I am focusing this brief article on our visit to the central hall of the Unit 2 reactor and would like to share this video that I captured during our visit that has been narrated by my friend Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer from New Mexico.
The video begins as we are walking through the deaerator corridor, also known as the golden corridor, which is used by workers to access the control rooms, dosimetry, etc, and includes an interesting experience we had riding an old elevator.
The Unit 2 reactor is an RBMK reactor, very similar to the Unit 4 reactor that was destroyed in 1986. The Unit 2 reactor continued operating until a fire in the turbine building damaged critical safety equipment in 1991.
The reactor hall looms above the operating floor and contains a massive fuel handling machine that is used to transport fuel assemblies.
The RBMK reactor was designed to allow operators to swap out three to five fuel assemblies per day, while the reactor was operating, unlike US reactor designs which requires the reactor to be shut down for refueling. This also means that the Central Hall is a sort of radioactive hot cell during these refueling operations.
The RBMK reactor design incorporates over 1,700 fuel channels, each is individually pressurized, meaning each channel is its own kind of reactor.
In the spent fuel pools the power plant is storing stringers which were used to raise and lower components in and out of the reactor. Some of the stringers had localized surface contamination on them from being in the reactor during operation. The exposure rates near the surface of one of the stringers was around 2 roentgen per hour, but were barely detectable from more than a few feet away.
To put the measurements in perspective, normal background radiation rates in most of Ukraine are between 6-12 uR/hr (microroentgen). There are 1,000,000 microroentgen in a roentgen, but this is a localized surface contamination, not ambient exposure levels in the general area.
One of my favorite photos from Unit 2 is through the portal where operators could view fuel handling operations.
All of the reactor fuel has been removed from the reactor and the spent fuel pools and placed in the ISF-1 common storage facility until the ISF-2 facility is constructed and the assemblies can be placed in dry casks for storage.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is entering a new period in the decommissioning and mitigation stage of the response to the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Unit 4 reactor.
During the last week of November, 2016, just before a fresh blanket of snow covered the plant, workers moved the new confinement structure in place over the sarcophagus that was erected in 1986 to stem the release of radioactive materials into the environment.
I spent the majority of the last month in Ukraine, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, as a member of the last international delegation allowed on-site before the arch was moved. I am currently working on reviewing my notes and data and will write a new series of editorials soon. It was incredible to witness how much progress had been made on-site in just the last year. The experience showed me that the workers at Chernobyl are willing, and able, to do the work – they just need the resources and assistance.
The majority of the time we were at the Chernobyl plant, the entire facility was closed down to international delegations in preparation for the movement of the New Confinement Structure. We were very fortunate to have official status which allowed us to remain on-site even after it was restricted. In the worker town of Slavutych I ran into Simon Evans – Hans Blix’s right hand man and Associate Director at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the international financier of the new confinement structure). Evans first response to my salutation was “What are you doing here?”.
Those last days at the plant before the New Confinement Structure was moved in place were full of activity and anticipation, everyone was on edge, would everything go as planned? It was incredible to witness the resolve and efforts of the Chernobyl workers, despite the pressures that were being placed upon them.
The new confinement structure, or “The Arch” as it is called, is the biggest movable object ever constructed, and there were many problems along the way that had to be dealt with. Even up until the last week before the arch was moved, there were serious concerns about the ventilation system and the overall weight of the new confinement structure. But now the arch has moved, and the workers can begin to focus on the next stages of the decommissioning plan – as soon as they locate the funds to acquire the necessary equipment and to perform the work.
It will still take a few years of close monitoring before experts are able to determine how stable the new confinement structure is, and whether any additional works will have to be completed to increase the integrity of the structure and improve its fit over the original sarcophagus.
There is still a great deal of concern at Chernobyl these days, now that the new confinement structure is in place, the international community will be content to walk away and forget about Chernobyl – little does the world realize that now is when the REAL work begins. Now is when the workers of Chernobyl need us and our support the most!]]>
Panorama, the BBC investigative journalism program, released a new documentary this week on the Sellafield nuclear power plant (formerly called Windscale) in England warning that areas of the complex are dangerously rundown. The film titled “Sellafield’s Nuclear Safety Failings” was first broadcast on BBC One on September 5th.
The Sellafield facility is one of the world’s most dangerous radioactive wastes sites and is widely known as being home to some of the first nuclear reactors of the atomic age, enormous pools of mysterious radioactive sludge, leaking silos storing nuclear waste, and the potential risk of fire and explosions from gases generated by corrosion, but it also has a long secret history of safety failures, accidents, leaks, spills, scandals and cover-ups dating back to the 1950s.
Sellafield is home to four decommissioned nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, and vast amounts of nuclear waste. The Sellafield site is also the location of “the most hazardous industrial building in western Europe” (Building B30) and the second-most hazardous building (Building B38), which hold a variety of leftovers from the first Magnox plants in ageing ponds. Many of the facilities were constructed with sole consideration given to the technical challenges faced by designers, with no thought given to how they would ultimately be decommissioned.
The BBC investigation highlights safety problem after safety problem, but largely centers around claims of dangerous handling of radioactive materials, the aging and degradation of critical safety equipment, and inadequate staffing levels.
While Sellafield no longer generates electricity or reprocesses nuclear waste, it still stores nearly all of Great Britain’s nuclear waste. The facility has been described as the “most hazardous” site in all of Britain by the United Kingdom’s National Audit Office, and poses significant risks to people or the environment.
The BBC documentary investigation was initiated after testimony of a whistleblower who used to be a senior manager of the Sellafield facility. One of the greatest concerns listed by the whistleblower is that if a critical fire were to break out and reach the silos of nuclear waste stored on-site that it could generate a plume of radioactive materials that would be spread across Western Europe. Some of these silos contain pyrophoric (will ignite if exposed to air) and highly radioactive nuclear wastes including cladding and fuel elements.
The whistleblower featured in the BBC documentary says that many of the problems it identified over the course of its investigation were indeed simple and not very complex, like staffing issues. In the one year span between July 2012 and July 2013, there were 97 recorded incidents where some facilities at the side did not have adequate minimum staffing levels on shift. Staffing levels are one of the key performance indicators for Sellafield and any deviation from safe minimum staffing levels is not acceptable according to Sellafield documents.
BBC was able to acquire a report from 2013 which documents in photographs how physically rundown and degraded certain areas of the plant have become. Documents clearly illustrated how years of neglect ultimately lead to intolerable conditions in some areas of the site.
The documentary also exposed how radioactive materials were not handled or stored appropriately, because of a lack of investment of Sellafield managers in equipment that would more safely store the hazardous radioactive materials at the site. The film uncovered how thousands of plastic bottles, designed for temporary storage use, are being used for the storage of liquids containing plutonium and uranium, and the storage containers are now degrading.
Rex Strong, head of nuclear safety at Sellafield, was interviewed for the documentary. Strong commented on the storage of uranium and plutonium in plastic bottles, “The organization is now focusing on putting right some underinvestment of the past in order to support the hazard and waste reduction mission that the site has.”
David Pethick, Director of Nuclear Management Partners – a company formerly contracted to own and operate the Sellafield facility, says that the infrastructure that was in place at Sellafield when they arrived to manage the facility was “very poor”.
In the film, Jack Devine, former Chief Decommissioning Officer at Sellafield cautions the viewer that at Sellafield we are in a race against a ticking clock, and at some time that clock will run out and be a problem.
The documentary has been criticized by current operators of the Sellafield complex who claim they have made investments over recent years to make the facility safer in response to pressure applied on them by nuclear safety regulators.
According to recent estimates, it will take over $216.4 billion USD and at least a 100 years to decontaminate and decommission the Sellafield complex.]]>
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted last week that they should have declared a meltdown within days of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, instead of delaying the public announcement for months.
“We apologize for the great inconvenience and worry the delay caused”, a representative for TEPCO said this week. The utility has also said it will investigate why the word “meltdown” was not used for months after the crisis began.
A meltdown is recognized by the public as severe damage to the core of a nuclear reactor with the potential for widespread radiation release. Once the core is damaged, radioactive materials escape from the fuel rods into the coolant, make their way outside of the reactor vessel into the reactor building. The reactor building is the last barrier between the radioactive materials and the environment. The consequences and clean-up of a full-core meltdown are obviously more complicated and dangerous than a partial-meltdown like Three Mile Island – where only a portion of the core debris was damaged and all the fuel remained in the containment structure.
The word “meltdown” was so explosive, that TEPCO, the nuclear industry, and the Japanese government were loath to apply it until it could no longer be ignored. The word has been so powerful, that it has crossed over into other fields – like personal meltdowns, financial meltdowns, political meltdowns, etc.
Within the first 24 hours, after the Unit 1 reactor building exploded on the morning of March 12th, TEPCO was aware that at least 50% of one of three cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged within hours of the accident and notified the government of the ongoing meltdown – but did not acknowledge that a meltdown had occurred to the public until May 2011, long after the melted nuclear fuel escaped from the damaged reactors into the containment vessels.
