Beyond Nuclear International

Fusion confusion

Physicists’ flawed fantasy should be shunned

By Daniel Jassby

Fusion reactors have long been touted as the “perfect” energy source. Proponents claim that when useful commercial fusion reactors are developed, they would produce vast amounts of energy with little radioactive waste, forming little or no plutonium byproducts that could be used for nuclear weapons. These pro-fusion advocates also say that fusion reactors would be incapable of generating the dangerous runaway chain reactions that lead to a meltdown—all drawbacks to the current fission schemes in nuclear power plants.

And, like fission, a fusion-powered nuclear reactor would have the enormous benefit of producing energy without emitting any carbon to warm up our planet’s atmosphere.

But there is a hitch: While it is, relatively speaking, rather straightforward to split an atom to produce energy (which is what happens in fission), it is a “grand scientific challenge” to fuse two hydrogen nuclei together to create helium isotopes (as occurs in fusion). Our sun constantly does fusion reactions all the time, burning ordinary hydrogen at enormous densities and temperatures. But to replicate that process of fusion here on Earth—where we don’t have the intense pressure created by the gravity of the sun’s core—we would need a temperature of at least 100 million degrees Celsius, or about six times hotter than the sun. In experiments to date the energy input required to produce the temperatures and pressures that enable significant fusion reactions in hydrogen isotopes has far exceeded the fusion energy generated.


To replicate the sun’s fusion reactionon Earth we would need a temperature of at least 100 million degrees Celsius, or about six times hotter than the sun. (Photo: WikiCommons)

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Can the NPT and the TPNW co-exist?

Bridge building to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

By Alexander Kmentt

As we approach the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May 2020 and “celebrate” the Treaty’s 50th anniversary, there is much talk of “bridge building” between the different perspectives on nuclear disarmament. The advent of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017 was the latest manifestation of the rift in the international community. The Ban Treaty was supported by a majority of States not in possession of nuclear weapons, and is seen as an important and necessary legal measure upon which to build much overdue progress on nuclear disarmament.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nuclear weapons States object to this approach, criticising the Ban Treaty and alleging it to be detrimental to the NPT. Disagreements over the Ban Treaty will be difficult to bridge. Nevertheless, nuclear States should engage substantively and constructively with the humanitarian arguments underpinning the Treaty, rather than treating it primarily as a nuisance. Such a discussion would be welcomed by NPT member States and could aid in rebuilding trust in the disarmament discourse, vital to ensuring continued broad support for the NPT.

Nuclear weapons have always been the subject of diametrically opposed views: “nuclear haves” insist on the value of nuclear weapons for international security due to their deterrent quality. In this understanding, nuclear disarmament may well be a desirable objective in the long-term but relinquishing weapons is not possible given today’s international system and security environment.

In the opposing view, “nuclear have-nots” consider the existence of nuclear weapons and the concept of nuclear deterrence as highly precarious, morally questionable and the division of haves and have-nots, discriminatory. For States holding this view, nuclear disarmament is an urgent priority.

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Every last wish should read like this

On the day he died, Canadian anti-nuclear politician’s last letter offered hope

Paul Dewar’s farewell letter appeared on his Facebook page on February 6, 2019, the day he died. Dewar, 56 and a Canadian Member of Parliament, and an activist for youth and disarmament, passed away about a year after being diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

By Paul Dewar

Dear Friends,

The time has come for me to say goodbye. While I have left this place physically, I have some final words I’d like to share.

I want to say thank you. My whole life was filled with the kindness of the people of Ottawa, but never did I feel the true depth and generosity of your love more than this past year. You were a constant source of comfort and solidarity for me and my family. I am so grateful for all that you have done.

Paul Dewar

Paul Dewar speaking at the 2014 ICAN Vienna Civil Society Forum. (Photo: ICAN)

I told you that I thought my illness was a gift and I genuinely meant that. In this time in between, I got to see the wonder of the world around us. This reinforced my belief that inherent in our community is a desire to embrace each other with kindness and compassion.

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Does the nuclear industry have a back door into its regulator?

This may be a rhetorical question

By Linda Pentz Gunter

When driving in Italy, my Italian friends inform me, a stop sign is just a “suggestion.” The speed limit is there as advice but is not mandatory.

