Chernobyl’s health impacts

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia

Global 2000 / Friends of the Earth Austria has released an updated dated version of an important report on the health impacts of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Written by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie, the report incorporates the findings of many relevant studies produced in the 10 years since the original report was published.

The subject matter is inordinately complex but Fairlie explains a host of technicalities in language that anyone can understand. Thus the report is not only an up-to-date, expert report on the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster, but it also doubles as a primer on the radiation/health debates.

Fairlie summarises the main impacts:

  • 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in highly contaminated areas, and 400 million people in less contaminated areas.
  • 37% of Chernobyl’s fallout deposited on western Europe; 42% of western Europe contaminated.
  • Initially, about 116,000 people were evacuated, and later an additional 230,000 people were resettled.
  • 40,000 fatal cancers predicted across Europe (based on an estimated collective dose of 400,000 person-Sieverts and a linear no-threshold derived risk estimate of 0.1 fatal cancers per person-Sievert).
  • 6,000 thyroid cancer cases to date, 16,000 more expected.
  • Increased radiogenic thyroid cancers now seen in Austria: 8–41% of increased thyroid cancer cases after 1990 in Austria may be due to Chernobyl.
  • Increased incidences of leukemia well established among the clean-up workers in Ukraine and Russia with very high risk factors. Slightly lower leukemia risks were observed among residents of seriously contaminated areas in Ukraine and Belarus.
  • Increases in solid cancers were observed among clean-up workers in Belarus and Ukraine but their relative risks (20% to 50%) were considerably lower than the 700% increases observed for thyroid cancer, and the 200% to 500% increases observed for leukemia.
  • Several new studies have confirmed increased risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke after Chernobyl. It is recommended that further studies be funded and carried out on radiogenic cardiovascular diseases. As current radiation dose limits around the world are based on cancer risks alone, it is recommended that they should be tightened to take into account cardiovascular disease and stroke risks as well.
  • A recent very large study observed statistically significant increases in nervous system birth defects in highly contaminated areas in Russia, similar to the elevated rates of such birth defects observed in highly contaminated areas in Ukraine. The International Agency for Research on Cancer should be funded to carry out a comprehensive study of birth defects, particularly nervous system defects and Down Syndrome after Chernobyl.

Ian Fairlie, March 2016, ‘TORCH-2016: An independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster’,

No nuclear dump in the Flinders Ranges

Media Release ‒ 29 April 2016

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners will fight nuclear waste dump plan

The federal government has announced that the Flinders Ranges has been selected as the preferred site for a national nuclear waste dump. The land was nominated by former Liberal Party Senator Grant Chapman and his nomination has been endorsed by the Liberal government in Canberra.

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Regina McKenzie, who lives at Yappala Station near the proposed dump site and is a member of Viliwarinha Yura Aboriginal Corporation, said:

“Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners weren’t consulted about the nomination. Even Traditional Owners who live next to the proposed dump site at Yappala Station weren’t consulted. The proposed dump site is adjacent to the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area. On the land with the proposed dump site, we have been working for many years to register heritage sites with the SA government. The area is Adnyamathanha land. It is Arngurla Yarta (spiritual land). The proposed dump site has countless thousands of Aboriginal artifacts. Our ancestors are buried there. The nominated site is a significant women’s site. Throughout the area are registered cultural heritage sites and places of huge importance to our people.

“There are frequent yarta ngurra-ngurrandha (earthquakes and tremors). At least half a dozen times each year, we see and feel the ground move. It is flood land. The water comes from the hills and floods the plains, including the proposed dump site. Sometimes there are massive floods, the last one in 2006.

“We don’t want a nuclear waste dump here on our country and worry that if the waste comes here it will harm our environment and muda (our lore, our creation). We call on the federal government to withdraw the nomination of the site and to show more respect in future. We call on all South Australians − all Australians − to support us in our struggle. Adnyamathanha Traditional Owners and Viliwarinha Yura Aboriginal Corporation will fight the proposal for a nuclear waste dump on our land for as long as it takes to stop it.

“Last year I was awarded the SA Premier’s Natural Resource Management Award in the category of ‘Aboriginal Leadership − Female’ for working to protect land that is now being threatened with a nuclear waste dump. But Premier Jay Weatherill has been silent since the announcement of six short-listed dump sites last year. Now the Flinders Ranges has been chosen as the preferred site and Mr Weatherill must speak up. The Premier can either support us or he can support the federal government’s attack on us by maintaining his silence. He can’t sit on the fence.”

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Enice Marsh said:

“Vulnerable communities are suffering from lack of vision from our government and industry ‘leaders’ and should not be the government’s target for toxic waste dumps. This predatory behaviour is unethical and is an abuse of human rights. An Indigenous Protected Area is a Federal Government initiative, but it seems that in the case of Yappala this means nothing to the government. We ask you to honour this commitment to protect, not pollute and damage our land. This facility will cause immeasurable damage to the whole area which is covered with thousands of artefacts, home to people, animals, birds and reptiles. The building of this facility will cause widespread damage. It will scar the area and break the spiritual song-lines like never before in the 60000+ years of human occupation. We don’t want this waste in our country, it’s too toxic and long lived.”