Tokyo Electric’s internal regulations stated that the utility should declare a meltdown if more than 5% of the reactor core was damaged. TEPCO has since admitted that the reactor pressure vessel of the Unit 1 reactor was damaged within the first 12 hours of the accident. This means that a meltdown should’ve been declared within a few hours of the onset of the accident, around the time that water levels in the reactor were falling and TEPCO began hinting at the possibility of venting operations.
Any member of the nuclear industry knew the severity of the accident must be critical if the utility was considering the manual release of radioactive materials into the environment, but the utility, regulators, and elected officials paraded in front of the media and downplayed the consequences of the venting operations to the public – further complicating an already very fast-moving and complex accident.
For months operators were unable to control the temperature and pressure levels in the reactors. They were forced to feed the reactors with water to hinder the rising temperatures and simultaneously bleed the pressure from the reactors through venting operations, in order to prevent the reactor vessel from being compromised or exploding. Despite their efforts, they were unable to prevent full-meltdowns from occurring in the Unit 1, Unit 2, and Unit 3 reactors, and the hydrogen generated in the crippled reactors destroyed the reactor buildings for Unit 1, Unit 3, and Unit 4. Despite all of this, TEPCO chose not to publically acknowledge the full severity of the situation they were facing at Fukushima Daiichi.
When Masao Yoshida, the former plant chief of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, later talked about the hydrogen explosion that tore apart the Unit 1 reactor he said “I thought it was all over”. This is the man on the ground with first-hand experience of what was happening, knowing that there was a very serious situation – and still the message was not being communicated to the public.
Despite their knowledge, TEPCO did not confirm that the three reactors had actually suffered meltdowns for months, a situation which cannot be tolerated or allowed to be repeated. Though the embattled utility admitted in 2012 that it played down safety risks (fearing that additional safety measures would shut the plant down and turn public sentiment away from supporting nuclear power plants), the true consequences of these actions has as of yet to be fully investigated and analyzed.
|Fukushima Daiichi Units||Meltdown Postulated Start||Day Meltdown Announced|
|Unit 1||Within 6 hours||May 12th, 2011|
|Unit 2||Within 100 hours||May 23rd, 2011|
|Unit 3||Within 36 hours||May 23rd, 2011|
All of the blame cannot be placed solely on TEPCO. Within 24 hours of the accident – by the time radiation levels on-site were over 1,000 times the normal limits in the control rooms of the reactors, the nuclear industry, nuclear safety regulators, and the Japanese Government knew enough details of the severity of the accident to inform the public of the core damage and ongoing meltdowns, even while they were denying it in press conferences and interviews.
There were multiple indicators offsite that severe fuel damage was underway at multiple reactors within 48 hours of the earthquake and tsunami;
In the May 15th, 2011 press release from Tokyo Electric updating information about the meltdown in the Unit 1 reactor it reads “regarding the Unit 1, nuclear fuel pellets have melted, falling to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel at a relatively early stage after the tsunami reached the station.” Are we really to believe that this catastrophic fuel damage, which occurred within hours of the tsunami, was not known by TEPCO, the nuclear industry, and the Japanese government? If we were unable to determine the status of a damaged nuclear core for months after the onset of fuel damage, even after all of the fuel has escaped the reactor core, what would that say about our collective ability to safely operate nuclear reactors?
But none of the indicators listed above would have communicated to lay members of the public the full severity of the amount of fuel damage by themselves the way that an official announcement that there was a meltdown of core materials in the reactor would have. The delay in announcing the meltdowns limited the public’s ability to determine the actual severity of the situation at the plant.
Instead of bringing these facts to light, the steady stream of spokespersons and officials speaking to the media would downplay the severity of the events to the public. The public was repeatedly told there was no cause for alarm even though the government had declared a nuclear emergency. There was seemingly nothing that would not be said to prevent the public from becoming too concerned about the disaster, it was even claimed that the radioactivity being released during the venting operations would not affect the environment or human health.
When seawater was added to the reactor cores, officials acted as if the operation would resolve the problems, when they really knew it was a last ditch effort to reduce the amount of damage that was already known to be happening to the nuclear fuel in the core.
In Japan, TEPCO, the nuclear industry, regulatory agencies, and government officials worked to provide a unified front to the public. No one had all of the information they felt they needed, but they had enough to make some very serious determinations.
To convince the public that the water inside of the Unit 5 and Unit 6 reactor buildings was not a serious health threat, a Japanese politician named Yasushiro Sonada drank a glass of what he claimed was decontaminated water from inside of the reactor buildings to prove it was safe to drink after decontamination. Whether or not it was an actual health threat to drink the processed water, it was an obvious publicity stunt that was carried out for effect (it also turned out to be the subject of quite a few satirical comments by the public on media coverage articles).
When Japan raised the level of the disaster from a five to the maximum seven on the international scale, the same rating as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Japanese government took special care to point out that “far less” radiation had been released then from the 1986 disaster.
A Japanese professor named Syunichi Yamashita, who held the title of “Fukushima Radiation Health Risk Advisor” in Japan, worked to convince the public that the risks from radiation were low – and is perhaps most notorious for claiming that radiation would not affect the public if they were “happy”.
In the span of two months, Nature published two articles, one claiming there was no meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, and the next confirming there was a full-meltdown at the crippled Japanese plant.
On March 22nd, 2011, Nature blog published an article called “The meltdown that wasn’t”. The article claims that there “has never been a full meltdown in a boiling-water reactor”, a fact that already had been proven wrong three times over at Fukushima Daiichi.
A comment on that March article (see highlighted text in image above), published two years after the article was published, expressed confusion about whether or not a meltdown had actually occurred years after the disaster. A demonstration of the persistent confusion of the general public about the details of the accident.
By the time the meltdowns were announced to the public, it was passed off as mysterious old news. Another article published in Nature blog published on May 13th, 2011 titled “Understanding the complete meltdown at Fukushima Unit 1” told readers “Whatever happened inside unit 1, it happened weeks ago”, and quickly worked to quell any concern by noting that the temperature trends in the reactor were much lower than in March when the fuel had melted. There is little argument that the delaying of the announcement of the meltdowns likely led to far less questions and concern then if it had been announced when officials were first aware of the extent of the damage.
This collective front was organized, very public, and very necessary for TEPCO and Japanese authorities. On May 7th, 2015 at a closed-door briefing by a senior TEPCO official Kenji Tateiwa for select members of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Tateiwa highlighted that an “International consensus on (the) health impact of low-dose radiation” was critical to relieve the anxiety, general perception of, and lack of trust towards, TEPCO and the Japanese government – in order to make evacuees feel comfortable returning to the areas where they used to live before the disaster.
Most of the vital accurate information that was disclosed early on during the disaster was more or less drowned out by the overwhelming number of instances where government officials would contradict themselves or someone else when bringing information to the public.
For example, on Saturday, March 13th – two days after the onset of the disaster, the Japanese government was still unable to nail down their own analysis of the event.
One of the government officials who spoke out and was cut down in the first days of the disaster was Koichiro Nakamura, a senior official at the former Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA) at the time of the disaster. Immediately after Nakamura confirmed at a press conference that a meltdown could be taking place at Fukushima Daiichi, he was removed from his position at the agency.
The nuclear industry response was just as muddled as that of international governments.
On the morning of March 12th, experts from the nuclear industry made the following statements;
In the United States, Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists was providing clear analysis to American news services warning that Japan would only have a few hours to prevent a meltdown.
Though the information they were receiving was very confusing, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was also very worried about the events in Japan. In documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, the concern about the serious situation at Fukushima Daiichi is evident.
By the end of March 11th, 2011, the NRC was aware of and gravely concerned about the following facts:
The NRC workers in the Emergency Operations Center monitoring the event in Japan were aware of the dangers of an extended station black-out and that nuclear power plants get into trouble pretty quickly after they lose power for cooling. This led them to conclude that there was core damage by the afternoon of March 11th. Exelon had simulated the Fukushima event at a simulator designed for the Quad Cities reactors in Illinois with a similar design. According to the NRC estimates at the time based off of their information and the simulations, Unit 1 core damage would begin 12 hours after the onset of the disaster and “significant offsite releases” would begin 8 hours after the core damage.
Clearly what information that was getting out, was of enough use to those who knew how to interpret it, to allow them to make fairly accurate determinations about the situation in Japan. The NRC even knew that the situation at the plants was more precarious than the official reports suggested and could potentially get much worse. Why was that information not communicated to the public?
The average person who followed the situation at Fukushima Daiichi could tell that they were not receiving all of the story. How can a government quantify the erosion of public trust that occurred over the handling of nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi? No one has been able to fully measure what the fallout of the betrayal of public trust will amount to, but it will undoubtedly affect the trust of future host communities for nuclear facilities and waste storage sites alike.
Did the delay prevent the public from believing the accident at Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t as serious as it was?
Another question that has to be asked is, would fewer people have been put in harm’s way if the meltdowns had been announced promptly? Would evacuees have had more time to gather their belongings, determine where to evacuate to, and take better routes?
