Monday, 11 April 2011

Government's doomed £6bn plan to dispose of nuclear waste

By Steve Connor, Science Editor. The Independent Monday, 11 April 2011

One month after the Japanese tsunami, the world's biggest reserve of plutonium waste is reaching crisis point. It was meant to be reprocessed and sold – but now no nation will take it. So where is this vast stockpile? Not Fukushima, but Sellafield, Cumbria
The Sellafield Mox plant is likely to only produce a fraction of the 1,000 tonnes of Mox over 10 years for which it was designed.
The nuclear crisis in Japan threatens a carefully choreographed UK Government plan to tackle the world's biggest mountain of plutonium waste stored at the Sellafield site in Cumbria.

Japanese nervousness about nuclear power following the near-meltdown at the Fukushima plant has led to a freeze in the international trade of reprocessed nuclear fuel that the Government sees as critical to solving Britain's own plutonium problem.

The Government's preferred strategy to eliminate the UK's growing plutonium stockpile centres on a technology that was developed to meet the demands of the Japanese market, yet there are now fears that Japan is about to turn its back on the enterprise.
It was hoped that Japanese contracts with Sellafield to make mixed oxide (Mox) nuclear fuel would underpin the economic and political case to tackle Britain's plutonium stockpile with a second multi-billion-pound Mox fabrication plant on the Cumbrian site.

However, Japanese power companies have told Sellafield that concerns about Fukushima have forced them to indefinitely postpone a shipment of French-made Mox nuclear fuel that would have been transported on British vessels operated from Sellafield.

The postponement is significant because the Mox shipment was not destined for the stricken reactors at Fukushima operated by Tokyo Electric, but for the unaffected Hamaoka reactors operated by Chubu Electric, the same company that was supposed to be one of the first customers of the existing Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP).

Chubu Electric and nine other Japanese power companies have also indicated that because of long-term production problems that have dogged the SMP, they will not now be taking any reprocessed fuel from Britain until at least the end of the decade – nearly 20 years after the plant was opened to serve the Japanese market.

This would mean that the existing Mox plant at Sellafield, which was designed to supply more than 1,000 tons of Mox over 10 years, is likely to produce a tiny fraction of this before it is due to be decommissioned, at enormous cost to the British taxpayer.

The setback is seen as a huge blow to the business of making and selling Mox fuel, touted by the Government as the best way of dealing with Britain's stockpile of civilian plutonium, which is itself the product of nuclear-waste reprocessing at Sellafield.

Government ministers, their officials and advisers are all privately convinced that "recycling" plutonium waste into nuclear fuel that could be "burned" in nuclear reactors represents the safest and least expensive option in dealing with the stockpile.

A Government consultation on the stockpile ends next month but ministers have already made it clear that the "Mox option" is their preferred route, even though it would require a second Mox plant at Sellafield costing £3bn at discounted prices – the actual lifetime cost of the plant is likely to be nearer £6bn.

The existing Sellafield Mox Plant, opened in 2002, has cost more than £1.3bn to date yet has produced just 13.8 tons of Mox fuel in nine years compared to an expected output of 120 tons per year. A leaked cable from the US embassy in London said Sellafield's Mox plant was a white elephant costing about £90m a year and considered, privately, by the UK Government as "[one of] the most embarrassing failures in British industrial history".

Yet, ministers have now agreed they should press on with preparing the public for an even bigger Mox plant to deal with the growing stockpile of British-owned plutonium, expected to reach 109 tons within a few years.

Independent scientists, from Sir David King, the former chief scientist, to fellows of the Royal Society, are supporting a new Mox plant and believe there is no viable alternative.

However, nuclear experts have told The Independent that the existing Sellafield Mox plant is a serious drain on the budget of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which took over the Sellafield site from BNFL in 2005. They said that the authority would like to close the plant, except that to do so would be a PR disaster at a time when the Government is about to propose another one.

In January, before the nuclear crisis at Fukushima, Jonathan Marland, a junior Government minister, told the House of Lords that a new Mox plant at Sellafield would turn the world's biggest plutonium stockpile from a liability into an asset and that a decision on whether to go ahead and build it is likely later this year. Lord Marland admitted that the existing Mox plant is not fit for purpose, which is why the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has brought in the French nuclear company Areva, which wants to build the second Mox plant based on its own Mox operation at Marcoule in the south of France.

Although the Government has not finished its consultation exercise on the plutonium stockpile, it has already made it clear that the long-term storage and disposal of plutonium would be even more expensive than building a second plant to convert it into Mox fuel.

Q & A: Why has it come to this?
Q: What is Britain's "plutonium mountain"?

A: It is the nation's stockpile of radioactive plutonium, kept as plutonium dioxide powder, packed into special drums stored at Sellafield in Cumbria. A further, smaller amount is stored at the Dounreay nuclear facility in Scotland, the site of the doomed nuclear fast-breeder reactor programme.

