The scientists who first split the atom, in 1942, were no doubt some of the smartest people in the world: Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Neils Bohr, Glenn Seaborg, and dozens of others. For the next 50 years, nuclear technology served as a magnet for brainy people, attracting graduate students who were excited to work at the cutting edge of technology where research funds were nearly limitless. In the field of nuclear weapons, nuclear power or nuclear medicine, if you had a bright idea, you could probably find the funds to explore it, so smart people flocked into nuclear technology.
Despite all this brain power, in 60 short years nuclear technology has created an array of problems that now rank among the most difficult, dangerous and long-lived that the world has ever faced, and which grow larger each passing year. What went wrong?
This is an important question because -- despite all the problems it has already created -- the nuclear industry is redoubling its efforts to expand. [NY TIMES May 7, 2001, pg. A17] Furthermore, nuclear is not the most complex technology humans have set out to master: biotechnology and the now-emerging nanotechnology are intrinsically much more complex. (Nanotechnology is the attempt to create molecule-sized machines, some of which can themselves create more molecule-sized machines.) If we are having trouble controlling nuclear technology, shouldn't we think twice before deploying new technologies that are far more complicated, much less understandable and therefore far less predictable?
What went wrong with nuclear? The people who gave us nuclear technology evidently didn't notice that our ability to control complex systems is limited by surprises that arise from three sources: (1) technical misunderstanding of the underlying chemistry, physics, or biology; (2) an astonishing range of management lapses (including simple errors, unwillingness to confront the troublesome parts of a problem, a tendency to doze off on the job after a few uneventful years, and the human desire to hide and deny embarrassing mistakes); and (3) the shifting sands of politics and economic dislocations, including commercial competition.
The history of nuclear power tells us that these three kinds of surprises (technical, managerial, and political) set pretty narrow limits on the human capacity to control complex technologies. Nuclear technology has clearly exceeded our human capacity for control, while biotech and nanotech make nuclear seem simple and easy by comparison.
Where is the evidence that nuclear is uncontrollably complex? It's in the newspapers almost every week. Let's take a look.
** Because it operates 51 nuclear power plants to generate electricity, Japan justifiably ranks high among the high-tech nations. However, on Sept. 30, 1999, an atomic fuel plant in the town of Tokaimura, 87 miles northwest of Tokyo, spewed radioactivity into the air. At least 35 workers were exposed and 300,000 nearby residents were told to shut their windows and stay indoors. [NY TIMES October 1, 1999, pgs. A1, A10.] When the accident occurred, the Tokaimura plant was in its 17th year of commercial operation.
The accident began when workers poured 35 pounds of uranium --instead of the usual 5 pounds -- into a tank containing nitric acid. (Management surprise.) The tank happened to be surrounded by a shell filled with water, which reflected neutrons back toward the uranium, thus promoting a chain reaction. (Technical surprise.) There was an ominous blue flash of light as the 35 pounds of uranium "went critical," meaning a nuclear chain reaction had begun spewing deadly gamma rays and neutrons into the surrounding area.
Japanese nuclear safety officials had previously scrutinized the plant and concluded that an accidental chain reaction was impossible, so the plant had no emergency plan. (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES Oct. 23, 1999, pg. A4.]
It took Japanese authorities 17 hours to bring the atomic reaction under control. The Tokyo Electric Power Company rushed 880 pounds of sodium borate to the plant to absorb radiation and quench the nuclear reaction, but they discovered they had no way of getting close enough to the chain reaction to dump the powder onto it. (Management surprise).
Japanese authorities requested help from the U.S. military stationed in Japan but were told those troops were not equipped to deal with nuclear accidents. (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES October 1, 1999, pgs. A1, A10.]
Workers finally brought the chain reaction under control by smashing a pipe connected to the water shell, letting the water drain out. [NY TIMES Oct. 23, 1999, pg. A4.]