The answers to these questions and more are important to consider and should be brought to the focus of public attention.
Source: CBS News
Source: CBS News
Source: CBS News
Source: USA TODAY
Humans have known of natural radioactivity since about the turn of the 20th century when Marie Curie carried around vials of radioactive substances in her pocket, admiring the glow-in-the-dark “fairy lights” they would give off. Long-term exposure to these “fairly lights” made Curie chronically ill, physically scarred, and nearly blind from cataracts. At the age of 66, she succumbed to a radiation-induced disease (either leukemia or aplastic anemia, sources differ), as did her daughter and son-in-law. Despite being deeply troubled by deaths of colleagues and radiation workers, the Curies never really admitted radioactivity played a role in their diseases; Marie even recommended sickened radium dial painters eat calf’s liver to combat anemia. Daughter Eva, who outlived her sister by 50 years, died at 102 and recognized the role radiation played in the shortened lives of her female kin.
This denial of the dangers of radioactivity has carried through to the present day. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its first-ever radiation exposure standards in 1977, the US was only 20 years into the atomic energy age, barely long enough to see many of the health impacts radioactivity may have had. Man-made radioactivity had been around for about 40 years with the building of the bomb, well before EPA was established, but well after some very nasty health effects from larger doses were recognized. Now, in 2015, EPA is considering revising its radiation standards – the first major revision since 1977.
EPA is responsible for regulating radioactive emissions that migrate off of a site that releases such material. These off site releases can expose members of the public and their environment. Revision of these nearly 40-year old standards should be a good thing; adding protection for women who are 50 % more sensitive to radioactivity than men; and providing proper protection for pregnancy and childhood development —life stages that are particularly, in some cases uniquely, sensitive to exposure to radioactivity. But old habits, and nuclear industry interference, die hard.
PART I: WHY MEASURE WHEN YOU CAN ESTIMATE? WHY ESTIMATE WHEN YOU CAN IGNORE?
If you can’t get rid of the radioactivity, you should just ignore that it exists
Atomic energy produces and releases a number of radioactive isotopes during normal reactor operation. Two such isotopes are carbon-14 (radioactive carbon) released as carbon dioxide and methane; and tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen. These two isotopes are the focus of this piece, although there are many other isotopes of concern. The National Academy of Sciences states “carbon-14 may be a significant contributor to dose from nuclear plant releases, especially in recent years”. Tritium is leaking regularly in unknown amounts from most of the US nuclear power reactors in addition to being released “normally”. Of course, industry often downplays the health impact these isotopes may have; however, both tritium and radioactive carbon cross the placenta and can concentrate in fetal tissue at twice the level of maternal tissue. Releases of gaseous nuclides like tritium and carbon-14 have been posited as a factor in childhood leukemia increases around nuclear power facilities in Europe.
How unfortunate, then, that EPA’s 1977 radiation standards failed to require measurement of releases for either carbon-14 or tritium. Why?—because there was no economically and technologically feasible way to filter out radioactive carbon and radioactive hydrogen, a condition EPA says remains unchanged. To sum up: EPA has decided if the pollution can’t be filtered, society is better off not knowing how much the nuclear machine is pumping out. In the real world of choices based on facts and consequences, if a pollutant can’t be filtered, that is all the more reason the public should know how much is being released. Right now the public and policy makers are trying to decide what our energy future will look like. Withholding knowledge about nuclear pollution will prevent society from making an informed decision. Back then, rather than regulating to protect and inform the public, EPA was regulating when it was convenient and not too expensive. But for these two isotopes in particular, lazy regulation is no longer an option.
Why require measurement when you can pull an estimate out of your, um, hat?
Until 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the regulatory agency in charge of on-site emissions, failed to even require estimates of carbon-14 releases. Now the industry is required to estimate, but they still don’t have to actually measure. Industry cannot even begin to get an idea of how much tritium has been/is being released or where it is going.
The industry promises (cross its heart and hope to die) that these radioactive belches from its ailing machines are far too small to cause any trouble to members of the public living around these facilities. Because of this unsubstantiated certainty, and claims that this information is proprietary, industry contends that they need only provide NRC with averaged release data. Maybe this averaged data would be adequate in a world without reproduction and pregnancy. But in a population with people of child-bearing age, timing matters. ALL radioactive effluent (not just tritium and carbon-14) must be measured at the point of release from the nuclear facility (stack and pipe) in real-time, and these data transmitted offsite to independent third parties, e.g. university health and science departments or emergency responders, where they can be stored for future reference. Why?
“…social science domains and even biology appear to be inherently more complex than physics… embrace complexity, and use as much data as well as we can to help define (or estimate) the complex models we need for these complex domains.” Peter Norvig
In biology, timing matters; and radioactivity is released in spikes, not averages
Half-hourly emissions data collected from the chimney stack of Gundremmingen C, a 1300 megawatt boiling water reactor in Germany, shows that when the reactor was shut down and the core opened for refueling and maintenance, the radioactive gas releases from the facility topped out at about 500 times higher than their normal release rate (see graph below). Even the “normal” release rate at this facility was hundreds of times higher than natural radioactivity in air from radon. These spike releases may have exposed people living near the facility to 20 to 100 times the amount of “normal” releases.
Further, these gases can collect in foodstuffs grown around the reactor. So, while industry keeps information about these releases hidden from public consumption, it doesn’t see a problem with making the public eat this radioactivity, literally. The industry is using the environment, the food supply, and the human body as dumping grounds with little challenge.
Reactors refuel every 18 months to two years on average, and evidence strongly suggests that spikes like those at Germany’s reactor could very well be found at US reactors. The Gundremmingen reactors were owned and operated by the regional government, giving officials there an incentive and ability to investigate the release data. In the US, the vast majority of nuclear reactors are privately held by companies with every incentive to keep profit-damaging data secret by advancing rationales of “cost” and the need to protect “proprietary” information. In Germany, large-scale publicly funded research showed elevated levels of leukemia in children who live near nuclear reactors. In the US, the industry – enabled by lax regulation – has been able to keep crucial data hidden from the public. Thus, increased childhood cancers (click on Dr. Joseph Sauer, MD flash video at link) around nuclear reactors still remain unexplained.
Of grave concern is how these radioactive spikes affect the uniquely sensitive developmental stages of pregnancy. Every organ in your and your child’s body develops from a single cell. For instance, the first eight weeks after conception, the heart, spinal cord and brain, major blood vessels and the beginning of bones and muscles, are in the process of forming. However, radiation standards afford this life stage no greater protection than early childhood, when most organs are past the stage of formation and are actively growing. What happens if during one of these crucial and delicate developmental phases a pregnant woman inhales gas from one of these radioactive belches? Or drinks milk from a locally exposed cow? Childhood leukemia, low birth weight, compromised neural development are all associated with exposure to radiation during pregnancy and early childhood.
Astonishingly, no official body in the United States is seriously investigating these impacts. In fact, the U. S. federal government appears not to conduct public health impact studies of populations around nuclear power reactor sites.]]>
A class action lawsuit—begun 20 years ago—that charges Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) with contaminating neighborhoods adjacent to it will be moving ahead again in New York State Supreme Court this month.
Court action is scheduled for the last week in February. Since it was first brought in 1996, the lawsuit has gone back and forth between the State Supreme Court and the Appellate Division several times, as BNL has fought it.
In July the Appellate Division—the judicial panel over the Supreme Court in New York State —ruled the case can move towards trial. It declared that “the causes of action of the proposed intervenors are all based upon common theories of liability.” In other words, it stated that the plaintiffs could sue for damages.
But, outrageously, the radioactive contamination caused by BNL—documented in the 2008 book “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town” and focused upon by the award-winning 2012 documentary “The Atomic States of America”—can no longer be part of the case.
The argument of lawyers for BNL lawyers was accepted by the Appellate Division which, as it put it in its July decision, ruled that “the nuclear radiation emitted by BNL did not exceed guidelines promulgated by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Further, the BNL radioactive pollution will not be allowed to be considered despite the federal government in recent years paying out millions of dollars to BNL employees in compensation for their getting cancer after exposure to radioactivity at BNL. In addition, families of those BNL workers who died from cancer after exposure to radioactivity have been paid.
The pay-outs to former workers and their families for cancer from BNL radioactive exposure—what neighbors of the lab are now being barred from litigating about—come under the federal government’s “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.”
Instead, the non-employee victims are now being limited in the class action lawsuit to suing for other BNL pollution, largely chemical.
The “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program” covers not only BNL but the string of U.S. national nuclear laboratories including Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge labs, as well as federal nuclear facilities including its Savannah River Plant and Hanford.
According to a Power Point presentation given at BNL in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Labor, some $8.2 billion has been set aside under the program for pay-outs, with $111.7 million of that for exposure to radioactivity and consequent cancer at BNL
Joseph B. Frowiss, Sr., based in Rancho Santa Fe, California has been handling many of the cases involving former workers at BNL—and other government nuclear facilities—and their families. As he says on his website “in the past seven years 1,800 of my clients have received over $300 million and hundreds more are in the pipeline…A diagnosis of one of 23 ‘specified’ cancers and typically 250 work days in a specified timeframe are the basic requirements.”
