Thirty-one countries have nuclear power plants (September 2016) accounting for just under 11% of global electricity generation. Twelve of them depend on nuclear for at least a third of their juice, including France (75%), along with Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine (50 to 55 %). In the US that figure stands at about 20%, as in Britain. link  Safety, massive cost overruns and building delays are major problems for any future projects which would require huge government subsidies. No nuclear reactor has ever been built anywhere in the world without substantial government subsidy, and no reactor ever will be built without substantial government funding in future. Also private investors are not enamoured by nuclear power because construction risks are too high (with cost overruns and substantial delays all but guaranteed), and the political risks (with governments constantly changing their mind about levels of support) even higher. [The 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States use between 25,000 and 27,500 tons of uranium oxide per year.] Thorium is considered a safer and cheaper alternative.    [A short history of nuclear fission - link]         

  • Is nuclear power safe?
  • What is the real cost of nuclear?
  • Nuclear energy in the USA
  • Is thorium fuel an alternative?
  • Waste storage - a problem for 60 years.
  • The French connection
  • Uranium
  • Elsewhere in the world
Nuclear Information and Resource Service - link
Recommended link for information on nuclear history etc. - Mother Jones   

Is Nuclear Power safe?

May 2016: The lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima. In 2016 65 new nuclear reactors were under construction, which means that despite heated debates about its future, the atomic energy industry is far from being dead. But as scientists and doctors have yet to explore all of the effects on human health and on the environment of Chernobyl and Fukushima, it's the next generations that will have the final say on the matter.  link

What is called the "Third Generation" of nuclear plants is running into serious problems as countries envisage nuclear power solving energy shortages before 2020. A recent report suggests major setbacks for nuclear energy plans with flaws in US and French models 
(link) and Britain's nuclear regulator said he would not hesitate to halt construction if problems emerged as expected. (No British nuclear power station had ever been built on time.) link  Generation IV nuclear power reactors promises to be safer, more fuel efficient and less water intensive. An international task force is developing six nuclear reactor technologies for deployment between 2020 and 2030. Four are fast neutron reactors. All of these operate at higher temperatures than today's reactors. In particular, four are designated for hydrogen production. All six systems represent advances in sustainability, economics, safety, reliability and proliferation-resistance. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists informs that the probability of a serious nuclear accident is low—but the consequences can be catastrophic. Nuclear power plants are complex systems operated by human beings who can and do make mistakes. As such, they are vulnerable to accidents and failures because of natural disasters such as flooding, earthquakes and extreme weather, fires, equipment failures, improper maintenance, and human errors. UCS experts provide analysis on these infrequent but serious threats—and what the NRC should be doing about them. link  While the World Nuclear Association naturally claims nuclear to be a safe form of energy, saying there have been three major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima,  nuclear power experts, computer models and other analyses have consistently shown for decades that a problem in the older boiling-water reactors employed at Fukushima Daiichi would become disastrous because of a flawed safety system that houses the nuclear fuel, known as the Mark I containment. The U.S. has 23 reactors with the same kind of safety systems—and the same risky placement of pools for spent nuclear fuel, namely, alongside the main reactor in the top of the reactor building. link

April 2016: Central bankers stimulate nuclear end that evaded activists. Central banks may accomplish what a generation of anti-nuclear activists have failed to do: Force operators to finally decommission almost 150 reactors now sitting in limbo across the globe. The plants have been shut down, either because they’re too expensive to run or because of concerns about their safety or age. They can’t send electricity to the grid, and they’ll need the special funds saved over decades for formal decommissioning and clean-up of radioactive waste. link

February 2016: Britain leads race to make nuclear waste safe for 100,000 years. British scientists are designing a revolutionary cement that could withstand the impact of intense radiation for thousands of years. The project could prove vital in dealing with the challenges of Britain’s proposed expansion of its nuclear industry. A move towards more nuclear power will lead to the generation of extra nuclear waste. It is estimated that about 300,000 cubic metres of highly radioactive intermediate waste, including old fuel rods and irradiated reactor components, will have accumulated in the UK by 2030 as a result of this expansion. At present these swelling stocks are stored above ground near reactors. However, their growing risk to the environment has forced the government to pledge to dispose of the material underground in a major depository. link

Carlsbad WIPP nuclear waste leak

December 2015: WIPP is making progress in recovery efforts following radiation leaks in 2014. (link) June 2014: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) approximately 26 miles east of Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico, is America's only nuclear waste repository. Mid-March 2014 WIPP suffered a surface radiation release almost twice the levels released in February. WIPP was designed to isolate highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste from the environment for 10,000 years. It went 15 years before its first leak of radioactivity into the above-ground environment. Radiation levels in the storage area where the original leak occurred are possibly as lethal as Fukushima, hampering efforts to determine the source, cause, and scale of the February leak. More than five months after the February accident, officials still have no certain understanding of what went wrong. It is generally thought that one 55-gallon drum of waste (perhaps more than one) overheated and burst, spilling radioactive waste in a part of the storage area designated a “High Contamination Area.”  The room holds 258 containers, tightly stacked and packed wall-to-wall, with no aisles to allow easy access. link 
August 2016:
Carlsbad accident ranks among the costliest in U.S. history - link

