Conflicting with a prior industry study, a new analysis claims 96 nuclear facilities in the US are less safe than reported, citing risks such as terrorism and sabotage. The study says there remain lessons to be learned from the Fukushima disaster.
Neglect of the risks posed by used reactor fuel, or spent nuclear fuel, contained in 96 aboveground, aquamarine pools could cost the US economy $700 billion, cause cancer in tens of thousands of people as well as compel the relocation of some 3.5 million people from an area larger than New Jersey, a study released May 20 finds.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s study, ‘Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of US Nuclear Plants,’ is the second installment of a two-part study ordered by Congress on the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. It not only cites, but also outright challenges a 2014 study by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the US industry’s regulator and enforcer of safety standards.
The spent fuel, The Academies’ study recommends, is safer in dry casks rather than pools, because of the risk of leaks, drawing water away from the irradiated nuclear rods. An accident, terrorist attack or malicious employee all pose greater dangers to the pools, the study says.
Aside from calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to offer a better evaluation of the health risks posed, The Academies study conducted by 17 engineers, nuclear physicists and other scientists demands the commission fulfill a 10-year-old promise to put together an impartial review of the surveillance and security policies on spent nuclear fuel.
“Even with the recommendations that the Academies’ board has put together,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Scott Burnell responded, “we continue to conclude that spent fuel is being stored safely and securely in the US.”
“Nothing in the report causes immediate concern,” Burnell added, although the commission is planning a more formal follow-up later this year, according to The Center for Public Integrity.
Congress felt compelled to fund the study on Japan’s natural-turned-nuclear disaster to help prevent a similar accident from occurring in the US. On March 11, 2011, the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima was thrashed by an earthquake and tsunami, leaving three reactors without power or coolants, which resulted in their radioactive cores melting down.
Pure luck kept the disaster from becoming even worse, The Acadamies found. Instead of Daiichi’s highly radioactive rods being exposed to oxygen, which would have sent over 13 million people packing from as far as 177 miles south in Tokyo, a leak happened to be situated between a fuel rod pool and a reactor core, which sent just enough coolant to keep the vulnerable rods from rising above the water. In the end, 470,000 people were evacuated and the still ongoing cleanup is estimated to cost about $93 billion.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 2014 study put the highest odds of an earthquake happening near spent fuel storage at one in 10 million years, boasting that “spent fuel pools are likely to withstand severe earthquakes without leaking,” while the odds of a terrorist attack or internal subversion were deemed incalculable and left out of any risk assessment.
Calling that cost-benefit analysis “deeply flawed,” The Academies panel member Frank von Hippel, also an emeritus professor and senior research physicist at Princeton University, complained that the commission’s study also left out the impact on property contamination in a 50-mile radius of an accident, tourism rates and the economy, The Center for Public Integrity reported.
The new analysis also calls for new officially designated risk assessments of safety and financial impacts at the federal level as well as what improvements aboveground dry casks may bring compared to pools. The latter is estimated to cost upwards of $4 billion by the industry.
The Fukushima clean-up team remains in the dark about the exact locations of 600 tons of melted radioactive fuel from three devastated nuclear reactors, the chief of decommissioning told the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program in an exclusive interview.
The company hopes to locate and start removing the missing fuel from 2021, the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) chief of decommissioning at Fukushima, Naohiro Masuda, revealed.
The fuel extraction technology is yet to be elaborated upon, he added.
Following the tsunami-caused 2011 meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant uranium fuel of three power generating reactors gained critical temperature and burnt through the respective reactor pressure vessels, concentrating somewhere on the lower levels of the station currently filled with water.
The melted nuclear fuel from Reactor 1 poured out completely, estimated 30 to 50 percent of fuel from Reactor 2 and 3 remained in the active zone, Masuda said.
The official estimates that approximately “200 tons of [nuclear fuel] debris lies within each unit,” which makes in total about 600 tons of melted fuel mixed up with metal construction elements, concrete and whatever else was down there.
Five years after the Fukushima tragedy, the exact location of the highly radioactive “runaway” fuel remains mystery for TEPCO. The absolutely uncontrollable fission of the melted nuclear fuel assemblies continue somewhere under the remains of the station.
“It’s important to find it as soon as possible,” acknowledged Masuda, admitting that Japan does not yet possess the technology to extract the melted uranium fuel.
“Once we can find out the condition of the melted fuel and identify its location, I believe we can develop the necessary tools to retrieve it,” Masuda said.
TEPCO’s inability to locate the melted fuel could be explained by huge levels of radiation near the melted reactor shells. It is so high that even custom-built robots sent there to get information about the current state of affairs there get disabled by the tremendous radioactivity flux. Human presence in the area is understandably out of the question.
The company’s decommission plan for Fukushima nuclear power plant implies a 30-40 year period before the consequences of the meltdown are fully eliminated. Yet experts doubt the present state of technology is sufficient to deal with the unprecedented technical task.
“Nobody really knows where the fuel is at this point and this fuel is still very radioactive and will be for a long time,” the former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory Jaczko, told Foreign Correspondent.
“It may be possible that we’re never able to remove the fuel. You may just have to wind up leaving it there and somehow entomb it as it is,” said Jaczko, who headed the USNRC at the time of the Fukushima disaster.
Melted uranium fuel and tons and tons of highly radioactive water aren’t the only issues troubling TEPCO’s clean-up team at Fukushima. There are also some 10 million plastic bags full of contaminated soil concentrated in gigantic waste dumps scattered around the devastated nuclear facility.
The Japanese prime minister at the time of the Fukushima disaster, Naoto Kan, told the ABC that Japan’s government is already paying TEPCO US$70 billion to enable the company to do the decommission works at Fukushima.
“But that is not enough. It will probably cost more than $240 billion. I think 40 years [to decommission the plant] is an optimistic view,” Kan said.
Estimated 100,000 Japanese citizens evacuated from the Fukushima exclusion zone will be unable to return to their homes until TEPCO can show that the Fukushima plant is in a stable condition, Masuda said.
Washington is promoting commercial interests of the energy corporation Westinghouse in Europe, creating risks for European nuclear power plants, an article in Forbes read.
For example, in 2015, two of the Westinghouse-made fuel assemblies at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant (NPP) were found to be leaking. Since 2015, the NPP has been using US-made fuel.