An “independent claims advocate,” Mr. Frowiss has run full-page advertisements in Long Island newspapers: “Brookhaven National Lab Employees With Cancer,” they are headed. They note that “BNL employees…are likely now eligible for lump sum tax free base awards of $150,000, possibly to $400,000, plus medical benefits.”
The case against BNL by non-employees who are now not being allowed the compensation of BNL employees and their families for exposure from BNL radioactivity originally specified damages caused by BNL radioactivity. It is titled Ozarczuk v. Associated Universities, Inc.
Associated Universities is the entity that managed BNL, at first for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which set BNL up in 1947 at Camp Upton, a former Army base on Long Island, to do atomic research and develop civilian uses of nuclear technology.
The AEC was eliminated in 1974 by Congress for having a conflict of interest with its mission of both regulating and at the same time promoting nuclear technology in the United States. Its regulatory function was given to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and promotional activities to a Department of Energy which took over operating BNL and the other federal nuclear labs and the other nuclear facilities.
The defendants in the action—Associated Universities—managed BNL from its start until 1998 when it was fired by the DOE because of widespread contamination at BNL and DOE’s determination that it was a bad overseer of BNL operations. The two nuclear reactors at BNL were found to have, for many years, been leaking radioactive tritium into the underground water table on which Long Island depends for its potable water supply.
Associated Universities—which continues with other activities for the federal government—includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and Johns Hopkins Universities, University of Pennsylvania and University of Rochester and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. DOE replaced Associated Universities in running BNL with a partnership of Stony Brook University on Long Island and Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio.
The lawsuit is named for Barbara Osarczuk who lived just outside the BNL boundary in North Shirley and developed breast and thyroid cancer that she attributes to BNL pollution.
The lawsuit charges that “actions of the defendant were grossly, recklessly and wantonly negligent and done with an utter disregard for the health, safety, well-being and rights of the plaintiffs.” It further accuses BNL of “failure to observe accepted industry standards in the use, storage and disposal of hazardous and toxic substances” and BNL itself of being “improperly located on top of an underground aquifer which supplies drinking water to [a] large number of persons.”
Initially brought by 21 families, the lawsuit now has 180 families as plaintiffs.
The attorneys representing them are led by two prominent lawyers, A. Craig Purcell of Stony Brook, Long Island, a former president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, and Richard J. Lippes of Buffalo who represented Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal Homeowners Association in landmark litigation. That lawsuit took on the massive contamination in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls caused by the Hooker Chemical Company which resulted in widespread health impacts to residents of the area. It led in 1980 to the creation of the federal Superfund program to try clean up high-pollution sites in the United States.
Mr. Purcell said that after the many years of back-and-forth court rulings, the plaintiffs have the judicial go-ahead to sue for “loss of enjoyment of life, diminution of property values and the cost of hooking up to public water.”
Mr. Lippes said that “the lab was supposed to monitor anything escaping from it—and didn’t do it.” The attitude of BNL, he said, was that “every dollar spent for safety or on environmental issues was taking away from research.” The lawsuit “should have been resolved years ago, but there has been intransigence of lab administrators not wanting to be held responsible.”
BNL was designated a high-pollution Superfund site in 1989. The large amounts of radioactive tritium—H30 or radioactive water—were found to have been leaking from BNL’s High Flux Beam Reactor in 1997. That nuclear reactor was closed by the DOE and then a smaller reactor was found to be leaking tritium too and was shut down.
There are now no operating nuclear reactors at BNL.
Still, BNL remains closely connected to nuclear technology. In 2010, BNL set up a new Department of Nuclear Science and Technology with a multi-million dollar yearly budget.
BNL’s announcement at the time quoted Gerald Stokes, its associate director for Global and Regional Solutions, as saying: “BNL’s long involvement and considerable experience in nuclear energy make it a natural place to create such an organization.” On BNL’s website currently is a page headed, “Exploring Nuclear Technologies for Our Energy Future” which discusses the department.
Long Island environmental educator and activist Peter Maniscalco says: “The Brookhaven scientific culture still doesn’t understand the interrelationship between humans and the natural world and the lethal consequences their work in nuclear technology imposes on the population and environment of the world. They still don’t understand that nuclear power is a polluting, deadly technology,”
The book “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town” by Kelly McMasters links widespread cancer in neighboring Shirley to radioactive releases from BNL. She taught in the Columbia University writing program and Graduate School of Journalism and is an assistant professor and director of publishing studies at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Her book tells of how the government sought a nuclear facility “built far from any heavily populated areas.” She writes that the AEC “and the scientists themselves could have taken a look around and realized the…homes and neighborhoods sprouting up around their compound were too close to chance the radioactive nature of the work they were conducting…But none of this happened.”
The book was short-listed by Oprah Winfrey. Her magazine, O, said of it: “A loving, affecting memoir of an American Eden turned toxic.”
“The Atomic States of America,” based on the book, received among its honors a special showing at the Sundance Film Festival. It got good reviews.
The review in Variety noted that Shirley “was in unhappy proximity” to BNL “around which skyrocketing cancer rates were written off as coincidence or an aberrant gene pool.” It noted the appearance in “The Atomic States of America” of Alec Baldwin, “a lifelong Long Islander,” who in the documentary calls BNL scientists “liars and worse.” The review said that “in following McMasters’ work, the film builds a convincing case about cancer and nukes,”
In the first book I wrote about nuclear technology, “Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power,” published in 1980, I reprinted pages from BNL’s safety manual as an example of dangers of radioactivity not being taken seriously at BNL.
The manual advised that people “can live with radiation.”
“Is Radiation Dangerous To You?” it starts. It tells BNL employees: “It can be; but need not be.” It states: “If you wear protective clothing, wash with soap and check your hands and feet with instruments, you are perfectly safe.”
Attorney Purcell said that a “conference date” for Ozarczuk v. Associated Universities, Inc. is scheduled for February 22 in New York State Supreme Court in Riverhead, Long Island and a “court date” for February 25.]]>
After we visited the Unit 4 control room and observed the construction site from the roof of the Sanitorium, we ate lunch before piling in a van and heading to Pripyat.
I flicked on my survey meter and held my sodium iodide scintillation probe up to the window as we travelled down an old road southwest of Unit 4. As we passed the southern side of Sarcophagus, the radiation levels rose and crested.
The road curved to the right as we passed the Red Forest and approached the sign for the City of Pripyat, where newlyweds once stood and posed for pictures in their wedding attire.
The road connecting the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to Pripyat is quiet now, the trees and brush continue to work their way up to the very edge of the road.
We stopped at a security checkpoint before entering the city. Yellow stakes with small triangular signs constantly reminded us of the contamination in the area.
Our driver was from nearby Chernobyl City and remembered Pripyat before the disaster. He had grown up in this area and could never find it in him to leave it. He works for the nuclear power plant now, which helps him to stay close to the places he has known for almost 70 years, by the way he describes the area I got the feeling that he will always remember how it was before the accident – like no matter how old a person may get, they will still be their mother’s child.
A uniformed officer stepped out of a guards building, walked around and inspected the vehicle, opened the doors and eyed the passengers and their bags, turned to the driver and began asking him questions in Ukrainian. Once he reviewed our documentation and was satisfied that we were authorized to enter the city, the guard walked over and lifted the gate as we passed through. As we passed through the gate we passed by a figure of the crucifix, surrounded by little yellow signs.
The administration at the nuclear power plant is not associated with the City of Pripyat, or the management of the exclusion zone, but we were able to arrange for our liaisons from the nuclear power plant, Anton and Stanislav, to accompany us instead of hiring a private service. This was a great benefit to us because of their personal familiarity with the area and buildings.
Anton’s mother had lived in Pripyat at the time of the accident and was in a leadership position for the Communist Youth League. After the accident she was in charge of evacuating certain blocks of the city and stayed at the Hotel assisting the high-ranking officials who were responding to the disaster. Anton told me how he had gone back once to find the apartment that his mother lived in before the accident. I asked him if that had been a powerful experience for him, but he said that it was hard to associate that empty apartment, holding only a few pieces of furniture, with any real emotion.
The city of Pripyat is located in Northern Ukraine near Belarus on the banks of the Pripyat River it was named for. It was created to support operations at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which before the disaster was actually named after Lenin.
(Interesting note: It was actually the western media that mislabeled the nuclear power plant. The nuclear power plant near Chernobyl City was soon dubbed the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Above: “Article that ran in The Times newspaper on April 29th, 1986, describing the accident at the “Chernobyl nuclear power plant”.)