January 2015: Nuclear radiation can affect food 80 miles away. Nuclear waste released from the Cumbrian processing plant in England has made fish and shellfish caught sad far away as Scotland, 80 miles distant slightly radioactive. Traces of radiation have also been found in fruit, vegetables and milk in parts of north-east Scotland. link

Many of the world's 442 nuclear power reactors are by the sea, rather than by lakes or rivers, to ensure vast water supplies for cooling fuel rods in emergencies like that at the Fukushima plant on Japan's east coast. This exposes the dilemma of whether to build power plants on tsunami-prone coasts or inland sites where water supplies are unreliable, a problem likely to be aggravated by climate change, experts say. [Map of nuclear power plants around the globe suspect to earthquakes - link

Leukemia. (February 2008) Evidence from government-sponsored studies in Germany suggests that young children who live close to nuclear power stations are twice as vulnerable to developing leukemia. link

Note: The sole U.S. plant that enriches uranium for civilian power reactors, located in Paducah, Kentucky, accomplishes this via an energy-hogging process that consumes 15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year and uses 26 million gallons of water per day. link
As with coal-fired plants, nuclear facilities can be considered a threat to our water needs. Progress’s Harris nuclear reactor in North Carolina, for example, sucks up 33 million gallons of water a day, with 17 million gallons lost to evaporation via its big cooling towers. If the south-eastern region of the U.S.A. is heading towards future droughts, as predicted, this will seriously affect water availability for the public. Other concern at this particular plant highlight security issues at all nuclear plants, as this article identifies: "Guards sound alarm over security at Shearon Harris nuclear plant"

February 2010: Quarter of U.S. nuclear plants found to be releasing radioactive tritium. Vermont Yankee is just the latest of dozens of U.S. nuclear plants to be found  leaking tritium raising concerns about nation's aging plants, many built in the 1960s and ’70s. Tritium, found in nature in tiny amounts and a product of nuclear fusion, has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin in large amounts. link  (Update Feb. 25 -In an unusual state foray into nuclear regulation, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4  to block operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant after 2012, citing radioactive leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials and other problems. link)

BRITAIN: The BBC reported that it will take over 100 years before the toxic nuclear site at Sellafield (formerly Windscale) is safe. A spokesman for Sellafield Ltd said: "Sellafield isn't a place that can just be closed down. It is about the removal of plant and equipment from the building, it is about decontaminating and knocking them down, that takes decades. It has been estimated that it will cost £73bn ($136 bn) to decommission all nuclear civilian facilities in the UK. link   (Page on Sellafield link

April 2011: In Southeastern US, extreme heat is a growing concern for nuclear plant operators. During July 2010, eight weeks of unrelenting heat forced TVA’s Browns Ferry to run at only half of its regular power. The total cost of the lost power over that time was more than $50 million, all of which was paid for by TVA's customers in Tennessee. With river water so warm, the nuclear plant couldn't draw in as much water as usual to cool the facility's three reactors, or else the water it pumped back into the river could be hot enough to harm the local ecosystem.  link  

The real costs of nuclear

"Despite industry efforts to frame nuclear energy as the cheapest option, the reality is that nuclear power’s very survival has required large and continuous government support,” writes Doug Koplow in a Christian Science Monitor article (no longer on line). Mr. Koplow tracks $178 billion in public subsidies for nuclear energy for the period from 1947 to 1999. Others have reached similar figures. Altogether, nuclear-industry bailouts in the 1970s and ’80s cost taxpayers and ratepayers in excess of $300 billion in 2006 dollars, according to three independent studies cited in a new nuclear-cost study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 2008 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported the average risk of default on government guarantees for nuclear projects was 50%. Mark Cooper, senior fellow at Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment, said that even if no loans were defaulted on, nuclear would be too expensive: Wall Street is unwilling to finance any new capital projects without a 100% federal guarantee. (Doug Koplow is president of the Boston energy consulting company Earth Track: more here for his analysis that nuclear power is still not viable without subsidies.)

December 2016: Nuclear energy revival remains elusive. A legacy of lies and cover-up leaves nuclear energy with a serious credibility gap, and no sign of its long-promised revival. Opposition to nuclear is based on the belief that the industry has lost all integrity and credibility and that renewables are a cheaper, safer and all-round better bet.  This view is reinforced by the inability of the industry to deal with its waste.  link

September 2016  French nuclear giant gambling on Hinkley. The project carries huge risk for EDF, which is nearly $41.5 billion in debt. Their project at Flamanville on the Normandy coast, as well as another in Finland, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns which have discouraged other investors from opting for EPR reactors. The French state needs EDF to succeed as it has already poured in billions to keep its competitor Areva afloat and thousands of French workers on the payroll - NuclearPowerDaily  (More on Hinkley - link

August 2016: Nuclear power is losing money at an astonishing rate. Half of existing nuclear power plants are no longer profitable, and renewables aren’t the primary cause of the industry’s woes, but cheap fracked gas. The $7.6 billion New York state just decided to give its nuclear plants appears to be way too large. A July Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis concluded that nukes producing 56% of U.S. nuclear power would be unprofitable over the next three years. link

July 2014: Report paints bleak future for nuclear powerThe globe’s nuclear power industry is aging, plagued with high costs and construction delays, and generally on the decline. Nuclear power’s share in global energy production declined to 10.8% in 2013, down from 17.6% at its peak in 1996.  link