Adnyamathanha Traditional Owner Jillian Marsh said:

“The First Nations people of Australia have been bullied and pushed around, forcibly removed from their families and their country, denied access and the right to care for their own land for over 200 years. Our health and wellbeing compares with third world countries, our people crowd the jails. Nobody wants toxic waste in their back yard, this is true the world over. We stand in solidarity with people across this country and across the globe who want sustainable futures for communities, we will not be moved. We challenge Minister Josh Frydenberg on his claim that this waste is just “gloves, goggles and test tubes” – the intermediate-level waste is much more toxic so why not talk about it? What about the damage to the area that construction of this site will cause? You can’t compensate the loss of people’s ancient culture with a few dollars.”

Accidents at world’s only deep underground radioactive waste repository

Sources of information on accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, New Mexico

Department of Energy:

DoE, 30 Sept 2014, ‘Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan’,

DoE, April 2014, ‘Radiological Release Accident Investigation Report’.


Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC):

SRIC, ‘WIPP Radiation Release’, 12 Sept 2014,

SRIC, ‘Nuclear Waste Documents’,

SRIC, ‘What the WIPP Recovery Plan Says − And What It Doesn’t’, 10 Oct 2014,

Carlsbad Environment Monitoring & Research Center − New Mexico State University:

New Mexico Environment Department:

‘LANL Documents Related to WIPP’:

Santa Fe New Mexican:

Nuclear Watch New Mexico:

Los Alamos Study Group:,

New Mexico nuclear waste accident a ‘horrific comedy of errors’ that exposes deeper problems

27 Nov 2014, The Ecologist

The precise cause of the February 14 accident involving a radioactive waste barrel at the world’s only deep geological radioactive waste repository has yet to be determined, but information about the accident continues to come to light.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA, is a dump site for long-lived intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program. More than 171,000 waste containers are stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 metres) underground.

On February 14, a heat-generating chemical reaction − the Department of Energy (DOE) calls it a ‘deflagration’ rather than an explosion − compromised the integrity of a barrel and spread contaminants through more than 3,000 feet of tunnels, up the exhaust shaft, into the environment, and to an air monitoring approximately 3,000 feet north-west of the exhaust shaft.[1] The accident resulted in 22 workers receiving low-level internal radiation exposure.

Investigators believe a chemical reaction between nitrate salts and organic ‘kitty litter’ used as an absorbent generated sufficient heat to melt seals on at least one barrel. But experiments have failed to reproduce the chemical reaction, and hundreds of drums of similarly packaged nuclear waste are still intact, said DOE spokesperson Lindsey Geisler. “There’s still a lot we don’t know”, she said.[2]

Terry Wallace from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) said: “LANL did not consider the chemical reactions that unique combinations of radionuclides, acids, salts, liquids and organics might create.”[3]

Determining the cause of the accident has been made all the more difficult because the precise composition of the waste in the damaged barrel is unknown.[4,5] A former WIPP official said: “The DOE sites that sent in the waste got careless in documenting what was being shipped in … The contractors at the sites packing the waste were not exactly meticulous. When we complained to DOE, it was made clear we were just to keep taking the waste and to shut up.” [6]

Operations to enable WIPP to reopen will cost approximately US$242 million according to preliminary estimates by the DOE. In addition, a new ventilation system is required which will cost US$65-261 million.[7] Taking into account indirect costs such as delays with the national nuclear weapons clean-up program, the total cost could approach US$1 billion.[4] Further costs could be incurred if the State of New Mexico fines DOE for its safety lapses at WIPP.[5]

The DOE hopes WIPP will reopen in 2016 but the shut-down could extend to 2017 or beyond.[8]

A ‘horrific comedy of errors’

British academic Rebecca Lunn, a professor of engineering geosciences, describes how waste repositories would work in a perfect world. “Geological disposal of nuclear waste involves the construction of a precision-engineered facility deep below the ground into which waste canisters are carefully manoeuvred. Before construction of a geological repository can even be considered, an environmental safety case must be developed that proves the facility will be safe over millions of years.”[9]

Prof. Lunn’s description is far removed from the situation that prevails at WIPP. Robert Alvarez, a former assistant to the energy secretary, said that a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted accidents such as the February 14 deflagration once every 200,000 years. Yet WIPP has been open for merely 15 years.[5] WIPP is on track for not one but over 13,000 radiation release accidents over a 200,000 year period.

The WIPP accident resulted from a “horrific comedy of errors” according to James Conca, a scientific adviser and WIPP expert: “This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge.” [4]

The problems began long before February 14, and they extend beyond WIPP. Serious problems have been evident across the US nuclear weapons program. Systemic problems have been evident with DOE oversight.

The problematic role of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) − a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE − is emphasised in a detailed analysis by investigative journalist Joseph Trento.[6] A DOE official quoted by Trento said a root problem is “the fact that DOE has no real operational control over the NNSA. Under the guise of national security, NNSA runs the contractors, covers up accidents and massive cost overruns and can fire any DOE employee who tries to point out a problem. Because they control so many jobs and contractors, every administration refuses to take them on.”

Trento explains the realpolitik:

“The contractor game at NNSA is played this way: Major corporations form LLC’s [limited liability companies] and bid for NNSA and DOE contracts. For example, at SRS [Savannah River Site] they bid to clean up waste and get some of the billions of dollars from Obama’s first term stimulus money. Things go wrong, little gets cleaned up, workers get injured or exposed to radiation and outraged NNSA management cancels the contract. A new LLC is formed by the same NNSA list of corporate partners and they are asked to bid on a new management contract. The new LLC hires the same workers as the old management company and the process gets repeated again and again. The same mistakes are made and the process keeps repeating itself. These politically connected DOE contractors, responsible for tens of billions of dollars in failed projects and mishandling of the most deadly materials science has created, have been protected by the biggest names in both the Republican and Democratic parties at an enormous cost to the US taxpayers, public health and the environment.”

