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Disaster waiting to happen

October 31, 2006

This piece in this weeks New Scientist indicates that it is not just in the UK that there are concerns about what is to be done with all the surplus nuclear material lying about. Concerns centre around the amount of material stored at the National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Apparently this site has one building known as Y12 that holds 400 tonnes of highly enriched uranium and was rated as a fire hazard as long ago as 1996 by the US Department of Energy. There have been 22 fires ands explosions in this facility since 1997.

Even worse a report into safety at Y12 reveals that the “site has a huge backlog of materials to process, such as unstable uranium oxides,solutions and residues in some 200 different types of containers. The exact contents of thousands are unknown because of poor records, and many have remained unopened since they were shipped across the US from other sites”. Apparently the Department of Energy has tried to tackle this problem through the construction of a new uranium storage facility the cost of which has spiraled from $120m to $500m in the last five years due to design changes and inadequate concrete pouring. The store is now almost a decade behind schedule.

The security concerns raised by another report from the Project on Government Oversight are somewhat hair raising to say the least. It says that the site will not achieve the US governments post 9/11 security standards until at least 2013. It goes on to allege that terrorists could easily improvise a nuclear bomb on site (by dropping one 45 kilogram lump onto another from 1.8 meters) that would achieve a 10 kiloton explosion!

The difficulties and costs involved in constructing an above ground facility make one wonder about the potential difficulties and costs that might be associated with constructing a below ground storage facility as it appears we are proposing to do in the UK. I have never been convinced that this is the correct solution given the potential problems of managing waste underground where control might be lost. However, the security concerns add a new dimension to this and presumably this would be easier to manage in a below ground facility.

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Categories: Environment
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