Pripyat and the nuclear power plant sprang up together, Pripyat was founded in 1970, while construction at the nuclear power plant began in 1972. The future for the city seemed to be brighter than other Soviet nuclear cities because it had a port on the Pripyat River, was close to the railways, and also benefited from an efficient local highway system. However by 1986, workers would be constructing a new city, Slavutich, in order to replace Pripyat after it was heavily contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Although it was relatively young, Pripyat was once a model city for the Soviet Union – a vision of the future, it was not uncommon for specific requests be made to settle there. The average age of the population was 26 years old. Residents thought of the city as a type of paradise, it was clean, beautifully landscaped, and some of the lowest crime rates in the country.
In the summer the river provided great fishing, boating, and yachting for locals. Young teens would race small sailboats back and forth past the city.
In the winter for the holiday of walruses some of the braver residents would run out to the Pripyat River for a polar swim.
Pripyat also had its own rock band, named PULSAR. The band would play live shows on holidays like this one on Neptune Day.
During the 1970s and 1980s personal fitness and working out at gyms became much more popular around the globe. In the United States we saw the formation of companies like World’s Gym and Bally’s Fitness, and television shows like American Gladiator. This was also happening in the Soviet Union, and because of the youthful median age of the population, great care was taken to provide ample athletic facilities, gymnasiums, pools, and tracks for athletes of all sports.
Residents enjoyed every amenity and attraction the Soviet government could provide including a hospital, the best department stores, hotels, restaurants, ten daycares, five schools, four libraries, two stadiums, the Prometheus statue and movie cinema, a concert hall, athletic fields, cafeterias, sports complexes, an art school, hobby clubs, book stores, a palace of culture, even a technical college.
Buildings were adorned with and proudly displayed ornate badges, beautiful signage, colorful frescos, and modern art.
Even apartment buildings were adorned, one bearing the coat of arms for the Soviet Union and a Ukrainian flag. Looking out the broken windows of one of the buildings across the central square, I wondered how beautiful the city would have been today, as it would’ve continued growing and maturing.
In fact many new architectural innovations were tested at Pripyat before being implemented as part of the Soviet standard. The city was designed in a way to maximize the comfort of living. Buildings were arranged in a way that maximized the use of space between structures for parks and gardens, instead of being packed tightly together. Even the roads in the city were designed to be “traffic jam safe”. Other towns like Volgodonsk and Togliatti are never jammed with rush hour traffic, even today – and Pripyat likely wouldn’t have been either.
The street names in Pripyat are indicative of the times the city was inhabited, Lenin Square, Heroes of Stalingrad Street, Friendship of the People Street and the Prospects of Builders and Enthusiasts Avenue.
We parked the vehicle near Kurchotova Street and Lenina Avenue, and as I exited I looked at the abandoned apartment buildings 10 stories tall that loomed over the trees. District 1 and District 2 are the two oldest districts of the city.
Kurchotova Street was named after Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov, the Soviet nuclear physicist and father of the Soviet atomic weapons program and nuclear power program.
At the time of the accident, nearly 50,000 people lived in the city. Pripyat was known as the city of flowers. It was always well-landscaped, everything in its rightful place, and the city was especially proud of over 35,000 rosebushes that decorated it.
As we left the vehicle and made our way into the city we followed a sidewalk towards one of the schools.
Within a few hundred yards, the sidewalk was difficult to find and we were forced to rely more on our liaisons to guide us. We came into a small clearing just before the school building and found a spot of contamination in the middle of the asphalt.
Today the city is barely recognizable from the ground, the roads and sidewalks are being overtaken by trees and vegetation. In the summer it is very easy to walk between buildings without even knowing they are there. It is like someone has taken all of the people and replaced them with trees; little trees, big trees, tall trees, wide trees.
It is easy to disassociate in a way while you are walking through Pripyat, if you don’t pay particular attention – it could easily become less of a city and more of an endless series of empty abandoned buildings.
After thirty years of disrepair and overgrowth, many of the unique characteristics of buildings are lost or hidden, and the most easily perceivable differences are the ones that contain beds, school desks, art, or morgues in them. Still if you take the time to really appreciate the city as a place where people lived their lives; here was the store, this was the way the children would go to school, here is the balcony where young lovers would watch boats pass up and down the river, etc., I think you achieve – in some small way – a greater understanding of what was lost.
A bright yellow booth was at the corner of the old “rainbow” store – which used to be a popular spot for lunch, the glass windows now broken, with a little white stool and a small tree slowly growing inside.
Inside of Middle School Number 3, broken glass litters the floors, desks and books are scattered throughout the building, and the paint slowly peels off of the walls.
When walking through Pripyat, you have to really pay attention to identify what things have and haven’t been manipulated since the accident – you can’t just assume that this was how it was left by the evacuees.
For example, one of the most photographed collections of Cold-War era gas masks on the floor in the school are not from the evacuation, rather from looters who raided the supplies after the city was evacuated for the tiny amount of silver in the filters.
In other areas it is very clear where photographers have staged the scene to give the most dramatic effect. Still to me, some of the most powerful and moving images – the ones that I remember Pripyat by – came from the actual decay and sense of abandonment found in the city, not any of the staged photos – like those of dolls with gas masks strapped across their faces.
We visited the pool “Azure” where employees of the nuclear power plant and residents of the city would come to relax after a long day. Today all of the windows are broken and the trees are making their way inside of the facility. In the last few years some of the visitors have brought spray paint and “tagged” the pool with different symbols and signs. Even after thirty years of neglect, it is still easily apparent how beautiful of a pool this would have been before the accident.
In the main square the “Energetic” Palace of Culture (an elevated form of a community center) still stands in all its marbled glory. It once hosted parties, bands, ceremonies, lectures, concerts and other performances. There were recreational facilities inside including, a gymnasium with seating 15 feet above the floor, cinema, swimming pool brightly lit by windows, boxing ring, a dance hall, and a shooting range in the basement. The Energetic was also a place where artists could always go to find buyers for their works.
In front of the Energetic are the remains of two large square water fountains, recessed into the central square. Inside of these fountains I found the some of the highest count rates I saw in the city.
In the middle of the city used to stand small monuments that would have been meant to encourage the citizens of Pripyat and promote their national values. Today they are either obscured by the overgrowth or in disrepair.
We followed what sidewalk we could make out until we reached the outer track of the Avangard Stadium, where helicopters once took off and landed while conducting emergency operations at the power plant in 1986, now is overgrown by a grove of trees – some of which are over thirty feet tall. Around the perimeter of the facility the tall metal structures that used to hold lights and speakers slowly rust away.
In the center of the city is the main square, where you will find administrative buildings and the famous abandoned Hotel Polesie – one of the tallest buildings in Pripyat, which was used as the base of operations for liquidators in April 1986. From the top of this hotel, on the observation deck, spotters would direct helicopters to drop materials into the crippled Unit 4 reactor.
A few years ago, artists came and spray painted the “Shadows of Hiroshima”, black silhouette images depicting those who died during the disaster.
As we passed the Hotel Polesie we came upon one of the administration buildings that had been utilized as a base of operations after the accident – a tree now growing out of the concrete stairs leading up to the building.
There are many abandoned apartment buildings. Inside any one of them you can find signs of the people who used to live there. Beds, couches, broken ceiling light fixtures, and clothes still hanging from laundry lines on the balconies of apartments.
The fairgrounds are a popular tourist spot just behind the Energetic, in the middle of the city, but they are also where you will find some of the higher ambient radiation levels. The fair was supposed to open on May 1st, a few days after the disaster.
The big yellow Ferris wheel rises over the trees, while the bumper cars underneath slowly rust and decay.
The radiation levels throughout the city are relatively homogeneous although frequent spots of contamination that can still be found if you have the right equipment and know where to look. After the disaster most of the topsoil was scraped up and taken back to the nuclear power station where it is stored. Additional decontamination efforts focused on removing surface contamination from sidewalks, roads, and building structures.
The trail through the central part of town still has patches of residual cesium contamination.
Down by the docks is “The Dish”, a beautiful café with stained glass art and a rounded balcony out back overlooking the water.
Anton explained to us the interpretation of the art and scientists before and after the disaster. Residents used to come pack the balcony of The Dish overlooking the river and docks in order to watch boats arrive and depart from the pier.
We walked down the stone steps to the edge of the pier where we found two scientists doing tests in the river.
Halfway down the steps leading to the water was a small 10-foot landing, in the corners we found pockets of contamination.
A nearby leaf reminded us that even though nature is regaining control over the city doesn’t mean that it is not unaffected by the contamination of the environment.
There was some debate about whether or not we would be allowed to visit the hospital. As the hospital received many of the first victims of the accident, there are areas of the building including the unlit basement (where you can still find gear from the firefighters that responded that night) that are still incredibly contaminated. Some of the highest radiation levels can still be found at the hospital, but be careful of all of the radioactive dust – make sure to at least bring gloves and a mask.
Inside of the hospital some of the old potted plants that used to decorate the facility have continued to grow and reach toward the light coming in through the windows.
As we explored the hospital we entered one of the operating rooms and found some residual contamination on some of the rags littering the floor.
As we left the city, we stopped by one of the old bookstores. The roof was caving in and the building looked to have been scavenged pretty hard. This is the problem with Pripyat these days, what to do with it? It will forever attract tourists and no one is maintaining the buildings, at the same time there would be an assured international outcry if they did try to demolish the city – and that would be expensive. In the meantime, the city continues to transition from a brief period of human inhabitation back into a part of the wild.
