Cold War Relic in Pieces, but Next Generation Looms
June 29, 2006
By Walter Pincus
The Bush administration is expected to announce today that it has dismantled the last of the most powerful nuclear missile warheads left over from the Cold War.
At the same time, however, a Senate subcommittee has added $10 million to next year’s budget to fund a design competition for the second warhead in a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has increased by 50 percent the rate at which it is dismantling older weapons in the nuclear stockpile, which has about 5,000 weapons.
But Congress and the administration are pressing ahead with the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which will guarantee production in the next decade of fewer but more reliable and secure nuclear warheads and bombs.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said yesterday that his Appropriations subcommittee had added $35 million to the fiscal 2007 budget “to accelerate the RRW design activities, including $10 million to initiate a second RRW design competition.”
The panel’s draft report says the second RRW design is proposed “to ensure that our strategic forces have at least two different certified RRW warheads” as a hedge against failure in any one system.
The nation’s two nuclear weapons design centers, the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, are competing to design the first RRW. The nuclear security agency is scheduled to make a choice late this year. A second RRW design competition may provide an opportunity to the losing lab.
The warhead at the center of today’s announcement, the W-56, was put into operation in 1963 atop the Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It had the explosive power of 1.2 megatons or “roughly 100 times greater” than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, according to Thomas B. Cochran, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program.
The W-56 was retired in 1991, when the last Minuteman II ICBMs were taken out of their silos during the George H.W. Bush administration. However, it was not until 1999 that the government started dismantling the first W-56, a slow and precise process because of aging parts and nuclear materials, according to NNSA Deputy Administrator Thomas P. D’Agostino.
“It takes anywhere from a few weeks to a month for each warhead if there are no problems,” D’Agostino said. He noted that “they are difficult to take apart because they were not designed to be dismantled.”
At the peak, about 1,000 W-56 warheads existed. In 1986, when the warhead was more than 20 years old, a partial test was conducted and it was found to be still reliable.
D’Agostino said NNSA is planning to put more emphasis on dismantling retired nuclear weapons, a process that in the past decade has provided a steady amount of work for the Pantex facility outside Amarillo, Tex., where weapons are assembled and disassembled. Up to now, the programs to refurbish operational warheads have used up almost all the operating space at the facility. But with that program declining, dismantling of retired weapons can increase.
In another step related to reduction of operational weapons, the subcommittee cut $82 million from the budget because the Defense Department has decided that it will not continue a program that would have extended the life of W-80 nuclear warheads carried by several hundred submarine- and air-launched cruise missiles.
Senator offers plan to store nuclear waste
Proposal rests on temporary sites
June 28, 2006
By Steve Tetreault
WASHINGTON — The government would store nuclear waste at temporary sites for as long as 25 years while it worked to overcome delays in the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada under a plan offered by the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., on Tuesday advanced a nuclear waste management plan he said would break a logjam in which thousands of tons of used nuclear fuel have accumulated at power plants. Plant operators have sued the Department of Energy for not taking the material away as promised.
“This provision is intended to provide a medium-term solution for spent nuclear fuel,” said Domenici, a nuclear power advocate in Congress.
Domenici said the plan “will not impact Yucca Mountain,” where the department has faced problems and delays. Nuclear waste would be consolidated at state or regional sites for 25 years or until a Yucca Mountain repository could be opened or waste-reprocessing technologies could be commercialized.
The sites would be on federal land or on property obtained from willing sellers, he said. Nevada and Utah would be exempted.
Domenici said a new target date for Yucca Mountain was 2018, “which may happen or may not happen.” He did not explain how the date was reached.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., negotiated the measure with Domenici. Reid said he signed off on it after concluding it would be “Yucca-neutral.”
He said it could buy time for the development of possible alternatives. “This measure will give us time to study the problem of nuclear waste and work towards a solution that is safe and viable,” he said.
Reid has argued that to transport nuclear waste is unsafe, and he has introduced a bill to keep it stored at power plants. He suggested that much of the waste might not move far or at all if DOE can gain agreements with utilities.
More than 50,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is stored at plants in 39 states.
Under the plan, the government would take ownership of nuclear waste stored at eight decommissioned plants and keep it there.
The Department of Energy had no comment. A spokesman said officials received the bill Tuesday.
Frank “Skip” Bowman, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the nuclear industry was reviewing the interim storage provisions.
But Robert List, a former Nevada governor who represents NEI as a consultant in the state, said the interim storage plans “do not delay the Yucca Mountain project.”
