It’s now been five years since the huge earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2011 and the subsequent tsunami and reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Fukushima prefecture. Japan is just starting to try to turn some reactors back on and the Fukushima site still isn’t completely secured. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is the second largest nuclear accident ever recorded (Chernobyl remains the worst). It’ll still be a long time before things are really cleaned up.
At the same time, there’s still plenty of fear-mongering about nuclear power. I’ve had people try to tell me that much of that region of Japan is now basically a radioactive wasteland (something that happens in a town like Boulder), which is very far from the truth. There is a closed zone around the plant (I’ve never been particularly close though) but even a few towns away things are safe.
Last week, Boulder got a visit by the Secretary of Energy, Ernie Moniz, who gave a talk at the CU Law School on the Iran deal. While the DoE is one of the primary funding agencies for nuclear and particle physics, the general public doesn’t seem to realize what the DoE does. One of the main purposes of the DoE has always been nuclear research and security. Thus, the DoE is one of the main agencies that can evaluate the efficacy of nuclear nonproliferation agreements.
Moniz mostly gave a summary of the deal, which reportedly is much stronger than any previous such nuclear deal with any other country. I was hoping for some more technical discussion, but since this was a law school talk, it mostly dealt with the general terms and not too many technical details. Moniz did highlight the importance of the DoE and its staff in helping the US negotiation team.
Again, as this was a law school talk, time had to be spent on political reactions to the deal. Moniz obviously is pushing the position of the Obama administration, and I find his main argument to be pretty persuasive. The Iran deal as it stands now has been agreed to by all the countries involved (the so-called P5+1). Failing to pass the deal in the US does not bring the international sanctions back and the US has already had sanctions on Iran for so long that our sanctions alone can’t do much of anything. No one has offered a credible alternative (even military action isn’t particularly credible and would undermine US interests on all sorts of issues). My understanding is that building a basic nuclear weapon (similar to the ones the US built in 1945) is not actually that difficult once scientists work out how to enrich fuel, so the only long term solution to stopping someone from building a bomb is to convince them that they don’t need one. Basically, if the US hopes to achieve its foreign policy goals (and not just on this issue), approving the deal is the only realistic option. Anything else would make the US government seem like an unreliable partner in major international problems.
The Department of Energy has released a report into its investigation into the minor radiation accident at the WIPP site near Carlsbad, NM last year. As had been suspected, the cause of the accident was the use of an improper packing/absorbing material in a waste container. While the people preparing the waste were supposed to use some sort of clay material (basically inorganic cat litter), they instead used an organic cat litter. While these two things might seem functionally similar for most uses, that was not the case. Material reacted with the organic cat litter, eventually causing a breach in the container that led to the accident.
A Sante Fe paper has a longer update on the investigation into what led to the radiation release at WIPP. As had been reported earlier, it appears that the problems likely stemmed from Los Alamos personnel using organic cat litter as an absorbent in some barrels of waste. Organic material is much more reactive than the inorganic absorbents (such as clay-based cat litter) that they were supposed to use.
However, this was not the only problem, and it took a appalling series of mistakes by LANL workers to cause this to happen. The usage of organic absorbent was likely due to a typo in an updated LANL procedure, while LANL reported to WIPP that the contents of the barrel were nonreactive when in fact the mixture was highly reactive and potentially even explosive. Los Alamos should not have shipped the barrel at all and had WIPP personnel known the true contents of the barrel it would not have been accepted. Even after the accident, LANL reportedly did not inform WIPP of all the relevant facts of the case. State inspectors had not been allowed access to the LANL cleanup operation for several years, so there was also reduced outside oversight that could have contributed to what now seems like a lax safety culture at the lab.
The article claims that the problems at LANL may stem from a rush to finish cleanup in order to claim some funding tied to a meeting a deadline a few months after the accident ended up happening. Los Alamos has had a number of embarrassing problems over the years, so this just seems to be another one. One would expect that if all this really is true, the DoE will make some major changes to LANL leadership or at least the contractors running waste cleanup.