In 2014, Ukraine and Westinghouse reached an agreement to supply nuclear fuel to some Ukrainian NPPs. The alleged reason behind the contract was the need to help Ukraine become energetically independent from Russia. Russia was a long-time supplier of nuclear fuel to Ukraine.
Experts have repeatedly warned that the deal would create serious risks for the safety of Ukrainian NPPs.
They cited the example of an incident which took place several years ago at the Temelin nuclear power plant, in the Czech Republic. The NPP operated on Russian-designed reactors and used fuel supplied by Westinghouse. The fuel was leaking and the rods were bending. All the Westinghouse fuel was removed from the core and replaced with Russian-made fuel.
As for Ukraine, the company announced that its fuel for Ukrainian NPPs had been improved.
Despite experts’ warnings, in March 2015, the first 42 fuel assemblies made by Westinghouse were loaded to the third reactor unit at the South Ukraine NPP.
According to Forbes, the two Westinghouse-made assemblies were found leaking during a scheduled outage at the third unit of the NPP.
The author of the article, Forbes contributor Kenneth Rapoza described how Washington has promoted Westinghouse’s interest in Eastern Europe, neglecting safety recommendations.
“Westinghouse is more than a brand name American power company. It’s a battering ram used by Washington to promote energy security,” the author wrote.
A source who wished to remain anonymous told Forbes that Westinghouse wants a market share in Eastern Europe in a bid to prevent the company from insolvency.
“Their new reactor division is loss-making, the fuel division is their only cash cow and it is not growing and existing margins are getting slimmer and slimmer. We think Westinghouse has spent millions of dollars to include nuclear fuel as part of the energy security narrative, and the current EU sentiment against Russia play into their hand,” the source said.
“But derailing nuclear projects while running into technical difficulties with Westinghouse fuel assemblies in Rosatom reactors is a dangerous way to promote energy security,” Rapoza noted.
According to former Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, the US has been promoting Westinghouse for years.
In the 1990s, US diplomats supported contribution between the Czech Republic and Westinghouse. The company pledged to improve Russian-designed nuclear plants to Western standards.
“However, the opposite proved to be true. Fuel assemblies delivered by Westinghouse were of inferior quality and higher price compared with than Russian fuel and caused frequent outages of Temelin reactors,” Paroubek told Forbes.
After, Westinghouse’s fuel assemblies were found leaking in the 2000s the Czech company CEZ decided to return to Russian-made nuclear fuel for the Temelin NPP.
“CEZ’s decision serves as a testament to the fact that the Russian fuel assembly was safer and that Washington was selling a product that did not quite work at the time, potentially putting nuclear power plants in danger,” the article read.
US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was also involved in promoting Westinghouse in Eastern Europe. In 2012 when she served as US State Secretary Clinton met with then Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas, using the energy security argument to promote the company.
According to the article, Westinghouse can produce fuel for Russia-designed reactors as well as Rosatom can build fuel assemblies for Western-designed power units. However, for third parties working with Westinghouse is less economically efficient.
“Russia is the cheaper producer of the two, so when countries turn to Westinghouse for the fuel assemblies, they have to pay a premium for diversification,” Rapoza wrote.
Nevertheless, the largest initiative by Westinghouse is squeezing Russia from the Ukrainian nuclear fuel market, using again the argument of diversifying supplies.
In 2012, the Ukrainian nuclear regulator banned the use of Westinghouse’s fuel assemblies in the country pending an investigation over the incident at the South Ukraine NPP.
“Two years later, then-Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk consulted Westinghouse on picking a new nuclear safety regulator for his new government,” the author wrote citing a source in Ukraine.
In April, the Ukrainian Energy Ministry announced it would buy more nuclear fuel from Westinghouse. The company is planning to deliver five reloads of fuel to South Ukraine and Zaporizhia NPPs.
According to the author, Westinghouse’s commercial interests are closely tied to politics and thus the company neglects safety.
“Regardless, anti-Russia politics trumps technological problems,” Rapoza concluded.
The US Environmental Protection Agency chalked elevated gamma radiation levels around America’s largest nuclear waste storage facility, the Hanford site, up to natural causes, but RT’s Alexey Yaroshevsky has found a few inconsistencies in its claims.
RT has reported extensively on the situation at Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear storage facility since various leaks and injuries to workers were reported. An incident on May 5th covered by RT, when radiation levels in the area adjacent to the site skyrocketed, prompted a federal investigation.
However, following the RT report, a local newspaper urged its audience not to “believe everything on the Internet” in an article extensively quoting a statement from the EPA that claimed the elevated radiation levels had a natural cause and were not connected to the Hanford facility in any way.
“The US Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Health agree that radiation from naturally occurring radon was measured on an EPA monitor,” the EPA statement reads.
“The scientists determined that the cause was a temporary elevation of radon levels from the natural decay of certain types of elements found in nearly all rocks and soil.”
The statement also stresses that the spike in radiation could not have been due to emissions from Hanford because the wind was blowing from the opposite direction at the time the measurements were taken.
“The Department of Health said that was not possible because the wind was blowing the wrong direction for the radiation to have come from Hanford at the time the reading was taken,” the EPA notes.
Yet RT America correspondent Alexey Yaroshevsky compared the graph of the radiation readings to wind maps provided by the US national weather service and discovered that the EPA’s findings may not be entirely correct, as the graph appears to show the wind circling around the Hanford site and the area where the readings were taken.
Meanwhile, health protection authorities seem to have quickly taken up the radon-related scenario, emphasizing that radon is common in the area, accumulating in places closer to the ground, and urging people with basements to get radon-measurement canisters to check their homes for excessive levels.
Radon gas is a natural byproduct of Uranium decay in the soil and considered a dangerous carcinogen that can cause lung cancer. Estimates state that outdoor radon levels cause some 800 of the 21,000 radon induced lung cancer deaths that occur in the United States every year.
However, according to a map of radon levels from the EPA’s own website, Benton County, in which the Hanford nuclear plant is located, has relatively low levels radon, even when compared to other American states.
The Hanford nuclear site, on the other hand, holds some 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks that were built between the 1940s and 1970s. Those who used to work at the facility have told RT that vapor incidents are common when radioactive waste is being transported between tanks, which happens often, as the tanks are wearing out.
Relatives of Berta Caceres, Indigenous and environmental leader murdered in Honduras March 3, reaffirmed their distrust of the public prosecutor after having been excluded from the investigation, regarding the arrest of four suspects Monday.