“Nevadans should not be deceived into believing that the temporary storage facilities, if built, would in any way slow down or stop the development of the Yucca Mountain facility,” List said in a statement.
The proposal adds a layer of complication to problems of nuclear waste storage and will get a chilly reception from state leaders, said Charles Pray, a nuclear adviser to the governor of Maine and co-leader of a pro-Yucca Mountain task force, which consists of utility regulators and community groups.
“I would find it amazing to find any governor who would step forward and say they would be willing to provide a temporary repository for the next 25 years,” Pray said.
Also, if the plan comes to votes in the House and Senate, lawmakers would be asked to keep nuclear waste within their states for decades, after they voted four years ago to move it to Yucca Mountain, he said.
Nuclear energy debate comes to Ketchum: Watchdog group promotes renewable energy sources
Idaho Mountain Express
June 16, 2006
By REBECCA MEANY
Nuclear power accounts for nearly 20 percent of the total electricity generated in the United States. The Snake River Alliance, a Boise-based nuclear watchdog group, would like to see renewable energy sources nudge that option aside.
Nuclear energy is seeping into the public debate again in part because of declining oil reserves and global climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, said SRA Executive Director Jeremy Maxand.
“In response to major environmental issues we’re facing now—the end of oil and global warming—we’re seeing a push to revitalize nuclear energy in this country,” he said. “We need to find some kind of replacement fuel. We can meet our future energy needs without fossil fuels or nuclear energy. We can achieve our projected energy needs using cleaner, alternative energy sources.”
Maxand and Vanessa Crossgrove Fry, SRA’s development director, spoke Wednesday to a group of approximately 15 people at Ketchum’s Roosevelt Tavern.
“There are too many unresolved problems for us to be making any decisions about nuclear reactors,” Maxand said. “There is still no acceptable long-term solution to what we do with the waste streams that come out of nuclear reactors.”
A proposed repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste from commercial power plants at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is still being debated.
“It’s not clear when it will be built, yet the government wants to build a whole new generation of reactors,” Maxand said. “By the time they open it, it will be already filled with past (nuclear) activities.”
According to estimates provided by the Alliance, Idaho has enough renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal—so far largely untapped—to provide for all of its energy needs, with enough left over to sell on the open market.
Not represented at the gathering were proponents of nuclear energy.
Idaho Power has stated in a long-term assessment that nuclear power is under consideration to meet a growing demand for energy and a diminishing supply of hydropower.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that oversight and regulatory requirements have been strengthened at nuclear power plants since 9/11. The commission also maintains that spent nuclear fuel is adequately protected and redundant safeguards are in place at nuclear plants.
That’s not enough to quiet the voices coming out of the Snake River Alliance’s membership, especially as legislators this summer are updating the state’s energy plan.
“We’re at a crossroads in the state of Idaho right now,” Maxand said. “(We need to) make sure that plan is put together in a transparent, fair way. This is our opportunity. Idahoans need to be vocal in their calls for clean and renewable energy sources.”
More information on nuclear power can be found on the Snake River Alliance’s Web site at www.snakeriveralliance.org or at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy Web site at www.ne.doe.gov
Nuclear power: not green, clean or cheap
By Mark Diesendorf
June 16, 2006
With growing international concern about global climate change from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear power industry has attempted to change the image of its product into that of an energy source that is “clean, green and cheap”. In reality, all the problems that worried us about the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 1980s are either unchanged or have become worse. In the latter case:
* the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons is worse because the US and Australian governments are undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by selling uranium to non-signatories, India and Taiwan. While the NPT is far from adequate, it is better than nothing or unilateral US control; * since September 11, 2001, the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities has increased. The fewer the facilities, the safer everyone is; * now that several countries have created competitive markets for electricity, it is clear that the cost of nuclear electricity is even higher than previously projected (see below); and * detailed recent calculations of the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle reveal that nuclear energy, based on existing technology, cannot be a long-term solution to global climate change from the human-induced greenhouse effect (see below).
This article addresses the last two of these points.
The nuclear industry has disseminated widely the false notion that nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gas emissions. The truth is that every step (except reactor operation) in the long chain of processes that makes up the nuclear fuel “cycle” – mining, milling fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment, construction and decommissioning of the reactor, and waste management – burns fossil fuels and hence emits carbon dioxide (CO2).
