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Radioactive waste dogs Germany despite abandoning nuclear power

New Scientist | Daily News, 29 January 2016

Major problems at a salt mine where 126,000 drums of radioactive debris are stored are fuelling public distrust of long-term waste disposal plans, reports Fred Pearce from Asse, Germany


Ronald Frommann/Clean Energy Wire

Half a kilometre beneath the forests of northern Germany, in an old salt mine, a nightmare is playing out.

A scheme to dig up previously buried nuclear waste is threatening to wreck public support for Germany’s efforts to make a safe transition to a non-nuclear future.

Enough plutonium-bearing radioactive waste is stored here to fill 20 Olympic swimming pools. When engineers backfilled the chambers containing 126,000 drums in the 1970s, they thought they had put it out of harm’s way forever.

But now, the walls of the Asse mine are collapsing and cracks forming, thanks to pressure from surrounding rocks. So the race is on to dig it all up before radioactive residues are flushed to the surface.

It could take decades to resolve. In the meantime, excavations needed to extract the drums could cause new collapses and make the problem worse.

“There were people who said it wasn’t a good idea to put radioactive waste down here, but nobody listened to them,” says Annette Parlitz, spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), as we tour the mine.

This is just one part of Germany’s nuclear nightmare. The country is also wrestling a growing backlog of spent fuel.

And it has to worry about vast volumes of radioactive rubble that will be created as all the country’s 17 nuclear plants are decommissioned by 2022 – a decision taken five years ago, in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster. The final bill for decommissioning power plants and getting rid of the waste is estimated to be at least €36 billion.


Ronald Frommann/Clean Energy Wire

Some 300,000 cubic metres of low and intermediate-level waste requiring long-term shielding, including what is dug from the Asse mine, is earmarked for final burial at the Konrad iron mine in Lower Saxony.

What will happen to the high-level waste, the spent fuel and other highly radioactive waste that must be kept safe for up to a million years is still debated.

Later this year, a Final Storage Commission of politicians and scientists will advise on criteria for choosing a site where deep burial or long-term storage should be under way by 2050.

But its own chairman, veteran parliamentarian Michael Muller, says that timetable is unlikely to be met. “We all believe deep geology is the best option, but I’m not sure if there is enough [public] trust to get the job done,” he says.

Lack of trust

Many anti-nuclear groups are boycotting the commission.

Although they agree Germany must deal with its own waste, they don’t trust the process of choosing a site. They fear that the authorities are secretly fixed on reviving plans for burial at Gorleben, another Lower Saxony salt dome.

Currently, 113 flasks containing high-level waste are housed in a temporary store there.

“One flask of high-level waste contains as much radioactivity as 30 Hiroshima bombs,” says Wolfgang Ehmke, who has been a campaigner for 40 years. “We cannot bury this waste here in northern Germany [because] there could be 10 ice ages, with glaciers scraping away the rocks, before the waste is safe.”

The protesters have wide popular support. And the problems at the Asse salt mine have led to further distrust of engineers and their solutions.

The abandoned mine was bought by the German government in 1965, ostensibly to research the suitability of salt domes for disposing of radioactive waste. Yet after two years, without waiting for scientific reports, the authorities secretly turned it into a cheap and supposedly permanent nuclear dump.

By then, 90 per cent of the mine’s 5 million cubic metres of salt had been excavated, and the mine was already buckling under the weight of the rocks above, says Ingo Bautz of the BfS, who oversees activities at the site.

As the walls bent, cracks formed. And because the miners had dug to within 10 metres of the impervious rock, in 1988, underground water started to trickle in.

The true state of affairs only became public knowledge in 2008. Despite hurried backfilling of much of the mine, the degradation continues. Brine seeps in at a rate of around 12,000 litres a day, threatening to flush radioactive material to the surface. “It is a disastrous situation,” says Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Environment.

Painfully slow

In 2011, the BfS ruled that the waste had to be removed. But the task is hard and likely to take decades. Just checking the state of the 13 chambers holding the waste drums is painfully slow. Engineers drilling to reach them through 20 metres of rock don’t know whether the drums have leaked, and of course they cannot risk a release of radioactivity.

Since work started in 2012, just one borehole has been completed into one of the chambers. Engineers say they will need to sink a second shaft and open up big new galleries where the drums can be made safe before they are retrieved.

But exploratory drilling has revealed that the salt dome is not as big as thought, says Bautz.

And unless care is taken to keep clear of the geological barrier, the excavations risk allowing more water in. “We can’t rule out that the mine could flood,” he says. “If that happened, retrieval would be impossible. We would backfill it all.”

