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12 Nuclear News
MP’s on Nuclear
“The political will is firming up for nuclear. What is being talked about, though, is new plants at the existing licensed sites.” Martin O’Neill MP.
“The nuclear question will be dealt with after the general election. The big decision people have to answer is are they more worried about nuclear energy or more worried about carbon reduction and climate change.” Brian Wilson MP.
It may not be possible to extend the operational lifetime of the British Energy’s Advanced Gas cooled Reactors, since there are concerns that cracks in the graphite moderators will require more frequent- and costly- inspection and maintenance. Hinckley B and Hunterston B are almost 30 years old, Hartlepool & Heysham 1 are already closed for repairs.
* BE announced losses of £234m for the six months to the end of last Sept- almost four times the £60m loss in the same period the previous year.
Shifting Nuclear Waste
Where are we going to put it? Last December, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee said they were ‘dismayed by the Government’s lack of urgency. The UK has generated radioactive waste for more than half a century and still hasn’t decided how to deal with it. Ministers seem to be using perpetual consultation exercises to put off making the crucial decisions.” It felt that the governments advisory committee, CoRWM, should stop wasting time considering options that had been discarded by the international community and focus on underground storage or disposal, especially since “the events of 9/11 raise questions of the vulnerability of existing storage facilities”. It added that delays in developing a long-term radioactive waste management strategy should not be used as a pretext for deferring decisions on the future of nuclear power.
The Government however seems more concerned with how to offset the £48bn cost of dealing with the nuclear left-overs. It has reversed the 30 year old policy of insisting that the wastes produced from reprocessing spent fuel from other countries should be returned to them. Henceforth, as part of a sales effort to win contracts for reprocessing, the UK will keep the intermediate level waste, via a substitution arrangement with high level waste. Patricia Hewitt said that this would reduce the number of waste overseas shipments (which it will, at least per batch) and that the additional income, about £680m, would be ‘used for nuclear clean-up, which will result in savings for the UK taxpayer over the longer term’.
However, we are not doing too well with the clean up operation. Last year, at least 10 workers at the Dounreay nuclear site, which is being decomissioned, were found to have been contaminated with plutonium, with one ‘nose blow’ sample being 200 times the “action level” that triggers a health investigation. Work on decommisioning the lab involved was halted meanwhile. In parallel, plutonium levels from discharges into the sea from BNFL’s Sellafield plant have increased, in part it seems due to the Magnox reprocessing plant increasing its throughput to meet a 2012 deadline to deal with spent Magnox reactor fuel. But discharges of technetium have reduced after BNFL started a new waste treatment plant, following protests from Norway, where technetium was found in lobsters.
Granite Coffin? Dr Fergus Gibb, a specialist in igneous rocks at Sheffield University, suggests that the heat produced by high-grade nuclear waste should be used to allow it, in effect, to melt itself into deep rock strata. The Telegraph (13/11/04) picked this story up:‘His idea is to drill enormously deep holes right into the granite of the continental crust, perhaps 5,000 metres down, at the bottom of which it is quite hot anyway: about 900C. Add some canisters of high-level nuclear waste and the whole bottom of the shaft turns molten. The waste is then “engulfed”, in Gibbs words, by the surrounding rock, which would resolidify in a matter of weeks. The waste would be entombed for millions of years until erosion would again expose it. By then the nuclear material will have lost its potenc.y’
Gibb calls his solution “the granite coffin”. The Telegraph noted that ‘about 400 holes would be needed for the current British stockpile of some 2,000 cubic metres. But once it was done, it would be done. There would be no maintenance. Water does not circulate through rocks below about 4,500 metres and so there would be no Yucca Mountain problem. Processed nuclear waste would be reintegrated with the Earth, where it would form a tiny fraction of the nuclear material already there.’
Let’s hope that this hot fissile material, presumably including plutonium, doesn’t congeal into a critical mass down there- otherwise we might get an even bigger hole...
Grouting in the USA The U.S. Congress has supported a proposal that would allow the Department of Energy (DOE), with the consent of the State of South Carolina, to seal underground tanks containing high-level nuclear waste at the Savannah River Site with grout and leave it onsite permanently. It is claimed that grouting the tanks will safely immobilize the remaining high-level nuclear waste. But the US Institute for Energy & Environmental Research, says that there is no scientific basis for such claims:‘even within the DOE complex the current lack of information regarding the long-term durability of the grout and its ability to immobilize radionuclides over hundreds to thousands of years is widely recognized’ adding that ‘once the tanks are grouted they will be virtually impossible to further remediate’.
More in Russia Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that new licenses will be given to 10 old reactors incuding some RBMK Chernobyl type plants. He also admitted that Russia had nearly 70 million tons of solid radioactive waste.
French nuclear mess
The financial problems that confront British Nuclear Fuels, and British Energy are not unique- the French nuclear industry is also facing similar challenges, and for much the same reasons. Firstly a major commitment to reprocessing of spent fuel. Secondly the realisation of the costs of this, and the nuclear programme generally, given the move towards part privatisation of Electricité de France (EDF), the state owned French utility. It sounds like a replay of events in the UK- privatisation of the CEGB, then the take over of most of the nuclear plants by British Energy and then the state bail out of BE and the even larger bail out of BNFL’s (and BE’s) liabilities.
Shaun Burnie, Paris based Nuclear Campaign Co-ordinator for Greenpeace International, told the Financial Times, Nov. 22, that the reprocessing company Areva had ‘accumulated more than 80 tons of plutonium, and vast quantities of nuclear waste at its La Hague complex. Financial responsibility for this lies with EdF, yet it has squandered its reserve funds on investments worldwide. As it moves towards French-style privatisation, EdF is confronted with huge liabilities, and stocks of weapons-useable plutonium, but insufficient funds to cover them. The only certainty is that costs will rise, so EdF has not committed itself to reprocessing beyond 2007. The only hope for Areva’s reprocessing business is if EdF can find sufficient funds, which is why EdF is now seeking to transfer its massive liabilities to the government waste agency, Andra, and billions in state aid, because, it says, these liabilities are not compatible with a liberalised electricity market.’
He added ‘the European Commission’s decision to launch an investigation into the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has implications far beyond Sellafield. Illegal state aid, whether in the UK or France, is an issue not just for the Commission but for all consumers and taxpayers in the supposedly liberalised European electricity market.’
He concluded, ‘Greenpeace agrees with EdF that its liabilities are not compatible with competition. But the solution is to end reprocessing and the use of bomb material as fuel, and to phase out nuclear power.’
Nuclear Hydrogen ?
A US government laboratory and a private electrochemistry company have been selected to lead a $2.6m Department of Energy project to develop hydrogen by high temperature (1,800 F) electrolysis- a technology once thought to be to expensive to be viable. They want to use a nuclear reactor to provide the heat and the electricity. Ceramatec Inc., and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory “have been able to show that we can produce hydrogen at commercially attractive rates in a very small unit and at conditions that are typical of a high temperature, helium-cooled reactor,” according to INEEL researcher Steve Herring. They estimate that a 300MW reactor could generate enough hydrogen to provide transportation for about 500,000 people.
See: www.ceramatec.com/ www.inel.gov
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