WNN | 27 March 2015

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has published its latest business plan, setting out its anticipated income and expenditure during the next financial year. It also includes a high-level 20-year overview of objectives it is working towards, and takes a more detailed look at key activities over the next three years.

The NDA said its total planned expenditure for 2015/16 is £3.3 billion ($4.9 billion), of which £2.1 billion ($3.1 billion) will be funded by the UK government and £1.2 billion ($1.8 billion) by income from commercial operations. This compares with expenditure of £3.2 billion ($4.8 billion) in 2014/15, of which £2.2 billion ($3.3 billion) was funded by government and £993 ($1.5 billion) was from income.

Planned expenditure on site programs will be £2.9 billion ($4.3 billion), while non-site expenditure is expected to be £190 million ($283 million). This non-site expenditure includes skills development, socio-economic, research and development, insurance and pension costs, fees to site licence companies, implementing geological disposal and NDA operating costs.

NDA said, “Within affordbility and funding allocation constraints, we will seek to maintain progress and maximise value for money. We will do this by focusing on the highest hazards and risks, whilst ensuring that safe, secure and environmentally responsible site operations are maintained across our estate.”

Activities at Sellafield will account for over half of expenditure – £1.9 billion ($2.9 billion) – and will mainly focus on the redundant legacy ponds and silo facilities. The work program includes removal of nuclear fuel, sludge and solid material and their treatment and storage.

The ten Magnox and two research sites owned by NDA will account for some £602 million ($897 million) in spending. Key activities will include the extension of electricity generation at Wylfa until December 2015, defueling at Oldbury and taking Bradwell and Trawsfynydd into early care and maintenance.

At Dounreay, where £209 million ($311 million) will be spent on activities including decontamination of the prototype fast reactor pool, completion of new fuel characterization facilities and the complete removal of all fuels from the fast reactor.

NDA’s current funding allocations were made in the 2010 spending review (for financial years 2010/11 to 2014/15) and the spending round 2013 (for 2015/16). It expects a further spending review to be announced in 2015, setting the NDA’s funding envelope for 2016/17 and probably beyond.

NDA CEO John Clarke said, “For the NDA itself, as well as sharp focus on the Sellafield transition, work in the upcoming year will be dominated by the third review of our overarching decommissioning strategy.”

He added, “With publication anticipated for March 2016, efforts will be concentrated on fully re-affirming the strategic direction of travel and confirming that it will deliver the long-term outcomes required for the success of our mission. This strategic review will take place alongside preparation for what is expected to be a challenging spending review in 2015.”

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News

De crisis in Oekraïne en de Tsjernobyl-factor

Stichting Laka | Henk van der Keur | 29 maart 2015

AbstractThe crisis in Ukraine and the Chernobyl factor | March 29, 2015 | Nearly 29 years after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine is facing other potential transboundary nuclear threats. If the fragile ceasefire breaks down and the hostilities resume, the conflict could escalate into a nuclear war. There is, however, yet another nuclear threat: the possibility that Ukraine’s nuclear power stations get into the line of fire. Though there were military preemptive strikes on nuclear reactors in the past, these reactors were under construction or shut down and attacked to prevent the enemy to separate plutonium for military purposes. So far operating nuclear power stations have never been militarily attacked. If Ukraine falls prey to war by the continued expansion of NATO, however, it cannot be excluded that a nuclear power plant – by accident or by human error – will come under fire from Ukrainian or Russian forces. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors spread over four nuclear power plants, which provide 40 percent of the domestic demand for electricity. One of them, near Zaporizhya, is the largest nuclear power plant of Europe, consisting of six nuclear reactors. According to leading expert dr. Bennett Ramberg a military attack on an operating nuclear reactor can cause tens of thousands of deaths. Besides providing electricity, a nuclear power reactor also needs electricity from an external power source in order to cool down the reactor core. Such vulnerabilities raise troubling questions on nuclear power plants in times of war. Military clashes can disturb the supply of emergency power or prevent efforts of emergency services to contain a (starting) nuclear disaster. Weapons support or military support to Ukraine is playing with nuclear fire.  [Peace Magazine (VredesMagazine), March 2015]

               –     –     –     –

Bijna 29 jaar na de kernramp in Tsjernobyl wordt Oekraïne geconfronteerd met andere potentiële nucleaire dreigingen. Michael Gorbatsjov, Henry Kissinger en Noam Chomsky waarschuwden onlangs dat het gewapende conflict in het oosten van Oekraïne kan escaleren tot een kernoorlog.

