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Reuters Environment NewsTOKYO (Reuter) - A radioactive waste storage facility at a state-run nuclear reprocessing plant northeast of Tokyo leaked low-level radiation over a period of about 30 years, a nuclear official said on Tuesday.
The radiation leaked from about 2,000 drums each containing 200 litres (53 gallons) of low-level radioactive waste produced by uranium processing at a facility operated by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp (PNC), a spokesman for the firm said.
"We believe that the leaked material was extremely low-level in terms of radiation and not dangerous, but it was in fact radioactive," said the PNC spokesman.
The leaking storage facility, located at Tokaimura on the Pacific coast about 100 km (65 miles) northeast of Tokyo, is near the site of a nuclear waste reprocessing plant where an explosion took place in March, exposing 35 workers to minor levels of radiation in Japan's worst nuclear accident.
He said the PNC since 1982 had been working under orders from its overseer, the Science and Technology Agency, to fortify the swimming pool-like pit in which the steel drums were stored to prevent rainwater seeping in or leakage of radioactive material.
"The fact that the waste had built up means that the measures were not sufficient," he said.
The government's Science and Technology Agency said it would launch an immediate investigation. The PNC, accused of attempting a cover-up of the March explosion and of an accident in 1995, made the latest revelation of problems with Japan's ambitious nuclear reprocessing programme after the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, uncovered the leakage.
The newspaper ran a detailed account of the problem as the top story in its evening edition on Tuesday.
A string of revelations of sloppy safety procedures and a lack of transparency about its problems had angered local governments near the plants and prompted the national government to carry out a complete overhaul of the PNC.
- Tokyo energy desk (813) 3432-3708
Reuters Environment Newsby Tokyo Energy Desk (813) 3432-3708
TOKYO - Completion of a Japan-financed radioactive waste processing facility in Russia's far east, aimed at preventing Russian dumping of nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan, is set for this autumn, a Japan Foreign Ministry offical said on Wednesday.
"About 90 percent of the construction work on the unit has already been finished," the official said.
The Japanese government decided to fund construction of the plant after it was revealed that Russia dumped some 800 tonnes of radioactive waste from dismantled nuclear-powered submarines into the Sea of Japan in October 1993.
The facility's completion was originally scheduled for the end of 1996, but was delayed due to changes in Russian regulations on nuclear safety standards, he said.
Upon completion, the floating facility will be transported from a shipyard near Vladivostok to the adjacent port of Bolshoi Kamen, where it will process low-level nuclear waste from decommissioned naval vessels.
The 2.5 billion yen unit, under construction by a consortium comprised of Japanese trading house Tomen Corp and U.S. engineering firm Babcock & Wilcox Co, will have the capacity to process about 7,000 cubic metres per year of radioactive liquid into harmless water and condensed radioactive waste.
The Foreign Ministry official added that it was up to the Russian government to decide how to respond to local residents' concerns over the safety of the nuclear waste treatment project.
The small town of Shkotovskii, adjacent to Bolshoi Kamen, held a referendum on the project last Sunday, voting overwhelmingly against the project.
But regional governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko has warned that unless the problem of processing the waste is solved, dumping into the Sea of Japan would continue.
Currently the waste is kept in two floating storage tanks outside the docks where the submarines have been decommissioned.
by Tom SpearsWork time is happy hour at the troubled Pickering nuclear station, where workers drink beer and booze and take drugs inside the plant's radioactive heart, documents obtained by the Citizen show.
Five times last year, Hydro staff found empty bottles or cans of beer in the "radiation areas" at the giant nuclear plant. Once they found an empty liquor bottle.
They found homemade hashish pipes twice and marijuana once in the areas where radiation may be present -- including washrooms, laundry rooms and a freight elevator.
All areas of a nuclear plant are high-security places, but the radiation areas are extra-secure, at least in theory. Finding evidence of boozing and drug use there is like finding empty beer cans in an airplane cockpit or a hospital operating room.
The evidence was found after workers had been warned repeatedly by their bosses and by federal regulators that the plant could close if safety didn't improve.
"It's not a surprise. I wish I could say it was," said Maurice Brenner, who represents Pickering on the Durham Regional Council. "That's pretty scary, because if there's an emergency we rely on these people's judgment," said Mr. Brenner, who sits on the council's liaison committee with Hydro.
