In the future, nuclear clean-up workers may be getting help from some surprising sources. None of these three methods are in widespread use right now, but they show promise:
What’s the Context: The danger of strontium-90 is that it is chemically similar to calcium, and so can be taken up into milk, bones, and other tissues. Nuclear waste and spills can contain significant amounts of strontium; C. moniliferum is especially helpful because it can precipitate strontium but leave calcium alone (calcium is different enough from barium that the bacteria doesn’t crystallize it).
Not So Fast: Scientists don’t yet know how well the algae can withstand radioactivity, which could potentially put a damper on this clean-up method. Now, the scientists would like to find ways of increasing sulphate levels in the environment, which may in turn increase the ability of the algae to crystallize strontium.
Are these the first steps to a nuclear renaissance? Yesterday the White House said it would give more than $8 billion in loan guarantees to make sure that construction of two new nuclear power plants gets under way in Georgia. If these plants go ahead, they would be the first new nuclear plants built in the country in more than three decades.
The loan guarantee is conditional. It hinges on the utility, the Southern Co., receiving a license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency to build and operate the new reactors. Based on the current timeline, the utility expects to receive its license during the second half of 2011, says David Ratcliffe, its chairman and chief executive officer [Christian Science Monitor]. The two reactors would each produce more than 1,000 megawatts, and would work with two existing reactors at a site near Waynesboro, Georgia.
The loan guarantees will allow Southern Co. to get massive construction loans from its bankers without assuming the risk; if the power plants aren’t profitable and if the company defaults on its loans, the federal government will pay back the money to the banks instead. Despite the government support, the new Georgia reactors are far from a done deal: their design has not yet been fully approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose staff has raised questions about whether changes made to harden the plant against aircraft attack had made it more vulnerable to earthquakes [The New York Times].
There’s more bad news for the Baltic Sea. Reports had already indicated that it was one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world, and now a report from a Swedish TV station alleges that Russia dumped nuclear and other toxic waste into Swedish waters in the Baltic in the early 1990s.
According to a report by the SVT network, Russian boats sailed out at night to dump barrels of radioactive material, from a military base in Latvia, into Swedish waters. And even though the Swedish government at the time reportedly knew this, no action was taken to find the waste [BBC News]. These accusations—particularly that the Swedish government knew about the dumping and did nothing—aren’t sitting well with current Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. But Carl Bildt, who was the country’s prime minister during the alleged dumping, says he never heard about it.
Here’s one direct and obvious effect of the economic stimulus package passed in February: The toxic sites where scientists ushered in the nuclear age are getting cleaned up. In Los Alamos, New Mexico, a dump that contains refuse of the Manhattan Project and that was sealed up decades ago is finally being explored, thanks to $212 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But experts aren’t sure what they’ll find inside the dump. At the very least, there is probably a truck down there that was contaminated in 1945 at the Trinity test site, where the world’s first nuclear explosion seared the sky and melted the desert sand 200 miles south of here during World War II [The New York Times]. It may also contain explosive chemicals that could have become more dangerous over the years of burial.
Last week’s official dedication of the National Ignition Facility, the massive experiment in nuclear fusion, has set some physicists to plotting ways in which nuclear fusion could be put to work in a new generation of nuclear power plants. Although doubters say that NIF may not even be able to produce a controlled fusion reaction, the same reaction that occurs in the heart of the sun and in thermonuclear weapons, boosters such as U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu are already discussing how fusion energy could best be harnessed.
Chu notes that the Obama administration’s decision to halt construction of the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste has renewed interest in reactors that could actually reduce the nuclear waste produced by traditional nuclear power plants. There are “a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides” [Technology Review], says Chu. Actinides are a group of radioactive chemical elements, including plutonium and uranium, which compose some of the radioactive waste from traditional fission reactors.