Dat was voor de huidige fragiele wapenstilstand tussen het Oekraïense leger en de opstandelingen. Maar de oorlogsvoorbereidingen gaan onverminderd door. Waarbij nog een grensoverschrijdende nucleaire dreiging op de loer ligt: de mogelijkheid dat de kerncentrales van Oekraïne onder vuur komen te liggen als de oorlog zich verder uitbreidt.

Nog nooit hebben er militaire aanvallen plaatsgevonden op werkende kernreactoren. Wel op reactoren in aanbouw of op stilgelegde reactoren. In 1981 vernietigde de Israëlische luchtmacht een Frans reactorproject in Irak dat de Tammuz-1 of Osirak had moeten worden. De Iraanse kerncentrale Bushehr werd in de Irak-Iran oorlog (1980-88) herhaalde malen beschadigd door het Iraakse leger. In de Golfoorlog van 1991 bombardeerde de Amerikaanse luchtmacht het nucleaire complex Al Tuwaitha nabij Bagdad, waar de Osirak-reactor had moeten komen. Daarbij werd een kleine testreactor en enige kernfabrieken verwoest. De reactor was echter al uit bedrijf genomen voor het begin van de oorlog, waarbij de gebruikte brandstof was verplaatst. De meest recente aanval dateert van 2007. Toen gooide Israël een Syrische kernreactor in aanbouw plat.

Al deze militaire aanvallen waren preventieve aanvallen om te voorkomen dat er plutonium kon worden bemachtigd voor kernwapens. Vooral over de Israëlische aanval op de Osirak-reactor in Irak is uitputtend geschreven door rechtsgeleerden. De studies komen eensluidend tot het oordeel dat dit soort aanvallen in strijd zijn met het internationaal recht. Als lid van het non-proliferatieverdrag (NPV) had Irak het onvervreemdbare recht een civiel kernenergieprogramma te ontwikkelen. Dat Irak – net als elk ander land met een kernenergieprogramma – ook kernwapens had kunnen ontwikkelen doet niet ter zake. Dat is een omissie die door Westerse landen bewust in het NPV is vastgelegd om proliferatiegevoelige onderdelen van de kernketen tot hun beschikking te krijgen. Deze kwestie is overigens nog steeds actueel voor buurland Iran. Obama verkoopt kerncentrales aan India, een kernwapenstaat en niet lid van het NPV. Iran daarentegen voldoet aan alle internationale voorwaarden voor een civiel kernenergieprogramma. Toch eist Obama begin maart dat Iran zijn kernenergieprogramma voor tien jaar bevriest. Dat, nadat Iran al meer dan twintig jaar wordt bedreigd met preventieve aanvallen op zijn kerninstallaties. Kun je een land nog verder vernederen?

Hoe dan ook, al deze flagrante schendingen en uithollingen van het internationaal recht laten zich niet vergelijken met de huidige situatie in Oekraïne. Ze hebben geen betrekking op de risico’s van militaire aanvallen op kerninstallaties in Oekraïne. Rusland zal niet bewust een militaire aanval uitvoeren op een kerncentrale in een buurland. Naast Wit-Rusland en Oekraïne, heeft ook Rusland geleden onder de gevolgen van de kernramp in Tsjernobyl. De gevolgen van die catastrofe zijn nog steeds merkbaar. Maar als heel Oekraïne ten prooi valt aan oorlog door de voortgaande expansie van de NAVO kan niet worden uitgesloten dat een kerncentrale – per ongeluk of door een menselijke fout – onder vuur komt te liggen van Oekraïense of Russische strijdkrachten. Het land is een grote producent van atoomstroom. Het telt 15 kernreactoren, waaronder 13 verouderde, verdeeld over vier kerncentrales, die in 40 procent van de binnenlandse vraag naar elektriciteit voorzien.

Volgens een overzicht van de Amerikaanse toezichthouder Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) op basis van geheime documenten is de kans dat er gevaar dreigt voor de volksgezondheid en veiligheid door een aanval op een kerncentrale heel klein. Ze gaan er vanuit dat de omhulling van het gebouw bestand moet zijn tegen een aanval. Critici zijn daar niet zo zeker van. De meest vooraanstaande expert op dit terrein is dr. Bennett Ramberg. Hij was beleidsanalist op het Amerikaanse ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken onder president George Bush en is de auteur van het boek Nuclear Power Plants As Weapons For The Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril. Ramberg verklaart dat een militaire aanval op een kernreactor kan leiden tot een wijdverspreide uitstoot van straling dat tienduizenden doden kan veroorzaken.