"Can you imagine a firefighter going out to fight a fire after smoking pot?" he said. "Is it any less serious for people handling radioactive materials? I don't think so."
"Having drug people in a radioactive, toxic environment doesn't make me happy," said Norm Rubin of Energy Probe, a Toronto group that opposes Hydro's nuclear operations.
Before 1996, all incidents of drug or alcohol use in nuclear plants were kept secret. Hydro argued these were confidential security matters.
One Hydro report on "drug paraphernalia" found last fall says: "The continuing discovery of such items in the plant is both embarrassing and a threat to our recovery and survival as a business."
It's events like these, says the Atomic Energy Control Board, that left its staff feeling "no surprise" when Hydro announced it will shut down all four reactors at Pickering A. The newer B station next door will keep running.
This action, together with shutting down the Bruce A station on Lake Huron, is "appropriately aggressive" action given the spotty safety records of nuclear workers, the AECB says.
Its 1996 safety reports say the Bruce A station operated in an acceptable way, but Pickering A had too many safety problems that are not being fixed. The reports will be published in another week or two.
The Pickering A station, Hydro's oldest nuclear plant, is also its worst. Among the year's problems:
"We believe this was not conservative operation," the safety inspectors wrote.
Safety inspectors at Bruce A found much less trouble. The number of times someone didn't follow the rules strictly was "unacceptably high," they wrote. But none of these incidents caused a significant public risk, and Hydro took the proper corrective measures after all of them.
The inspectors say Bruce A management showed strong commitment to safety, and the performance of workers and the safety systems was acceptable.
Globe and Mail
by Marcus Gee, International AffairsIN university days, I used to have passionate kitchen-table debates with my friends about nuclear power. I was the only one who didn't think it was a dire threat to the environment.
I still don't think it is. Compared with the risks from other major energy sources - spills and fires from oil, acid rain and global warming from coal, dam breaks and ruined fisheries from hydro - the risks posed by a well-designed nuclear plant are negligible. Nuclear remains the safest, cleanest way of producing large amounts of electrical power.
Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive.
Long before we learned that Homer Simpson was running Ontario Hydro, power utilities in most other parts of the world began bailing out of nuclear. One reason was pressure from voters spooked by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. But cost was equally persuasive.
Building a nuclear reactor is hugely expensive and time-consuming. Ontario Hydro's Darlington plant on the shore of Lake Ontario took 14 years from go-ahead to start-up and eventually cost $14-billion. Decommissioning the reactor when its gets old and dealing with its radioactive waste - it can be done safely, but not cheaply - will add billions more to the final price tag.
As a result, the cost of the power once called "too cheap to meter" has gone up, up, up. The figures are endlessly disputed, but Energy Probe, a leading critic of nuclear power, says that electricity from Darlington now costs eight cents a kilowatt hour (eight cents to run 10 100-watt light bulbs for one hour). That is about twice the cost of the electricity from plants fuelled by coal or natural gas.
Other countries that went the nuclear route face figures just as discouraging. In the United States, more than 100 planned nuclear plants have been cancelled since the late 1970s, and experts predict that by 2015 the country's nuclear capacity will drop by one-third. Britain and Germany have stopped building reactors. Sweden plans to dismantle its nuclear plants altogether. Among developed countries, only Japan and France are still committed to nuclear expansion, and even they are scaling back.
There is, in fact, just one place where demand for nuclear power is still strong: Asia. India, Pakistan, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Indonesia all plan to build new reactors. Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines might.
And who is going to sell them those reactors? Why, Canada of course. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the agency that markets the Candu reactor, has spent 20 years, and millions of dollars of your money, peddling Candus to Asia.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien himself has made it his personal mission to sell as many reactors as possible. In a back-slapping visit with Chinese Premier Li Peng last year - things are so friendly between the two that Mr. Chrétien actually tried to place a red pompon on Mr. Li's head as a joke - the Prime Minister congratulated China for agreeing to buy two Candus and urged it to buy more. South Korean President Kim Young-sam got a similar sales job from the Willy Loman of Sussex Drive.
Mr. Chrétien calls this practical, reciprocal diplomacy. The Asians get clean, safe Canadian reactors. Canada gets jobs, jobs, jobs.
