Nuclear Mess from Nuclear Power Plants to Nuclear Weapons Disposal

July 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm 7 comments

Nuclear Mess from Nuclear Power Plants to Nuclear Weapons Disposal

A Fairy’s Tail

A long time ago and far far away some people suggested that making peace was far cheaper than making war. The leaders of these peaceniks were generally spied upon, infiltrated, set-up, put in jail, or died often mysteriously. One particularly aggressive and paranoid nation, who believed in war (not peace), started making nuclear grade weapons to protect itself from outside evils, but it wound up poisoning its own people and land.

Its aggressive behavior, being careless and brash, had the opposite effect, putting itself in harms way. Not only were these weapons dangerous; but also, in their haste to create the weapons, massive amounts of nuclear waste was produced with nothing more than hair brained plans of disposal. One large problem (what to do with the nuclear waste) caused another disaster in the making (the waste disposal using radioactive steam and radioactive leaks into the water table).

Nuclear waste from weapons production is much more difficult to store, transport, and handle because it is viscous/liquid. The plan was to store these in metal containers 2000 feet deep in the ground near their massive nuclear facility in Hanford, Washington above the Columbia River gorge. Predictably, these steel containers began leaking, while stopping these leaks is a major concern today.

 A Little history

Adequately processing weapons grade nuclear waste at Hanford has been an issue for over 20 years, but its solution is still uncertain. Currently construction of a treatment facility at Hanford has been 55% completed, but only 80% of the design work has been completed. This is unheard of in the construction industry. Even so, there is not much confidence that the design will be adequate (see below).

Regardless the major pressing concern is  not simply transporting the radioactive waste to the treatment center and then treating it, but moreover how to stop the already leaking steel containers 2000’ deep housing liquid radioactive waste material.

In July, 2007 one such leak occurred


There have been others×15840

The Associated Press
Published: July 28th, 2007 01:00 AM

RICHLAND, benton county – “Workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation are making big strides in cleaning up the highly radioactive K West Basin, filled with wastes from the production of atomic weapons.

Hanford workers have finished vacuuming the bulk of radioactive sludge from the floor of the basin into underwater containers, leaving bare concrete.

“This is another example of the momentum we continue to sustain in cleaning up the site and eliminating risk to the Columbia River,” Dave Brockman, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford office, said in a statement.

Completion of the sludge removal task allows the DOE to meet a revised legal deadline and a commitment to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to have the sludge in containers by the end of this month.” However, this does deal with the much larger safety issue is at hand, due to the leakages 2000 feet below the surface heading toward the Columbia River.


After many spills and carelessness many thyroid disease related lawsuits including thyroid cancer were settled out of court at a great expense, more lawsuits are pending, estimated by attorneys to approach $2 billion or more.


Human, Environmental, and Tax Payer Costs: Until the 500th generation

In 2007 a $7 billion dollar nuclear liquid waste treatment facility design contract was awarded to Bechtel Corporation. Less than halfway through the design stage, the design  work stopped because of design inadequacies; yet the steel storage tanks 2000 feet under ground continue to leak; while nuclear waste gradually approaches the Columbia river underground.

The design work for processing new waste has restarted, while building has already begun, but there is now a concentration of energy devoted toward designing a method to deal with the existing leakage.

The budget for the waste treatment plant project has been constantly being revised. Currently (July 2011) it is at $12.7 billion. It is certain to extend far above it.

“When telling the story of the Cold War, the part that often gets neglected is that the extraction, processing, and purification of plutonium at the Hanford Site was anything but a neat, clean process; in fact, it resulted in a rather extraordinary amount of extremely radioactive and chemically dangerous waste. This waste is absolutely nothing like commercial nuclear waste, and its management has been one of the biggest challenges the US nuclear weapons complex, and consequentially, the Department of Energy, has ever had to deal with.”