“They excluded us from the investigation process from the beginning, we have no way of knowing whether the arrests are the result of exhaustive proceedings, nor do we know whether these include the masterminds at all levels,” they said in a statement.
They also stated that the alleged involvement of active and retired military linked to the company DESA demonstrates the involvement of state agents in the murder of Caceres.
Children and other relatives of Berta Caceres learned of the arrests through the media “and not through the channels they are entitled to by law,” the statement said.
The Honduran Office of the Public Prosecutor reported that 10 coordinated raids were carried out Monday in connection with Caceres’ homicide in the capital Tegucigalpa, as well as in La Ceiba, and Trujillo.
The four suspects are scheduled to appear in court in the following days, the OPP added.
Caceres’ death prompted massive international condemnation and led to huge protests in Honduras, a country that currently has the one of highest murder rates in the world.
Twenty workers at the The Hanford Site nuclear facility in Washington state were sent for medical evaluations after inhaling chemical vapors in the vicinity of a leaking nuclear waste tank which was being transferred, according to US Energy Department officials.
Hanford tank workers were performing routine tasks at the vast nuclear waste site when they all started complaining of headaches on Thursday before being sent for medical evaluations, according to local news station KING.
Starting around noon, two of the workers reported a metallic taste in their mouths after removing their oxygen respirators. They said they had headaches and sought medical attention. The AP tank farm where they were working was evacuated.
Two hours later, two more workers said they had nausea and a dry throat after being exposed to vapors above a line used to transfer water between the AX and AP tank farms. The area they were working in was also evacuated and roadblocks set up as precaution.
In a third instance, between 3:00pm and 4:00pm, seven more employees near a changing trailer outside the AX farm requested medical attention after smelling ammonia. The pumping and waste transfer was eventually halted.
More workers requested medical evaluations on Friday because of potential exposure to chemical vapors, according to Tri-City-Herald, bringing the total to 20 people.
Thirteen reported having various symptoms, most of which were not made public, and seven sought medical evaluations as a precaution, according to Washington River Protection Solutions.
All but one has been cleared to return to work; that worker is still being evaluated.
“Waste transfer operations from double-shell tank AY-102 to double-shell tank AP 102 have been halted,” said Jerry Holloway, an executive at WRPS, a government contractor, in a statement to KING.
The exposure comes just a week after it was reported that thousands of gallons of radioactive waste were leaking from the AY-102 double-shell tank. The leak was first detected on April 17, which led to workers pumping out the waste and trying to find out why the leak became worse. The tank, which contains 800,000 gallons of nuclear waste has been leaking since 2011. The leak was small when it was first detected, but that was five years ago.
AY-102 is one of 28 underground double shell tanks holding nuclear waste and is the first of the double-shell tanks to leak. The double-shell tanks are thought to be more robust than the single-shell which have outlived their lifespan. There are 177 underground tanks in total.
KING reported the toxic gases most likely escaped from pipes used to move nuclear waste from one area of Hanford to another.
A lawsuit filed by the state’s attorney general in 2015, citing the plant has a health hazard, stated chemical vapors vented from the tanks when the radioactive waste underwent continuous chemical reactions. The chemical vapors can include hydrogen, ammonia, mercury or benzene among other poisons and can cause adverse health effects such as “asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, central nervous system suppression…and cancers of the liver, lung, blood and other organ systems,” according to the suit.
A KING local news investigation found that workers in 50 separate incidents were exposed to vapors leaking from the nuclear waste tanks between January 2014 and April 2015. In one of the incidents, a worker was treated for chemical pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs caused by chemical exposure.
Hanford Nuclear Reservation was originally constructed in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project to produce plutonium for weapons, including the atomic bomb, Fat Boy, that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Millions of gallons of nuclear waste was generated by the time production stopped at the end of the Cold War.
Since 1989, the only work at the Hanford Site has been related to cleaning up the waste left behind. The site stores approximately 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive hazardous waste in tanks, the size of over 2,600 rail cars. The waste is housed in 149 single-shell tanks and 28 double-shell tanks. All 149 tanks are unfit for use, according to the Energy Department, and the contents are supposed to be transferred to double-shelled tanks.
The Associated Press reported the cleanup at Hanford is not likely to be completed until 2060 and will take $107.7 billion to complete.
RT | April 21, 2016
There is a dangerous radiological threat to the West Coast of the United States that puts the health of millions of Americans at risk. It includes dangers to public health, dangers to the food supply, and dangers to future generations from long-lived radionuclides, including some of the most toxic material in the world. It is not Fukushima, it is Hanford. While radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns is reaching the West Coast, carried across the ocean from Japan, the radiation from Hanford is already there, has been there for 70 years, and is in serious risk of catastrophe that could dwarf the effects of Fukushima even on Japan.
Hanford, on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington State, is the site where the United States produced the majority of its plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. These tens of thousands of American nuclear weapons were built as an end product of the high levels of plutonium production at Hanford. The first three nuclear reactors on Earth were built at Hanford, with a total of nine nuclear power plants being built there eventually. Nuclear power plants operated for ten years in this world before they were ever used to generate electricity. Electricity is a secondary purpose for nuclear power plants, they were designed and built as plutonium manufacturing plants.
Hanford was the first of these plutonium production sites. The two worst radiological disasters (besides nuclear weapon detonations) in the first four decades of the Atomic Age were accidents at the plutonium production sites of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, both in 1957. Military plutonium production sites remain among the most contaminated sites on Earth. During the period of operation more than 67 metric tons of plutonium were manufactured at Hanford. Hanford is home to 60% (by volume) of all of the high level radioactive waste stored in the United States. Nearly 80% of the Department of Energy’s inventory of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored just 400 yards away from the Columbia River. (Statistics taken from Physicians for Social Responsibility webpage)
Here is a very brief review of some of the worst impacts and dangers at the Hanford Site.
The Green Run
In December 1949 the United States deliberately released an immense amount of radiation into populated areas at the Hanford Site during the notorious Green Run. It was the largest intentional release of radiation conducted by the U.S. government. While nuclear testing in Nevada exposed many people to significant amounts of radiation, this was a byproduct of the desire to test weapons. In the Green Run the intention was specifically to release the radiation into the Hanford area. The Green Run was conducted in reaction to the test of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in Kazakhstan several months earlier. The first indications that the Soviets had successfully tested a nuclear weapon came when sensors at Hanford picked up the radiation several days later. It was decided to release radiation “similar” to that of the Soviet test to develop and hone detection equipment and better analysis of the Soviet program.