Needless to say, this cavalier attitude to the law results in plenty of crashes. Alarmingly, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) holds this same attitude towards enforcement of its own safety regulations. Compliance is increasingly ”voluntary”, and safety inspections are instead suggested “self-assessments”. Indeed, our research shows that the NRC has become allergic to any conjugation of the verb “require”, and has actually deleted it from its own rules designed to manage the next nuclear accident, and from regulations for the operation of aging nuclear power plants seeking to extend their licenses.

In December 2017, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) released a report  which it posted on its website, and that of the Office of Science and Technical Information (OSTI) — a division within the Department of Energy. The abstract was posted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) website where the links to the PNNL and OSTI report postings are now dead.

In its report, PNNL said that the “autopsy” of a closed nuclear power plant should be “required.” The idea is that when a nuclear power plant is permanently shut down, the decommissioning process provides access to key reactor safety systems, structures and components. With the reactor closed, these parts can — and should — be materially examined to assess the condition and reliability of those same parts in still operating reactors. Indeed, PNNL concluded that such strategic “harvesting” of actual aged samples was a “high priority,” if the government was to continue issuing extensions to reactor operating licenses.

The PNNL report —Criteria and Planning Guidance for Ex-Plant Harvesting to Support Subsequent License Renewal — was then abruptly removed from both the PNNL and OSTI websites. But not before Paul Gunter at Beyond Nuclear had downloaded it.

Why was it removed? Beyond Nuclear learned in our pre-hearing oral argument before the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board on March 27, 2019, that the PNNL report was “just a draft.” NRC counsel, Kayla Gamin, told the court that PNNL posted the report on its website “by mistake.” Presumably the DOE and IAEA made the same error.

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A nuclear disaster that hasn’t happened yet

Spanish film, The Leak, dramatizes what might happen when a radioactive waste storage facility goes wrong

By Linda Pentz Gunter

La Fuga Radiactiva (The Leak) is a 30-minute Spanish drama that imagines what would happen if a Centralized Temporary Storage (CTS) facility for high-level radioactive waste (still stalled under immense opposition) in fact opens. And then has a serious accident, leaking radioactive gases across Spain.

In 2010, the Spanish town of Villar de Cañas (Cuenca) was indeed assigned the CTS, slated to house high-level radioactive waste from the seven still operating nuclear power plants in Spain. As the pre-amble to the film explains, a coalition of environmental justice and other groups has so far succeeded in blocking progress on the plant. But what if they should fail? That is the premise of The Leak, directed by Eduardo Soto Pérez and set in 2028.

The story imagines an earthquake combined with torrential rain that has set in motion an accident at the CTS. The narrative touches down briefly on the lives of those who would be involved — local officials, reporters, site workers, government leaders, a doctor with a pregnant wife and bewildered local residents. There is at first skepticism, denial and disbelief that a serious accident might have occurred or could not be safely contained. As the realization of the immensity of the disaster grows, we see just how unprepared the authorities, surrounding communities, and even the nuclear workers are for such an outcome. No one has the “manual” to solve the crisis. Evacuations ensue. 

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Chernobyl children in a Havana hospital

One academic’s emotional journey of awakening is told in the new film, Un Traductor

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Sitting crammed on a transatlantic flight, drinking weak coffee and picking at a lamentable apology for pasta is not where one would expect to find oneself watching a remarkable film about Chernobyl. But that is what happened recently.

Un Traductor (A Translator), released this year, tells the true story of a Cuban professor of Russian literature who, in 1989, abruptly finds his lessons canceled and a note on the university door directing him to the local hospital in Havana. There, he is told he must serve as a translator. But for whom? “The patients from Chernobyl” replies an emotionless senior nurse. The film is directed by Cuban brothers, Sebastián and Rodrigo Barriuso.

Malin (we never learn his last name until the credits) finds himself serving as interpreter at night on a children’s ward filled with victims from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. At first, his only task is to inform parents that their child is fundamentally terminal. Devastated, he immediately wants out and to return to his comfortable home life with his wife and his own young son. “You chose to be a nurse!” he rails at Gladys, the matter-of-fact night nurse with whom he works and who has escaped the juntas of her native Argentina to work in Cuban’s renowned medical field. “I didn’t choose any of this,” he insists.

“These kids didn’t choose either,” she retorts.

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