In fact, literally billions have been already wasted in designs and construction that are inadequate or at best speculation. Those whistle blowers who are “in the know” have become reprimanded and punished see the above link. “Walter Tamosaitis, once a top engineer in the nation’s nuclear weapons cleanup program, has been relegated to a basement storage room equipped with cardboard-box and plywood furniture with nothing to do for the last year.
Read more:

Many cover-ups regarding safety have been exposed, but cover ups of cover-ups abound.

KENNEWICK — Over the objections of the Department of Energy, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is investigating the possibility of witness tampering by the DOE at the board’s meeting in Kennewick.

The DOE, which said it conducted its own investigation, has asked the weapons board in a sharply worded letter to immediately stop its investigation and close the matter.

The board, commissioned by Congress to provide independent oversight of nuclear safety at the DOE weapons sites, held a rare meeting in October outside Washington, D.C., to hear from the department, its contractors and experts on the operational safety and efficiency of the Hanford vitrification plant under construction.

The board has been concerned that the $12.2 billion plant will be commissioned before several key technical issues are fully resolved.

Read more:

The plant is not adequate in both scope and safety. Even if it proceeded without further delays the $12 billion dollar nuclear waste treatment plant could not be completed until 2019 at the earliest. Some are suggesting that maybe we do not need all these nuclear weapons.


In the 2010/2011 budget cuts that witnessed massive cuts in education, renewables, human services, EPA, and infrastructure rebuilding, this Hanford facility survived virtually unscathed

The money spent at Hanford (it is monstrous) goes under the Department of Energy (DOE) budget, not the Department of Defense (DOD). Hence, the so called defense budget goes grossly under valued. In fact, MOST of the DOE’s budget goes to defense and/or “national security” related projects.

This NPR report deals simply with the problems in the transfer of the nuclear weapons grade waste to the proposed treatment plant, and if the treatment plant will actually work. Again little attention has been devoted to the pressing problem of what to do about the already leaking steel containers buried 2000 feet down.

As the radioactive liquids continue to leak toward the Columbia river much more money is needed to remedy this manmade disaster, but where will it come from? Who will monitor the watch dogs who have obviously failed?

So what is the plan? More nuclear plants?

“WASHINGTON – A large contingent of House Republicans is trying to revive Yucca Mountain as the main site for the nation’s nuclear waste as part of a broader plan that calls for building 200 new nuclear plants by 2030.

If approved, the United States would begin building nuclear plants on an unprecedented scale: Currently, the nation gets 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear reactors.”

But what will they do with the nuclear waste?

“During a debate on the House floor, Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller told his colleagues that the Yucca project is dead and that it was time to “acknowledge reality” and find a new site.

“Yucca Mountain is in my district, and our state has been dealing with this boondoggle project literally for decades. … I continue to be disappointed at the House’s insistence of reviving the Yucca Mountain boondoggle,” Heller said.

But Hastings and other Republicans said the House will continue to provide funding for Yucca Mountain in their budgets.”

Read more:

Can nuclear power plant waste be used to create nuclear weapons? According to the US State Department, the answer is yes, giving Iran as an example. There are may links between nuclear power plants waste and nuclear grade weapons. The first is in the “front-end” where depleted uranium (DU) is used for anti-tank shells, hardened bullets, and other especially hardened weapons.

On the back-side of nuclear power plants is a by-product called plutonium-239 which is highly suitable for building nuclear weapons. Such waste from power plants thus can be further reprocessed is used to make nuclear weapons. The resulting waste is then are liquid and even more hazardous posing many storage problems. Instead of slowing down or stopping the production of these highly toxic poisons until the disposal problems are solved, the US DOE/DOD has not closed or slowed down its nuclear weapons program. This may be due to the fact that the longer the power plant fuel is stored, the easier it is to access and reprocess the plutonium (especially plutonium-239).

A logical question thus may arise to concerned citizens as to the benefits of such uncautious weapon production, their costs to its citizens, and/or whether weapon production can create peace and heighten security or would it just escalate the aura of   competition, nuclear arms races, war, and terrorism?