In fact it is a giant swindle. A swindle, first of all, of Canadian taxpayers, whose pockets have been picked to subsidize the few Candu sales that AECL has managed to make. And a swindle of the Asian buyers, who are being urged to adopt a low-cost, trouble-free Canadian technology that is neither.
AECL managed to sell reactors to China not because Li Peng likes Jean Chrétien's jokes, but because Canada lent China $1.5-billion to buy them. If China defaults on the loan, the government of Canada is on the hook. Worse, Ottawa waived the usual environmental studies when it made the reactor sale, ignoring a warning by its own consultants that the studies were necessary to ensure environmental safety.
That sale looks even less savoury in light of what has been happening at Ontario Hydro. For years, Canada has been advertising the Candu as the world's safest, most reliable, most efficient reactor. Perhaps it is.
Yet all of Hydro's best and brightest - the legions of $80,000-a-year engineers, the scores of highly trained department chiefs, the vice- presidents of this and directors of that - could not manage these magnificent machines. Maintenance was shoddy, safety standards only "minimally acceptable." And now seven reactors will close, perhaps forever.
Will a developing country like China do better? Will an authoritarian country with an arrogant, unaccountable leadership, unchecked by public pressure, do what it takes to keep these reactors running safely and smoothly? If Ontario Hydro's nuclear division became an out-of-control "cult," what will the Chinese equivalent become?
Now that Canadians have discovered how devilishly hard and ruinously expensive it is to run even the best nuclear technology, it is irresponsible to lead others down the nuclear path. Let Mr. Chrétien sell Canadian computers and Canadian fish and Canadian banking. But let's stop persuading others to buy a technology that we ourselves cannot handle.
by Tom Spears
Just last year, Allan Kupcis, president of Ontario Hydro, sat in an Ottawa hotel room describing how the utility would cover the $15-billion cost of retiring its nuclear stations and radioactive waste.
It would do that, he assured reporters, even though the $2 billion collected for that purpose had all been spent on other things.
Today Mr. Kupcis is gone -- he resigned suddenly last week in Hydro's nuclear fiasco --and so is his plan.
Meanwhile, an all-party legislative committee with the power to subpoena witnesses will be formed to look into the "scandalous behaviour'' at Hydro that has thrown the utility into a tailspin. Ontario Energy Minister Norm Sterling said yesterday that last week's report on Hydro by U.S. nuclear experts was so disturbing that the public must know how it fell from grace and where it is going from here.
The damning report, which cited serious mismanagement and safety concerns, was only hours old when it was announced that Mr. Kupcis had resigned and seven nuclear reactors were to be closed indefinitely.
Some of the reactors face closing 20 years ahead of schedule. But there's not a single penny in the bank to pay for the decommissioning (cleaning up radioactivity at plant sites) or permanent disposal of highly radioactive used uranium fuel.
And that means taxpayers are on the hook for a $15-billion debt, says Hydro's biggest critic, Norm Rubin of Energy Probe, an independent group in Toronto that has argued for years Hydro's reactors would not last their allotted 40 years.
As Mr. Kupcis explained in last year's interview, the plan was to set aside money earned by the nuclear stations to pay for their eventual decommissioning.
Nuclear plants were supposed to last 40 years, by Ontario Hydro's estimates. The two stations recently picked for shutdowns (Pickering station A and Bruce station A) had started operations between the mid-1970s and early 1980s; they had, on average, half their working lives left, with plenty of earning power.
Now the earning power is gone. But the cost of cleaning up a plant that has run for 20 years is no different from the cost of cleaning up one that ran for 40 years. Each is a big pile of concrete and steel with radioactive components at the centre. "That's a totally unfunded liability,'' says Mr. Rubin.
"Everyone's talking about (Hydro's) $32- or $33-billion debt, and nobody's talking about this other $15 billion'' in cleanup costs, he said yesterday.
"The situation has taken a dramatic turn for the urgently worse.
"The earning power of the nuclear units and their ability to set aside money for the job has just dropped by a bunch, and the cost of decommissioning and waste disposal don't drop proportionately.''
"Obviously we have to factor all that (reactor closings) in the financial plan,'' Hydro spokesman Terry Young said yesterday.
Last week's announcement means that eight of Hydro's 19 reactors will be out of action. (One reactor at Bruce A was already down.)