Twenty-three years ago, Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor #4 exploded in the world’s worst nuclear accident to date. Radioactive material was scattered across the surrounding countryside, and the authorities evacuated the nearby town of Pripyat, which remains a ghost town to this day. However, nature has not evacuated the scene, and all manner of plants and animals continue to inhabit the area. “There are no dogs with two heads,” says Martin Hajduch of the Slovak Academy of Sciences – although birds, insects and humans have all been affected to a greater or lesser extent by radioactive fallout [New Scientist].
Hajduch and his colleagues wanted to study how plants had adapted to the radioactive soil, so they grew a plot of soybeans just three miles from the remains of the nuclear power plant, well within the restricted zone that extends 19 miles from the reactors. They grew another patch of soybeans 60 miles from the power plant in uncontaminated soil, and analyzed the resulting beans. Their findings not only illuminate the hardiness of life, they also suggest ways to genetically engineer plants to make them resistant to radiation.
The blast that shook the Chernobyl nuclear power plant more than 20 years ago, sending a highly radioactive plume of fallout into the air, still affects local populations of butterflies and bees and other insects, according to a new study. The study appears to argue against the idea put forward by previous researchers that the region around the power plant, contaminated by radiation and off limits to most humans, has become a sort of post-apocalyptic Eden [The New York Times], in which animals can live unmolested. However, the new results are stirring up controversy.
A pair of researchers conducted standard surveys in forests around Chernobyl over three springs from 2006 to 2008, noting the numbers of bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies and spider webs at points with radiation levels that varied over four orders of magnitude [The New York Times]. They found that the number of bugs declined as the radiation increased, and that even relatively low levels of radiation impacted insect populations. The researchers say insects may be particularly vulnerable because radiation is usually found in the top layer of soil, where many invertebrates spend time during either their egg, larvae, or adult phases.
In a blow to the nuclear power industry, the budget released by President Obama last week eliminates most funding for Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site that for decades has been proposed for the permanent burial of radioactive nuclear waste.
The decision will likely be an expensive one, considering how much money the federal government might end up owing the utility industry, and how much—up to $10.4 billion—has already been spent and will have been wasted on the search for a nuclear waste repository since 1983. The courts have already awarded the companies about $1 billion, because the government signed contracts obligating it to begin taking the waste in 1998, but seems unlikely to do so for years. The nuclear industry says it may demand the return of the $22 billion that it has paid to the Energy Department to establish a repository, but that the government has not yet spent [The New York Times].
The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act called for the establishment of a permanent, high-level nuclear waste repository. Eight proposed sites were narrowed to three, then to one. Over the strong objections of Nevada’s congressional delegation – and controversy over flawed studies – Congress voted in 1987 to approve Yucca Mountain as the sole candidate for a permanent nuclear waste repository. In 2002, President Bush designated Yucca Mountain as the site, and in June 2008, the Department of Energy submitted its license application [Christian Science Monitor].
It’s one of the biggest cleanup jobs the United States has ever undertaken, and it’s a long way from being done. Near the Columbia River in Hanford, Washington, contractors are decontaminating a nuclear fuel processing site that has 177 underground tanks holding 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, some of which has already leaked into the soil and groundwater. And the cleanup crew has learned that the known hazards are just the beginning. [S]loppy work by the contractors running the site saw all kinds of chemical and radioactive waste indiscriminately buried in pits underground over the 40 years Hanford was operational, earning it the accolade of the dirtiest place on Earth. In 2004, clean-up work uncovered a battered, rusted, and broken old safe containing a glass jug inside which was 400 millilitres of plutonium [New Scientist].
In a new study published in Analytical Chemistry [subscription required], researchers announced that the plutonium inside that jug had quite an impressive and terrible pedigree. Analyzing the sample’s isotopes and studying the historical records revealed that it was processed into plutonium-239 in December of 1944, as part of the first batch of weapons-grade plutonium ever made. Just eight months later, Hanford plutonium was used in the nuclear bomb that fell on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.