Major deficiencies at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Of immediate relevance to the February 14 WIPP accident are problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The waste barrel involved in the accident was sent from LANL to WIPP. LANL staff approved the switch from an inorganic clay absorbent to an organic material in September 2013. That switch is believed to be one of the causes of the February 14 accident. LANL also approved the use of a neutraliser that manufacturers warned shouldn’t be mixed with certain chemicals.[10]

A September 30 report by the DOE’s Office of Inspector General identifies “several major deficiencies in LANL’s procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed” to the February 14 WIPP accident.[11]

The report states:

“Of particular concern, not all waste management procedures at LANL were properly vetted through the established procedure revision process nor did they conform to established environmental requirements.

“In our view, immediate action is necessary to ensure that these matters are addressed and fully resolved before TRU [transuranic] waste operations are resumed, or, for that matter, before future mixed radioactive hazardous waste operations are initiated.

“In particular, we noted that:

  • Despite specific direction to the contrary, LANL made a procedural change to its existing waste procedures that did not conform to technical guidance provided by the Department for the processing of nitrate salt waste; and
  • Contractor officials failed to ensure that changes to waste treatment procedures were properly documented, reviewed and approved, and that they incorporated all environmental requirements for TRU waste processing. These weaknesses led to an environment that permitted the introduction of potentially incompatible materials to TRU storage drums. Although yet to be finally confirmed, this action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications.”

WIPP failings

The February 14 accident has shone a light on multiple problems at WIPP (discussed in greater detail in Nuclear Monitor #787).[12] A DOE-appointed Accident Investigation Board released a report into the accident in April.[13] The report identified the “root cause” of the accident to be the many failings of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the WIPP site, and DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office. The report criticised their “failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard. The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed / ineffective recognition and response to the release.”

The Accident Investigation Board report states that personnel did not adequately recognise, categorise, or classify the emergency and did not implement adequate protective actions in a timely manner. It further noted that there is a lack of a questioning attitude at WIPP; a reluctance to bring up and document issues; an acceptance and normalisation of degraded equipment and conditions; and a reluctance to report issues to management, indicating a chilled work environment.

Trento said: “The report has a familiar litany and tone: Ignored warnings from the Defense Facilities Board, lack of DOE contractor supervision, and a missing safety culture. There are hundreds of similar reports about the Savannah River Site, LANL, Oak Ridge, Hanford and other DOE national laboratories and sensitive national security sites. The Department of Energy is in serious trouble.”[6]

A US Environmental Protection Agency review of air testing at WIPP in February and March found discrepancies in recorded times and dates of sample collections, flawed calculation methods, conflicting data and missing documents. It also found that WIPP managers sometimes said air samples contained no detectable levels of radiation when measurable levels were present.[14]

Compromised response to the accident

A degraded safety culture was responsible for the accident, and the same failings inevitably compromised the response to the accident. Among other problems:[4,6]

  • The DOE contractor could not easily locate plutonium waste canisters because the DOE did not install an upgraded computer system to track the waste inside WIPP.
  • The lack of an underground video surveillance system made it impossible to determine if a waste container had been breached until long after the accident. A worker inspection team did not enter the underground caverns until April 4 − seven weeks after the accident.
  • The WIPP computerised Central Monitoring System has not been updated to reflect the current underground configuration of underground vaults with waste containers.
  • 12 out of 40 phones did not work so emergency communications could not reach all parts of WIPP in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
  • WIPP’s ventilation and filtration system did not prevent radiation reaching the surface, due to neglect.
  • The emergency response moved in slow motion. The first radiation alarm sounded at 11.14pm. Not until 9.34am did managers order workers on the surface of the site to move to a safe location.

Everything that was supposed to happen, didn’t. Everything that wasn’t supposed to happen, did.


1. Southwest Research and Information Center, 12 Sept 2014, ‘WIPP Radiation Release‘.

2. Laura Zuckerman / Reuters, 30 June 2014, ‘Scientists unable to recreate chemical reaction suspected in New Mexico radiation leak‘.

3. Alex Jacobs, 1 Oct 2014, ‘Radiation Leak Linked to Los Alamos; Do We Really Want Biological Agents There?

4. Ralph Vartabedian, 24 Aug 2014, ‘Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery‘.

5. Matthew Wald, 29 Oct 2014, ‘In U.S. Cleanup Efforts, Accident at Nuclear Site Points to Cost of Lapses‘.

6. Joseph Trento, 5 June 2014, ‘Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster‘.

7. Department of Energy, 30 Sept 2014, ‘Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan‘.

8. Caty Enders, 30 Sept 2014, ‘Congress pushes nuclear expansion despite accidents at weapons lab‘.

9. Rebecca Bell, 2 Nov 2014, ‘Nuclear waste must be out of sight, but not out of mind‘.

10. Staci Matlock, 2 Sept 2014, ‘Review, relabeling of LANL waste raises questions about scope of problem‘.

11. DOE Office of Inspector General, 30 Sept 2014, ‘Remediation of Selected Transuranic Waste Drums at Los Alamos National Laboratory − Potential Impact on the Shutdown of the Department’s Waste Isolation Plant‘.