Nothing will be moved until at least 2033, says Bautz. Meanwhile the bills keep rising. It costs €140 million a year just to keep the mine safe for work to continue. The final bill will run into many billions.

Is it worth it? Many experts fear that digging up the drums, with consequent risks of radioactive leaks, could create a much greater hazard than leaving them where they are.

A former top official on the project, geochemist Michael Siemann, told the media in 2012 that safe retrieval was unrealistic. “Many people know this, but no one wants to say it.”

“There could be a conflict between protecting future generations and creating risks for today,” Bautz concedes.

Germany may ultimately perform a service to the world if it can pioneer solutions that other nuclear countries may look to in the future, including the UK, which is struggling with its own waste legacy.

But if Germans ever thought that abandoning nuclear power would end their nuclear problems, they couldn’t have been more wrong.

Fred Pearce’s costs during the field trip to the mine were paid for by Clean Energy Wire, an independent non-profit media service.

France, Japan seek deeper nuclear cooperation

WNN | 07 October 2015

The prime ministers of France and Japan attended high-level talks in Tokyo on enhancing nuclear cooperation between the two countries. The talks included cooperation in nuclear safety and research on decommissioning nuclear facilities.

France-Japan - October 2015 - 460 (Kantei)
Valls and Abe give a press conference following the meeting (Image: Kantei)

The talks – held in the Japanese prime minister’s office in Tokyo on 5 October – were held with the participation of government representatives, as well as those from French and Japanese companies. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and his French counterpart Manuel Valls also attended.

In a joint statement, the two countries noted the role that nuclear power plays in national energy policies and highlighted its contribution to “energy independence, economic competitiveness and the fight against climate change”.

Abe said, “As we have few [fossil fuel] resources, nuclear power is an important energy source for both our countries in terms of security. In order to work toward economic growth and improve the safety of nuclear power around the world, it is vital that we sustain our advanced human resources and technology, and encourage the sound development of the nuclear power industry.”

The French side briefed the Japanese representatives on the guidelines adopted for overhauling France’s nuclear industry, in particular those that allow the “development of industrial synergies and strengthening overall capacity in the sector”. Opportunities that this overhaul brings were discussed.

“Both partners stressed the continuity of cooperation established between companies from both countries, including in the design and promotion of new reactors, nuclear fuel cycle and development of technology for decommissioning nuclear power plants,” the joint statement said.

France and Japan said they would pursue their “promising” cooperation in the development of the Atmea-1 reactor design – the result of a partnership between Areva and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The two prime ministers welcomed the selection of the Atmea-1 for the Sinop project in Turkey and agreed to continue promoting the design in other countries.

Abe said that Japan is sharing its experiences and lessons learned from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant with the international community, contributing to enhanced nuclear safety around the world. “Together with France, we hope to promote international joint research on decommissioning”, he said. France, meanwhile, “reiterated its readiness to contribute by mobilizing its expertise and capabilities in research and development, as well as through partnerships between French and Japanese companies”.

“In strengthening our cooperation, it is vital that we improve the safety of nuclear power and bolster efforts for nuclear non-proliferation,” Abe said. “The issues surrounding nuclear power require that efforts be addressed from a global security perspective. It is important that we work to strengthen the protection of intellectual property, non-proliferation systems, and nuclear security by universalizing International Atomic Energy Agency safety measures and imposing strict export controls.”

Abe and Valls requested that the French-Japanese committee on nuclear energy, whose next meeting will be held in Tokyo in November, “examine concrete proposals to intensify cooperation” between the two countries.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News

Portsmouth Waste Disposition Record of Decision | Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office | July 2015

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have agreed upon a plan for the disposition of more than two million cubic yards of waste that would be generated from the decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio.  Ohio EPA’s concurrence with the Record of Decision (ROD) prepared by DOE comes after a multi-year regulatory process that included frequent engagement with elected officials, community groups and other stakeholders.  DOE received public comments during a four-month public comment period that ended in March 2015 and included a local public meeting in November 2014.

The plan calls for a combination of on-site and off-site waste disposition and the construction of an On-Site Waste Disposal Facility (OSWDF) in the northeast corner of the DOE reservation.  The Waste Disposition ROD allows the compliant on-site disposal of all waste materials generated from the cleanup of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant that meet the waste acceptance criteria approved by Ohio EPA for the facility.  Waste not meeting the requirements will be shipped from the plant for compliant disposal at appropriate, licensed off-site federal or commercial disposal facilities.  Recycling of waste materials from non-radiological areas is also considered in the decision.  The ROD also evaluates the possible excavation of the five existing groundwater contamination plumes and landfills inside the plant’s developable area as the primary sources of the soil fill required to properly dispose of the demolition debris in the OSWDF.  Additionally, the decision considers the potential reindustrialization by the community of the plant’s current industrial footprint.

