Reusing Spent Nuclear Fuel

  • According to the government, GNEP is an evolving U.S. global nuclear strategy aimed at reducing global dependence on fossil fuels; providing reliable, abundant energy necessary for economic growth, prosperity and health; utilizing international expertise to advance technologies and safeguards; and reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation. (Photo courtesy Idaho National Laboratory)

A U.S. Department of Energy initiative to reprocess spent nuclear
reactor fuel is trying to find a home for a facility. Fred Kight
reports the Bush administration says the plan is a means to safely
expand nuclear energy. Critics of the initiative say it’s unsafe and
unwise:

Transcript

A U.S. Department of Energy initiative to reprocess spent nuclear
reactor fuel is trying to find a home for a facility. Fred Kight
reports the Bush administration says the plan is a means to safely
expand nuclear energy. Critics of the initiative say it’s unsafe and
unwise:


The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, would collect spent
nuclear rods from reactors and process them for re-use in the U.S. and
other countries.


Supporters, such as Henry Spitz of the University of Cincinnati, say the
program will allow more reliance on nuclear energy while reducing the
amount of waste generated by power plants:


“GNEP is an essential program if the U.S. is to become less dependent upon
foreign sources of energy.”


But opponents, such as Linda Buskin Jergens, say a facility to reprocess
spent nuclear fuel could make it easier to obtain plutonium for nuclear
weapons:


“Are we creating here a target for terrorism?”


The Department of Energy is studying 11 sites across the nation for the
reprocessing plant.


For the Environment Report, I’m Fred Kight.

Related Links

Cold War Clean Up Near Completion

Clean up at a former Cold War-era uranium processing plant is nearly complete. A train carrying the final load of radioactive waste is now making its way from southwest Ohio to a disposal site in Utah. Tana Weingartner reports:

Transcript

Clean up at a former Cold War-era uranium processing plant is nearly complete. A train carrying the final load of radioactive waste is now making its way from southwest Ohio to a disposal site in Utah. Tana Weingartner reports:


It took three engines to slowly haul away the last 60 railcars full of radioactive dirt, concrete and debris. The waste came from the former Fernald Uranium processing facility in southwest Ohio. During the Cold War, workers at the top-secret plant processed uranium for nuclear weapons. Johnny Reising is the Fernald Site Director for the Department of Energy.


“It’s one of the largest waste shipping operations that the department of energy has had to date. There will probably be larger ones in the future, but to date this is the largest that’s taken place.”


Reising says the overall clean up is ahead of schedule and expected to cost about $70 million less than the projected $1.9 billion price tag.


Following completion, the D.O.E.’s Office of Legacy Management will maintain Fernald as an undeveloped park.


For the Environment Report, I’m Tana Weingartner.

Related Links

Turning Nuke Waste Sites Into Playgrounds

  • Grassland prairie flowers from Weldon Spring, part of the Department of Energy's restoration effort to control erosion and add aesthetic beauty to the area. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy)

Across the U.S., there are more than 100 sites contaminated by radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.
The government is trying to return these Cold War relics to safe and useful purposes. Some of these once toxic zones are being treated much like public parks. The GLRC’s Kevin Lavery visited one that was recently opened to the public:

Transcript

Across the US, there are more than 100 sites contaminated by radioactive waste from the
nation’s nuclear weapons programs. The government is trying to return these Cold War
relics to safe and useful purposes. Some of these once toxic zones are being treated much
like public parks. The GLRC’s Kevin Lavery recently visited one that was recently
opened to the public…


A thick grove of trees opens up to a clearing that reveals a white mound of limestone
rock. It rises like a tomb from some long-forgotten civilization, were it not for the water
towers and golf courses on the horizon.


Mike Leahy and his 9-year-old son Cameron came to this rock dome to catch the view
atop its 75 foot summit. But the real attraction was what they did not see:


“We read the sign and saw what was buried and how they did it, and – it’s kind of
disturbing, what’s in there.”