12. ‘Fire and leaks at the world’s only deep geological waste repository‘, 6 June 2014, Nuclear Monitor #787.

13. DoE ‘Radiological Release Accident Investigation Report‘.

14. Laura Zuckerman / Reuters, 22 Aug 2014, ‘Air Testing Lapse At New Mexico Nuclear Waste Dump Blamed On Staff Vacancy‘.

One deep underground dump, one dud

Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015

There is only one deep underground dump (DUD) for nuclear waste anywhere in the world, and it’s a dud. The broad outline of this dud DUD story is simple and predictable: over a period of 10−15 years, high standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA, is a burial site for long-lived intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program. More than 171,000 waste drums have been stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 metres) underground since WIPP opened in 1999.

Earl Potter, a lawyer who represented Westinghouse, WIPP’s first operating contractor, said: “At the beginning, there was an almost fanatical attention to safety. I’m afraid the emphasis shifted to looking at how quickly and how inexpensively they could dispose of this waste.”1

Likewise, Rick Fuentes, president of the Carlsbad chapter of the United Steelworkers union, said: “In the early days, we had to prove to the stakeholders that we could operate this place safely for both people and the environment. After time, complacency set in. Money didn’t get invested into the equipment and the things it should have.”1

Before WIPP opened, sceptical locals were invited to watch experiments to assure them how safe the facility would be. Waste containers were dropped from great heights onto metal spikes, submerged in water and rammed by trains.1 Little did they know that a typo and kitty litter would be the undoing of WIPP.

On 14 February 2014, a drum rupture spread contaminants through about one-third of the underground caverns and tunnels, up the exhaust shaft, and into the outside environment. Twenty-two people were contaminated with low-level radioactivity.

A Technical Assessment Team convened by the US Department of Energy (DoE) has recently released a report into the February 2014 accident.2 The report concludes that just one drum was the source of radioactive contamination, and that the drum rupture resulted from internal chemical reactions.

Chemically incompatible contents in the drum − nitrate salt residues, organic sorbent and an acid neutralization agent − supported heat-generating chemical reactions which led to the creation of gases within the drum. The build-up of gases displaced the drum lid, venting radioactive material and hot matter that further reacted with the air or other materials outside the drum to cause the observed damage.

Kitty litter

The problems began at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where the drum was packed. One of the problems at LANL was the replacement of inorganic absorbent with an organic absorbent − kitty litter. Carbohydrates in the kitty litter provided fuel for a chemical reaction with metal nitrate salts being disposed of.

The switch to kitty litter took effect on 1 August 2012. LANL staff were explicitly directed to “ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” when packaging drums of nitrate salts. LANL’s use of organic kitty litter defied clear instructions from WIPP to use an inorganic absorbent.3

Why switch from inorganic absorbent to organic kitty litter? The most likely explanation is that the problem originated with a typo in notes from a meeting at LANL about how to package “difficult” waste for shipment to WIPP − and the subsequent failure of anyone at LANL to correct the error. In email correspondence, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, said: “General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught.”3

LANL officials have since acknowledged several violations of its Hazardous Waste Facility Permit including the failure to follow proper procedures in making the switch to organic litter, and the lack of follow-up on waste that tests showed to be highly acidic.4

Ongoing risks

The heat generated by the rupture of drum #68660 may have destabilized up to 55 other drums that were in close proximity. A June 2014 report by LANL staff based at WIPP said the heat “may have dried out some of the unreacted oxidizer-organic mixtures increasing their potential for spontaneous reaction. The dehydration of the fuel-oxidizer mixtures caused by the heating of the drums is recognized as a condition known to increase the potential for reaction.”5

The Albuquerque Journal reported on March 15 that 368 drums with waste comparable to drum #68660 are stored underground at WIPP − 313 in Panel 6, and 55 in Room 7 of Panel 7, the same room as drum #68660. WIPP operators are trying to isolate areas considered to be at risk with chain links, brattice cloth to restrict air flow, mined salt buffers and steel bulkheads. Efforts to shut off particular rooms and panels have been delayed and complicated by radiological contamination, limitations on the number of workers and equipment that can be used due to poor ventilation, and months of missed maintenance that followed the February 2014 accident.6

An Associated Press report states that since September 2012, LANL packed up to 5,565 drums with organic kitty litter. Of particular concern are 16 drums with highly acidic contents as well as nitrate salts. Of those 16 drums, 11 are underground at WIPP (one of them is drum #68660), and the other five are in temporary storage at a private waste facility in Andrews, Texas.4

Freedom of Information revelations

The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper has revealed further details about problems before and after the February 2014 accident, based on material from a Freedom of Information Act request.3

The New Mexican reports that LANL workers came across a batch of waste that was highly acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. A careful review of treatment options should have followed, but instead LANL and its contractors took shortcuts, adding acid neutralizer as well as kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The wrong neutralizer was used, exacerbating the problem.3

One of these waste drums was #68660. Documents accompanying the drum from LANL to WIPP made no mention of the high acidity or the neutralizer, and they said that it contained an inorganic absorbent.3

The decision to take shortcuts was likely motivated by pressure to meet a deadline to remove waste from an area at LANL considered vulnerable to fire. Meeting the deadline would have helped LANL contractors’ extend their lucrative contracts to package waste at LANL and transport it to WIPP.3