The Japanese Government Nuclear Safety Commission immediately blamed the workers involved. One member of the Commission said, "If they had done their job as they were supposed to, there is no way something like this could have happened." [NY TIMES Oct. 1, 1999, pg. A10.]
However, a few days later it became apparent that the Government Nuclear Safety Commission had misunderstood the situation. (Management surprise.) The NEW YORK TIMES reported that, for years, the plant's managers had been pressuring workers to skip important safety steps, to increase productivity and improve competitiveness. One of the injured workers said he had routinely used procedural shortcuts following directions given in an illegally-drafted plant manual that allowed workers to speed up production. [NY TIMES Oct. 4, 1999, pg. A8.] For their part, plant managers continued to blame the workers' "lack of sufficient expertise," as if employee training were not a management responsibility. (Management surprise.) Plant managers refused to acknowledge that they had urged workers to speed up production, "But company officials have acknowledged that the plant had recently faced intense foreign competition," the NEW YORK TIMES reported. (Management surprise, political surprise.)
The most highly-irradiated worker in the September accident, Hisashi Ouchi, 35, died of his injuries December 22. The Japanese government had made heroic efforts to keep him alive, transfusing 10 pints of fresh blood into his body each day for several months before his death. Just as the government feared, his death catalyzed a citizen movement to oppose the expansion of nuclear power in Japan, and especially to stop the use of MOX, or "mixed oxide fuel." (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES Jan. 13, 2000, pg. A1.] MOX fuel combines plutonium with uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants, as a way of (1) avoiding the need for new uranium fuel; and (2) in some cases, reducing the world's supply of pure plutonium, 18 pounds of which can be used to make a crude but effective A-bomb. [NY TIMES November 12, 2001, pg. B1.]
Japan had been planning to purchase mixed oxide fuels (MOX) from a British plant known as Sellafield, an industrial complex on the edge of the Irish Sea employing 10,000 workers. Sellafield had begun operating a nuclear power plant in 1956, but the plant caught fire Oct. 10, 1957, exposing workers and nearby residents to excessive radioactivity. (Technical surprise.) In 1957, the British government denied anyone had been harmed but in 1983 the British National Radiological Protection Board estimated that the doses received by the public during the 1957 fire could cause hundreds of thyroid cancers. (Technical surprise, management surprise.) The British government released its health report in 1988, 31 years after the fire, and some of the health data remain secret to this day. (Management surprise.)
Sellafield survived the disaster of 1957 and went on to expand its operation to include nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear waste management. In anticipation of a growing market for MOX fuels, Sellafield invested $480 million in a new fuel fabrication facility in 1999. Japan agreed to buy 1/3 of the plant's output.
Unfortunately, shortly after Sellafield shipped its first batch of MOX fuel to Japan, British authorities discovered that Sellafield workers had falsified inspection documents related to the fuel rods sent to Japan. (Management surprise.) A union representative blamed commercial competition: "Clearly there was commercial pressure to meet customers' demands," he said. (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES Apr. 20, 2000, pg. C4.]
In Japan, news of the falsified inspection documents created such an uproar that the fuel was rejected and shipped back to Sellafield. [NY TIMES Jan. 13, 2000, pg. A1.] Switzerland and Sweden then suspended shipments of spent fuel to Sellafield. (Political surprise.)
Germany, too, said it had received MOX fuels from Sellafield accompanied by falsified documents. Subsequently Germany raised concerns about "irregularities" in MOX fuel manufactured at La Hague in France, engulfing the entire MOX fuel industry in scandal and controversy. (Management surprise, political surprise.) [NY TIMES April 20, 2000, pg. C1.] Two months later, Germany announced that it would phase out and shut down all 19 of its nuclear power plants. (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES June 16, 2000, pg. A6.]
But Sellafield's troubles did not stop there. Two months after the revelation of falsified documents, British government inspectors reported "systematic management failures" at the Sellafield complex and found fault with Sellafield's entire "safety culture." (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES April 20, 2000, pg. C4.] Shortly after this embarrassing revelation, British authorities announced that "a saboteur had severed cables controlling robotic operations in a radioactive area of the installation." (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES March 27, 2000, pg. A8.] Ireland and Denmark then began an international campaign to have the Sellafield plant closed for good. (Political surprise.)
