Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons had quite a year in 2016. Our new President-elect made nuclear more front and center than it has been in decades, coming out in favor of nuclear power and discussing nuclear weapons in an open, if frightening, way.
With regard to weapons, the two big issues are Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea in the old parlance). Discussing giving Japan and Korea (previously known as South Korea) nuclear weapons is scary enough, but talking about tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement is even worse.
Iran is actually meeting the terms of the nuclear deal hammered out in Switzerland in 2015 by the United States-led P5+1 Group. By the end of 2016, Iran had shipped to Russia nearly its entire fissionable stockpile of over 12 tons of enriched uranium. Iran has mothballed thousands of centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium, and has removed the core of its heavy water reactor at Arak so it can’t produce a plutonium bomb. For this, Iran got back almost $60 billion. Some Iranian citizens will be removed from U.S. government blacklists, Europe is allowing trade in software, gold, other metals and transportation equipment, Iran is rejoining the international banking system and can sell oil on the open market. Boeing even has a $16 billion contract to make commercial airplanes for Iran.
Because of political pressure from the state of California and its Lt. Governor, Pacific Gas & Electric Company announced in early 2016 its decision to close its well-running, low-carbon, low-cost nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon and replace them mostly with natural gas. FirstEnergy announced in early December that it would sell or close its Davis-Besse nuclear plant and stop operating in deregulated energy markets. Earlier in December, Entergy announced plans to close the Palisades nuclear power plant in southeastern Michigan in late 2018. The plant was licensed to operate until 2031.
But in 2016, there was also a strong push by climate scientists, led by Dr. James Hansen, to educate politicians about the need for nuclear energy. The idea of losing their state’s most abundant and reliable low-carbon energy source for no good reason, along with thousands of jobs, began to penetrate many legislators’ minds. In addition, the Union of Concerned Scientists is re-evaluating its ideological stand against nuclear, and even Sting has come out in support of nuclear as a way of addressing climate change.
On December 20, 2016, the New Mexico Environment Department gave the U.S. Department of Energy approval to reopen the Nation’s first and only deep geologic nuclear repository, the WIPP site in southeastern New Mexico, The approval removes one of the last hurdles to resuming nuclear waste disposal at the site after a nearly three-year shutdown. WIPP holds most of the nation’s nuclear weapons (transuranic) waste but had its first and only radiation leak in February 2014 from a burst drum inappropriately filled at a generator site. The very small amount of radiation released was contained by the ventilation, resulting in no health or environmental impacts, but the clean-up has been slow and overly careful.
The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant following the devastating tsunami in Japan on March 11 of 2011 had its 5-year anniversary in 2016. The disaster has proven costly in many ways – politically, economically and emotionally. But the costs that never materialized were the ones most feared – those of radiation-induced cancer and death. In September, Dr. Tetsuya Ohira of Fukushima Medical University reiterated what all studies have found over the last few years, that there is no connection between child thyroid cancer and the Fukushima accident.
Progress on Fukushima clean-up has been great, although the vast majority has been overlooked by the popular press inside and outside of Japan. As Les Corrice discusses in the Hiroshima Syndrome, five nuclear power plants have restarted and more will follow. The Japanese government announced in June that 70% of the Fukushima evacuation zone will be open for repopulation early in 2017. Many communities had already reopened, but in addition most of Iitate and Tomioka, parts of Katsurao, Okuma, and Namie, and the remaining parts of Kawamata, Kawauchi, and Minamisoma, will be reopened by April.
In November, Tepco announced that the Fukushima ice wall, emplaced below ground to stop groundwater contamination, was fully frozen. But as Corrice observes, the biggest successes of the Fukushima clean-up have gone entirely unnoted in the press. ‘The Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s data on Pacific Ocean radioactivity shows that Tepco’s efforts to stop contaminated groundwater outflow into the ocean has been a complete success.’ No detectible radioactive cesium coming from the power plant has been seen in ocean water from the many sampling points along the coast north and south of the reactors as well as farther out in the ocean.
Read more at 2016 — The Year In Nuclear