For two years preceding the February 2014 incident, LANL refused to allow inspectors conducting annual audits for the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) inside the facility where waste was treated, saying the auditors did not have appropriate training to be around radioactive waste. The NMED did not insist on gaining access because, in the words of a departmental spokesperson, it was “working on higher priority duties at the time that mandated our attention.”3

There were further lapses after the drum rupture. The New Mexican reported:

“Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste − even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence − and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.”3

Several months after the rupture of drum #68660, an LANL chemist discovered that the contents of the drum matched those of a patented explosive. Personnel at WIPP were not informed of the potential for an explosive reaction for nearly another week − and they only learned about the problem after a DoE employee leaked a copy of the chemist’s memo to a colleague in Carlsbad the night before a planned entry into the room that held the ruptured drum. That planned entry was cancelled. Workers in protective suits entered the underground area several days later to collect samples.3

“I am appalled that LANL didn’t provide us this information,” Dana Bryson from DoE’s Carlsbad Field Office wrote in an email when she learned of the memo.3

The DoE employee who first alerted WIPP personnel to the threat was reprimanded by the DoE’s Los Alamos Site Office for sharing the information.3


Inevitably the clean-up has faced problems due to radioactive contamination in the underground panels and tunnels, and delays in routine underground maintenance because of the contamination. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on some of these problems:

“In October, when a fan was tested for the first time since the accident, it kicked up low levels of radioactive materials that escaped from the mine. Waste drums that normally would have been permanently disposed of within days of their arrival at WIPP instead were housed in an above-ground holding area for months and leaked harmful but nonradioactive vapors that sickened four workers. A chunk of the cavern’s ceiling crashed to the ground after the contamination delayed for months the routine bolting that would have stabilized the roof.”1

Another problem is that workers are entering underground areas that are not being monitored for carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. Monitoring of these compounds, a condition of WIPP’s permit from the state of New Mexico, has not been taking place since February 2014 because of limited access to contaminated underground areas.5

Don Hancock from the Southwest Research and Information Center said:

“They have no intention of starting to do the volatile organic compound monitoring in the underground at least until January of 2016. They fully intend to keep sending workers into the underground with no intention of following this requirement. It’s in violation of the permit, and the Environment Department should say so.”5


The NMED has fined the DoE US$54 million (€49.2m). The Department identified 13 violations at WIPP, and imposed penalties of US$17.7 million (€16.1m). The Department identified 24 violations at LANL, and imposed penalties of US$36.6 million (€33.3m).7 The DoE is appealing the fines.8

The DoE says that any state fines it pays for the WIPP accident will come from money appropriated to clean up nuclear weapons sites in New Mexico. A 2016 budget year summary presented in February by DoE’s Office of Environmental Management says: “Any fines and penalties assessed on the EM [environmental management] program would be provided by cleanup dollars, resulting in reduced funding for cleanup activities.”8

NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn responded:

“Essentially, DoE is threatening to punish states by doing less cleanup work if states attempt to hold it accountable for violating federal and state environmental laws. States like New Mexico welcome federal facilities into our communities with the understanding that these facilities will respect the health and safety of our citizens by complying with federal and state laws.”8

The NMED is working on a new compliance order that could include fines of more than US$100 million (€91.1m). Flynn said:

“We’ve indicated all along that if DoE is willing to take accountability for the events that caused the release and work with the state then we’d be willing to release them from any further liability at Los Alamos and WIPP. If DoE is not willing to take accountability for what’s occurred, then they are going to face significant additional penalties.”9

A February 22 editorial in the Albuquerque Journal states:

“It would behoove the DoE to quit poisoning the well when it doesn’t have another option for disposing of this kind of waste underground. … So the DOE should start paying up and playing fair with the only game in town.”10

Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group said that an increase in weapons spending proposed by the Obama administration would pay “all the NMED-proposed fines a few times over.”8

Clean-up costs

Costs associated with the February 2014 accident include clean-up costs, fines, and costs associated with managing the backlog of waste at other sites until it can be sent to WIPP. Total costs will be at least US$500 million (€455m).1

WIPP is unlikely to be fully operational until at least 2018 according to federal Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “We are targeting 2018 but I have to admit that that remains a little uncertain; the key project is the new ventilation system and that is still undergoing engineering analysis,” Moniz said in February.

Don Hancock doubts that the 2018 timeline can be met. Salt mines exist across the world, he said, but reopening a contaminated salt mine following a radiological release is unprecedented and the government has no model to follow.11

Earl Potter, the former Westinghouse lawyer with a long association with WIPP, told the New Mexican that he doubted whether WIPP could continue if another radiation leak happened during the recovery process. “We can survive one,” he said, “but two, I don’t think so.”1


1. Patrick Malone, 14 Feb 2015, ‘Repository’s future uncertain, but New Mexico town still believes’,

2. Technical Assessment Team, March 2015, ‘Investigation of Incident at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’


Full report:

3. Patrick Malone, 15 Nov 2014, ‘LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak’,

4. Jeri Clausing / Associated Press, 4 July 2014, ‘U.S. lab admits violating nuke-waste permit’,

5. Patrick Malone, 29 Nov 2014, ‘Emails raise questions about risks to WIPP workers sent underground’,

6. Lauren Villagran, 15 March 2015, ‘Roof collapses pose safety risk for workers at WIPP’,

7. WNN, 8 Dec 2014, ‘Fines follow WIPP incidents’,

8. Mark Oswald, 20 Feb 2015, ‘DOE says any fines for WIPP leak will come from clean-up money’,

9. 10 Feb 2015, ‘New Mexico Considers More Fines Over Nuke Leak’,

10. Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board, 22 Feb 2015, ‘Editorial: Balking at fines won’t help DOE reach a nuke solution’,

11. Meg Mirshak, 24 March 2015, ‘New Mexico group doubts WIPP repository will reopen by deadline, leaving waste stranded at Savannah River Site’,

Critique of the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

December 2015

Written by Dr Jim Green and Dr Philip White on behalf of the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia.

