Friday, February 05, 2010

Radioactive Waste Shipments

From the St. Petersburg Times:
Cargo of Toxic Waste Arrives in City’s Port

A cargo of 650 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride arrived at the city’s port on Monday. The radioactive load, which is due to travel on by rail to the Siberian Chemical Factory in the Siberian town of Seversk for reprocessing, was brought in by The Captain Kuroptev ship, a vessel that has repeatedly come into conflict in the past with ecological groups trying to prevent it from docking.

The French company AREVA, one of the largest exporters of depleted uranium to Russia, along with the German-Dutch holding URENCO, is responsible for the radioactive cargo. During the past 15 years, the companies have jointly sent to Russia nearly 140,000 tons of radioactive material, according to Greenpeace Russia.

Radioactive loads on board foreign ships have been arriving at the port of St. Petersburg on a regular basis for a decade, being sent on by rail to factories in Siberia and the Urals.

The trains carrying the hazardous loads set off from Avtovo railway station — located in the south of the city close to residential areas — according to the local branch of the ecology group Bellona. Bellona’s research has shown that most residents in the area have no idea about the risks to which they are regularly exposed as a result of these toxic cargoes.

Ecologists have difficulty monitoring the cargoes, as officials restrict information concerning the transportation of nuclear material, and often prevent independent experts from gaining access to the trains. When volunteers have been able to get close to the trains they say they have often registered increased radiation levels.

AREVA is not the only French company that regularly sends uranium hexafluoride to Russia. EURODIF also continues to send regular shipments of radioactive loads. Russia’s contracts with both AREVA and EURODIF expire in 2014, and ecologists are actively campaigning in France against their renewal...

Ecologists have questioned the ethics of these deals. It has been calculated that it is at least three times cheaper for Western European companies to send depleted uranium for reprocessing to Russia than to do the job at home.

In 2008, Russia also signed contracts with India, Pakistan and China to receive spent nuclear fuel and highly toxic uranium hexafluoride in addition to the regular shipments of radioactive cargoes from Western Europe.

In November last year, environmentalists trumpeted their first major success in years when the German-Dutch company URENCO announced that it would end the practice of sending spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing and storage...

And From the Japan Times:
The world's radioactive rubbish is piling up

The Pacific Sandpiper, a specially built cargo ship with safety features far in excess of those found on conventional vessels, left Britain's Barrow port bound for Japan the other day.

In the Pacific Sandpiper's hold on this journey to Japan via the Panama Canal is only one item of cargo — a giant cylinder weighing more than 100 tons. Inside are 28 containers, each made of stainless steel nearly one-third of a meter thick. They are packed with 14 tons of highly radioactive waste that has been turned into solid glass form to make it safer and easier to handle.

It is the first of a series of such shipments planned for next few years to Japan from Britain's Sellafield nuclear storage and reprocessing complex. Three years ago, a dozen similar shipments from France to Japan were successfully completed. Used fuel from nuclear power reactors that generate about one-third of Japan's electricity has been shipped to Europe for reprocessing since 1969, while vitrified waste has been sent back to Japan by sea since 1995.

There have been over 170 of these ocean shipments covering more than 8 million km without any incident involving the release of radioactivity, according to the Euro-Japanese company that operates the fleet of purpose-built vessels.

But the elaborate and costly arrangement casts light on two of the most problematic and controversial aspects of civilian nuclear power — how to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons material and knowhow to terrorists and rogue states, and how to store nuclear waste safely for the long-term when it can remain radioactive for hundreds of years.

With the number of power reactors expected to rise from 435 in 31 countries to nearly 570 in 42 countries by 2020, and with much of this expansion expected to take place in Asia and the Middle East, the need for safeguards on uranium or plutonium processing that could be used to make nuclear weapons is obvious.

Recycling fuel from nuclear reactors under strict national and international regulations is one method being developed. When uranium oxide fuel has been used in a reactor for three or four years, it becomes less efficient and is replaced with fresh fuel.

The spent fuel can then be chemically treated to recover usable uranium, associated plutonium and radioactive waste, a system known as reprocessing. Although expensive, this cycle provides up to 25 percent more energy from the original uranium. It also reduces the volume of high-level waste to about one-fifth of what it would otherwise be...

So far, about 90,000 tons of used fuel from commercial power reactors have been reprocessed, mainly in Britain, France and Russia. By 2030, another 400,000 tons of used fuel is likely to pile up, an average of 20,000 tons a year.

At present, annual global reprocessing capacity is about 3,800 tons per year for normal uranium oxide fuel, and about 1,700 tons for other nuclear fuels, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Much of the spent fuel piled up by 2030 will be in Asia. Japan, India, China and South Korea aim to emulate the main reprocessing centers in Europe and Russia. They see the technology as the key to a lucrative nuclear service industry as well as being one that is vital to their own energy security...

High-level radioactive waste is accumulating at a rate of about 12,000 tons per year worldwide. When used fuel is removed from a reactor, it must cool for up to 50 years under water in secure pools or in dry storage, where circulating air gradually removes the heat.

The level of both radioactivity and heat from spent fuel, or from the dangerous waste material extracted from the fuel during reprocessing, fall rapidly in these years down to about one-thousandth of the level when the fuel was removed from the reactor...

Without a long-term solution, the pile of radioactive "rubbish" will become so big and so widely dispersed that it may be impossible to manage safely.

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