Beneath their feet lay more than a million cubic yards of spent uranium, asbestos and
PCB’s. The 45 acre mound is a disposal cell, where the government buried thousands of
barrels and tons of debris. That history didn’t bother young Cameron:


“It’s really cool. They keep all that nuclear waste under all that and it can’t harm
anybody.”


The Weldon Spring site, 30 miles west of St. Louis, Missouri began during World War
Two as an Army TNT factory. In the 1950’s, the plant refined yellow cake uranium for
later use in nuclear weapons. All that stopped in 1966 and all the radioactive waste just
sat there. Weldon Spring became an EPA Superfund site in 1987. After a 900 million
dollar cleanup, the site was opened to tourists in 2002.


(Sound of frogs)


Today, frogs sing in a native prairie at the foot of the cell. In April, officials opened a
hiking trail adjacent to a once-radioactive landfill. The route connects to a state park.


Weldon Spring is not a park per se, but project manager Yvonne Deyo says urban sprawl
prompted them to think like one:


“There’s subdivisions and lots of infrastructure going in…and that just kind of hits home
how important green space is, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do a little bit of
here at the site.”


Weldon Spring is one of about 100 such sites the Department of Energy is converting to
what it calls “beneficial re-use.” Many are becoming recreational venues. Another
closed uranium plant near Cincinnati is adding horseback riding trails. In Wayne, New
Jersey, a former thorium processing facility is becoming a baseball field. And a national
wildlife preserve is in the works at Rocky Flats, the site outside Denver that made the
plutonium cores of nuclear warheads.


The Department of Energy says Weldon Spring is safe for visitors – though some residual
contamination remains.


(Sound of Burgermeister Spring)


Burgermeister Spring runs through a 7-thousand acre state reserve adjacent to the site.
This is where uranium-laced groundwater from Weldon Spring rises to the surface.
Though the spring exceeds the EPA’s drinking water quality standard, there’s no warning
sign here. Officials say the contamination is so low that it poses no immediate public
hazard. The spring feeds into one of the most popular fishing lakes on the property.
Most visitors are surprised to hear that:


“Huh.”


Jeff Boeving fishes for bass four or five times a month:


“(Does that concern you to hear that?) Yeah – absolutely…I mean, they’ve got a great
area out here and they’re kind of messing it up if they’re going to have contaminants, you know, going into it.”


The government’s vision of post-nuclear playgrounds is not without its critics. Arjun
Makhijani heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park,
Maryland. He says recreational sites near urban development zones risk losing their
original purpose:


“Institutional memory tends to be very short; after 30, 40, 50 years people forget, they
begin to develop the land, and pretty soon you could have houses, farms and schools in
the area. So it’s not necessary that it will stay recreational forever.”


Recreation is only one option the Department of Energy is considering for all of its sites.
In the last two years, the agency’s budget has doubled with the addition of nearly a dozen
radioactive properties. Officials say Congress has so far supported its fiscal requests.
And with the future of a proposed permanent nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain still
in doubt, even more tax dollars will likely be spent converting the nuclear dumps in
America’s backyards to a place where families play.


For the GLRC, I’m Kevin Lavery.

Related Links

Region Deals With Deadly Nerve Agent

The Army wants to get rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons because they fear terrorists might get to them. There are eight Army sites across the U.S. that store those kinds of chemicals. At one site in the Midwest, the military is planning to dispose of Nerve Agent VX. To destroy the stockpiles, the Army must first “water-down” the nerve agent. Then it has to be shipped to a company that disposes of industrial wastes. But while the Army says it’s making neighborhoods safer near where the chemical weapons are stored … some people fear having the watered-down nerve agent trucked into their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:

Transcript

The Army wants to get rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons because they fear terrorists might get to them. There are eight Army sites across the U.S. that store those kinds of chemicals. At one site in the Midwest, the military is planning to dispose of Nerve Agent VX. To destroy the stockpiles, the Army must first “water-down” the nerve agent. Then it has to be shipped to a company that disposes of industrial wastes. But while the Army says it’s making neighborhoods safer near where the chemical weapons are stored, some people fear having the watered-down nerve agent trucked into their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:


Nerve Agent VX is a clear, odorless liquid with the consistency of motor oil. It was
accidentally created during the Korean War, when British chemists were experimenting
with various concoctions meant to kill lice on North Korean POW’s and refugees. Nerve
Agent VX kills within minutes after contact with the skin. It has never been used in
combat by the United States. Instead, most of the country’s supply sits in a highly-
guarded tank at the Newport Chemical Depot in west-central Indiana. In 1985, Congress
ordered the chemical weapons destroyed because many seemed obsolete. In 1997, the
United States joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits countries from
developing, producing, stockpiling or using chemical weapons.


Then, as U.S. Army spokesperson Terry Arthur explains, terrorists slammed planes into
the World Trade Center towers:


“After September 11th, 2001, because the public suddenly became aware of the possibility
for terrorism here in the United States, folks living near the stockpiles became acutely
aware of that. And the army began to look at ways to accelerate destruction of the
stockpiles.”


The Army is planning to burn some of its chemical weapons in incinerators. The Nerve
Agent VX that’s stored in Newport, Indiana will be destroyed through a neutralization
process. That’s a process that makes the nerve agent no more harmful than a household
drain cleaner.


(Ambient sound fade up)


The watered-down version of the nerve agent is called hydrolysate. It will be shipped by
tanker truck to Perma-Fix Environmental Services, a company in Dayton, Ohio. It’s a
company that usually handles industrial wastes and used oils.


“If you get your oil changed anywhere at a service station near the Dayton, Ohio area,
chances are, the used oil from your vehicle ends up here.”


That’s company Vice President Tom Trebonik. He says the hydrolysate will, simply put,
be broken down by a natural process. It will be eaten by microscopic bugs. And then it
breaks down even more into a form that will be pumped into the sewer system.


But, once word of a “nerve agent” coming to town spread around the small, poor
neighborhood near the plant, environmentalists began working with residents to voice
opposition to its disposal. They tacked up signs in the local supermarket and carry-out
that read “Deadly VX Nerve Agent” is coming to the neighborhood.


(Nat sound)


Martha Chatterton is a young mother of one with another child on the way. She lives in a
small house in a decaying area. Her husband fixes cars in the garage out back. They’re
glued to the news on CNN about heightened terror alerts. They know terrorist attacks are
a possibility. But they don’t want a problem from Indiana shipped to their backyard.


Chatterton is worried about the health effects of living near a plant that deals with such
industrial wastes. She says some days the air is orange and smells of a chemical stew.


“Well, last year we did the whole yard with roses and different flowers, and about a week
after we planted them, all of them died. So there’s got… there’s something wrong with
the ground here, because when I dug the hole for the rose tree, it smelled like gas fumes.”


Chatterton fears Perma-Fix won’t be able to properly handle the hydrolysate. The
company was cited in 2001 for odor violation but has since installed equipment to solve
the problem. Beyond that, the U.S. EPA and the Army see no reason why the treated
nerve agent can’t be trucked into town. Again, Army spokesperson Terry Arthur:


“We understand the concern of the public because it’s derived from a chemical agent.
What we want them to understand is that we have truckers who will be dedicated and
trained specifically for hauling this product and getting it across the state line to the Ohio
facility, where experts have been working with this kind of material for years.”


With the threat of terrorism, there’s little that’s likely to slow the pace of the destruction
of the nerve agent. The risks of leaving it intact seem greater than the risks associated
with destroying it.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.

Commentary – A Neighborly Dispute

Earlier this month, the Department of Energy announced that
spent nuclear fuel from American research reactors will be melted down
and stored, rather than reprocessed and reused. The announcement comes
at the same time that Canadian researchers are planning to recycle
nuclear
waste into reactor fuel. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator
Suzanne Elston says that this is one time when recycling shouldn’t be an
option.