Hydro says the shutdowns will allow for an intensive retraining program that will bring its operations up to par.
As much as $8 billion will be spent on retraining, capital costs and generating replacement power at fossil-fuel stations.
That has nothing to do with the $15 billion it will cost, sooner or later, to retire the nuclear stations.
The $2 billion collected so far for decommissioning came from a surcharge on electrical bills in Ontario in recent years, at a rate of one-tenth of a cent for every kilowatt hour a customer uses. It's possible that amount could be raised to cover the earlier closings of some reactors, he said.
If that doesn't raise enough cash, the taxpayers are stuck. The Ontario government guarantees all of Hydro's debts.
Mr. Kupcis confirmed last year that even the $2 billion collected for these costs had been spent to retire Hydro's earlier debts -- money it borrowed in large part to build nuclear stations, especially the $14-billion Darlington station.
Mr. Kupcis argued there was plenty of time to raise more money in the future by selling electricity from the nuclear plants. Those plants currently supply about two-thirds of Ontario's electricity.
He said Hydro would sell bonds to cover future cleanup costs if it hadn't enough cash on hand. In the meantime, the $2 billion remains on Hydro's books as a provision for cleanup costs.
There's no provision for the remaining $13 billion.
"They set aside money on the basis that everything was going according to plan,'' said Mr. Rubin.
He says Hydro should have been saving more in the early years of the reactors in case they didn't last as long as the theory said they should.
"They're not talking about waste. How can they slough off $13 billion?'' asked Normand de la Chevrotiere, a Kitchener resident whose summer cottage is just outside the Bruce nuclear site. Mr. de la Chevrotiere is also a critic of Hydro's finances, and has been fighting Hydro plans to expand waste storage at the Bruce.
He has been exchanging letters with Canada's auditor general, Denis Desautels, arguing that Hydro should be forced to set more money aside for future cleanups.
"If they're serious about their commitment (to future cleanup of radioactivity), show me the money,'' Mr. de la Chevrotiere said.
And he said Hydro is likely to have trouble selling billions of dollars worth of bonds for radioactive cleanup.
"If you're borrowing for a business that's going to generate revenue, that's one thing,'' he said.
"When you're borrowing to sink waste in the ground and get nothing back, I think lenders would be more reluctant to lend.''
by Stephen Handelman
Toronto Star Foreign Affairs Writer
NEW YORK - A $500 million proposal to dispose of Russian and American plutonium in Ontario could be derailed by the shutdown of Hydro reactors, The Star has learned.
The Bruce power station, where three reactors are to be shut down, was designated a potential site for turning plutonium from nuclear weapons into energy for Ontario early in the next century.
But this week, Ontario Hydro announced it may permanently shut down seven of the province's 20 nuclear reactors following the release of a devastating report from an advisory group about safety problems.
"It (the shutdown) will probably have an impact,'' a U.S. government official said in an interview yesterday.
Under the proposal, plutonium from U.S. and Russia would be transformed into mixed-oxide or MOX fuel suitable for burning in CANDU power reactors. Ontario uses CANDU reactors.
The plan to use Canadian reactors is part of a major effort by the U.S. to reduce the dangers of nuclear terrorism posed by the world's growing stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium. The U.S is especially worried about the security of Russia's plutonium stockpile.
Canada has offered its nuclear facilities as an "honest broker'' to persuade Russia to dispose of its plutonium. Several U.S. commercial utilities also plan to bid for the right to burn mixed-oxide fuel.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), which has been promoting the idea, said despite the plan to shut down reactors, it is too early to give up.
"Any commercial use of MOX fuel is still six or seven years away, and by then those plants may be back up running again,'' said AECL spokesperson Larry Shewchuk.
Meanwhile, Shewchuk said, plans to test-burn 600 grams of American mixed-oxide fuel at AECL's Chalk River research reactor in December will go ahead.
"Until we have a clear idea of Ontario Hydro's plans, it's too early to make any final judgment.''
According to reports, Canada could earn as much as $500 million for burning the fuel.
Canadian officials estimate that if the project went ahead it would power two CANDU reactors for 20 years and provide inexpensive power.
The mixed-oxide fuel plan is part of a "dual-track'' strategy announced in December, 1996 by the U.S. Department of Energy to dispose of 52 tonnes of plutonium - about half the U.S. stockpile.