Q: Why is the plutonium stockpile so big?

A: This is civilian plutonium, not military. It is largely the result of a decision in the 1960s to extract the plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for use in fast-breeder reactors, which were never built commercially. Britain continued to accumulate civilian plutonium, currently amounting to 84 tonnes, along with foreign-owned plutonium, currently 28 tonnes. The final British-owned plutonium stockpile will be 109 tonnes, once fuel reprocessing from existing nuclear reactors has been completed.

Q: Why do we need to do anything with it?

A: Plutonium remains radioactive for many thousands of years – just how long depends on which isotope. Experts say that doing nothing with the stockpile is not an option – the current methods of storage will eventually become unsafe in decades to come. Plutonium either has to be put into long-term storage, with a view of permanent disposal at some future point in cement or glass blocks, or used in some way that makes it "safer", such as incorporating it into Mox fuel that is used in a reactor.

Q: Is converting plutonium to Mox fuel safe?

A: Plutonium is an extreme health risk if it gets inside the body – it emits alpha particles which are highly dangerous if they penetrate the skin because they damage the DNA of cells and cause cancer. It is also a security risk because of its use in nuclear weapons and "dirty" bombs. By converting it to Mox fuel, and irradiating this fuel in reactors, some experts believe that plutonium will, ironically, become safer because, being more radioactive, it will be more difficult to handle. Opponents argue that manufacturing Mox necessarily increases security risks not least because of the transport of Mox fuel rods, and even plutonium dioxide, which can be subject to terrorist attacks of accidents.

Q: Is it easy to use Mox fuel in nuclear reactors?

A: Some reactors do use Mox, but only as a small percentage (less than 30 per cent) of the total fuel. The rest of the fuel is conventional uranium oxide. Supporters of Mox suggest that the new generation of nuclear reactors to be built in Britain could burn Mox fuel and thereby be used to diminish the plutonium stockpile. However, the new reactors have been licensed to burn uranium-only fuel and none of the reactor designs being considered has been "justified" for Mox, which in any case remains far more expensive than conventional uranium fuel.

Nuclear Power workers offered huge sums to work on the striken reactors

More 89% of the workers at Fukushima Nuclear plant were low paid contract workers; and this reflects very well the wider picture too, more than 80% of all the more than 80000 japanese nuclear industry workers are temporary and contract workers. Of course same is the story of the French nuclear industry. We dont know how many temporary contact workers are there in India's nuclear Industry ? An area that needs much research.
The New York Times   April 9, 2011   Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job

KAZO, Japan — The ground started to buck at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and Masayuki Ishizawa could scarcely stay on his feet. Helmet in hand, he ran from a workers’ standby room outside the plant’s No. 3 reactor, near where he and a group of workers had been doing repair work. He saw a chimney and crane swaying like weeds.

Everybody was shouting in a panic, he recalled. Mr. Ishizawa, 55, raced to the plant’s central gate. But a security guard would not let him out of the complex. A long line of cars had formed at the gate, and some drivers were blaring their horns. “Show me your IDs,” Mr. Ishizawa remembered the guard saying, insisting that he follow the correct sign-out procedure. And where, the guard demanded, were his supervisors?

“What are you saying?” Mr. Ishizawa said he shouted at the guard. He looked over his shoulder and saw a dark shadow on the horizon, out at sea, he said. He shouted again: “Don’t you know a tsunami is coming?”

Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of
untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation.

Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry. These workers remain vital to efforts to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plants.

They are emblematic of Japan’s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less job security and receive fewer benefits. Such labor practices have both endangered the health of these workers and undermined safety at Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, critics charge.

“This is the hidden world of nuclear power,” said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a longtime campaigner for improved labor conditions in the nuclear industry.

“Wherever there are hazardous conditions, these laborers are told to go. It is dangerous for them, and it is dangerous for nuclear safety.”

Of roughly 83,000 workers at Japan’s 18 commercial nuclear power plants, 88 percent were contract workers in the year that ended in March 2010, the nuclear agency said. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 89 percent of the 10,303 workers during that period were contractors.

In Japan’s nuclear industry, the elite are operators like Tokyo Electric and the manufacturers that build and help maintain the plants like Toshiba and Hitachi. But under those companies are contractors,
subcontractors and sub-subcontractors — with wages, benefits and protection against radiation dwindling with each step down the ladder.

Interviews with about a half-dozen past and current workers at Fukushima Daiichi and other plants paint a bleak picture of workers on the nuclear circuit: battling intense heat as they clean off radiation
from the reactors’ drywells and spent-fuel pools using mops and rags, clearing the way for inspectors, technicians and Tokyo Electric employees, and working in the cold to fill drums with contaminated

Some workers are hired from construction sites, and some are local farmers looking for extra income. Yet others are hired by local gangsters, according to a number of workers who did not want to give
their names. They spoke of the constant fear of getting fired, trying to hide injuries to avoid trouble for their employers, carrying skin-colored adhesive bandages to cover up cuts and bruises.