The ROD will help ensure safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible site cleanup.

To view the ROD for the Portsmouth Site-Wide Waste Disposition Evaluation Project, see below.

K-27 demolition to cost about $292M

knoxblogs | Frank Munger | July 6, 2015


Workers in protective gear carry out tasks inside the K-27 building to prepare for demolition. (DOE photo/Lynn Freeny)

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates it will cost about $292 million to demolish K-27, a highly deteriorated uranium-enrichment plant that hasn’t operated since 1964.

That’s about five times what it cost to demolish the nearby K-31 building — even though K-31 was twice as large as the 383,000-square-foot K-27.

There are reasons, of course, for the cost difference.

Unlike K-31, which was essentially an empty shell of a building when workers began demolishing it last fall, K-27 still houses its original processing equipment. And it’s loaded with hazardous materials, including deposits of fissionable uranium and toxic chemicals of all sorts.

According to Ben Williams, a spokesman for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, only a third of the projected K-27 cost will be spent on actual demolition. The rest of the federal funding is to prepare the uranium facility so that it can be taken down safely and securely and without spreading the contaminants.

URS-CH2M Oak Ridge (UCOR), the Department of Energy’s cleanup contractor in Oak Ridge, is managing the K-27 project, and as many as 500 workers are involved.

“One of the principal things we do is called hazard abatement,” said Ken Rueter, the president of UCOR. That includes removal of asbestos and other materials of concern.

Perhaps the biggest task is eliminating the radiological and nuclear hazards to make the building “criticality incredible.” That designation means there’s no longer the possibility of an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction and release of high radiation fields, which is a concern when dealing with significant amounts of fissionable uranium.

Security clearances are required for workers because the gaseous diffusion technology — once used to process the uranium and concentrate the fissionable U-235 for use in nuclear weapons and power reactors — is still classified.

Once demolition starts, it will take about 9 to 11 months to do the job, according to contractor estimates. The goal is to complete the demolition by the end of 2016.

UCOR is injecting foam into some of the process equipment to prevent the spread of contaminants during demolition, but the DOE contractor also is removing equipment of most concern before demolition starts.

“That actually has gone very well,” Rueter said. “We have identified about 114 high-risk converters, and we’ve taken 100 out of the building (so far).”

Rueter said the uranium-laden equipment is taken out and sent to what’s called a segmentation shop on site, where it’s “mined” to remove the highly enriched components.

“That gets properly packaged and gets sent out West,” he said. In some cases, the old equipment also is sent to the Nevada National Security Site, but some of it is acceptable for disposal at DOE’s Oak Ridge landfill known officially as the Environmental Management Waste Management Facility.

Rueter would not comment on how much enriched uranium has been taken out of K-27 in preparation for demolition. Nor would he discussed the enrichment level — the percentage of U-235 — of the uranium.

K-27 will be the last of the five major uranium-enrichment plants at the Oak Ridge site that’s being cleaned up and gradually converted to a commercial industrial park.

Rueter said UCOR is adapting lessons learned from the previous demolitions to the K-27 project, including ways to limit the spread of technetium-99 — a radioactive contaminant of particular concern. During the last phase of demolishing the K-25 building — by far, the largest of the uranium processing plants — measurable amounts of Tc-99 were washed away from the site during rainstorms and ultimately infiltrated sewer lines and contaminated the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

“One of the lessons learned from K-25 was to mitigate as much of the technetium risk as possible, take all of the technetium-laden equipment out of the building (prior to demolition),” the UCOR official said.

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French nuclear waste will triple after decommissioning

Reuters | Paris | July 1, 2015

The amount of nuclear waste stored in France will triple once all its nuclear installations have been decommissioned, which will boost the need for storage facilities, French nuclear waste agency Andra said.

In a report released on Wednesday, Andra estimated that final nuclear waste volumes will eventually reach 4.3 million cubic meters, up from 1.46 million at the end of 2013 and an estimated 2.5 million in 2030.

That is based on an average lifespan of 50 years for utility EDF’s 58 nuclear reactors and including a new reactor under construction in Flamanville.

Most of that waste will be only slightly radioactive, such as building rubble and clothing used during decommissioning, but because of its bulk, it requires increasing amounts of space.

Andra, which publishes a nuclear waste inventory every three years, expects its low-level waste facility in Morvilliers, in the Aube region, would fill up between 2020 and 2025.

“We want to warn that the storage centers are filling up and that we need to optimize waste management because storage facilities are a rare resource,” Andra executive Michele Tallec told Reuters.