(1992 figures) Commercial nuclear power has thus far cost $492 billion dollars in the USA, $97 billion of which has been in the form of federal subsidies. This excluded costs such as health effects of radiation, accidents, adequate insurance, which could well total another $375 billion. This figure does not include the almost certain escalation in future waste and decommissioning costs.  link  

February 2016: Cost is compelling factor stalling US nuclear industry. This article explains why nuclear became so expensive while not necessarily advocating for this energy source. link

March 2012: Decommissioning aging US reactors costly. The operators of 20 of the nation’s aging nuclear reactors, including some whose licenses expire soon, have not saved nearly enough money for prompt and proper dismantling. If it turns out that they must close, the owners intend to let them sit like industrial relics for 20 to 60 years or even longer while interest accrues in the reactors’ retirement accounts. Decommissioning a reactor is a painstaking and expensive process that involves taking down huge structures and transporting the radioactive materials to the few sites around the country that can bury them. The cost is projected at $400 million to $1 billion per reactor, which in some cases is more than what it cost to build the plants in the 1960s and ’70s.  link   June 2011: Decommissioning a nuclear plant can cost $1 billion and take decades. link 

Nuclear is not the answer to the climate crisis. (December 2015) Many scientists around the world remain sceptical that nuclear is the answer, or even part of the answer, to climate change. The academic authors have a fine record in identifying the causes and consequences of climate change, but their proposed solution simply doesn’t make sense. The main problem is that, contrary what many think, nuclear power is a poor method of reducing carbon emissions: its uranium ore and fuel processes have heavy carbon footprints. Indeed, of the ways to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sphere, nuclear is by far the most expensive in terms of pound per tonne of carbon saved. link

July 2011: Nuclear power spiraling costs and delays. New delays and bumper cost overruns of EDF's new reactor in France make it very hard to believe that nuclear power can fulfil the promises its supporters make. The new nuclear plant being built by EDF in France is now four years behind schedule and €2.7bn over budget. The only other new nuclear plant being built in Europe is in Finland and like EDF a state-controlled French company where costs are now estimated at €5.6bn. That is four years late and €2.6bn over budget. link

April 2014: Revised quake estimates add to nuclear costs. Owners of at least two dozen nuclear reactors across the U.S. have told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they cannot show that their reactors would withstand the most severe earthquake that revised estimates say they might face, according to industry experts. As a result, the reactors’ owners will be required to undertake extensive analyses of their structures and components. Owners of some plants may be forced to make physical changes, and are likely to spend about $5 million each just for the analysis.  link

August 2010: Nuclear energy globally is phasing down - there is no renaissance.
As of July 2010, a total of 439 nuclear power plants in just 30 of the world's countries have a net installed capacity of 373GW - just 1.2GW more than in 2006 - and meets 16% of the world's energy needs. At least 100 older and smaller reactors will most likely be closed over the next 10-15 years. link

Nuclear energy in the US

August 2017: U.S. nuclear power plants are ‘bleeding cash’. The nuclear industry is so uncompetitive now that over half of all existing U.S. nuclear power plants are “bleeding cash” according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, which found that $2.9 billion is lost every year by just 55% of all the nuclear plants in the United States. link

August 2017: The nuclear renaissance in the U.S. has collapsed. Most of the 18 nuclear projects pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a decade ago have been aborted or suspended indefinitely. None of the 7 projects the NRC licensed are operational. Only one is still being built, in Georgia, at a cost of $100 million a month. Southern Co. financial have filed documents saying the project, slated to cost $14 billion, could cost $25 billion or more if completed.  link

(March 2017) There are 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants in the USA with 99 nuclear reactors operating in 30 states by 30 different power companies.  Despite a near halt in new construction of more than 30 years, US reliance on nuclear power has grown. In 1980, nuclear plants accounted for 11% of the country's electricity generation. In 2008, that output had risen to nearly 20% of electricity, providing more than 30% of the electricity generated from nuclear power worldwide.  link / second link

October 2016: First new US nuclear reactor in 20 years enters operation. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s 1,150MW Watts Bar 2 reactor is officially online and producing electricity for to 650,000 homes and businesses, the company announced Wednesday. Construction on the reactor began in 1973 but was put on hold in 1985. Officials restarted work on the project in 2007, and it was finally completed last year at a cost of $4.7 billion. link

June 2014: Hanford – America’s most contaminated nuclear waste siteDespite some progress, the site's most complicated and potentially dangerous waste issue - 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste sitting inside tanks at the centre of the site - is facing more problems. Hanford, in Washington State, has long been the most contaminated nuclear waste site in the US and critics say poor management has put the site in further danger. Clean-up operation has already cost $40bn and is expected to continue for decades. Hanford is where the US produced plutonium used in the Manhattan Project, for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, and for a Cold  War stockpile. link

August 2012: U.S. freezes all nuclear power plant licensing decisions. A ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit led federal nuclear regulators to freeze at least 19 final reactor licensing decisions in response to the ruling that spent nuclear fuel stored on-site at nuclear power plants “poses a dangerous, long-term health and environmental risk.”  The court noted that, after decades of failure to site a permanent geologic repository, including 20 years of working on the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, the NRC “has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. ”Therefore, it is possible that spent fuel will be stored at reactor sites “on a permanent basis,” the court said. link

                        The hold-up with new reactors in the USA

April 2010: Design for new nuclear reactor less safe than America's current fleet
A coalition of 12 environmental groups put U.S. nuclear energy regulators on the hot seat this week by declaring that the leading design for new reactors is unsafe and appealing to officials to investigate.