Royal Commission vs Community Permission: Environment groups assess performance of SA nuclear Royal Commission

Media Release, 17 December 2015

National and state environment groups have today released an assessment of the state Royal Commission into the nuclear industry in SA. The report – commissioned by Conservation SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth Australia – looks at the Commission’s progress since its surprise unveiling by Premier Jay Weatherill ten months ago.

The report raises serious concerns about the Royal Commission, from the unrepresentative and unbalanced composition of the Expert Advisory Committee, conflicts of interest, the Royal Commission’s unwillingness to correct factual errors, to a repeated pattern of pro-nuclear claims being uncritically accepted and promoted.

“The nuclear industry embodies unique, complex and long lasting safety, security, environmental and public health challenges,” said Conservation SA Chief Executive Craig Wilkins. “The sector lacks a secure social license and it is imperative that any consideration of an expansion of the industry is predicated on the highest standards of evidence, rigour, transparency and inclusion. Sadly this report shows these standards are not being reflected in the current Royal Commission.”

The Royal Commission has been criticised by civil society groups including environmental, public health and Aboriginal organisations for its restricted processes and limited information flows.

“Unlike most Royal Commissions this one was not a response to a pressing public issue, but rather it is a calculated political initiative with a pro-nuclear agenda,” said ACF nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney. “As a result the Commission looks less like an objective risk-benefit analysis and more an industry feasibility study. Environment groups and others will continue to closely track this deficient process.”

The Royal Commission is set to make an interim report in February 2016 with a final report due no later than 6 May 2016.

“We are concerned about skewed and inaccurate information and assumptions, especially in relation to nuclear growth and reactor longevity and so-called small modular reactors,” said Friends of the Earth Australia’s Dr Jim Green, a co-author of the report. “The Royal Commission praises the United Arab Emirates for the speed of its nuclear power program without making any mention of the elephant in the room: undemocratic countries can build reactors more quickly than democratic countries. Statements by the Royal Commission regarding the impact of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters are incorrect – and the list goes on.”

The groups have called for an expanded Advisory Committee, increased Aboriginal access to information and decision points and dedicated studies into the potential for growth in SA’s renewable energy sector as important steps to bring some much needed balance into the Commission’s deliberations.

A Critique of the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

December 2015

Written by Dr Jim Green and Dr Philip White on behalf of the Conservation Council of SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia.

1. Origins of the Royal Commission

2. Royal Commission processes

2.1 EDO(SA) submission

2.2 Issues Papers

2.3 Overseas Visits and Public Sessions

2.4 Submissions

2.5 Commissioned studies and flawed assumptions

3. Composition of the Royal Commission

3.1 A creeping bias

3.2 Generation IV nuclear concepts

3.3 Expert Advisory Committee

3.4 Conflicts of interest

4. Aboriginal People and the Royal Commission

5. Conclusions and Recommendations

1. Origins of the Royal Commission

In March 2015 South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced a state based Royal Commission into the nuclear industry. The announcement surprised many. Unlike most Royal Commissions, it was not a response to a salient public issue. It appears rather that it was a calculated political initiative that resulted from non-transparent lobbying by a small number of people with a pro-nuclear agenda.[1] Consequently the Royal Commission has been framed not as an objective risk/benefit analysis but rather as a feasibility study.

The pre-emptive preclusion of any possibility of recommendations to reduce SA’s role in uranium mining − both in statements by the Premier and in the wording of the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference − is indicative of a bias that permeates the Royal Commission. That preclusion is objectionable. SA’s uranium industry is in great need of a comprehensive risk/benefit inquiry for reasons discussed in detail in the joint submission to the Royal Commission by Conservation SA, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Australia.[2]

2. Royal Commission processes

2.1 EDO (SA) submission

The submission to the Royal Commission by the Environmental Defenders Office (SA) provides a useful summary of issues, problems and possible solutions regarding the Royal Commission’s processes.

The EDO(SA) pointed to three issues that cast doubt upon the Commission’s ability to fulfil its mandate to “undertake an independent and comprehensive investigation into South Australia’s participation in four areas of activity that form part of the nuclear fuel cycle”, namely:

  • the Commission’s failure to minimise the procedural barriers for community members to make submissions.
  • the Commission’s failure to provide resourcing for community participation in the Royal Commission.
  • the Commission’s failure to entrench, in its processes, international best practice in regard to meaningful community stakeholder participation.