With its MOX fuel investment in serious trouble and its reputation in tatters, Sellafield announced that recent events had forced it to increase the price for cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, USA, one of the most contaminated places on Earth, where DuPont, Westinghouse and other private firms made plutonium for weapons between 1943 and 1987. In October 1998, Sellafield has offered to solidify -- for a fee of $6.6 billion\- -- 54 million gallons of DuPont's and Westinghouse's discarded radioactive liquids, sludges and salts held in 177 tanks at Hanford. But 18 months later, in late April 2000, Sellafield management said the Hanford cleanup would now cost U.S. taxpayers $15.2 billion. The U.S. Department of Energy balked, canceled the contract with Sellafield and declared its attempt to "privatize" the Hanford cleanup a failure. Evidently, the private sector can affordably create one of the world's largest radioactive stews but cannot affordably clean it up. (Management surprise, political surprise.) [NY TIMES April 27, 2000, pg. C4; NY TIMES May 9, 2000, pg. C4.]
The Hanford cleanup is itself a technical frontier. Of the 177 waste tanks at Hanford, 149 are made of a single shell of steel. So far, 68 tanks have leaked and "all the single-shell tanks are expected to leak eventually," the NY TIMES reported March 23, 1998, pg. A10. (Technical surprise.)
For 50 years, private-sector and governmental managers at the Hanford Reservation steadfastly maintained that leaks of radioactive liquids were inconsequential because the soil would bind the radioactive particles tightly, preventing them from moving into the Columbia River. However, in 1997 officials announced that they had been wrong and that leaked wastes had already entered the river. (Technical surprise.) [NY TIMES Oct. 11, 1997, pg. A7.]
Of the 54 million gallons of wastes abandoned by DuPont and Westinghouse at Hanford, so far at least 900,000 gallons have escaped into the soil on their way to the river. No one has any idea how to retrieve them. (Technical surprise.) [NY TIMES Mar. 23, 1998, pg. A10.]
To be continued.
Peter Montague, Editor
Jean McSorley, LIVING IN THE SHADOW
Importance Of Surprises
Here we continue examining the three kinds of surprises that have made nuclear technology one of the world's most difficult and dangerous problems, and one that grows worse each passing year. The three kinds of surprises result from (1) technical ignorance of the chemistry, physics or biology involved, (2) management lapses (failure to anticipate human errors and subsequent inability, or refusal, to confront mistakes and take corrective action), and (3) political winds (shifting political and economic realities that render government controls ineffective, including commercial competition).
Our purpose in examining these nuclear surprises is first to make the point that nuclear technology has apparently exceeded the human capacity for controlling complex machines and processes, and, secondly, to ask whether it makes sense to press ahead with the deployment of new technologies that are more powerful than nuclear, less understandable, and therefore less controllable, namely biotech and nanotech.
Where do we find evidence that nuclear is beyond human control? In the newspapers every week.
All nuclear operations generate radioactive wastes. The U.S. now holds an estimated 42,500 metric tons of intensely radioactive spent reactor fuel, and 100 million gallons of highly radioactive liquids and sludges in temporary storage. These wastes are dangerous by themselves, but some of them could also be used to make terrifying weapons. This week we look briefly at local hazards from radioactive wastes.
** As we saw in REHN #747, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state, DuPont and other private firms manufactured plutonium for weapons from 1943 to 1987 under close government supervision. In the process they created 54 million gallons of radioactive liquids, sludges and salts, about a million gallons of which have already leaked into the ground and are now measurable in the Columbia River -- an event considered impossible until it happened. (Technical surprise.)