Part 1 – Experiencing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Part 2 – Visiting the Chernobyl site and the Unit 2 control room
Part 3 – Inside the Chernobyl Unit 4 control room
Part 4 – Pripyat: City for the Future, City of the Past
Bonus Coverage – The Animals at Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl
All images courtesy of Carl Willis, Heidi Baumgartner, Lucas Hixson, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant]]>
In the beginning of September 2015, I had the rare opportunity to attend a first-of-its-kind vocational training program hosted by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. With eleven other participants, most from the United States, I departed Kiev on the 6th for Slavutich – the last Soviet town constructed which was designed for evacuees from Pripyat and workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and now boasts some 35,000 residents.
The site where Slavutich was constructed was selected because of its proximity to the nuclear power plant and the fact that it was less-affected by the radiation released from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster than other surrounding areas. I carried a very sensitive CsI radiation detector through the beautiful cobblestone sidewalks which run through the city and never saw a radiation level above the same background levels that I would see back in the United States.
The city of Slavutich is beautiful – with plenty of parks and monuments (remembering both Chernobyl and World War II), the people are kind, the three main restaurants are open late, and the scenery can be breathtaking.
The memorial for Chernobyl is in the heart of the city and is comprised of three main components, a large metal column with a bell suspended 20 feet or so in the air, coming off the sides of the column are two marble walls with the faces of 30 of the first victims of the disaster are beautifully engraved into the rock, and finally a plaque standing in front of the column. People still leave flowers at the memorial throughout the year.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant hosts a training center in Slavutich, where on our first day we were briefed on topics ranging from on-site behavior, safety conscious activity, a briefing of the physics and processes behind the destruction of the Unit 4 reactor, and an overview of the design and structure of the sarcophagus and new containment structure currently under constructions. At this training facility, workers at the nuclear power plant are trained on proper ways to store, put on, and operate different protective gear and detection equipment. Workers preparing for critical tasks in high radiation zones will also train at the facility to become more familiar with the procedures and what risks are involved so that they can be more efficient and reduce stay-times in dangerous areas at the nuclear power plant.
We also visited the Chernobyl museum in Slavutich, a two-story structure which houses the Chernobyl museum on the first floor and a Slavutich museum on the second floor. The Chernobyl museum houses many photographs documenting the construction, operation, and shutdown of Units 1, 2, and 3 — as well as the disaster at the Unit 4 reactor. They also have a memory room dedicated to the deaths of the initial responders. In the middle of the room hang four ornate bells which are rung once a year, on April 26th, to remember the disaster and those who gave their lives. Some of the other items at the museum are very somber. Hanging on the wall in the corner is a copy of a daily report filed about a worker at Chernobyl who had been at home sleeping at the time of the explosion. According to the log, the worker was notified of the disaster around 04:00 in the morning and had proceeded to the plant. He had performed various duties for more than 12 hours and according to the documentation ended up in the hospital by the end of the day because of radiation sickness.
Every morning we would gather in the cafeteria in the basement of the Hotel Slavutich at 6:30 am local time, where we would be greeted by a plate with yogurt, crackers, and jelly on it and a communal plate of toast for the table. As we would get seated the attendant would bring us our breakfast, which generally consisted of a meat and potato side dish or a pickled vegetable. We could also request a cup of expresso, which while potent — does not go far in stemming the average American’s lust for a large mug of hot coffee. After we had finished with breakfast we would grab our packs and equipment for the day, assemble in the lobby, and head off to the train station.
The train from Slavutich to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant crosses briefly through Belarus and arrives at its destination in 40-45 minutes. It is not uncommon to see birds of prey and cranes in the wetland areas of the exclusion zone near the train tracks. When the train crosses the bridge at the Pripyat River, one can also see fishermen in their boats. When you exit the train, you walk along a long covered platform with metal walls and columns and pipes painted baby blue, similar to one you would see in any city train stop. As soon as you step off of the train, people instantly come alive. There are a many rules to follow when you are on-site at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant; don’t set things down on the ground just anywhere, only walk on paved areas (don’t go trudging through the grass and weeds), and only eat and drink in designated areas (at the canteen.).
To gain access to the site, one must first be cleared by security — who take their job very seriously, and who ensures that each traveler has proper authorization for entry. After entering the site from the train station, the tip of the exhaust stack of the crippled Unit 4 and sarcophagus can barely be seen if you know where to look. The iconic 150 meter red and white striped ventilation stack that once soared above the sarcophagus has been removed and replaced by a 125 meter yellow and white stack. The old stack was cut into pieces, but are so contaminated that they could not be disposed of, so the pieces are currently stored on-site at an adjacent location. Removing the ventilation stack was a hassle, however it was a bigger obstacle while it was still standing. Radiation levels on the roof of the sarcophagus are still high and the stack was not only aging it was also not helping reduce the radiation levels for workers on the upper portions of the sarcophagus.
Around 3,500 workers are on-site at any given day working on a myriad of various projects including the construction of the new confinement structure, the preparation for the installation of the new confinement over the existing sarcophagus, the identification and collection of contaminated debris, the construction of a new interim spent fuel processing and storage facility, the laundering of contaminated worker clothes, and other critical programs taking place on-site. They arrive on-site every day in their personal clothes, and after passing through security they proceed to changing rooms where they have lockers and change into their respective work clothes.
The workers on-site are wonderful people, who believe that their work is important, and form bonds like brothers – based on trusting each other to ensure that each of them go home safe. There is a unity that is formed by groups of people when the rest of the world counts you out. The workers do not fear going to work at Chernobyl every day, they enjoy each other’s company, and I found that they have each grown to appreciate the plant in some way or another.
After we passed through security and into the site we were taken to an administration building where we met our liaison from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a bright and cheerful man named Stanislav. In the lobby to Stanislav’s office is a window (some five feet wide and three feet tall) which looks directly at the Sarcophagus, which is only some 400-500 yards away. In the middle of the room is an incredibly realistic model of the Unit 4 reactor building and sarcophagus which opens up to reveal all of internal structures and debris.
In many of the “industrial” areas of the plant, many projects have been taken to lower the levels of radioactivity that workers are exposed to. In some cases topsoil has been removed, new clean fill has been trucked in, and concrete and asphalt have been laid down, all with the goal of reducing the on-site migration of radioactive particles – which have a tendency when present in an environment to be internalized or catch a ride out of the secured area on the clothes of workers and the tires on trucks. The result of many of these on-site activities is to restrict as much as possible the exposure to workers and visitors to only gamma shine from the radioactive materials housed in the sarcophagus. These mitigation actions also have helped to lower radiation fields in some indoor areas of the site to under 15 uR per hour, provided enough shielding is between you and the sarcophagus to overcome the gamma shine. However, the on-site radiation levels still vary widely depending on the location and positioning, as illustrated below.
When living or working in areas with increased levels of radioactivity, one must remember the three basic principles of radiation protection; time, distance, and shielding. Visiting a site like Chernobyl really allows a person to put these principles to work, with very interesting results. For example, in the area of the site where Stanislav’s office is located, gamma shine from the Sarcophagus is the primary source of exposure. When standing directly in front of the window and facing the sarcophagus with my detector I measured 731 uR per hour, if I turned around so my detector was facing into the room and away from the sarcophagus I would measure 61 uR per hour, and on the opposite side of the room from the window I measured 37 uR per hour. This was a very good physical demonstration of gamma fields and the effects of distance and shielding from a known source of gamma shine.
After inspecting the model and viewing some videos on the construction of the sarcophagus for about twenty minutes, we were taking to a training room where we were briefed on the accident, post-accident mitigation efforts, and the continuing mitigation works including the construction of the new confinement structure which will be moved on top of the existing sarcophagus structure. I will talk in more detail about the new confinement structure in future articles.
After this final briefing, we were given a personal tour of the new confinement structure by the Novarka Construction Supervisor, who took us inside of the structure and pointed out key design features and how the structure would be moved in place over the sarcophagus.
Though the new confinement structure may not be the biggest project ever constructed, it is incredibly massive, large enough to allow enormous cranes and gantries to move freely under its steel roof. The cover is being built on a large concrete pad, which is designed not only to carry the weight of the building, but also the supplies, hydraulics, and heavy industrial equipment moving in and out of it every day. From under the new confinement structure we had our first up-close introduction with the Unit 4 sarcophagus.
Looking east from the new confinement structure we faced the western wall of the sarcophagus, which barely peaks over enormous concrete walls used for reinforcing portions of the sarcophagus and shielding workers below. Running over, in, and around these walls was a network of steel walkways, platforms, and stairs. The roof of the sarcophagus was visible and the new ventilation stack. At ground level we could see workers moving in and out of the base of the wall and an adjacent portion of the reactor building, where openings allowed them access. The radiation levels in the new containment structure I measured were between 291-919 uR/hr depending on how close I was to – and whether or not I was facing the sarcophagus.