After the end of World War Two the U.S. method of processing the plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel rods involved “maturing” the rods, or letting them cool for approximately 100 days to allow short-lived nuclear isotopes (like iodine-131) to decay. Kate Brown has a detailed discussion of the decisions that eventually led to extending this maturing period at Hanford during this time in her pivotal book, Plutopia. The U.S. assumed that in their rush to produce nuclear weapons as quickly as possible the Soviets were “short-cooling” their plutonium being manufactured at the Mayak Complex, and thus processing the plutonium before these short-lived radionuclides had decayed. The Green Run was a plan to mimic this and process plutonium that had not cooled for 100 days, but instead had cooled only a few weeks and was, hence, “green.” To increase the ability of the radiation detection equipment in the area, and on the airplanes that participated, the filters at the plutonium processing plants that specifically filtered out iodine-131 were turned off for the 12-hour duration of the Green Run.
As bad as this deliberate release of radiation into the downwind communities was, things did not go as planned. The intended amount of iodine-131 to be released was dwarfed by the actual release, which was double what was anticipated. While scientists imagined they would then be tracking a coherent cloud as it moved away from the site, the resulting radiation dispersed throughout a vast area stretching across much of Washington State and into Southern Oregon. Concentrations were found in valleys and lowlands as the radiation distributed irregularly. Internalizing iodine-131 is a direct cause of thyroid cancer.
EPA map of iodine-131 distribution following the Green Run showing both heavy dose area and total distribution
The Tank Farms
Few things pose as great a threat to public health at Hanford than the Tank Farms. The Tank Farms are 177 single and double shelled waste storage tanks sited at two different locations on the Hanford complex. In the early days at Hanford, when plutonium for nuclear weapons was separated from the spent nuclear fuel, the leftover uranium from the process was stored in these tanks. Over the years a wide range of the highest level radioactive and chemical wastes were dumped into these tanks. According to the State of Washington the 177 tanks hold 53 million gallons of the highest level radioactive waste existing in the United States. 67 of the single shelled tanks have leaked over 1 million gallons of this highly radioactive waste which is migrating through the soil and groundwater into the Columbia River. In 2011 the Department of Energy emptied the contents of many of the leaking single shelled tanks into double shelled tanks, however the design of the double shelled tanks was found to be flawed, resulting in further leaks.
A section of the Tank Farms at Hanford. Photo: D0E.
Dealing with the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste is a multi-billion-dollar effort designed to manage the waste by 2050, or roughly 100 years after it was first manufactured. Currently almost nothing has yet been accomplished towards this goal besides the paying out of the contracts to design plans and begin the construction of the “Vitrification Plant” that is intended to encase the waste in glass. In recent years’ numerous whistleblowers have come forward from among Hanford employees to describe the flawed design and safety protocols of the Vit Plant. Most of these whistleblowers have been fired by the contractors running the Hanford cleanup. One, Walter Tamosaitis, the research and technology manager of the Vit Plant, was vindicated and awarded $4.3M to settle his wrongful termination suit, however other whistleblowers have been dismissed from their positions since that award. While the liquid waste has been extracted from the tanks the remaining high level waste in the tanks remains largely untreated.
Hanford employees who work maintaining the Tank Farms have suffered serious and unexplained health problems in recent years. Each year numerous workers have been exposed to “vapors” and have become sick or lost consciousness and required hospitalization. Many have suffered ongoing health problems as a result of these exposures. In 2014 over 40 workers suffered from such exposures including a two-week period in late March that saw 26 workers hospitalized. According to KGW news in Portland, a 1997 study conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory warned that workers exposed to vapors from specific tanks would have significantly increase risk of cancers and other serious diseases, but the conclusions of this report “were never made public, shared with Hanford workers or members of the federally chartered Hanford Advisory Board.”
On 29 September 1957 a tank containing waste similar to the waste in the Hanford Tank Farms exploded at the Mayak plutonium production site in the former Soviet Union, known as the Kyshtym Disaster. The cooling system for one of the tanks at the Mayak site failed and the temperature inside the tank rose eventually causing a chemical explosion that sent a radioactive cloud for over 350 km downwind and heavily contaminated an area near the plant with catastrophic levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90. This was one of the worst radiological disasters in human history at the time, and remained so, along with the fire three weeks later inside a nuclear reactor core at the Windscale facility (now called Sellafield) in Cumbria in the United Kingdom, until the Chernobyl meltdown and explosion in 1987. The Kyshtym Disaster, which a Soviet study concluded resulted directly in 8,000 deaths (not to mention illnesses) was the consequence of an explosion in one tank. At Hanford there are currently 177 such tanks, each containing similar disastrous potential, and located beside one another.
Contaminations and Dangers
The EPA has identified between 1,500-1,200 specific sites on the Hanford grounds where toxic or radioactive chemicals have been dumped. The ambiguity of that number speaks volumes about the lack of record keeping and functional data for addressing these problems. If plans for remediation of the waste in the Tank Farms at the Hanford Site are carried out as intended, there remains massive contamination of the soil and groundwater under the site, leeching into the Columbia River and surrounding countryside. That is if things go well. Things could go badly. The Kyshtym Disaster shows the dangers of an explosion in one of the tanks storing waste such as that stored in the 177 tanks at the Hanford Tank Farms. An incident in which multiple tanks experience problems could be catastrophic beyond our imagination. What’s more, there is not effective containment or security at the Tank Farms to face the threats of current times. While the countries around the world worry about the dangers of flying airplanes or drones into nuclear power plants, or of cyber attacks on the power supplies to such plants, those sites have at least some effective containment around the toxic materials they hold. The Tank Farms are open air and unshielded. The amount of deadly radiological materials contained in these tanks is far beyond that contained at any single nuclear site in the United States.
