In the news (28 August to 2 September 2013)

Nuclear Energy

We begin this week in Bangladesh, where Aminur Rahman Rasel writes in the Dhaka Tribune that groundwork on the 2,000 MW Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant will begin in October. The low-lying nation of 150 million people has historically had difficulties making durable concrete and is paying Russia’s Atomstroyexport $45.9 million to supervise construction.

Vietnam is accelerating the use of $143 million budgeted to train nuclear professionals, Xinhua News reported. The country, set to begin constructing its first plant next year, wants to annually enroll 250 students in the nuclear disciplines by 2015.

While Paladin CEO John Borshoff lamented uranium prices in The Australian, over at EnergyBiz, Ken Silverstein wrote that “nuclear-energy plants are sweating over the loss of Russian uranium” as the two-decade-long Megatons to Megawatts program comes to an end. World Nuclear News reported that the program down blended 500 tonnes of highly-enriched uranium, enough material to build 20,000 nuclear weapons. Russia could receive $17 billion from the project, Interfax reported.

Questions:   Does not the end of “Megatons-to-Megawatts” portend new business for uranium-enrichment companies more than it does for prospectors? After all, the 24-tons of Russian LEU annually used to down-blend its HEU were covered by U.S. exports. What’s missing is a vast concentration of saved separative work units.

Fukushima & Nuclear Safety

The steady drumbeat of bad news continues to pace coverage of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi disasters: Bloomberg News reported that the Nuclear Regulatory Authority has begun preparing the public for what insiders have long known: that the Fukushima’s tainted water must be dumped into the ocean. The acknowledgement followed weekend news that radiation spikes around the plant have triggered fresh safety concerns. Whiles Reuters reports that Japan’s government will abandon the “hands-off approach to Fukushima,” there’s little indication on what it is prepared to do beyond engaging in a “debate (to) redraw the line” with Tepco over clean-up budgets. Andrew Dewit and Christopher Hobson plead in The Japan Times for the government to assume control on ‘”national security” grounds.’

New research from the halls of academia show how Fukushima’s Cesium-137 discharge will spread across the world’s oceans in the decades ahead. Predictably, media coverage focused on when the radionuclides will be detected off U.S. waters in 2014. Jeremy Hsu at LiveScience wrote that the Pacific’s “energetic and turbulent” currents help the dilution process
. Lindsay Abrams at Salon wrote that the Fukushima plume “
should be harmless” to human health.  

Bill Sweet at IEEE Spectrum wrote a belated review of M.V. Ramana’s “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India” and remains concerned that Indian atomic regulators lack independence.

Behnam Taebi at the Jerusalem Post revisits the Elephant in the Room: “As politicians, energy experts and the general public weigh the pros and cons, one key element in harnessing energy from the atom is being neglected… The technical choices we make today will determine the extent of the burden humanity will face in containing contaminated by-products than can remain radioactive for thousands of years.”

Questions:  How has the IAEA’s parroting of Tepco’s shoddy information affected its reputation? Has the agency sufficiently lowered public expectations around its role in nuclear safety? How much longer before the nuclear industry begs to have a more muscular and assertive international regulator to save its reputation?

Nuclear Security

NRC Handelsblad’s Marcel Haenen reported that the person appointed by the Netherlands to oversee next year’s nuclear-security summit, was dismissed after failing a background check. The Dutch police union has called for an investigation into the dismissal.

Hans Kristensen wrote that the U.S. and Dutch governments are in a dispute over who bears liability in an accident stemming from a potential security or safety breech at Volkel Air Base. The news was first reported by the Brandpunt Reporter and sourced from Wikileaks documents.

The Greenville News’s Eric Connor reports that nuclear engineer Larry Criscione is concerned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will press felony charges against him for asserting records were withheld from the public. The information concerns the security of nuclear plants in the event of dam failures. The U.S
. Army Corps of Engineers admitted in May that hackers breached a database outlining the vulnerabilities of U.S. dams.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s editorial board wrote its concern about vulnerabilities exposed at First Energy Corp.’s Beaver Valley nuclear plant. Even as the operator has spent $132 million on security since 2001, a drill conducted in April revealed “one security shortcoming, five examples of performance below industry norms and six findings of low-security significance.”

Canada’s National Post reported that an unemployed technician tried to get a job by sending nuclear-security experts on a “wild goose chase” by claiming floorplans of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station had been posted on a jihadist website.

Smithsonian Magazine reports that the Malmstrom Air Force Base has been fighting to secure it’s 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman III ICBM’s from an army of squirrels that have dug an extensive network of tunnels around the silos.

Questions:  While nuclear security exercises are intended to expose shortcomings, the Post-Gazette editorial shows continued public misunderstanding around the point of these drills. That’s because the public doesn’t have a baseline to judge security effectiveness. How can regulators and industry improve communication about nuclear security without compromising their efforts? How can the press and broader public hold regulators and industry accountable without access to the people and places that could enhance understanding? How can these accountability flaws be addressed? How do organizations like the IAEA vet their nuclear-security experts?

Iran & Nuclear Safeguards

The NY Times William Broad reported that “Iran Slows Its Gathering of Uranium” after the IAEA released its quarterly safeguards report. Other media reports wrote about “The Dog that Didn’t Bark” and focused on Iran’s installation of 40percent more advanced centrifgures. Since Iran already told IAEA in January that it would install 3,000 IR-2 machines, we question the news judgement of leading on the fact that the country has accomplished only a third of its mission.

The Beltway chorus has inevitably tied the U.S. administration’s “weak” decision to delay military action against Syria to Israeli Worries of Iran Implications.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris look at global nuclear weapon inventories and calculate 97 percent of the 125,000 devices produced since 1945 were made by the U.S., Soviet Union and Russia.

Finally, Robert S. Rochlin, the nuclear physicist who worked for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) for more than three decades, died Aug

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. 25. He was 91. Rochlin co-authored “Radioisotopes for Industry” and “The Technical Problems of Arms Control” among numerous articles.

A loyal reader writes: “The ACDA was created by Kennedy after the Cuban fiasco to provide direct independent advice to the president. It was sacrificed by Clinton in return for Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Conventions and the agency was abolished in 1999 and merged into State. ACDA was non-partisan and did a lot of good work and provided independent advise to U.S. presidents. Its abolition by Clinton ranks as one of his greatest mistakes in office.”

 Questions: How has ACDA’s demise affected decision-making in the White House? Do the intelligence agencies and State Department possess sufficient competencies? Are they sufficiently independent?

Tuesday Bonus

This is a picture of a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), a ship capable of transporting up to 550,000 tons of liquid across oceans. A VLCC could carry all of Fukushima’s 338,000 tons of liquid waste and still have excess capacity! Given the fact that many marine species breed in the relatively shallow waters of littoral zones, would it not make sense for Japan to treat its waste the best it can and then pump the tritium-laced leftovers into the abyssal zone 6,000 meters down? Could it not, ideally, treat the waste on a deep-sea platform? Of course, this would constitute banned dumping in the ocean but would it not be a better choice than releases in the littoral zone which is also just uncontrolled dumping? When does the world get to have a grown-up debate about real-world-crisis response to manmade disasters?