In addition to the 54 million gallons held in tanks, substantial additional quantities of radioactive wastes lie buried in shallow pits at Hanford. As a consequence, tumbleweeds (Russian thistles) growing on some parts of the Hanford site absorb radioactivity through their roots. (Technical surprise.) To prevent this mobile vegetation from releasing radioactivity by blowing off-site, or burning up in a fire, the government continually collects them and solves the problem by burying them in the ground. [NY TIMES Sep. 12, 2000, pg. D3.] The "hot tumbleweed" problem will solve itself through natural radioactive decay after 240,000 years have passed. To help get this problem into perspective, Homo sapiens (modern humans) have roamed the earth for about 100,000 years.
** Hanford is not alone. In October, 2000, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that its previous estimate of plutonium buried in shallow pits and trenches had increased ten-fold. (Management surprise.) These are bomb-making residues buried between 1943 and 1987 at Hanford, Washington; Los Alamos, New Mexico; the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho; the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and the Savannah River complex near Aiken, S.C.
Unfortunately little is known about the chemical characteristics, or exact locations, of many of these wastes, which often were mixed with toxic chemicals and explosives at the time of burial. "There is little or no information on volumes of soil potentially contaminated by leaching of buried solid wastes, nor is there information on hazardous waste components known to have been commingled with the radioactive components," said Carolyn Huntoon, assistant secretary for environmental management with the Department of Energy. (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES Oct. 21, 2000, pg. A13.]
In announcing the 10-fold increase in its estimate, the DOE acknowledged that cleanup of buried radioactive wastes is extremely difficult, and that little progress has been made on them. (Technical surprise.)
For example, in 1994 the DOE tried to dig up a 25-year-old one-acre pit at the Idaho laboratory, to demonstrate retrieval. Four years later DOE fired the contractor in a dispute over costs and methods. During the year 2000, DOE spent $6 million in legal costs in the dispute over the Idaho pit, and another $2.5 million on further work, but during the six-year effort no waste was retrieved. [NY TIMES Oct. 21, 2000, pg. A13.] (Technical and management surprises.)
** At West Valley, New York, 30 miles south of Buffalo, the Davison Chemical Company processed spent nuclear fuel from power plants for six years from 1966 to 1972, producing 660,000 gallons of highly radioactive wastes, plus other assorted radioactive debris, which were pumped into an underground storage tank or buried in large shallow pits. In 1976, Davison Chemical decided the nuclear business wasn't sufficiently profitable and walked away from the West Valley site, leaving New York State holding 30 million Curies of radioactivity in the ground and in contaminated buildings and equipment. (Political surprise.) (A Curie is the amount of radioactivity in a gram of radium. For comparison, the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 released about 50 Curies into the air.)
New York state and the federal government now employ nearly 1000 scientists and engineers working full-time to clean up the West Valley site. So far they have spent more than $1.5 billion and the end is nowhere in sight. At some point a couple of decades ago, acid ate through a concrete and steel foundation, releasing about 200 Curies of highly-radioactive Strontium-90 into the groundwater beneath the West Valley site. (Technical surprise.) The plume of strontium-90 flowed beneath the site for more than a decade before it was discovered in 1993 (management surprise); since then the plume has continued to spread out and move toward Lake Erie and has even shown up on the surface of the land downhill from the old factory. (Technical surprise, management surprise.)
Several years ago a government contractor began drilling wells and pumping groundwater through filters to try to retrieve the plume of strontium-90, but the filters themselves became a new source of radioactive waste and were expensive ($400,000 per year). Now the contractor has buried a large quantity of kitty litter (zeolite) in the ground, trying to create one huge filter to capture the deadly strontium. Even if this works, eventually someone will have to re-bury the radioactive zeolite in the ground somewhere else. [NY TIMES Feb. 24, 2000, pg. A23.]