De zorgen van Ramberg worden gedeeld door de Oekraïense arts en politicus dr. Joeri Sjtsjerbak, die van 1994 tot 1998 ambassadeur van Oekraïne was in Washington. In een toespraak op TV (29 december) waarschuwt hij voor de gevolgen van escalatie van de oorlog in het oosten. Hij zegt: “De Zaporizja kerncentrale is slechts 160 kilometer verwijderd van de huidige gevechten Kunt u zich voorstellen wat een ramp er kan gebeuren wanneer het wordt getroffen door een granaat?” Zaporizja is met zes kernreactoren de grootste kerncentrale van Europa.

Zaporizja Kerncentrale
Zaporizja kerncentrale | Zaporizhya nuclear power plant                                             wiki media

Kerncentrales zijn kwetsbare krachtcentrales. Behalve dat ze elektriciteit leveren hebben ze ook elektriciteit nodig van een externe krachtbron. Dat is nodig om de pompen, die het koelwater moeten leveren voor de reactorkern, te kunnen laten werken. Die functie is ook van belang als de reactor uit bedrijf wordt genomen, omdat anders een kernsmelting optreedt. Daarom beschikken kerncentrales ook over dieselgeneratoren die in geval van nood dagenlang in bedrijf kunnen blijven om de kernbrandstof te koelen. De kernsmeltingen in de kerncentrale van Fukushima in 2011 konden plaatsvinden doordat de toevoer van (nood)stroom werd afgesneden. Deze kwetsbaarheden doen verontrustende vragen rijzen in tijden van oorlog. Gevechten zouden de toevoer van externe elektriciteit, ook die van de dieselgeneratoren – in geval van nood – kunnen verstoren. Een kernramp in oorlogstijd is een nog veel groter probleem dan een kernramp in vredestijd. Hulpdiensten kunnen verhinderd worden om de gevolgen van de ramp in te dammen, waardoor de radioactieve uitstoot zo mogelijk nog veel hoger zal zijn dan bij de kernrampen van Tsjernobyl en Fukushima. Wapensteun of militaire steun van de NAVO aan Oekraïne is in twee opzichten spelen met nucleair vuur.

Dit artikel is verschenen in VredesMagazine (2de kwartaal 2015 – maart 2015)

H-bomb headaches

The Nuclear Secrecy Blog | Alex Wellerstein | March 27th, 2015

Once again, the US government has gotten itself into a bad situation over the supposed secret of the hydrogen bomb. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) censors demanded that the physicist Ken Ford heavily redact a manuscript he had written on the history of the hydrogen bomb. Ford, however, declined to do so, and you can buy the unexpurgated text right now on Amazon in Kindle format, and in hardback and paperback fairly soon.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ford was a young physicist working with John A. Wheeler during the 1950s, and so a lot of his book is a personal memoir. He is also (in full disclosure) the former head of the American Institute of Physics (my employer from 2011-2014), and I was happy to give him some assistance in the preparation of the manuscript, mainly in the form of tracking down declassified/unclassified sources relating to his story, and helped him get solid citations to them. Ken actually just recently came to Hoboken so we could iron out a few of the final citations in a Starbucks near my apartment. I knew he was having some issues with classification review, but I didn’t know he was going to play it like this — I am impressed by his boldness at just saying “no” to DOE.

Nothing I saw in his work struck me as anything actually still secret. Which is not to say that it might or might not be officially classified — just that the technical information is much the same kind of technical information you can find in other, unclassified sources, like the books of Richard Rhodes and Chuck Hansen, and people on the web like Carey Sublette, among others. And therein lies the rub: is information still a secret if it is officially classified, even if it is widely available?

This has been a tricky thing for the government to adjudicate over the years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and its revisions) charges the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later the Department of Energy, with regulating “restricted data” wherever it appears, wherever it comes from. According to the law, they don’t have any choice in the matter. But over the years they changed their stance as to the best way to achieve this regulation.

One of the earliest decisions of the Lilienthal AEC was to adopt a “no comment” policy with regards to potentially sensitive information published by people unassociated with the nuclear weapons complex. Basically, if someone wanted to speculate on potentially classified topics — like the size of the US nuclear stockpile, or how nuclear weapons worked — the AEC in general would not try to get in their way. They might, behind the scenes, contact editors and publishers and make an appeal to decency and patriotism. (Sometimes this got expressed in a comical fashion: they would have “no comment” about one paragraph but not another.) But they generally did not try to use threat of prosecution as the means of achieving this end, because they felt, correctly, that censorship was too blunt an object to wield very effectively, and that telling someone on the outside of the government that they had hit upon classified information was tantamount to revealing a secret in and of itself.