Hanford is Here, Fukushima is There
The triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi was a horrible disaster that has released massive amounts of radiation into the environment. The daily passage of tons of water through the watershed below the plants where the melted nuclear cores (corium) sit smoldering will continue to release radiation into the ocean for decades to come. The health toll that this will take, especially on the children of Northern Japan is horrifying. Already a much higher than expected incidence of thyroid cancers have been reported in area youth. This is the first of the cancers to present and is the tip of the iceberg of health impacts on those in the area. The release of long lived radionuclides such as cesium-137 and uranium into the ecosystem presents dangers to people all around the world as these particles cycle through the biosphere. But the largest and most tragic impacts of Fukushima will be on people in Japan. The plumes from the explosions of March 2011 deposited the bulk of their fallout within a few hundred kilometers of the plants. Radiation from the regular releases of contaminated water into the ocean, and the passage of groundwater across the corium will continue to bring radioactive particles into the Pacific Ocean where they will work their way up the food chain much as the fallout deposited by atmospheric nuclear testing did in the Pacific during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of that radiation is reaching the West Coast of the U.S., and this will continue as long as the site hemorrhages contaminated water into the ocean, which will likely be for some decades. This disaster should not be discounted. But it should also be remembered that it is the people of Japan, and specifically the children of Japan who live in the areas where the fallout plumes deposited that face the direst of these consequences.
There is currently a great deal of awareness about the arrival of Fukushima radiation on the West Coast. There are many people who say they will not eat fish from the Pacific Ocean, or eat food from Japan. At the same time, there is no discussion about eating Salmon from the Columbia River, drinking wines from the Columbia Valley, or fruit from the orchards that fill the downwind area around Hanford. The amount of radiation in the Hanford area dwarfs the amount arriving on the West Coast of the United States on a scale that is mind-boggling. What is arriving from Fukushima is the result of the meltdowns of three nuclear cores, and it is crossing an ocean. What is stored at Hanford and leeching into the Columbia is resultant from 2/3rds of the high level nuclear waste of the United States, and is from production that began decades before Fukushima was built. This is not just contamination that is arriving today, or this year, it has been saturating the groundwater and ecosystem of the Northwest for more than 70 years.
Furthermore, the impacts from Hanford are not only what may happen, but what has already happened. Hanford downwinders have suffered generations of cancers and other diseases across a wide area of Eastern Washington and beyond. There is a legacy of death and illness that spans generations downwind from Hanford, and the source of those diseases percolates away in the tanks and waste sites that sit along the Columbia River, spreading deeper into the surrounding ecosystem. The radiation from Fukushima may slowly seep across the vast Pacific, while at Hanford we have the threat of a radiological explosion or terrorist act that could release volumes more radiation than was released by Fukushima and deposited in Japan any day of any week, and spread radiation across the West Coast and mountain west.
By all means we should be vigilant and monitor the levels of Fukushima radiation that arrives on the West Coast of the United States, while remembering that the most profound victims of Fukushima are children living near the site. But we should turn our attention and concerns to the radioactive wound that seeps radiation into the ecosystem of the American and Canadian West every day and threatens it with a radiological disaster that would dwarf the worst that Fukushima has done even in Japan. Stand up for Hanford whistleblowers. Demand transparency on waste management practices and plans at Hanford. Stand up for the health of Hanford workers who are being exposed to dangerous vapors in their workplace. And demand support and compensation for the downwind families and workers whose health and wellbeing has been devastated by the most radioactive site in the United States.
Robert Jacobs is a historian of nuclear technologies and radiation technopolitics at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University. @bojacobs.
An ice wall being built at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant won’t completely prevent groundwater from flowing inside the facility and leaking out into the earth as radioactive water, according to a chief architect of the project.
Chief architect Yuichi Okamura told AP that gaps in the wall and rainfall will still allow for water to creep into the facility and reach the damaged nuclear reactors, which will in turn create as much as 50 tons of contaminated water each day.
“It’s not zero,” Okamura, a general manager at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said. “It’s a vicious cycle, like a cat-and-mouse game… we have come up against many unexpected problems.”
The wall, which will be 1.5km (1 mile) long, will consist of an underground pipe network stretching 30 meters (100 feet) below the surface, around the reactor and turbine buildings. The pipes are designed to transport refrigerant cooled to -30° Celsius (-22°F) to chill the nearby soil until it freezes.
The barrier is being turned on in sections for tests, and the entire freezing process will take eight months since it was first switched on in late March. The process requires an amount of electricity that would power 13,000 Japanese households.
Despite its current efforts, TEPCO – the operator of the Fukushima plant – has been fiercely criticized by those who say the groundwater issue should have been forecast and dealt with sooner.
Shigeaki Tsunoyama, an honorary professor and former president of University of Aizu in Fukushima, said that building a concrete wall built into the hill near the plant after the disaster would have minimized the contaminated water issue.
Okamura acknowledged that the option of building a barrier at a higher elevation near the plant was considered in the days following the disaster, but defended the actions of TEPCO, stressing that the priority is on preventing contaminated water from escaping into the Pacific Ocean.
Others have criticized the US$312 million wall, which is being built by construction company Kajima Corp., as a waste of taxpayer money.
TEPCO has repeatedly faced criticism for its handling of the Fukushima crisis, which occurred after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to a meltdown of reactors at the facility in March 2011. The disaster was the worst nuclear accident to take place since Chernobyl in 1986.
The company has admitted that it did not act properly during the disaster, confessing in February that it announced the nuclear meltdowns far too late. It also stated in a 2012 report that it downplayed safety risks caused by the incident, out of fear that additional measures would lead to a shutdown of the plant and further fuel public anxiety and anti-nuclear campaigns.
Despite the ongoing problems encountered following the meltdowns, TEPCO has set 2020 as the goal for ending the plant’s water problem – an aim which critics say is far too optimistic.
However, the water problem is just part of the monumental challenges faced at the facility. Controlling and dismantling the plant is expected to take 40 years. Robots have been tasked with taking photos of the debris, as the radiation levels are too high for humans to complete the job.
The world has had 30 years to assess the consequences for life on Earth of the disaster at Chernobyl.
This is about the same period during which I have studied the effects of radioactive pollution on the planet. It was the radioactive rain in the mountains of North Wales, where I lived in 1986, that brought me into this strange Alice in Wonderland area of science, where people and children die, and the global authorities, advised by physicists, deny what would be obvious to a child at school.
Chernobyl was mentioned as the star that fell to earth in the Book of Revelations. You may laugh, and it may be a coincidence, but the impact of the event has certainly been of biblical proportions. It is a story about the imposition by reductionist science on humanity of a version of the truth constructed from mathematics, not the only one, but perhaps the most important, since it involves the systematic destruction of the genetic basis of life. It is a story of lies, secrecy, power, assassination and money: the vast amounts of money that would be lost if the truth came out.