** At the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut, corporate managers can't locate two highly-radioactive spent fuel rods that are supposed to reside in a 40-foot deep pool of special boron-treated water to shield their intense radioactivity and prevent them from overheating. The company lost track of the two 12-foot-long rods in 1980 and, prodded by alert federal overseers, began searching for them 21 years later. The fuel rods are not in the spent fuel pool where they were last seen in 1980, and no one knows what happened to them. Company officials speculate that the fuel rods were mistakenly broken up, shipped to a "low level" radioactive waste dump, and buried in a shallow pit in the ground. (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES Jan. 8, 2001, pg. A17.] \tab
Coincidentally, Millstone officials admitted that they had falsified environmental records and had deliberately promoted unqualified plant operators during the period 1994 to 1996. Six Millstone control-room operators flunked the licensing exam but still received federal operators' licenses because Millstone managers falsified their exam scores. (Management surprise.)
Millstone's owner, Northeast Nuclear Energy Company, pleaded guilty to 23 federal felonies and was fined $10 million. Federal officials said "economic pressure brought on by the deregulation of the nuclear industry had contributed to the violations." In other words, the Millstone managers were driven to crime by competitive pressure: "The shortcut was taken so there was some economic saving," said assistant U.S. attorney Joseph C. Hutchison. (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES Sep. 28, 1999, pg. A23.]
** At the Nevada Test Site, covering 1593 square miles in south-central Nevada, the government exploded 828 nuclear bombs underground between 1956 and 1992. Government scientists always assumed the resulting radioactivity would be sealed into cavities by the blasts, or else absorbed by soil and rocks. They also believed the groundwater beneath the site moved very slowly.
Unfortunately, they were wrong on all counts. Now new scientific studies have shown that some radioactive metals, particularly plutonium, can move readily with groundwater. (Technical surprise.) Furthermore, the groundwater beneath the site is now known to be moving much more rapidly than previously assumed. (Technical surprise.)
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey now say that a dangerous brew of radioactive wastes could take as little as 10 years to reach water wells in the town of Beatty, Nevada in the Oasis Valley. Eventually groundwater flowing beneath the bomb test site is expected to reach Death Valley National Park. A University of Nevada physicist and groundwater researcher, Dr. Dennis Weber, said there were other problems besides plutonium at the site. Huge quantities of tritium -- which is radioactive hydrogen that can be incorporated directly into any water that it contacts -- lie buried at the site.
Dr. Weber criticized the government's attempt to understand the exact nature of the contaminated groundwater problem beneath the site, which is larger than Rhode Island. "They haven't drilled wells with the intention of finding the plumes," he said. "They didn't want to know." (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES March 21, 2000, pg. D2.]
** In 1997, the Department of Energy announced plans to privatize 6000 tons of surplus radioactive nickel from a stockpile at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee weapons factory, by selling it to scrap dealers. Another 10,000 tons would be sold later. The government has set no standards for radioactive metals, so the proposed sale was legal. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to regulate the radioactive nickel because the radioactivity had not been intentionally added for "beneficial effect." This left the decision up to the Tennessee Division of Radiological Health, which approved the sale. (Management surprises.)
Congressional critics pointed out that the radioactive metal could end up in stainless steel tableware or in braces on children's teeth. The propose sale "horrified scrap dealers and steel industry leaders, who feared having to explain to their customers that their product was even mildly radioactive." (Political surprise.) They opposed the sale, and so it was postponed. [NY TIMES Jan. 12, 2000, pg. A17.]
** In 1996, a truck carrying nuclear warheads skidded off an icy road and crashed in Nebraska. For half a day no one in government --including the President and his cabinet -- knew the level of danger or whether any radioactivity had escaped from the truck because radiation monitors on the government's fleet of weapons trucks had been removed after drivers complained that the monitors showed they were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. (Management surprise.)
Robert Alvarez, who was a senior policy advisor within the Department of Energy from 1993 to 1999, reported these facts in April, 2000, saying they were "emblematic of the [Department of Energy's] inept and often arrogant management culture." He went on, "The mind-set has become so backward, that the [U.S. weapons] complex is now basically a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in a serious accident or an inadvertent nuclear blast." [NY TIMES April 30, 2000, pg. 23.]
To be continued.