June 2011: Westinghouse AP 1000  reactor design critically flawed.- NC WARN

December 2011: Westinghouse AP1000 design approved. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the radical new reactor design, clearing away a major obstacle for two utilities to begin construction in South Carolina and Georgia. The four reactors to be built are the only survivors in what had been envisioned as a bigger field of new plants that narrowed over the last three years as investors ran into financial and other obstacles. In fact, it is not clear whether ground will be broken on any additional reactors soon; industry experts say the biggest obstacle is that the price of natural gas remains quite low, making it difficult to produce electricity from a reactor at a price competitive with electricity from a gas-burning plant. link   (Update - the two reactors in South Carolina have been scrapped.) 

February 2010: To understand why the U.S. hasn't built a nuclear reactor in three decades, the Vogtle power plant in Georgia is an excellent reminder of the insanity of nuclear economics. The plant's original cost estimate was less than $1 billion for four reactors. Its eventual price tag in 1989 was nearly $9 billion, for only two reactors. The estimated cost is now $14 billion. Recent studies have priced new nuclear power at 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, about four times the cost of producing juice with new wind or coal plants, or 10 times the cost of reducing the need for electricity through investments in efficiency. link

October 2013: America's radioactive waste growing. About 13% of America’s 70,000 metric tons of the radioactive waste is stashed in pools of water or in special casks at the atomic plants in Illinois that produced it, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group. That’s the most held in any state. Across the country, atomic power plants have become de facto major radioactive waste-management operations. With no place to send their waste, power plants in 30 states which generate about 20% of the nation’s electricity are doubling as dumps for spent fuel that remains dangerous for thousands of years. The spent fuel needs repackaging every 100 years for half a million years in the future. link

A typical nuclear power plant generates 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel each year. The nuclear industry generates a total of about 2,000 - 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year. Over the past four decades, the entire industry has produced 76,430 metric tons of used nuclear fuel. Low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) consists of items that have come in contact with radioactive materials, such as gloves, personal protective clothing, tools, water purification filters and resins, plant hardware, and wastes from reactor cooling-water cleanup systems. It generally has levels of radioactivity that decay to background radioactivity levels in less than 500 years. About 95% decays to background levels within 100 years or less. link

                     Georgia's controversial new Vogtle plant.

February 2017: More troubles for Vogtle - the financial fallout of Toshiba Corp's nuclear construction business hits the Georgia plant - link

March 2012: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to allow construction of two nuclear reactors near Augusta, Georgia based on the AP1000 type nuclear reactors designed by Westinghouse. link    (According to the US Dept. of Energy, the last reactor built in the USDA was the ‘River Bend’ plant in Louisiana; its construction began in 1977.)

February 2014: Plant needs federal loans to construct. The Energy Department is poised to approve $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for the first nuclear power plant built from scratch in this country in more than three decades. Energy Secretary Moniz was expected to announce final approval of the deal a day before he visits the $14 billion Vogtle nuclear plant now under construction in eastern Georgia. Atlanta-based Southern Co. is building the plant with several partners about 30 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga. The project is widely considered a major test of whether the industry can build nuclear plants without the endemic delays and cost overruns that plagued earlier rounds of building in the 1970s. Vogtle was originally estimated to cost around $14 billion, but government monitors have warned the final cost is likely to be higher. The Energy Department tentatively approved an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for the project in 2010 as part of President Barack Obama’s pledge to expand nuclear and other energy sources. link  (Photo - inside look at containment unit in Plant Vogtle's Unit 3 - credit Georgia Power)

February 2015: More delays. Originally expected to come online in 2016 when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the go-ahead for construction and operation in 2012, the project has experienced repeated delays that have  now pushed back the startup date to mid-2019 for Unit 3 and mid-2020 for Unit 4. Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power owns 46% of the project. Its costs were originally estimated at $6.1 billion but have grown to $7.4 billion with delays and overruns. The problems are an increasing black eye for the project that was intended to show that new licensing design and construction approaches would avoid the problems encountered with previous reactors where costs often ballooned far beyond Initial estimates.  link

May 2011:
Risk from spent nuclear reactor fuel is greater in U.S. than in Japan.
The threat of a catastrophic release of radioactive materials from a spent fuel pool at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant is dwarfed by the risk posed by such pools in the United States, which are typically filled with far more radioactive material, according to a study just released. The report recommends that the United States transfer most of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel from pools filled with cooling water to dry sealed steel casks to limit the risk of an accident resulting from an earthquake, terrorism or other event. link

Thorium power as an alternative

May 2016: Fourth generation nuclear alternatives. Nuclear power currently provides 11% of the world’s energy. But that number needs to grow to 17% to hit the globe’s targeted CO2 emission reduction levels by 2050, according to the IEA. There are six leading technologies among the so-called fourth generation of nuclear power plants, all of them offer improvements, but MSR (molten salt reactors) promises the best economy, some experts say.  link