Shortly after the murder in 1992 of the German Green Party leader and anti-nuclear activist Petra Kelly, the late Prof Ernest Sternglass (the first of the radiation scientist/ activists) told me that Kelly had just struck a deal with a German TV company to run a series demonstrating the true awfulness of the immediate effects of radiation. He said: if the truth came out, all the Uranium and the billions of dollars in Uranium shares would turn into sand. So something like a cover-up had to happen, and it did, continuing the process of chicanery and control of information that began with the nuclear weapons tests of the 50s and 60s. In 1959, as the genetic effects of the atmospheric tests became apparent, the control of the understanding of radiation and health was wrested from the World Health Organization (WHO) and passed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The arguments about the health effects of Chernobyl have mostly centered on cancer. I won’t write much about cancer here. The study of radiation and cancer has many complications, including that the data is often suspect, the time lag between the cancer diagnosis and the original radiation exposure can be 20 years, in which time a lot can happen, introducing ammunition (and opportunity) for those denying causation. The predictions of the global cancer yield of the Chernobyl contamination has ranged from around a million (as predicted independently by the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), Rosalie Bertell, John Gofman and me, to about 600,000 (Alexey Yablokov), to less than a few thousand (the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), whose risk model is the current basis for all legal constraints on radioactive releases in Europe.
Cancer is caused by genetic damage but takes a while to show. More easily studied is the immediate and direct genetic damage, demonstrated in birth rates of congenital diseases, birth defects, fetal abnormalities, data which is easier to locate. The effects of a sudden increase in radioactive contamination are most easily seen in sudden increases in these indicators. You don’t have to wait 20 years. Out they come after nine months or in aborted fetuses with their heart and central nervous system defects, their lack of hands and feet, their huge hydrocephalic heads, their inside-out organs, their cleft palates, cyclops eyes and the whole range of dreadful and usually fatal conditions. There is no argument, and the affair is in the hands of doctors, not physicists. The physicists of the ICRP base their risk of genetic effects on experiments with mice.
I was in Kiev in 2000 at the WHO conference on Chernobyl. On the podium, conducting the theatricals, were the top men in the IAEA (Abel Gonzalez) and the United National Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), represented by Canadian Norman Gentner. No effects can be seen—Abel Gonzalez. Internal radiation is the same as external—Norman Gentner. Happily you can watch this farce as it was videotaped by a Swiss team.
So: cut to the chase, to the fatal assault on the edifice of the current ICRP radiation risk model. In January 2016 Prof Inge Schmitz Feuerhake, Dr Sebastian Pflugbeil and I published a major review paper on the genetic effects of radiation in the prestigious Korean peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Health and Toxicology.
What the research shows is that in every corner of the ex-Soviet Union and Europe and even further afield where epidemiologists and pediatricians looked, there were large and statistically significant increases in congenital diseases at birth and in babies that were aborted.
The new article recalculates the genetic risk from radiation based upon reports from Germany, Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Egypt, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Italy, the UK, Scotland, Wales, indeed everywhere where anyone looked. There was a sudden jump in birth defects immediately following the contamination from Chernobyl and in proportion; but only up to the point where the exposure was so great the babies died in the womb or miscarried early in pregnancy. Thus, the relation between exposure level and effect was not a simple one where the birth defects increased with exposure: after a critical level of exposure they leveled off, or indeed fell. Also since contamination is still there, women are still giving birth to genetically damaged children some 30 years later. These results, published by many doctors, epidemiologists and researchers in many different journals, show that the effects occurred at levels of contamination that provided ‘doses’, that yardstick of radiation exposure invented by the ICRP, that were very low, often below the natural background dose.
It is worse: from research on the nuclear test site veterans’ grandchildren (also reviewed in the study) it is clear that these effects continue down the generations and will only disappear when an offspring dies without issue, and leaves the genome of the human race. And many will or already have done: since what causes genetic malformation in the infant, at a larger dose causes fetal death and infertility. No one can have failed to have noticed the increase in human infertility that has occurred since the radioactive contamination of the planet began in the 1950s. As ex- US Atomic Energy Commission scientists John Gofman wrote in 1981 “the nuclear industry is waging a war on humanity.”
How can it be possible that the legislative system has got it so wrong? The answer is also given in the paper. It is that the concept of ‘dose’ which may be convenient for the physicists as it is simple to compute, really does not address the situation where the substances that provide the dose are inside the body, often bound chemically to the DNA, which is the acknowledged target for all these genetic effects. It shows that the human genome (and of course that of all life) is exquisitely sensitive to radiation damage from such internal exposures, to Strontium-90, Plutonium-239, Uranium and particularly to the nano-particles containing these radioactive elements which were produced when the reactor No 4 blew apart.
The paper shows the studies of the Hiroshima bomb survivors, upon which the current unsafe radiation laws are based were faulty because the true comparison group, those not in the city at the time of the bombing, was abandoned when it began to look like there was a real effect. Was this stupidity? Was it a trick? Does someone have to go to jail?
Last month, Prof. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Alex Rosen and I wrote to the editor of The Lancet, in a recorded delivery letter posted by the Independent WHO in Geneva, requesting space in that influential journal to draw attention to these truths and overturn the false and dangerous structures created by the physicists. Let us all hope that some good will finally come of the disaster—that the real legacy of Chernobyl will be the understanding of the true danger to health of radioactive pollution.
Note: The ECRR has focused on Chernobyl as a major data source for establishing the risk posed by radiation. It has concluded that the current ICRP model is in error by upwards of about 300-fold, for some types of internal exposures, by upwards of 1000-fold. This means that over the period of the radiation contamination, more than 60 million people have died from cancer as a result of the releases. This risk model is available on the website http://www.euradcom.org.
Christopher Busby is an expert on the health effects of ionizing radiation. He qualified in Chemical Physics at the Universities of London and Kent, and worked on the molecular physical chemistry of living cells for the Wellcome Foundation. Professor Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk based in Brussels and has edited many of its publications since its founding in 1998. He has held a number of honorary University positions, including Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Health of the University of Ulster. Busby currently lives in Riga, Latvia. See also: http://www.chrisbusbyexposed.org, http://www.greenaudit.org and http://www.llrc.org.
April 26 is the 30th anniversary of the reactor meltdown and radiation disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which brings to mind cesium. Thirty years is how long it takes for half a given amount of cesium-137 — dispersed in huge quantities from Chernobyl (and Fukushima) — to decay into radioactive barium. This 30-year “half-life” means half of Chernobyl’s jettisoned cesium-137 is still around — over four million billion “Becquerels” in Europe alone, according to TORCH: The Other Report on Chernobyl. This cesium will persist in decreasing amounts in soil, water, and food for another 270 years.