Howard Morland then-and-now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

There were a few instances, however, where this “no comment” policy broke down. The best-known one is the case of United States v. Progressive, Inc. in 1979. This is the famous case in which the DOE attempted to obtain (and was briefly granted) prior restraint against the publication of a magazine that claimed to contain the “secret of the hydrogen bomb,” written by the journalist/activist Howard Morland. The DOE convinced a judge to grant a restriction on publication initially, but in the appeals process it became increasingly clear that the government’s case was on fairly shaky grounds. They declared the case moot when the researcher Chuck Hansen had a paper on hydrogen bomb design published in a student newspaper — in this case, it looked like an obvious attempt to back out before getting a bad ruling. Morland’s article appeared in print soon after and became the “standard” depiction of how the Teller-Ulam design works, apparently validated by the government’s interest in the case.

In this case, the issue was about the most egregious incursion of the Atomic Energy Act into the public sphere: the question of whether the government could regulate information that it did not itself play a part in creating. The “restricted data” clause of the Atomic Energy Act (after which this blog is named) specifies that all nuclear weapons-related information is to be considered classified unless explicitly declassified, and makes no distinction about whether said information was created in a laboratory by a government scientist or anywhere else in the world by private citizens. Thus nuclear weapons information is “born secret” according to the law (unlike any other forms of controlled national defense information), which in cases like that of The Progressive puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

Ford’s book is something different, however. Ford was himself a government scientist and had a security clearance. This means he was privy to information that was most definitely classified as both “restricted data” and national defense information. He worked on Project Matterhorn B at Princeton, which was part of the hydrogen bomb effort in the early 1950s. He signed contracts that governed his behavior, both while working for the government and later. He agreed to let the government evaluate his work for classified information, and agreed he would not give away any classified information.

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

There is a historical parallel here, and a better one than the Progressive case. In 1950, the magazine Scientific American ran a series of articles about the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was by the gadfly physicist Louis Ridenour. Ridenour had no connection with nuclear weapons work and he could say whatever he wanted. But the second was by Hans Bethe, who was intimately involved with classified nuclear work. Bethe obviously didn’t try to publish anything he thought was secret. But the AEC got several passages deleted from the article anyway.

The passages removed were extremely banal. For example, Bethe said that it seemed like they would need to use the deuterium-tritium reaction to achieve fusion. This level of basic information was already in the Ridenour article that was published a month before. So why delete it from the Bethe article? Well, because Bethe was connected with the government. If Ridenour says, “tritium is necessary,” it doesn’t mean that much, because Ridenour doesn’t have access to secrets. If Bethe says it, it could be potentially understood by an adversary to mean that the deuterium-deuterium reaction isn’t good enough (and it isn’t), and thus that the Los Alamos scientists had found no easy short-cut to the H-bomb. So the same exact words coming out of different mouths had different meanings, because coming out of Bethe’s mouth they were a statement about secret government research, and out of Ridenour’s mouth they were not. The whole thing became a major publicity coup for Scientific American, of course, because there is no better publicity for a news organization than a heavy-handed censorship attempt.

I have looked over a lot of Ford’s book. It’s available on Amazon as a e-book, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. I haven’t had time to read the entire thing in detail yet, so this is nothing like a formal review. The sections that I imagine drew the ire of the DOE concern some of the early thinking about how the Teller-Ulam design came about. This is an area where there is still a lot of historical ambiguity, because tracing the origins of a complex technical idea is not straightforward even without classification mucking things up. (I am working on a paper of this myself, and have a somewhat different interpretation than Ken, but that is really neither here nor there.)

Ken Ford Building the H-bomb

There’s nothing that looks classified in Ken’s work on this to me. There are references to things that generally don’t show up in government publications, like “equilibrium conditions,” but the existence of these kinds of technical issues are common in the open literature on thermonuclear weapons, and a lot of them are present in the related field of inertial confinement fusion, which was largely declassified in the late 1990s.1

So why is the DOE pent up over Ford? It is probably not an issue of the content so much as the fact that he is the one talking about it. It is one thing for an unaffiliated, uncleared person like me to say the words “equilibrium conditions” and talk about radiation implosion and tampers and cryogenic cooling of plutonium and things of that nature. It’s another for a former weapons physicist to say it.

It’s also related to the fact that because Ken was a former weapons physicist, they have to review his work. And they have to review it against their official guides that tell them what is technically secret and what is not. And what is allowed by the DOE to talk about is not the same thing about what people on the outside of the DOE do talk about. So, for example, this is pretty much most of what the DOE considers kosher about thermonuclear weapons:

  • The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission “primary” is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a “secondary.” 
  • The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel.  Note: Any elaboration of this statement will be classified.
  • Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated. 