In the most dangerous places, current and former workers said, radiation levels would be so high that workers would take turns approaching a valve just to open it, turning it for a few seconds before a supervisor with a stopwatch ordered the job to be handed off to the next person. Similar work would be required at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now, where the three reactors in operation at the time of the earthquake shut down automatically, workers say.

“Your first priority is to avoid pan-ku,” said one current worker at the Fukushima Daini plant, using a Japanese expression based on the English word puncture. Workers use the term to describe their dosimeter, which measures radiation exposure, from reaching the daily cumulative limit of 50 millisieverts. “Once you reach the limit, there is no more work,” said the worker, who did not want to give his name for fear of being fired by his employer.

Takeshi Kawakami, 64, remembers climbing into the spent-fuel pool of the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant during an annual maintenance shutdown in the 1980s to scrub the walls clean of radiation with brushes and rags. All workers carried dosimeters set to sound an alarm if exposure levels hit a cumulative dose limit; Mr. Kawakami said he usually did not last 20 minutes.

Many of the workers who handle dangerous duties at Japan's nuclear plants are itinerant laborers with little job security.
“It was unbearable, and you had your mask on, and it was so tight,” Mr. Kawakami said. “I started feeling dizzy. I could not even see what I was doing. I thought I would drown in my own sweat.”

Since the mid-1970s, about 50 former workers have received workers’ compensation after developing leukemia and other forms of cancer. Health experts say that though many former workers are experiencing health problems that may be a result of their nuclear work, it is often difficult to prove a direct link. Mr. Kawakami has received a diagnosis of stomach and intestinal cancer.

News of workers’ mishaps turns up periodically in safety reports: one submitted by Tokyo Electric to the government of Fukushima Prefecture in October 2010 outlines an accident during which a contract worker who had been wiping down a turbine building was exposed to harmful levels of radiation after accidentally using one of the towels on his face. In response, the company said in the report that it would provide special towels for workers to wipe their sweat.

Most day workers were evacuated from Fukushima Daiichi after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out the plant’s power and pushed some of the reactors to the brink of a partial meltdown. Since then, those who have returned have been strictly shielded from the news media; many of them are housed at a staging ground for workers that is off limits to reporters. But there have been signs that such laborers continue to play a big role at the crippled power plant.

The two workers who were injured two weeks ago when they stepped in radioactive water were subcontractor employees. As of Thursday, 21 workers at the plant had each been exposed to cumulative radiation levels of more than 100 millisieverts, or the usual limit set for nuclear plant workers during an emergency, according to Tokyo Electric. (That limit was raised to 250 millisieverts last month.)

The company refused to say how many contract workers had been exposed to radiation. Of roughly 300 workers left at the plant on Thursday, 45 were employed by contractors, the company said.

Day laborers are being lured back to the plant by wages that have increased along with the risks of working there. Mr. Ishizawa, whose home is about a mile from the plant and who evacuated with the town’s other residents the day after the quake, said he had been called last week by a former employer who offered daily wages of about $350 for just two hours of work at the Fukushima Daiichi plant — more than twice his previous pay. Some of the former members of his team have been offered nearly $1,000 a day. Offers have fluctuated depending on the progress at the plant and the perceived radiation risks that day. So far, Mr. Ishizawa has refused to return.

Working conditions have improved over the years, experts say. While exposure per worker dropped in the 1990s as safety standards improved, government statistics show, the rates have been rising since 2000, partly because there have been more accidents as reactors age. Moreover, the number of workers in the industry has risen, as the same tasks are carried out by more employees to reduce individual exposure levels.

Tetsuen Nakajima, chief priest of the 1,200-year-old Myotsuji Temple in the city of Obama near the Sea of Japan, has campaigned for workers’ rights since the 1970s, when the local utility started building reactors along the coast; today there are 15 of them. In the early 1980s, he helped found the country’s first union for day workers at nuclear plants.

The union, he said, made 19 demands of plant operators, including urging operators not to forge radiation exposure records and not to force workers to lie to government inspectors about safety procedures. Although more than 180 workers belonged to the union at its peak, its leaders were soon visited by thugs who kicked down their doors and threatened to harm their families, he said.

“They were not allowed to speak up,” Mr. Nakajima said. “Once you enter a nuclear power plant, everything’s a secret.”

Last week, conversations among Fukushima Daiichi workers at a smoking area at the evacuees’ center focused on whether to stay or go back to the plant. Some said construction jobs still seemed safer, if they could be found. “You can see a hole in the ground, but you can’t see radiation,” one worker said.

Mr. Ishizawa, the only one who allowed his name to be used, said, “I might go back to a nuclear plant one day, but I’d have to be starving.” In addition to his jobs at Daiichi, he has worked at thermal power plants and on highway construction sites in the region. For now, he said, he will stay away from the nuclear industry.

“I need a job,” he said, “but I need a safe job.”