China could be taking one of the first substantial steps in a new type nuclear race. The fuel is abundant and distributed across the world, there is no real possibility of creating weapons-grade material as part of the process and the waste remains toxic for hundreds rather than thousands of years. (Pictured at left - thorium pellets.)  Also the power stations are small and present no risk of massive explosions. This could fairly soon be reality judging from a little-noticed development in China last month. China is aiming to build a prototype within five years that can produce electricity at for as little as 6.8p per kilowatt hour (much cheaper than the retail price of power in the UK today). Thorium, which is found in large quantities across much of the world, could be used to create nuclear energy in various ways. LTFR (liquid-fluoride thorium reactor) technology was developed by the US military in the 1950s and 1960s and was shown to have many benefits.  For example, reactors of this type can be smaller than conventional uranium reactors, partly thanks to their low-pressure operation. Despite its early promise, research into liquid-fluoride thorium reactors was abandoned, the most likely reason being that the technology offered no potential for producing nuclear weapons. Despite not making a ripple in the wider press, there's a chance this development could be very significant.

Thorium fuel - No Panacea for Nuclear Power.   

Thorium, which refers to thorium-232, is a radioactive metal that is about three times more abundant than uranium in the natural environment. Large known deposits are in Australia, India, and Norway. Some of the largest reserves are found in Idaho in the U.S. A fact sheet produced by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility, however, claims that thorium fuel is not a panacea for nuclear power with problems both of cost and safety.   link 

March 2014: China advances thorium plans.
In an effort to reduce the number of coal-fired plants, the Chinese government has brought forward by 15 years the deadline to develop a nuclear power plant using the radioactive element thorium instead of uranium in an attempt to reduce its reliance on coal and to cut air pollution. A team of researchers in Shanghai has now been told it has 10 instead of 25 years to develop the world's first such plant. link

December 2013: Thorium alternative revives nuclear prospects. Enthusiasm for exploiting thorium as an alternative to uranium is on the rise across the world. Uranium-poor India has a long-term research effort under way and has decided thorium will become the mainstay of its nuclear energy industry later this century. France has a research program. Companies in the United States, Australia, Norway and the Czech Republic are working on reactor designs or thorium fuel technology. A new generation of scientists and nuclear engineers argue that thorium could be the key to realizing a dream of safe, cheap and plentiful nuclear power for an energy hungry world. Energy from thorium is not just scientific theory. In April 2013, Thor Energy, a private Norwegian company, began producing power from thorium - named after the Norse god of thunder - at the Halden test reactor in Norway. link  

September 2012: UK report on Thorium prospects.  link
February 2011: Meanwhile development is planned for Japan. link

November 2011: India plans 'safer' nuclear plant powered by thorium. Officials are currently selecting a site for the reactor, which would be the first of its kind, using thorium for the bulk of its fuel instead of uranium, the fuel for conventional reactors. They plan to have the plant up and running by the end of the decade. link  


July 2012: Are fast-breeder reactors the answer to nuclear waste? Plutonium is the nuclear nightmare, so science is looking – again – to fast-breeder reactors. A typical 1,000MW reactor produces 27 tons of spent fuel a year. None of it yet has a home. If not used as a fuel, it will need to be kept isolated for thousands of years to protect humans and wildlife. Burial deep underground seems the obvious solution, but nobody has yet built a geological repository. Fast-breeder technology is almost as old as nuclear power. As only fast reactors can consume the plutonium, critics argue that, even if it works properly, mox fuel is an expensive way of generating not much energy, while leaving most of the plutonium intact, albeit in a less dangerous form. Theoretically at least, fast reactors can keep recycling their own fuel until all the plutonium is gone, generating electricity all the while. Britain’s huge plutonium stockpile makes it a vast energy resource. David MacKay, Britain’s chief scientist recently said British plutonium contains enough energy to run the country’s electricity grid for 500 years. link

Nuclear waste - a problem for 60 years

June 2017: Finland’s 100-year plan for burying nuclear waste. Beneath a forested patch of land on the Gulf of Bothnia, at the bottom of a steep tunnel that winds for three miles through granite bedrock, Finland is getting ready to entomb its nuclear waste. The fuel, which contains plutonium and other products of nuclear fission, will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years - time enough for a new ice age and other epochal events. But between the 2-inch-thick copper, the clay and the surrounding ancient granite, officials say, there should be no risk of contamination to future generations. link

May 2017: Staggering sums of money to deal with nuclear waste. The world's nuclear waste problems make it a booming business.The estimates of the amounts of money involved in keeping old nuclear plants safe and dismantling them are so large that they are almost beyond comprehension − and unlikely to be accurate anyway. The fact is that the problems are so difficult and so liable to complications that delays and costs are bound to escalate. It is a potential market growing at enormous pace because dozens of reactors are nearing the end of their lifetimes. Japan has just doubled its estimate for cleaning up the Fukushima site to $193 billion (and likely to increase yet). link    May 2017: Scientists warn storage of nuclear waste poses threat to U.S. The reluctance of U.S. federal regulators to require operators of nuclear reactors to spend $5 billion to enhance the security of spent fuel rods stored underground threatens the country with a potential catastrophe.  link  