Now you can find a lot more elaboration on these statements in the works of Chuck Hansen, Carey Sublette, and, hell, even Wikipedia these days. (Fun fact: Howard Morland, of The Progressive case, is an active Wikipedian and contributor to that page.) And in fact there is a lot that has been released by the government that does lend towards “elaboration” of these statements, because it is impossible to full compartmentalize all of this kind of information in such neat little boxes.

But the job of the DOE reviewer was to sit down with the guide, sit down with Ken’s book, and decide what the guide said they had to do regarding the book. And in this case, it was about 10% of the book that the guide said they had to get rid of. And in this case, they are bound by the guide. Now, at a certain point, one has to say, if the guide is saying that lots of stuff that is already in Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun, published 20 years ago, still needs to be kept under lock and key, well, maybe the guide needs to be changed. But there is arguably something of a difference between Rhodes (an outsider) writing things, and Ford (an insider) writing the same things. But it’s hard to see how any of this is going to matter with regard to national security today or in the future — it doesn’t seem like these kinds of statements are going to be what enables or disables future proliferators from acquiring thermonuclear weapons.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

What’s amazing, again, is not that the DOE told Ken to delete things from his book. That is somewhat expected given how the classification system works. What’s amazing is that Ken told them to shove off and published it anyway. That doesn’t happen so often, that a once-insider won’t play ball. And it has no doubt put the DOE in a tough situation: they’ve set things up for a good story (like the one in the New York Times) about the silliness of government secrecy, and as a result have probably resulted in a lot of book sales that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In this case, their attempt at preserving some form of secrecy has certainly resulted in them just calling more attention to the work in question.

What can they do to Ken? Well, technically, they probably could prosecute him under the Atomic Energy Act, or potentially the Espionage Act. But I’m pretty sure they won’t. It would be a public relations nightmare for them, would probably result in the release of even more information they deem sensitive, and Ken is no rogue agent. Which just goes to highlight one of the points I always make when I talk to people about secrecy: from the outside, it can look like government institutions are powerful and omnipotent with regards to classification. But they are usually weaker and more frail than they appear, because those who are bound by secrecy usually end up losing the public relations war, because they aren’t allowed to participate as fully as those who are on the outside.

Notes
  1. The Teller-Ulam design is perhaps better called the Equilibrium Super, to distinguish it from the Non-Equilibrium “Classical” Super design. In a basic sense, it refers to the fact that they were trying to achieve conditions that would result in a lot of fusion all at once, as opposed to a traveling “wave” of fusion along a cylinder of fuel. []

Japanese Regulators Endorse Report That Could Shut Down Tsuruga 2

Nuclear Street News Team | March 27, 2015

Japan’s nuclear fleet was shaken this week by the nation’s regulator endorsing reports that said the Tsuruga nuclear station’s No. 2 reactor in the Fukui Prefecture and the Higashidori nuclear plant in the Aomori Prefecture were both sitting on geological fault lines.

Tsuruga NPPThe fault line under Tsuruga 2, owned by the Japan Atomic Power Co., is close enough to the Urasoko Fault line to be rattled if the Urasoko Fault moves, according to initial findings of the situation that were revealed in 2013. However, Japan Atomic Power contested the findings, which were confirmed this week with a report Nuclear Regulatory Agency chairman Shunichi Tanaka said was a “key judgment” in the matter. That indicates that the NRA will continue to rely on the damning report, as Japan Atomic Power continues to seek evidence that will allow it to return Tsuruga 2 to active commercial life.

The plant, like all 48 of Japan’s nuclear reactors, remains closed while the country deals with the political aftershocks of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, which severely damaged, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station by triggering a tsunami that knocked out emergency cooling systems.

Japanese media say the NRA report is the equivalent of a death sentence for Tsuruga 2. In addition, it would be a game-changer for Japan Atomic Power, which derives all of its revenue from nuclear power, even during the nuclear power moratorium.

Japan Atomic Power is being paid a basic contracted rate, as part of a pre-2011 deal with Tokyo Electric Power Company. Japan Atomic Power is paid despite not producing power, Mainichi reported.

Subsequently, the company made a profit in the fiscal year ending March 2014. However, shuttering Tsuruga 2 permanently would be a serious blow to the company, which is already making plans to turn itself into a holding company and focus on decommission domestic nuclear power plants, while turning overseas to continue new nuclear projects.

In Japan, it would be left only with one nuclear station in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The second pertinent fault line report affects the Tohoku Electric Power Company’s Higashidori nuclear power station, but further evaluations are expected to determine how active that fault line may be.

Tohuku plans to contest the geologic reports, which could be an expensive undertaking.