Consequently, the EDO(SA) recommended a number of initiatives that would place Australia at the forefront of “community stakeholder participation” best practice, namely:

  • Simplification of the Royal Commission consultation processes;
  • Resourcing of independent information, training and advice services to community stakeholders in the context of both the Royal Commission and ongoing community participation under legislation and regulation; and
  • Legislative and regulatory reform in regard to nuclear activity related decisions to provide greater community access to information, greater opportunities for community comment and community appeal and judicial review rights.

2.2 Issues Papers

The Royal Commission prepared four Issues Papers based on the Commission’s Terms of Reference. In line with the feasibility study remit set out in the ToR, the four Issues Papers are framed in terms of overcoming obstacles. They are written as if there were no fundamental ethical issues involved or requiring consideration.

The Issues Papers each contain a list of questions, but the format of the questions omits a key component. They jump straight from asking if there are any obstacles to expanding South Australia’s role in nuclear fuel cycle activities to how to overcome those obstacles, without adequate or objective consideration of whether it is desirable or appropriate to engage in the activities in the first place.

While the questions in the Issues Papers allow some room for responding in other than narrow scientific and economic terms, the assumptions that underpin the process are not neutral. The thrust is on how to overcome any lack of public confidence, rather than respecting that there might be good reasons for the lack of confidence and that this lack of confidence might of itself be grounds for not proceeding.

Opinions of official organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Nuclear Association (WNA) are treated as non-controversial, even though these organisations are well-known promoters of nuclear energy. In the case of the IAEA, Article 2 of its Statute explicitly specifies that its mandate is to promote nuclear energy.[3] Critical texts, even highly regarded empirical texts such as the World Nuclear Industry Status Report[4], are not cited.[5]

It is beyond the scope of this paper to detail all the contested and inaccurate statements in the Royal Commission’s Issues Papers. Suffice it to note one important example: the casualties from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Issues Paper 3 are grossly understated. Issues Paper 3 refers only to deaths of ‘operators and emergency service personnel’, without referring to the thousands of additional mortalities estimated to arise as a result of radiation exposure. The very lowest of these estimates comes from UN agencies, who estimate up to 4,000 fatal cancers among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations (emergency workers from 1986−1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas) and an additional 5,000 deaths among populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.[6] Other scientific studies − including studies published in peer-reviewed scientific literature − estimate tens of thousands of cancer fatalities.[7]

This one case highlights the Commission’s disturbing pattern of not reflecting or acknowledging the contest that exists in relation to many nuclear impacts, operations and policies.

2.3 Overseas Visits and Public Sessions

The Royal Commission can be commended for seeking out not just nuclear proponents but also nuclear critics in some of the countries it visited. However, the overwhelming majority of people interviewed have been nuclear proponents.[8]

Likewise, many more nuclear proponents than opponents have been invited to participate in the public hearings (called Public Sessions) held in Australia. SA and national environment groups contributed a 248-page joint submission[9] with 793 footnotes yet our request to participate in a Public Session was twice rejected by the Royal Commissioner. The Medical Association for Prevention of War[10] has an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge on radiation and health issues yet its request to participate in a Public Session was rejected by the Royal Commissioner.

2.4 Submissions

In order to make a valid submission, the Royal Commission required that an affidavit be signed and witnessed by a JP. This unnecessary burden undoubtedly discouraged many ordinary citizens, particularly those in regional or remote areas, from making submissions. It was also a potential barrier to people from overseas from making submissions.

The Royal Commissioner said that the reason for this requirement was to enable him to treat the information as evidence,[11] but this is an unconvincing argument. The nature of this Royal Commission (being a feasibility study, not an inquiry into legal matters such as crime and corruption) is not such that legalistic evidentiary requirements are necessary. It appears that, as the Royal Commissioner himself acknowledged during a press conference on 24 July 2015, the real reason for this requirement was to prevent ‘repeat’ submissions (i.e. identical submissions from many people).[12] It was an over-reaction to such submissions made in response to the call for public comments on the draft Terms of Reference. In fact, there is no reason why such submissions should not be accepted. They are a legitimate expression of interest and concern about the issues and, as such, should be taken into account.

Witnessed submissions have been published on the Royal Commission’s website. Unwitnessed ones have not, even when people submitting them made the required statements of factuality and authorship.

2.5 Commissioned studies: unbalanced and unhelpful

Even a cursory reading of Royal Commission literature regarding the studies it has commissioned[13] reveals implausible assumptions. We note only two in this report. Numerous other implausible assumptions would be noted if there was any reasonable likelihood that these would be rectified; however we have no such confidence.

Firstly, studies are being conducted on the assumption of a 37% increase in global nuclear power capacity between 2014 and 2030.[14] That is an average of high and low projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the IEA has a track record of overestimating nuclear growth. So does the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To its credit, the IAEA has published information assessing the accuracy of its past predictions of nuclear growth.[15] Unsurprisingly, the IAEA’s ‘high’ projections are always too high and often absurd. The IAEA’s middle/reference projections are also too high, sometimes by a wide margin. The most striking aspect of the IAEA’s self-analysis is that even its ‘low’ projections are usually too high − by 13% on average.

The low projections from the IEA[16] and the IAEA[17] are for a continuation of the past 10-20 years of stagnation.[18] That would be a reasonable assumption to guide the studies commissioned by the Royal Commission. The 37% growth figure is not a reasonable assumption.

The Royal Commission failed to respond to these simple and reasonable questions:

1. What is the justification for using that [37%] assumption regarding nuclear growth?
2. What other predictions (if any) have been considered?
3. Have you looked at the International Energy Agency’s past predictions for nuclear growth and assessed their accuracy / inaccuracy?