Washington said it also planned to investigate turning the surplus nuclear material into glass, which renders plutonium safe and unusable. Although many scientists prefer the glass method, the mixed-oxide process was considered a way of getting support from Russia. Russia considers plutonium a highly valuable resource and is reluctant to forego its use for commercial energy.
Environmental groups in Canada and the U.S. have warned the mixed-oxide fuel idea will reverse decades of international efforts to ban reprocessing and add new security concerns, such as protecting cross-border shipments of hazardous material.
The Guardianby David Fairhall
Six years ago, as the dust of the Gulf war settled, United Nations officials sifting through the wreckage of the Iraqi nuclear programme were appalled to discover how close Saddam Hussein had come to building a bomb. The worst of it was, he had done it right under the noses of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who are paid large salaries to detect just this sort of clandestine programme. Another year or two -- the IAEA estimate was autumn 1993 -- and the whole balance of military power in the Middle East might suddenly have shifted.
The agency's shocked response was to propose a much tougher inspection regime, which the 186 signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be invited to support. It took a long time to get agreement, with the new system of "safeguards" not announced until this May. It will also be years before all signatories have ratified the agreement, with Australia looking likely to be the first, in a couple of weeks' time. Nevertheless, the deal turns out to have been well worth waiting for.A crude materials accounting system that failed to detect the Iraqi bomb programme is being replaced by a protocol that harnesses an array of verification techniques, from challenge inspections to spy satellites, plus sensitive environmental sampling.
The test is whether, if these new safeguards had been in place during the 1970s, the existence of the Iraqi bomb programme would have been detected. And the answer seems to be yes. From which it follows that had South Africa not owned up to possessing nuclear weapons in 1993, that programme too would have been uncovered. And if Iran decides to build a bomb, as the CIA assumes it will, it has little chance of keeping the secret.
We should not be too euphoric, however. The five declared nuclear powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the US -- are not about to renounce these weapons; nor are they bound to open their laboratories to the IAEA. Three other states that either have the means to make a bomb or already have it in their armoury -- India, Pakistan and Israel, where Mordecai Vanunu is going crazy from years of solitary confinement for disclosing the scale of his country's nuclear inventory -- have never signed the non-proliferation treaty. Apart from certain equipment supplied on condition it may be inspected, they can tell the IAEA to get lost.
The list of outlaw states would no doubt be much longer had the officials from Vienna always had full powers of inspection. As it was, nearly everyone signed up for the NPT package, thereby acquiring access to civil nuclear technology if they wanted it, and in the case of Iraq, using the perfunctory IAEA inspections as cover for a clandestine military programme.
Washington believes Iran is still playing a similar game, inviting IAEA inspectors to check its research reactors and the power stations that Russia is building, while secretly laying the groundwork for a military programme.
It would indeed be surprising if the mullahs had no such ambitions for the long term, given how close their old enemy in Baghdad came to getting his bomb. The point is that if this happens we shall at least be aware of it, either because IAEA inspections produce the evidence, or because the Iranians -- as the North Koreans did in February 1993 -- confirm suspicions by refusing access to certain labs. Under the Vienna agency's new protocol, as its spokesman David Kyd puts it, "it's now legitimate to be nosy". When inspectors visit a nuclear lab they will be able to poke round any building they think interesting, not just the front office they used to be shown by the Iraqis. Almost any information can be used to prompt a challenge inspection.
Patricia Lewis, director of the London-based verification think-tank Vertic, says the ability to monitor all the associated nuclear technologies, not just fissile material, will be particularly valuable. Above all, she puts faith in environmental monitoring -- that is analysing air, water or soil samples. Years ago, scientists at a Suffolk nuclear power station identified the unmistakable trace of the last Chinese atmospheric bomb test, obtained from dust collected by a sticky square of muslin stretched on the roof of their lab. That is nothing, Lewis insists, compared with what modern laser mass spectrometry can do. Scrape the dust off a building many miles downwind of a suspect laboratory, sample the river flowing by, and you can tell that behind those closed doors plutonium is being separated, or uranium enriched by a particular process -- potential fuel for a bomb.
What with the recent comprehensive nuclear test ban, the new chemical weapons convention, a campaign to control anti-personnel landmines, and real teeth for the IAEA, these are vintage years for the cause of arms control.