April 2016: Catastrophic radioactive leak at Hanford waste storage facility. Since 1989 the work at Hanford has focused solely on cleanup where plutonium production continued throughout the Cold War. The new leak poses problems on several fronts. The outer shell of AY-102 does not have exhaust or filtration systems to keep the dangerous gases created by the waste, in check. Workers have been ordered to wear full respiratory safety gear in the area, but the risk remains. “The primary tanks weren’t designed to stage waste like this for so many years,” said a current worker. “There’s always the question, ‘Are the outer shells compromised’”? link

May 2014: US plants prepare long-term nuclear waste storage. As of May 2013, the U.S. nuclear industry had 69,720 tons of uranium waste with 49,620 tons in pools and 20,100 in dry storage, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute industry group. Spent nuclear fuel is about 95% uranium. About 1% is other heavy elements such as curium, americium and plutonium-239. Each has an extremely long half-life, some take hundreds of thousands of years to lose all of their radioactive potency. link

February 2014: New Mexico WIPP - partial nuclear waste solution. Half a mile beneath the desert surface, in thick salt beds in New Mexico left behind by seas that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago, the Department of Energy is carving out rooms as long as football fields and cramming them floor to ceiling with barrels and boxes of nuclear waste. The salt beds, which have the consistency of crumbly rock so far down in the earth, are what the federal government sees as a natural sealant for the radioactive material left over from making nuclear weapons. The process is deceptively simple: Plutonium waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and a variety of defense projects is packed into holes bored into the walls of rooms carved from salt. At a rate of six inches a year, the salt closes in on the waste and encapsulates it for what engineers say will be millions of years. However the material buried is limited by law to plutonium waste from making weapons, which is exceptionally long-lived but not highly radioactive. The waste from spent nuclear fuel, which is far more radioactive in its first few centuries, is not permitted as yet. link   (Concern at first leak reported February 2014 -  link  More on Carslbad in Safety sectio above)
Illegal dumping at sea 

In Italy, an informant from the Calabrian mafia said the mafia had muscled in on the lucrative business of radioactive waste disposal. He said that instead of getting rid of the material safely, he blew up the vessel out at sea, off the Calabrian coast. He also says he was responsible for sinking two other ships containing toxic waste. As many as 30 ships could be involved. BBC   Somalian coast: Ahmedou Ould-Abdalla, the UN envoy to Somalia said: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is lead, heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Seemingly European hospitals and factories pass it onto the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. After the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. link 

August 2012: Russian radioactive waste in Arctic seas. The catalogue of waste dumped at sea by the Soviets, according to documents seen by Bellona, and releaseed by the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, includes some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste. link    

July 2011: EU agrees to bury nuclear waste in secure bunkers. After years of inaction, the EU for the very first time commits itself to a final disposal of nuclear waste. The 14 European Union member states using nuclear power currently store the radioactive waste in surface bunkers or warehouses for decades while it cools down. But crises such as Russia's wildfires last summer and leakage at Japan's stricken Fukushima plant have highlighted the risks posed by surface storage. Nuclear energy has not been popular in Europe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, but it is even less so since Fukushima, and Germany has even agreed to phase out nuclear power completely by 2022.Radioactive waste from Europe's 143 nuclear reactors must in future be buried in secure bunkers, ministers from EU member states agreed. The new rules force national nuclear authorities to draw up disposal plans by 2015, which will be vetted by Europe's energy commissioner. link

March 2010: Utah: Nuclear waste burial scrutinized. More than 10,000 drums of nuclear waste that have been buried in Utah are likely to include some material that is so radioactive state law forbids its burial, a report released Wednesday by the group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah says.  link

Yucca Mountain

August 2103: Yucca depository decision revived. Appeals court says it’s time to approve or deny Yucca Mountain once and for all. A U.S. appeals court says Nuclear Regulatory Commission is legally obligated to finish the application process for the Yucca Mountain site, and to deny or approve the license. The suit to force the NRC to finish the process was brought by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and other parties including Washington state and South Carolina.  link

May 2014: Tiny nuclear waste fee added up to billions. The tiny one quarter of a penny per kWh on consumers' bills added up to $43 over the decades. About $12 billion was spent on developing Yucca Mountain, There is virtually no plan moving forward in Washington to build a dump or even a temporary central storage site. The $31-billion trust fund will continue to accrue interest and is available to help build a dump at some point, though it is probably not enough. Experts had estimated that the Yucca Mountain project would cost at least $100 billion. link

January 2010: Yucca Mountain's future on hold. Expert panel to examine nuclear waste options. The U.S. Department of Energy announced the formation of a blue ribbon commission to evaluate policy options for a safe, long-term solution to America' growing piles of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants and high-level radioactive waste from U.S. defense programs. The commission's interim report is due in July 2011. The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, ANA, is critical that membership of commission is not balanced as there is no member of the panel who represents communities near nuclear weapons sites.  link  

Government estimates put the Yucca Mountain project's total costs at $96.2 billion. About $13.5 billion already has been spentYucca Mountain has a limit, in any case, of 70,000 tons. Since 1999, radioactive items from military facilities lie far below the desert floor in a 250 million-year-old salt bed in New Mexico. By law this site can only handle defense-generated waste. 