“Since uranium and plutonium are nuclear weapons materials, there have been proliferations concerns. Ordinarily (in spent nuclear fuel), plutonium is reactor-grade plutonium. In addition to plutonium-239, which is highly suitable for building nuclear weapons, it contains large amounts of undesirable contaminants: plutonium-240, plutonium-241, and plutonium-238. These isotopes are difficult to separate, and more cost-effective ways of obtaining fissile material exist (e.g. uranium enrichment or dedicated plutonium production reactors).

High-level waste is full of highly radioactive fission products, most of which are relatively short-lived. This is a concern since if the waste is stored, perhaps in deep geological storage, over many years the fission products decay, decreasing the radioactivity of the waste and making the plutonium easier to access. The undesirable contaminant Pu-240 decays faster than the Pu-239, and thus the quality of the bomb material increases with time (although its quantity decreases during that time as well). Thus, some have argued, as time passes, these deep storage areas have the potential to become “plutonium mines”, from which material for nuclear weapons can be acquired with relatively little difficulty.

Critics of the latter idea point out that the half-life of Pu-240 is 6,560 years and Pu-239 is 24,110 years, and thus the relative enrichment of one isotope to the other with time occurs with a half-life of 9,000 years (that is, it takes 9000 years for the fraction of Pu-240 in a sample of mixed plutonium isotopes, to spontaneously decrease by half—a typical enrichment needed to turn reactor-grade into weapons-grade Pu). Thus “weapons grade plutonium mines” would be a problem for the very far future (>9,000 years from now), so that there remains a great deal of time for technology to advance to solve it.

Pu-239 decays to U-235 which is suitable for weapons and which has a very long half-life (roughly 109 years). Thus plutonium may decay and leave uranium-235. However, modern reactors are only moderately enriched with U-235 relative to U-238, so the U-238 continues to serve as a denaturation agent for any U-235 produced by plutonium decay.”



High-level nuclear waste is produced by nuclear power plants; however the highest level waste is labeled as Transuranic (TRU) waste. This is the type of waste that is produced by nuclear weapons production.

Such waste has been shipped overland to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which began operations on March 26, 1999. Disposal operations are expected to continue until 2070 with active monitoring for a further hundred years. By 2010, the facility had already processed 9,000 shipments of waste. Research is ongoing on the disturbed rock zone geomechanics at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.  WIPP accepts transuranic waste generated from DOD activities. The waste must have radioactivity exceeding 100 nCi per gram from TRUs that produce alpha radiation with a half life greater than 20 years. This criterion includes plutonium, uranium, americium, and neptunium among others. Mixed waste contains both radioactive and hazardous constituents. WIPP first received mixed waste on September 9, 2000. Mixed waste is regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

These containers may also contain a limited amount of liquids. The energy released from radioactive materials will dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen. This could then create a potentially explosive environment inside the container. The containers must be vented, as well, to prevent this from happening. There are many dangers, especially if water ever leaks into the storage vessels.

“Internal DOE documents cite instances of accidents, worker contamination and radioactive releases to the environment. DOE managers have even mentioned these incidents to superiors in Washington, D.C. and other federal agencies when arguing that a “stabilization run” will make the PFP safer. A typical example: “A flash fire from accumulated hydrogen gas in a nitrate storage container occurred at PFP in July 1976. The incident resulted in significant operator exposure and room contamination.”

However, the DOE tells the public a different story. DOE’s September 1993 edition of Citizen Bulletin claims: “The Plutonium Reclamation Facility (a processing line inside the PFP) has operated safely for many years.”

In fact, the 42-year old plant was shut down following a string of safety violations in which workers were contaminated and plant operations violated guidelines intended to prevent “criticality.” Criticality is an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Two Hanford whistleblowers who went public with stories of numerous safety violations at the PFP were subsequently harassed and fired by the Westinghouse Hanford Company, which operates the PFP and other Hanford facilities under a contract with DOE.”