The sarcophagus was a hastily built structure under extreme conditions and time constraints which was designed to stem the on-going release of radioactive materials into the environment. (In Ukraine, they don’t call it the sarcophagus, it is called Объект “Укрытие” which means Object Shelter.) Construction started within 3 weeks after the reactor exploded and was completed in a little over 200 days in November 1986. The engineers who designed it said that the structure could be expected to stand for 20 years, it has been nearly 30 years and with some modifications and maintenance the structure is still standing. Work has been done to deal with issues with the roofing and reinforcing portions of the structure.
The canteen (cafeteria) at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant serves amazing food for the workers. After grabbing a tray one only has to walk down the line and pick and choose from foods like vegetable and meat plates, a choice of soups, a choice of a fish or meat entrée with vegetables, an assortment of drinks, and bread. By the time you pass through the line, your tray is so loaded up that you wonder if you will ever make it back to your table without spilling.
That afternoon we visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Fire Department. I will admit that I have always been amazed on the response time of the firefighters after the explosions at the Unit 4 reactor. When reviewing the reports of those on duty that night we find the firefighters are on the roof of the turbine building fighting fires before the operators in the control room even realize that the reactor has been destroyed.
When I visited the power plant I realized why the fire fighters were so quick to respond – looking over the concrete wall that surrounds the fire department it is easy to see the top of the Sarcophagus and the ventilation stack rising above the other surrounding buildings. Once a firetruck leaves the gates of the fire department, it would take less than 90 seconds to pull up near the Unit 4 reactor building.
There is a beautiful monument at the Fire Department for the firefighters that responded so bravely that night, which was built by hand by the fire fighters themselves. Inside the front door of the fire station they have a roster of all of the firefighters who were a part of the fire department during the response to the disaster.
The firetrucks at the Fire Department are not the same that you might find at your local fire station, but they appear like workhorses, sturdy and reliable. The workers are obviously proud of and love these vehicles and know them inside and out.
At the end of every day workers go back to their changing rooms where they have the ability to shower and change back into their personal clothes. Before you can get back to the train platform, you have to pass through two contamination monitoring portals, which ensure that you aren’t carrying unknown external contamination off of the plant site. If one of the portals alarms there is a dosimetrist on hand who will come over and re-inspect you and instruct you on follow up activities you may need to take.
The train ride back from Chernobyl to Slavutich has a much different atmosphere than the morning journey. In the morning, many (if not most) of the passengers sleep or read the morning news. They greet each other and talk a little amongst each other, but the mood is quieter and seemingly focused on what tasks will need to be completed that day. The afternoon rides are much more jovial and relaxed. Plenty of passengers can still be found sleeping on the trains, exhausted after a long day at work, but more passengers are grouped together playing games or regaling each other with stories.
Different groups tend to sit together in train cars. The management tends to be found largely in the first few cars behind the engine, engineers are known to fill up the forward and middle cars, and contract workers and administrative workers are most likely found in the rear cars. On the train ride home, the contract workers play a game called “Fool” which is similar to the Western game “Cheat”, the gameplay revolves around getting rid of the cards from your hand in a certain order and bluffing about what cards you are laying and keeping in your hand. The engineers enjoy a game called “Preferans” which is a game of probability, and the best players tend to have a keen mind for mathematics and counting cards.
After arriving back in Slavutich each evening, we would briefly disperse to our rooms at Hotel Slavutich to change clothes, journal our experiences, back up our memory cards, or maybe just catch a quick nap before we would meet up again for dinner at one of the local restaurants.
Part 1 – Experiencing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Part 2 – Visiting the Chernobyl site and the Unit 2 control room
Part 3 – Inside the Chernobyl Unit 4 control room
Part 4 – Pripyat: City for the Future, City of the Past
Bonus Coverage – The Animals at Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl
All images courtesy of Carl Willis, Heidi Baumgartner, Lucas Hixson, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Stay tuned for additional reports which will focus in detail on other areas of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant including (but not limited to); the new containment structure, the Sarcophagus, the Unit 4 control room, the golden corridor, the Unit 5 reactor building, and more.]]>
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has signed an agreement to acquire robots that can withstand the critically high radiation levels in the Fukushima Daiichi reactor containment vessels with the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) of France. CEA, a government-funded organization, is experienced with decommissioning nuclear reactor facilities and reprocessing facilities.
In order to lower radiation levels as much as possible, TEPCO will focus on decontaminating local areas around the reactor containment vessels before they will attempt to locate the melted nuclear fuel that escaped from the reactor pressure vessels.
As a part of the agreement, TEPCO will provide data related to the decommissioning process to CAE, CEA will work in partnership with TEPCO to train workers and develop specialized robots that will not be overcome by the high radiation levels found inside of the reactor buildings.
In 2014, TEPCO signed an agreement with Sellafield of Great Britain to process the contaminated water building up at the Fukushima Daiichi plant site.]]>
The Russian company Atomproekt has announced that in 2016 it will construct a treatment plant at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to demonstrate their ability to process contaminated water and remove tritium.
The tritium processing demonstration facility will have a capacity of only 400 cubic meters per day.
The project was first announced in February 2015, when RosRAO commissioned Atomproekt to design the water treatment plant and test with 48 cubic meters of simulated solution.
RosRAO and Atomproekt are subsidiaries of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation.
RosRAO is the national manager of spent fuel and radioactive waste in Russia.
Atomproekt is formerly known as VNIPIET (All-Russia Science Research and Design Institute of Power Engineering Technology), and designs nuclear projects, processing plants, and waste facilities.]]>
Czech officials have confirmed that while other nations are reducing dependence on or phasing out nuclear power, the Czech Republic plans to build 2 new nuclear reactors.
There are currently six operating nuclear reactors in the Czech Republic, two at the Temelin Nuclear Power Station and four at the Dukovany Nuclear Power Station.
The new plan passed by the Czech government calls for a new reactor to be built at both the Temelin and the Dukovany stations.
The Temelin nuclear power plant was in the news last week after discovering radiation outside of the reactor buildings during a maintenance outage.]]>
NASA has released a study claiming there is a need for continued use of plutonium-energized power systems for future space flights. It also says the use of actual nuclear reactors in space “has promise” but “currently” there is no need for them.
The space plutonium systems—called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGS)—use the heat from the decay of plutonium to generate electricity in contrast to nuclear reactors, usually using uranium, in which fission or atom-splitting takes place.
The “Nuclear Power Assessment Study” describes itself as being done as a “collaboration” involving “NASA centers,” among them Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “the Department of Energy and its laboratories including Los Alamos National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories,” and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The study, released this month, comes as major breakthroughs have been happening in the use of solar and other benign sources of power in space. The situation parallels that on Earth as solar and wind power and other clean, safe technologies compete with nuclear, oil, coal and other problematic energy sources and the interests behind them.
Examples of the use of benign power in space include the successful flight in May of a solar-powered spacecraft named LightSail in a mission funded by members of the Planetary Society. Astronomer Carl Sagan, a founder of the society, was among those who have postulating having a spacecraft with a sail propelled through the vacuum of space by the pressure of photons emitted by the sun. LightSail demonstrates his vision.
Yet, meanwhile, NASA cancelled its own solar sail mission scheduled for this year. It was to involve the largest solar sail ever flown. In 2010, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency made the first solar sail flight with a spacecraft it named Ikaros. Before the NASA solar flight cancellation, NASA last year declared on its website: “The concept of a huge, ultra-thin sail unfurling in space, using the pressure of sunlight to provide propellant-free transport, hovering and exploration capabilities, may seem like the stuff of science fiction. Now a NASA team developing the ‘In-Space Demonstration of a Mission-Capable Solar Sail’—or Solar Sail Demonstrator for short—intend[s] to prove the viability and value of the technology in the years to come.” NASA said the mission, also called Sunjammer, was cancelled by NASA because of problems ” with the project’s contractor, L’Garde of California.
And also, meanwhile, demonstrating that solar power can be harvested far out in space, the Rosetta space probe of the European Space Agency (ESA), energized with solar power, successfully rendezvoused last year with a comet 375 million miles from the sun. ESA at the start of this mission explained that it did not have the plutonium power systems that NASA had, so instead it developed high-efficiency solar photovoltaic panels for use in space. And they worked enabling Rosetta to meet up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and send a lander to its surface. Rosetta continues flying alongside the comet.
NASA, too, has a space probe energized with high-efficiency solar photovoltaic panels it developed now on its way to Jupiter in a mission it has named Juno. For decades, NASA insisted that solar power could not be harvested beyond the orbit of Mars and thus plutonium power systems were necessary. This was NASA’s central argument in federal court in 1989 to rebut opponents of its plutonium-energized Galileo mission to Jupiter. Now it has shown it was mistaken. Juno using solar power instead of plutonium RTGs is to reach Jupiter next year.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and Marine Corps major general, remains a big booster of using nuclear-propelled rockets to get to Mars. Work on such a rocket has been going on at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA on its website says that a nuclear-powered rocket “could propel human explorers to Mars more efficiently than conventional spacecraft.”