Chernobyl’s two massive explosions and 40-day-long fire spewed thousands of tons of radioactive dust around the world. Maureen Hatch, writing in Oxford Journals March 30, 2005, reported that “contamination of the ground was found to some extent in every country in the Northern Hemisphere.” Yet it is not unusual for young people to know almost nothing about Chernobyl. Infants at the time may have ingested the dispersed poisons. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported May 17, 1986 that “since radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident began floating over Minnesota last week, low levels of radiation have been discovered in … the raw milk from a Minnesota dairy.”
The UN classifies Chernobyl and Fukushima as the worst environmental catastrophes in history; they are the only Level Seven radiation disasters ever to hit the top of its 0-to-7 scale. Like H-bomb tests of an earlier era, the four meltdowns are acts of unlimited, multi-generational ecological warfare: serial killers altogether hydrological, biological, psychological, economic, genetic, and agricultural. The number of illnesses, cancers and fatalities these radiation gushers have caused is unknown, but the plague of cancer ravaging the general population is obvious.
Ukraine’s abandonment standard better than Japan’s
Chernobyl saw the permanent evacuation of 350,000 from an 18-mile “exclusion zone” around the wreckage, and from hotspots in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Japan is limiting its evacuation to 200,000 from within a 12-mile radius of Fukushima, even though cesium-137 was found 25 miles from the three meltdowns in amounts over twice the evacuation standard used at Chernobyl. Japanese surveyors found up to 3.7 million Becquerels-per-square-meter in the populated area. The abandonment standard used at Chernobyl was 1.48 million Bq/m2, according to the New York Times. The nuclear industry gets off lightly because hundreds of millions of hospital patients around the world cannot prove their illnesses came from a particular radiation exposure.
The most often-repeated fatality estimate is from the UN’s 2006 Chernobyl Forum, which reported “9,000 excess deaths for the most affected areas.” The study is regularly misreported as having identified “4,000 Chernobyl deaths,” and it’s been criticized for investigating only those fatalities expected in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine — although the majority of radioactive fallout was deposited outside those former Soviet republics.
Author Alexey Yablokov says, “There is no reasonable explanation for the fact that the [Chernobyl Forum] completely neglected the consequences of radioactive contamination in other countries, which received more than 50% of the Chernobyl radionuclides….” Yablokov’s book, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, estimates 985,000 Chernobyl deaths.
Alternately, Ukraine’s Minister of Health Andrei Serkyuk declared in 1995 that 125,000 Ukrainians had died from the effects of Chernobyl. Serkyuk said a large share of casualties were among children, pregnant women and rescue workers or “liquidators.” Liquidators were the soldiers, farmers, miners and factory workers conscripted to work removing and burying radioactive topsoil, debris and equipment from near the smashed reactor using inadequate protective gear or none at all. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1998 that “Russian officials estimated 10,000 Russian ‘liquidators’ died” and quoted health officers who said “close to 3,600 Ukrainians who took part in the cleanup effort have died of radiation exposure.” However, Ukrainian authorities said in 2009 that over 25,000 liquidators died getting the accident under control and constructing a concrete shield over the wreckage.
Everyone in the global north is subject to uninvited, unwelcome, dangerous radiation exposures caused by Chernobyl, Fukushima and routine reactor emissions. The industry treats everybody like liquidators, but has a snappier name for us. We’re called “sponges.”
This week US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima, where nearly 71 years ago the US dropped the first ever atomic weapon killing 140,000 people. It was the first visit by a senior American official to the Japanese city owing to immense sensitivity surrounding that notorious event.
However, the occasion this week was said to underscore US President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons free world, said Kerry’s State Department.
The Japanese government of Shinzo Abe also got some good public relations value out of Kerry’s landmark visit to the Hiroshima peace memorial. As Voice of America noted, the occasion «helps to soften its global image» as Abe’s government steps up its military posture in recent years.
Obama is due to go to Japan in May to attend a G7 summit. It is being mooted that he too may pay respects to Hiroshima victims of the US atomic bombing, which occurred on August 6, 1945.
By the time Obama arrives in Japan, a shipment of Japanese radioactive plutonium is due to land on the US east coast. The highly dangerous cargo of 331 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium reportedly left Japan on March 22 onboard an armed ship as part of an agreement with the US to act as a depository for the radioactive material. The cargo is reportedly sufficient material for the production 50 nuclear warheads.
The two-month seaborne transfer is a highly classified matter, the itinerary kept secret for security reasons. It is reportedly the first major transport of weapons-grade material from Japan since 1992. The plutonium is intended to be disembarked at a nuclear facility in Savannah, South Carolina.
The intake of plutonium from Japan by the US is supposedly part of a 2010 accord between the US and Russia which calls on both parties to begin disposal of highly enriched plutonium for the purpose of aiding weapons non-proliferation. Both sides are obligated to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Notwithstanding, on the US side the commitment has been largely unfulfilled, according to Professor Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington DC.
Kuznick «estimates that on Obama’s watch little more than a ton of nuclear materials has been removed», reported the Guardian. Kuznick even went as far as accusing the American president of espousing the «height of hypocrisy» in light of his famous speech in Prague 2009 when he pledged to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Further anomaly is in the fact that the Obama administration has committed Washington to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades in upgrading the country’s entire nuclear arsenal. A central part of the task is to replace the plutonium cores in all warheads – of which the US has roughly 1,500, on parity with Russia’s stockpile.
Therefore, it is very hard to see how Washington is implementing «Obama’s vision» of a nuclear-weapons-free world. The opposite is more to the point.
At the end of last month, Obama hosted 50 world leaders in Washington for a nuclear security summit. It was the fourth such event under his nearly eight-year presidency. Just before the gathering, Obama wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post which headlined: «How we can make our vision of a world without nuclear weapons a reality».
Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the conference in Washington. The Kremlin said that was because the US side did not consult beforehand with Russian counterparts on what the agenda of the summit would be.
In his op-ed piece, Obama appeared to re-write his «Prague vision» by saying now that the «central pillar» is «preventing terrorists from obtaining and using a nuclear weapon». The president went on to say: «We’ll review our progress, such as successfully ridding more than a dozen countries of highly enriched uranium and plutonium».