May 2011. A Government Accountability Office report says decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository program was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons. link

Nuclear waste storage: bad news from Sweden
. A Swedish method of storage using copper-coated containers is being studied. The containers would be buried
500 metres underground for 100,000 years. (Plutonium, unfortunately, is still dangerous after 250,000 years). The project hopes to store high-level nuclear waste. The thickness of the copper surrounding the waste is planned to be five centimetres thick. One scientist says that in the worst case, the containers may only last 1,000 years. According to the paper, the copper would need to be one metre thick to stay safe for 100,000 years. That’s a lot of copper - the storage containers each weigh 25 tonnes. link   However, examination of copper artifacts from a 15th-century galleon raised from Stockholm harbour, has shown a level of decay that challenges the scientific wisdom that copper corrodes only when exposed to oxygen. link

(July 2010) Sweden leads the way in burying its depleted nuclear waste  -  more

January 2010: Germany's endless search for a nuclear waste dump.  As with Yucca Mountain in the USA, Germany has been looking for a permanent storage site for its nuclear waste for over 30 years. If Germany's nuclear phase-out continues as planned, at least 17,200 tons of spent fuel rods will have to be disposed of, not to mention the irradiated tubes, filters and parts of the reactor vessels of decommissioned nuclear power plants. Instead of geology and nuclear physics, partisan politics and power struggles shaped the search for permanent repositories from the start, which is why a feasible solution hasn't been found to this day. To protect future generations, a site must be found where radioactive waste can be allowed to slowly decay over hundreds of thousands of years, far away from any living creatures. This permanent repository will still have to be impervious to water in the year 8010.link  
July 2016: Germany may not see proper nuclear waste storage for decades - link

West Valley [New York State] is a complex radioactive waste site with long-lasting nuclear waste mainly from atomic weapons and power production and some other generators. The site has high-level, so-called “low-level” transuranic and mixed (radioactive and hazardous) wastes buried, stored and leaking. Burial of radioactive waste in 20-30 foot deep trenches began in the early 1960s and continued until 1974 when water filled up the trenches, burst through the trench caps and flowed into surrounding streams that run into Cattaraugus Creek, through Zoar Valley and the Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians, into Lake Erie, upstream of the intake water intake for Buffalo and other major cities in the US and Canada. Hearings on cleaning up this site took place in Spring 2009 and public comment has been extended to September 2009.  link    

The French connection

July 2017: France to reduce nuclear reliance. A 2015 law requires France to reduce in eight years the share of atomic power generation to 50% from over 75% currently, and include more renewable wind and solar generation. Ecology minister Hulot said that for France to meet that target, it might have to shut down up to 17 of its 58 nuclear reactors operated by state-controlled utility EDF. link

June 2016: France’s nuclear options limited. France has 58 ageing reactors and is building only one new replacement reactor. This plant in Normandy should already be in operation, but is years late and three times over budget. Plans to build others have been shelved. Unless France can keep granting life extensions to its existing plants, the country will have to invest in renewables on a vast scale to keep its carbon emissions in check. link

June 2015: France’s nuclear age under challenge. In fulfillment of a campaign promise, President François Hollande's government is aiming to pass legislation (July 2015) that will cement a nuclear energy drawdown, bringing nuclear's share of generation to 50% by 2025 in an effort to diversify France's energy production as the country adopts new targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Now, some of France's reactors are showing wrinkles. France's oldest reactor, Fessenheim 1, started operations in 1977 and officials need to decide whether to invest in costly safety upgrades to keep them operating or to decommission them, another expensive prospect that leaves open the possibility that fossil fuels may rise to meet the shortfall. The cost of construction of new nuclear is extraordinarily expensive - there are ways to extend the lives of existing reactors, but upgrades get progressively more expensive, and certain components, like reactor pressure vessels, cannot be replaced, so renewed operating licenses are only prolonging the inevitable. link

Former vice-president Cheney, in a May 2008 interview with CNN: "Right now we've got waste piling up at reactors all over the country. Eventually, there ought to be a permanent repository. The French do this very successfully and very safely in an environmentally sound, sane manner. We need to be able to do the same thing." 

"The facts regarding the French repository program contradict Vice-President Cheney," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of IEER  (Institute for Energy & Environmental Research), who has written widely on nuclear waste issues. "France has no repository, and their siting program faces huge domestic opposition. The controversy that surrounds waste management is a thorn in the side of the French nuclear industry." link  (pictured: pool at the Areva Nuclear Plant near Cherbourg, France, cools spent nuclear fuel rods before they are moved underground. - credit Francois Mori/AP)

Thousands of canisters of highly radioactive waste from the world’s most nuclear-energized nation lie, silent and deadly, in Normandy. The spent fuel, vitrified into blocks of black glass that will remain dangerous for thousands of years, is in “interim storage.” Like nearly all the world’s nuclear waste, it is still waiting for the long-term disposal solution that has eluded scientists and governments in the six decades since the atomic era began. The deadliest bits, such as fuel rod casings and other reactor parts as well as concentrated fuel residue containing plutonium and highly enriched uranium, must be sealed and stored away."  link    

France's nuclear failures: The great illusion of nuclear energy - pdf
October 2009: Inquiry into claims that EDF 'dumped' uraniumFrance's ecology minister today called for an inquiry into reports that EDF, the world's biggest nuclear reactor operator, is storing hundreds of tonnes of depleted uranium in open-air sites in Siberia. According to a documentary due to be broadcast, 13% of the spent fuel from the utility giant's French nuclear reactors is shipped to Russia and left there indefinitely in metal containers. Environmentalists say the material, the result of nuclear reprocessing,  is proof that the industry's claims to be almost entirely "recyclable" are misleading. link