Through the years, NASA has worked closely with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and after the commission was disbanded its successor, the Department of Energy, on space nuclear programs. And there’s a program at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a “robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel,” according to Technews World.
This is occurring despite Russia now abandoning its development of nuclear-propelled rockets for missions to Mars, a project it had earlier much-heralded. Reported TASS in April: “Russia’s space agency Roscosmos is planning to shut down works on developing a megawatt-class nuclear propulsion system for long-range manned spacecraft.”
But the DOE has resumed production for NASA of the isotope of plutonium—Plutonium-238—used in RTGs. It is a form of plutonium 280 times more radioactive than the plutonium used as a fuel in atomic bombs, Plutonium-239. Reported the journal Nature:
“NASA will be relieved to get this 238 Pu [Plutonium] because it is increasingly anxious about running out. The isotosope is not found in nature, so it has to be made in nuclear reactors…NASA now has just 35 kilograms of plutonium product—a small supply that may not match the demands to send missions to Mars, the moons of Jupiter and beyond.” The restart of Plutonium-238 production involves the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“We’ve known for years that the nuclear industry has taken control of the seats at the NASA and DOE planning committees that decide whether solar or nuclear power should be used on space missions,” said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). “The nuclear industry views space as a new market for their deadly product. Nuclear generators on space missions, nuclear powered mining colonies on Mars and other planetary bodies and even nuclear reactors on rockets to Mars are being sought. Thus there are many opportunities for things to go wrong.”
“Over the years, inside the DOE labs, hundreds of workers have been contaminated while fabricating space nuclear devices. It is not just some theoretical chance of a space launch accident that we are concerned about. We oppose the entire space nuclear power production process,” he said. “It’s all dangerous!”
“Just like here on Earth there is a tug-of-war going on between those who wish to promote life-giving solar power and those who want nukes,” said Gagnon. “That same battle for nuclear domination is being taken into the heavens by an industry that wants more profit—no matter the consequences. The Global Network will continue to organize around the space nuclear power issue by building a global constituency opposed to the risky and unnecessary nukes in space program.” The Global Network is based in Brunswick, Maine.
The new “Nuclear Power Assessment Study” opens by stating: “Human missions to deep-space locations such as extended missions on the lunar and Martian surfaces have always been recognized as requiring some form of nuclear power.” As of now, “nuclear power systems are expected to be required well into the 2030s at the least.”
It says using actual reactors in space “could potentially enable higher power,” but it suggests they be pursued “only if the future need arises and sufficient new funds to develop an FPS [fission power system] flight unit are provided.” It goes on, “Perhaps the largest uncertainty is the cost and schedule for developing a compact FPS for space flight. Only one U.S. reactor has been flown—the SNAP-10A reactor” which powered a satellite launched in 1965. That satellite, with its nuclear reactor onboard, remains1,000 miles overhead in what the study calls a “‘nuclear-safe’ orbit, although debris-shedding events of some level may have occurred.”
The study notes that the “United States has spent billions of dollars on space reactor programs, which have resulted in only one flight” and it says “examinations” of the many “terminated” space nuclear power “efforts have revealed that materials issues and technology challenges produced common pitfalls.”
Still, the study is high in praise of the U.S. space nuclear power program. “Nuclear systems have enabled tremendous strides in our country’s exploration and use of space since
1961.” It speaks of nuclear power being used “to support 31 missions that range from navigational, meteorological, communications and experimental satellites.”
“The launch and use of space nuclear power systems presents unique safety challenges,” it continues. “These safety challenges, or issues, must be recognized and addressed in the design
of each space nuclear power system, including consideration of potential accident conditions.”
“Launch and safe flight involve risk of failures or accidents” and “the most critical periods include launch, ascent, and orbital or trajectory insertion.”
“Three accidents involving U.S. space nuclear power systems have occurred [and] all three involved the launch vehicle or transfer stage, and were unrelated to the power system,” the study says. “In each case, the nuclear systems responded as designed and there were no hazardous consequences.”
That claim of no hazardous consequences is not true, as the late Dr. John Gofman, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, long maintained. Of the three U.S. space nuclear accidents, the most serious was the fall back to Earth in 1964 of a satellite with a SNAP-9A plutonium system onboard. The satellite and plutonium system disintegrated in the fall, the plutonium was dispersed worldwide and caused, in Dr. Gofman’s estimation, an increase in the global lung cancer rate. Dr. Gofman, an M.D. and Ph.D., co-discoverer of several radioisotopes, and was a pioneer in the earliest experiments with plutonium.
A 10 percent failure rate in space nuclear power missions has also been the case for Russia and, before it, the Soviet Union. The worst Soviet space nuclear accident occurred in the fall in 1978 of Cosmos satellite 954, with an atomic reactor onboard, which disintegrated as it plummeted to Earth, spreading nuclear debris for hundreds of miles across the Northwest Territories of Canada.
Despite the study’s rosy history of space nuclear power, it also says “it may be prudent to build in more time in the development of schedule for the first launch of a new space reactor. Public interest would likely be large, and it is possible that opposition could be substantial.”
The explosion after launch Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station was an event again underlining the danger of using nuclear power on spacecraft.
Officials were warning people that “potentially hazardous debris could wash ashore.”
Consider if a radioisotope thermoelectric generator was onboard and plutonium was also dispersed. Consider if there were a nuclear reactor onboard or an atomic propulsion system and an array of radioactive poisons contained in the debris.
U.S. Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland, a member of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, announced that “the launch failure this morning shows us once again that space is difficult—it requires near perfection.”
Inserting nuclear poisons into a danger-prone equation that “requires near perfection”—especially when it is unnecessary—is reckless, the consequences potentially devastating.
Estimates in NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, for instance, of the cost of plutonium decontamination if there were an accident when the Curiosity rover was launched in 2011 to Mars were put at $267 million for each square mile of farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.” It was powered with a plutonium-energized RTG, although previously NASA Mars rovers were able to function well with solar power.
When the Cassini space probe was sent off to Saturn in 1997—with three RTGs containing 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238, the most plutonium ever used on a spacecraft—NASA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement said that if an “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini into the Earth’s atmosphere occurred causing it to disintegrate and release its plutonium, “5 billion…of the world’s population…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure.”
Noting that “technology frequently goes wrong,” Gagnon of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, says: “When you consider adding nuclear power into the mix it becomes an explosive combination. We’ve long been sounding the alarm that nuclear power in space is not something the public nor the planet can afford to take a chance on.”]]>
Radiation safety workers in Fukushima, Japan have helped a doctoral student at Lund University in Sweden demonstrate that ordinary table salt can be used to measure radiation exposures.
The radiation safety workers carried small packets of salt in light-tight containers while they worked as well as traditional dosimeters.
By taking advantage of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), scientists can use the light produced by a special blue LED to determine the radiation dose.
When analyzed, the measurements taken from the salt dosimeters corresponded with measurements gathered from the traditional dosimeters.
The findings may help health physics experts validate models and help estimate public exposures after significant radiation releases.
Despite the fact that scientists have thought of using salt as a dosimeter or radiation detector since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; today, generally only personnel in rescue teams responding to a radiation release or nuclear emergency carry dosimeters.
While this is useful in monitoring the dose received by emergency personnel, it does little good in helping estimate the dose received by the public, or determining the amount of shielding that may have been provided by different structures.
The research conducted by Maria Christiansson at Lund University showed that a linear dose response could be found in the interval 1-100 mGy and that the salt dosimeter would provide detection limits down to about 0.2 mGy.
Christiansson showed that salt in packages which kept light out could be relied upon to store the OSL signal for several months.
Source: Lund University]]>
The scrap metals arrived in Gyeongsang Province on Thursday, but according to authorities there was no way of determining the areas in Japan where the scrap originated from.
South Korean officials will ask the Japanese government to assist and cooperate in sharing information in order to prevent any additional occurrences of radioactive materials being unknowingly transferred between the two countries.]]>
TEPCO officials have admitted that groundwater bypass operations are failing to reduce tons of water from entering the crippled reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
According to TEPCO, at least 400 tons of groundwater flow into reactor buildings each day where it comes into contact with extremely contaminated materials.
The utility announced that its groundwater bypass operations would reduce the amount of groundwater by up to 100 tons per day and began pumping operations in May in hopes of extracting groundwater before it entered reactor buildings and redirecting it into the Pacific Ocean.
At a news conference on Monday, Teruaki Kobayashi, a TEPCO official told reporters that two months after beginning pumping operations the utility has yet to see any real effect from the operation on water levels in the reactor buildings.
TEPCO says they don’t know when, if ever, the pumping operations will have any tangible effect on groundwater levels.
In June, TEPCO was also forced to admit that it’s ‘ice wall’ operation, which was also intended to control groundwater flow, was also unsuccessful. After two months of pumping calcium chloride into the ground near the Unit 2 reactor, officials announced that they weren’t able to get the water to freeze to form the ice wall.]]>