Over the past 20 years there have been several calculations of CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle. The most detailed calculation comes from Van Leeuwen and Smith (VLS) (2005).
Contrary to the claims of the nuclear industry, VLS find that the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are only small when high-grade uranium ore is used. But there are very limited reserves of high-grade uranium in the world and most are in Australia and Canada. As these are used up over the next several decades, low-grade uranium ore (comprising 0.01 per cent or less yellowcake) will have to be used.
This means that to obtain 1kg of yellowcake, at least 10 tonnes of ore will have to be mined and milled, using fossil fuels and emitting substantial quantities of CO2. These emissions are comparable with those from a combined cycle gas-fired power station.
In response, the nuclear industry cites a report by Swedish utility, Vattenfall, which only considers a single power station and obtains lower emissions than VLS in the case of high-grade uranium ore and apparently doesn’t address low-grade uranium at all. This report has not been published and is not available on the Internet – only a summary that does not reveal most of the assumptions or results, is available.
It is very poor science to cite a report that is unavailable to the public. Van Leeuwen and Smith’s report, which is based on the analysis of many uranium mines and power stations, stands unrefuted at present.
In theory, a technically possible solution to the shortage of high-grade uranium would be to switch to fast breeder reactors, which produce so much plutonium that in theory they can multiply the original uranium fuel by 50. Large-scale chemical reprocessing of spent fuel would be necessary to extract the plutonium and unused uranium, and this has its own hazards and costs, since spent fuel is intensely radioactive and plutonium is an excellent nuclear explosive. The “commercial” reprocessing industry has failed in the US and UK. Only France hangs on.
Fast breeders use liquid sodium as a coolant and so are more dangerous than ordinary nuclear reactors. So far, fast breeders have all been technical and economic failures. The largest was the French 1,200 megawatt Superphoenix, a name that alludes to the mythical bird that burnt itself on a funeral pyre and then arose from the ashes to live again with renewed youth.
Reality was rather different from the myth: Superphoenix commenced operation in 1985 as a “commercial industrial prototype”. It operated only intermittently and very rarely at full power, experiencing leaks from its cooling system and several other accidents. It was shut down at the end of 1998 after costing an estimated total of about A$15 billion.
At present there are no commercial scale fast breeder reactors operating. There is a 600 megawatt demonstration fast neutron reactor in Russia, but it has a history of accidents and does not seem to have ever operated as a breeder. The pro-nuclear study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), entitled The Future of Nuclear Power, does not expect the breeder cycle to come into commercial operation during the next three decades.
In summary, nuclear power, based on existing technologies, is a dead-end side alley on the pathway to reducing CO2 emissions.
In most countries where there is a competitive electricity industry, it is clear that nuclear electricity is much more expensive than fossil
electricity. In the UK and US nuclear energy is even more expensive than wind power. More specifically, the MIT (2003) report (cited above) estimates that the cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear power station in the US would be US6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh), or about AU9c/kWh Australian. For comparison coal power in eastern Australia costs under AU4c/kWh. Wind power in US costs US4-5c/kWh and in Australia AU7.5-8.5c/kWh, depending upon site.
When the UK electricity industry was privatised, the British Government had to impose a fossil fuel levy to subsidise nuclear electricity. By 1998 the annual subsidy had reached £1.2 billion per year, equivalent to a subsidy of about AU6c/kWh Australian on each unit of nuclear electricity generated. In addition, it has recently been estimated by the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that dismantling Britain’s existing nuclear power stations will cost about £70 billion. Since a full-size nuclear power station (1,000
megawatts or more) has never been decommissioned anywhere in the world, the costs could turn out to be even higher.
The only new “commercial” nuclear power station under construction in a developed country is currently taking shape in Finland. The nuclear industry claims that this demonstrates nuclear energy is competitive in market conditions. But the power station is being built by a consortium, that includes a 40 per cent share by the government of Finland, which will sell its electricity to its own members. Thus the consortium avoids conditions of a competitive market and so has obtained finance at interest rates far below market rates. The European Commission is currently considering a complaint about this practice.
On the global scene, consider the following frank summary of the 1998 electricity generating cost study that was published jointly by the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The raw data was supplied by the nuclear industries in the countries surveyed, so they are hardly likely to be biased against nuclear energy. The summary was presented by Dr Fatih
Birol, the chief economist and head of the Economic Analysis Division, International Energy Agency (IEA), at an annual international forum of the Uranium Institute:
The results confirm the current cost advantage of fossil-fuelled power generation … Clearly, under BAU [business-as-usual] assumptions the contribution of nuclear power over the next two decades will be limited.