Volumes of highly radioactive, long-life waste – which represent just 0.2 percent of the volume but 98 percent of the radioactivity – should rise from 3,200 cubic meters at the end of 2013 to about 10,000 cubic meters when all France’s nuclear plants reach their end of life.

This waste is scheduled to be buried in the controversial deep-storage site in Bure, in eastern France, which already has a test facility but has not received any nuclear waste.

This year, Andra plans to present the French government and nuclear regulator ASN a technical dossier on Bure, which aims to bury nuclear waste 500 meters underground in thick layers of argillite rock, which Andra says will prevent most radioactive particles from traveling more than a few meters over hundreds of thousands of years.

Andra plans to put in a formal request to build the 35 billion euro facility – which faces resistance from environmental groups and local residents – in 2017 and hopes to start construction in 2020 with a view to open it for first testing in 2025.

(Reporting by Benjamin Mallet and Michel Rose, writing by Geert De Clercq, editing by David Evans)


China, France further strengthen their nuclear cooperation

WNN | 01 July 2015

A number of agreements were signed yesterday between Chinese and French nuclear energy companies aimed at strengthening their cooperation in the nuclear fuel cycle and power reactors.

France-China June 2015 - 460 (CNNC)
The agreement on cooperation in power reactors is signed by EDF chairman and CEO Jean-Bernard Lévy, CNNC general manager Qian Zhimin and Areva CEO Philippe Knoche (Image: CNNC)

The agreements were signed in Paris during a meeting between Chinese premier Li Keqiang and French prime minister Manuel Valls.

The first is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Areva and China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) “marking a new step forward in the Chinese project for a used fuel processing and recycling facility.” Areva said the MOU “formalizes the end of technical discussions, defines the schedule for commercial negotiations and confirms the willingness of both groups to finalize the negotiations in the shortest possible timeframe.”

Areva also signed an agreement with CNNC for cooperation in the nuclear fuel cycle. This agreement, it said, “enlarges and deepens existing areas of cooperation”. It covers the extraction and conversion of uranium, fabrication of zirconium fuel assemblies, decommissioning, transportation and recycling.

Another agreement was signed between Areva, EDF and CNNC on cooperation in nuclear power reactors. This calls for the partners “to study, in particular, the possibility of closer cooperation in medium- and high-power reactors, particularly in the area of industrial procurement”. The agreement also covers greater cooperation in research and development.

A letter of intent was also signed between Areva, EDF and China General Nuclear (CGN) on “establishing a long-term partnership in the field of medium- and high-power reactors, which takes into account, in particular, experience from Taishan Phase 1.”

Taishan units 1 and 2 are the first two reactors based on Areva’s EPR design to be built in China. They form part of an €8 billion contract signed by Areva and CGN in November 2007. Taishan 1, which has been under construction since 2009, is expected to start up in 2016, while Taishan 2 is scheduled to begin operating a year later. Work is to begin on a further two EPR units at Taishan over the next few years.

In March 2014, a joint statement was issued by French president Francois Hollande and Chinese president Xi Jinping that saw the two leaders pledge to encourage “industrial and institutional” stakeholders in both nations to advance cooperation efforts in the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including nuclear power plant safety, used fuel recycling, new build projects and uranium mining.

Cooperation agreements were signed between EDF and CGN and by Areva and CNNC in January during a visit to Beijing by the French prime minister. EDF and CGN agreed to share their experience of plant operation and engineering support for existing nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, Areva and CNNC signed an MOU on establishing a joint venture to supply nuclear transport and logistics services.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News

Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Techniques to be Developed by 2021

BusinessKorea – Seoul | Jung Suk-yee | 22 June 2015

korean nuclear power

Korea is likely to construct 10 more nuclear power plants by 2035. (Photo by 102orion via Wikimedia Commons)

The Korean government is working on techniques and measures required for a safe decommissioning of the Gori Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1, which will be the first atomic power station in Korea to be permanently shut down. The decommissioning process is scheduled to be completed by 2030.

The government announced on June 21 that the development of the 17 decommissioning techniques that have yet to be finished would be completed by 2021, led by the Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning, to the tune of 150 billion won (US$136 million). The 17 techniques are divided into two for decommissioning preparations, three for decontamination, five for dismantling, four for waste treatment, and three for environmental restoration.

The government has developed 38 key techniques since 2012, based on its plan for the development of technology for nuclear plant decommissioning. The national council of the Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, and the like are going to come up with a road map for the development of commercial techniques to that end in the second half of this year.

Gori Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1, which is located in Kijang County, Busan City, is slated to be put out of operation in 2030 through the stages of decommissioning preparation, extraction and cooling of the spent nuclear fuel, decontamination and dismantling, and site restoration. The stages are expected to take up to six years or more to complete.