Uranium mining hazards

Owners and operators of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors buy uranium in various forms as well as enrichment services from other countries. U.S. nuclear plants purchased 58 million pounds of uranium in 2012 from both domestic and foreign suppliers; 83% of this total was of foreign origin. About 38% of the enriched uranium needed to fabricate fuel for U.S. reactors was supplied by foreign enrichers. link  About 62% of the world's production of uranium from mines comes from Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan. link
Traditionally, uranium has been extracted from open-pits and underground mines. In the past decade, alternative techniques such in-situ leach mining, in which solutions are injected into underground deposits to dissolve uranium, have become more widely used. Most mines in the U.S. have shut down and imports account for about three-fourths of the roughly 16 metric tons of refined uranium used domestically each year, Canada being the largest single supplier. The milling (refining) process extracts uranium oxide (U3O8) from ore to form yellowcake, a yellow or brown powder that contains about 90% uranium oxide. Conventional mining techniques generate a substantial quantity of mill tailings waste during the milling phase, because the usable portion is generally less than one percent of the ore. The total volume of mill tailings generated in the U.S. is over 95% of the volume of all radioactive waste from all stages of the nuclear weapons and power production. While the hazard per gram of mill tailings is low relative to most other radioactive wastes, the large volume and lack of regulations until 1980 have resulted in widespread environmental contamination. Moreover, the half-lives of the principal radioactive components of mill tailings, thorium-230 and radium-226 are long, being about 75,000 years and 1,600 years respectively. The most serious health hazard associated with uranium mining is lung cancer due to inhaling uranium decay products. Uranium mill tailings contain radioactive materials, notably radium-226, and heavy metals (e.g., manganese and molybdenum) which can leach into groundwater. Near tailings piles, water samples have shown levels of some contaminants at hundreds of times the government's acceptable level for drinking water. Mining and milling operations in the U.S. have disproportionately affected indigenous populations around the globe. For example, nearly one third of all mill tailings from abandoned mill operations are on lands of the Navajo nation alone. Many Native Americans have died of lung cancers linked to their work in uranium mines. Others continue to suffer the effects of land and water contamination due to seepage and spills from tailings piles. link  [Pictured - Tailings Dams at the Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia - world’s largest uranium deposit. 10 million tonnes of radioactive tailings are brought to the surface every year. The mine operations consumes 35 million litres of water a day taken free of charge from the Great Artesian Basin. (Source: Still frame from “A Hard Rain”, David Bradbury, Frontlilne Films).]

July 2013: Decreasing supplies of uranium contradict expansion plans. The US, China, and India all plan to dramatically ramp up nuclear power production in coming decades, but their energy strategies completely overlook potential uranium supply challenges. A new  study, based on an analysis of global deposit depletion profiles from past and present uranium mining, forecasts a global uranium mining peak of approximately 58 kilotonnes (kton) by 2015, declining gradually to 54 ktons by 2025, after which production would drop more steeply to at most 41 ktons around 2030, with warnings of an imminent supply gap that will result in spiralling fuel costs in the next decades. Uranium producers must extract lower grade uranium which generates less energy than higher grades. On average, the study finds only 50-70% of initial uranium resource estimates can be extracted. link

Activists warn US lawmakers of uranium mining perils. (February 2009) Seventy percent of uranium-rich areas are situated on land inhabited by low-income indigenous communities in places such as Niger and aboriginal lands in Australia. link

Elsewhere in the world

As of November 2016, 450 nuclear power plant units operate in 31 countries with an installed electric net capacity of about 392GW in operation, and 60 plants with an installed capacity of 60GW are in 16 countries under construction. link

February 2011: The world's nuclear plants provide about 14% of the world's electricity. A further 180 nuclear reactors power some 140 ships and submarines. Sixteen countries depend on nuclear power for at least a quarter of their electricity. France gets around three quarters of its power from nuclear energy, while Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia and Ukraine get one third or more. Japan, Germany and Finland get more than a quarter of their power from nuclear energy, while in the USA one fifth is from nuclear. Among countries which do not host nuclear power plants, Italy gets about 10% of its power from nuclear, and Denmark about 8% .link.  

The average construction time for nuclear plants has increased from 66 months for completions in the mid 1970s, to 116 months (nearly 10 years) for completions between 1995 and 2000

July 2011: Germany’s phase-out of nuclear power will speed up the low-carbon economy. Germany is already able to supply its power needs on its own without nuclear. The country has been mostly a net exporter of power over the last decade. Depending on time of day and year, households and industry consume power from 40,000 to 80,000 Megawatts. Even if all 17 nuclear power stations were shut down at once, coal, gas, and renewables still provide a capacity of 81,000 Megawatts. Also the nuclear phase-out does not jeopardize Germany’s ambitious climate action efforts: reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050. By rules of the EU carbon market, emissions from the energy sector are capped. Even if coal were to replace nuclear capacity, emissions will have to be reduced within the entire sector, either by shifting to natural gas or by replacing old coal plants with more efficient ones.  link    


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