So Obama deftly shifts the focus from international disarmament by nuclear powers – and his own county’s tardiness in particular to implement the nearly 50-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty – to one of «preventing terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons».
This is where the shipment of plutonium from Japan comes into good public relations effect. As noted above, the cargo left Japan about a week before Obama’s nuclear security summit was held in Washington. That shipment tends to bolster the narrative that the US is «ridding more than a dozen countries of highly enriched uranium and plutonium» – thus ostensibly contributing to non-proliferation.
Obama also plugged the P5+1 accord with Iran in the same self-serving vein. He wrote: «We’ve succeeded in uniting the international community against the spread of nuclear weapons, notably in Iran. A nuclear-armed Iran would have constituted an unacceptable threat to our national security and that of our allies and partners. It could have triggered a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and begun to unravel the global non-proliferation regime».
Again, the intended effect is that Nobel Laureate Obama is seen to be doing his bit for world peace and nuclear disarmament. But with a trillion-dollar upgrade of the US nuclear arsenal underway, as designated by Obama, it should be evident that the exact opposite is the case.
Japan has reportedly accumulated about 50 tons of plutonium over several decades, with supplies sent there from Britain, France and the US, supposedly for the purpose of research and use as reactor fuel. There are apparently security concerns that such nuclear material could be hijacked by terror groups. And so the US has presented itself as stepping up to the plate to receive this stockpile from Japan on to its territory for «safe disposal».
But the alleged disposal of weapons-grade plutonium in the US does not stand up to scrutiny. Waste facilities in the US for nuclear storage have reached critical capacity limits. Major sites at Hanford, Washington, Lawrence Livermore, California, Rocky Flats, Colorado, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, have been plagued for years with radioactive leakages. The main disposal facility at Savannah is straining at full capacity. South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley is threatening to sue the US Department of Energy in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit over delays in relieving the Savannah site from its toxic load.
Environmentalists in New Mexico state are alarmed that the federal government is now planning to shunt highly radioactive plutonium to an existing underground storage facility there as a contingency measure. The New Mexico site has been operating for 16 years and is the US’s only underground nuclear waste facility. However, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad is suitable solely for low-level nuclear waste.
It’s not only local environmentalists who are anxious. Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has expressed concerns that the New Mexico site is being recklessly lined up to take the nuclear waste load off the site in Savannah.
«This is not a good idea for a variety of reasons, but mainly that WIPP is not suitable to be a high-level waste dump and New Mexico has done its share of accepting nuclear waste», wrote Richardson in an op-ed for the Las Cruces Sun News.
The obvious conclusion is that the US is in no position to «safely dispose» of weapons-grade plutonium from Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, since it doesn’t even have storage capacity for its own Cold War legacy of nuclear waste.
Taking in Japanese nuclear waste is dangerously adding more environmental burden to US communities. Tragically, the population of New Mexico appears to be set for a precarious experiment in disposing highly toxic nuclear material that it is not equipped to deal with.
It was 71 years ago, on July 16, 1945, that the US first tested its atomic weapon in the desert of New Mexico at the Trinity explosion site. Three weeks later the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
History appears to be turning full circle as New Mexico is once again being used to expand US nuclear weapons – under the guise of «disposing» plutonium. But the real reason for the «disposal» is to give the US the international image of working towards non-proliferation, when in reality it is scaling up its own nuclear arsenal – in complete violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that was first signed all the way back in 1968. Nearly half a century on, the US is paving the way for extending its weapons of mass destruction, not eliminating them.
Kerry’s «historic» visit to Hiroshima this week thus seems to be part of a carefully choreographed and ultimately cynical public relations exercise by the US government. Solemn words for the victims of America’s nuclear holocaust and lofty visions of disarmament jar with Washington’s conduct of rearming itself to the teeth.
Despite concessions from the Department of Energy, South Carolina has no intention of dropping its lawsuit against the DOE for failing to build a nuclear waste disposal plant. The delay is also scuppering a deal the US made to treat Russia’s plutonium.
Approved by Congress as far back as 1998, the Savannah River Site’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, is designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into power plant reactor fuel. Moscow and Washington signed a deal in 2000 under which 34 tons of nuclear waste would be shipped from Russia and then processed at the facility.
Since then, everything has gone wrong for MOX. The project’s cost was initially estimated at $1.7 billion, but by 2013 it had risen to $7.7. In addition, approximately $5 billion, three times the original estimate, has already been spent since construction began in 2007. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and contractors working on the project say it is currently 70 percent complete.
However, MOX was never favored by the Obama administration. When the US president came to power, he ordered the closure of the proposed facility to make way for an alternative plant in New Mexico, which would use a cheaper processing method known as dilution and disposal. The DOE also maintains that MOX is only 40 percent complete and would cost $1 billion a year to operate.
“We are in a situation where the MOX approach has extreme uncertainties,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee last month. Moniz said previously that the Russian contract could be moved to the New Mexico facility.
The stakes were raised after a clause in the contract between the state and the federal government was activated at the beginning of the year, when the government failed to remove one ton of plutonium from South Carolina as stipulated. The fine for the delay is $1 million per day, with a cap of $100 million.
South Carolina is now lodging a lawsuit to recover the money from the federal budget and make sure that MOX is completed.
The DOE has attempted to compromise by offering to remove 6 tons of plutonium unrelated to the Russian deal, but South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley says the state will not abandon its legal claim, as “the DOE has not lived up to promises made in the past.”
‘Not what we agreed on,’ says Putin
While South Carolina squeezes from one side, Washington is also facing mounting pressure from Russia on the other.
On Thursday, Vladimir Putin voiced Moscow’s growing frustration, both with the delay and the US’ decision to turn to dilution and disposal.
“We signed an agreement that the plutonium will be processed in a certain way, for which facilities would be purpose built,” the Russian President said during a media session. “We have met our commitments, and constructed the necessary facilities. The US has not.”
For Russia, the use of a cheaper processing method constitutes a breach of contract.
“With the dilution and disposal method, the nuclear fuel retains its breakout potential, so it can extracted, processed and weaponized again. That is not what we agreed on,” said Putin, who personally oversaw the signing of the original deal during his first term as the Russian President.
Despite Putin’s unequivocal rhetoric, Washington officials have been maintaining their best poker faces so far.
“Accommodating a new US method would not require renegotiation of the agreement. We will not speculate on Russian intentions behind the reported remarks,” said State Department spokesperson Jennifer Bavisotto on Friday.