A pilot plan has failed. The Tri-City Herald reported in September 2010:  “The system should be ready in 2012 to use in Tank C-101 and then is planned to be moved to Tank C-105. Both are believed to have leaked in the past and have at least 200,000 gallons each of solid waste.” So far, this system has proven to be inadequate; i.e., a failure, while new leakages occurs. Read more on this attempt at:


Entry filed under: Habitat and environment: the evolutionary tradition, Health, Politics. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

The Relevance of Deep Time by Joanna Macy The Union of Consciousness and Social Activism

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. prayerdance  |  July 27, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    “Groundwater at Hanford is severely contaminated with hazardous and radioactive chemicals, such as chromium, strontium-90, and other pollutants. Polluted groundwater from Hanford seeps into the Columbia River in the Hanford Reach. Federal and state agencies are undertaking major efforts to prevent the movement of contaminated groundwater to the Columbia River.

    The Black Rock reservoir will leak water into the soil and geologic strata that lie beneath the reservoir site. As this leakage seeps downward, it could create pressure on natural groundwater, increasing the movement of groundwater toward the Hanford site.”

  • 2. Nick Kellingley  |  July 27, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    The trouble is that in the short-term the only truly viable large scale energy producer outside of fossil fuels is nuclear. Solar will certainly have its day (literally) but not until we overcome the storage problems. Wind is not even as efficient as we thought (and it wasn’t rated too highly then). Biofuel is problematic in that it causes other environmental problems (and possibly social problems too). And so on…

    • 3. prayerdance  |  July 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm

      Hi Nick, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think we can break this down into two issues. #1 weapons grade nuclear waste (waste from producing nuclear weapons) and #2 nuclear power plant waste.

      Regarding #1 the US can reduce the escalating arms race, which seems to only reinforce insecurity world wide (and fear and hatred toward America as the #1 bully), and at the same time take a much stronger proactive stand to create peace and trust. That type of ploicy would eventually reduce and/or eliminate the nuclear waste problems from nuclear weapons and lso create more funds available for sustainable SAFE energy production and cost effective sustainable energy production policy.

      #2 Regarding nuclear power, yes there seems to be a debate. Regarding safety, it is a loser not just because of the possibility for a nuclear power plant accident or because of it’s lack of cost effectiveness (it does not compare to other sources of energy cost effectively), but rather the huge problem of storage also. That’s three strikes and it’s out as far as I m concerned.

      Nuclear power only appears to be necessary, but the data is biased. For example, the US refuses to implement alternate energy policies that would both make us energy self-efficient, politically self-reliant, pollution free, and sustainable, as well as creating meaningful employment in the sustainable energy field.

      Most other first world nations are far ahead of the US in creating solar, wind, water, and efficient and rapid public transportation systems, that are low level or zero polluters. There are politically corrupt reasons why the US does not pursue these avenues, but it does not serve our grandchildren well.



    • 4. prayerdance  |  September 9, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      Solar power is growing on an accelerated scale, partly because of more efficient and cheaper photovoltaic cells and battery storage systems, but also because it is cost effective as well as having far less external costs to health and the environment than fossil fuels or nuclear. Storage also can be accomplished by generating hydrogen from water and storing the hydrogen as fuel cells (or giant fuel cells) to be used after the sun sets. These technologies are here now; but are being resisted by those who are heavily invested in fossil fuels and more important heavily invested in out of date paradigms.

  • 5. prayerdance  |  May 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    We have seen Germany and others lead the way away from nuclear power into Solar, but the Obama administration is investing in the opposite direction. The bottom line is that Nuclear is unsafe for living beings. VERY.

    “Germany’s solar power plants produced a record 22 gigawatts of energy on Friday, equivalent to the output of 20 nuclear plants. The country is already a world-leader in solar power and hopes to be free of nuclear energy by 2022.

    The director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry (IWR) in Muenster, northeast Germany, said the solar power delivered to the national grid on Saturday met 50 per cent of the nation’s energy quota.” ~

  • 6. prayerdance  |  May 29, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    If we wake up, there will be les to fear. This report about radioactive waste leaking is still going on and they still don’t have a solution. In short, they went ahead without a workable plan, rather some hope and $5 billion dollars and counting.

  • 7. prayerdance  |  May 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Hanford is still totally out of control, but don’t panic, hush hush Totally out of control


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