The harsh reality is, at market interest rates of 10 per cent real or more, nuclear electricity is uneconomic almost everywhere in the world. It is at least double the cost of coal power in the US and UK, and would be nearly three times the cost of coal power in eastern Australia.
The nuclear industry’s solution to these harsh economic realities has been to produce a series of reports on the economics of a “new generation” of nuclear power stations that only exists on paper at present. In theory such reactors would be slightly cheaper and possibly slightly safer than existing models. The latest estimate of “new generation” economics is the report to ANSTO by leading nuclear industry figure, John Gittus, claiming that a non-existent nuclear power station, AP1000, would be competitive with coal power in eastern Australia under certain conditions.
The Gittus report’s conditions are indicated in two alternative scenarios. One involves substantial government subsidies on the capital and operating costs of the proposed power station. The other involves “no subsidy”, according to Gittus, just a massive government guaranteed, unsecured, “insured loan, which would be repaid to government, together with a retrospective premium, out of revenues from the station once it began to generate electricity”.
But, what if the untried nuclear power station proves to be more expensive to build and operate than the paper study estimates? That has always been the case with nuclear power in the past. What if the earnings from electricity sales prove to be insufficient to repay the additional costs and the loans? The Gittus report is vague on such details, suggesting that the government (i.e., the taxpayer) would share the risk. If so, this is a subsidy dressed up as a loan and neither of Gittus’s scenarios is anywhere near being economically competitive with conventional coal power. If this proposal is a good deal for the lender, why is it necessary for the government to lend anything? Surely, private financial institutions would be queuing up? Though it’s strange that no private investors have funded a new
nuclear power station in the US for over a quarter century, despite massive subsidies to the industry.
The investor’s choice
The nuclear industry is offering investors and the community a false choice between coal and nuclear power, which are both dirty and dangerous technologies. But the real choice is between clean power – comprising a mix of efficient energy use, natural gas and renewable sources of energy – and dirty power – comprising coal and nuclear power.
Both coal and nuclear power have severe adverse environmental, health and social impacts. Both offer big financial risks to investors. That’s why the Gittus report requests that the government either pay a direct subsidy or take on much of the financial risk, which is an indirect subsidy. It is essential that the Australian community does not permit the government (i.e., the taxpayer) to take on the financial risk of building new coal-fired or nuclear power stations.
A truly ethical and clean investment portfolio in energy would exclude both the coal and nuclear industries. Efficient energy use and renewable energy offer safe and clean investments. Over the past 15 years, wind power has been both the fastest growing and cleanest energy technology in the world. Bioenergy is already making valuable contributions to energy supply in Finland and Austria. China’s target is for renewable energy (mostly wind power) to contribute 12 per cent of electricity and nuclear only 4 per cent by 2020.
Meanwhile, huge potential for hot rock geothermal power has been demonstrated in Australia and a new generation of solar electricity
generators (thin films including CSG cells developed at UNSW, sliver cells developed at ANU and solar thermal electricity) is coming onto the global market.
‘Downwinders’ deserve their due
Idaho Mountain Express
June 16, 2006
The news out of Washington is a baffling set of contradictions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency freely and hurriedly ladled out $1.4 billion in aid to hundreds of ineligible Katrina hurricane claimants—call it fraud—and just as quickly peeled off $60,000 in compensation to families of 24 Iraqis shot and killed in Haditha by U.S. Marines who’re being investigated for murder.
But several hundred Idahoans have been denied compensation from the same government for illnesses they and experts contend were the result of radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Mind you, the government doesn’t reject claims of all “downwinder” families living where radioactive fallout rained down. Washington has paid claims to families in Utah, Nevada and Arizona—a handsome total of $440 million, in fact.
But nothing for Idahoans.
That despite data showing that four Idaho counties—Blaine, Custer, Gem and Lemhi—ranked among the nation’s top five in per capita thyroid dosage of radiation.
Idahoans claiming illnesses from nuclear dust were just as unwitting and unknowing victims of secret nuclear tests that showered them as were residents in the other states, and surely deserve better of their government than cold indifference.
If the U.S. Treasury can shell out $1.4 billion to pay fraudulent Katrina claims, it certainly can find just and relatively modest compensation for ill survivors of nuclear tests about which they were not warned and therefore could not escape.