A second implausible assumption underpinning commissioned research is for a 60 year operating life for power reactors.[19] It is conceivable that, in time, some reactors will reach that lifespan however it is not a credible basis for an average figure. Of the 162 power reactors that have been permanently shut down, less than one-third (52/162) operated for more than 30 years and less than one in eight (19/162) operated for more than 40 years.[20] The average lifespan of all 162 shut-down reactors was about 25 years[21], less than half the figure being used by the Royal Commission’s consultants. The Commission’s credibility and impartiality have been undermined by such deficiencies, especially given the contested nature of this policy arena.

3. Composition of the Royal Commission

3.1 A creeping bias

Speaking in November 2014 at Flinders University, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce said: “I’m not just an advocate for a nuclear industry. I’m an advocate for looking at everything that we do in this state to see what might be a sustainable opportunity for the future.”

Two points arise. Firstly, the November 2014 statement sits uncomfortably with the Royal Commissioner’s March 2015 statement: “I have not been an advocate and never have been an advocate of the nuclear industry.”[22]

Secondly, the 2014 statement refers to “everything that we do in this state to see what might be a sustainable opportunity for the future.” The Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference include consideration of “the relative advantages and disadvantages of generating electricity from nuclear fuels as opposed to other sources.” The Royal Commission could be pursued in such a way as to thoroughly investigate opportunities to develop renewable energy sources (and industries) in SA in addition to nuclear opportunities. That would be commensurate with the Royal Commissioner’s 2014 statement, and it would be commensurate with the Terms of Reference of the Royal Commission. While the Royal Commission has not ignored renewable energy sources, they run a poor second (or perhaps a distant last) to the focus on matters nuclear. One clear example of this is that none of the research projects put out to tender address renewables.

At regular intervals a creeping bias is evident in statements from the Royal Commission. A few examples are noted here.

The Royal Commissioner said that some objections raised by nuclear critics are “overheated”.[23] Why not also note that some of the claims made by nuclear proponents are overheated?

A 30 July 2015 Royal Commission media release, titled ‘United Arab Emirates Model Impresses Nuclear Royal Commission’, says that the UAE expects to complete building its first nuclear power plants in the space of 10 years.[24] Leaving aside the possibility (or likelihood) that the target will not be met, the media release makes no mention of the elephant in the room: undemocratic states can build reactors more quickly than democratic states. Why not balance the UAE media release with another noting that most reactor projects around the world are behind schedule[25], that there is a clear global trend towards increasing construction times[26], that delays and cost escalations with new reactor projects in democratic countries are commonplace[27] and in some cases mind-boggling[28], and that only two ‘newcomer’ countries are actually building reactors while a greater number of countries are phasing out nuclear power[29]?

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Royal Commissioner said that Canada is the best role model for Australia, pointing to economic benefits of $6 billion in annual turnover from its nuclear industry and the 60,000 people employed.[30] But there are precious few constraints on uranium mining in Australia − and precious few jobs (987 jobs according to IBISWorld’s March 2015 market report[31], less than 0.01% of all jobs in Australia). There are some jobs in conversion and fuel fabrication in Canada[32], but scant possibility of these nuclear fuel cycle industries being economically viable in Australia even if there were no political or legal constraints.[33] Most of the jobs in Canada’s nuclear industry are in the nuclear power sector. Megawatt-hour for megawatt-hour, there are comparable jobs in fossil fuel based electricity generation and more jobs in renewable electricity generation. So in what sense is Canada’s nuclear industry a role model for Australia?

The Advertiser reported that the Royal Commissioner “said it was important to note that, according to World Health Organisation figures, there were 16,000 people killed by the tsunami and seven killed at Fukushima − none due to radiation exposure.”[34] But in fact, the World Health Organisation report concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).[35]

3.2 Generation IV nuclear concepts

On two separate occasions the Royal Commissioner has made inaccurate comments regarding ‘Generation IV’ nuclear technology, specifically in relation to fusion and small modular reactors. We raise these issues not as an exercise in point-scoring, but because of our concern that the report of the Royal Commission will be similarly wide of the mark with respect to Generation IV concepts.

In 2014, before his appointment to the Royal Commission, Rear Admiral Scarce said in a Flinders University guest lecture:[36]

“Technology is changing so rapidly that we should be actively monitoring progress rather than keeping a closed mind on the subject. For example, in the Unites States work is well underway on the development of a reactor to harness nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun. There are reports that the reactor would be small enough to fit in a truck and generate enough energy to light 80,000 homes. It would burn less than 20 kilograms of fuel in a year, producing waste that is “orders of magnitudes less” than the ash and sludge spewed from coal plants. This technology, which may be less than a decade away, could release more energy than current commercial units using nuclear fission, without the risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns.”

In fact, claims[37] by Lockheed Martin about its proposed ‘compact fusion reactor’ were met with skepticism and even ridicule by scientists. For example, Matthew Hole, an academic and Australia’s representative on the IAEA International Fusion Research Council, said:

“This isn’t enough information to substantiate a credible program of research into the development of fusion power, or a credible claim for the delivery of a revolutionary power source in the next decade. … So far, its [Lockheed Martin’s] lack of willingness to engage with the scientific community suggests that it may be more interested in media attention than scientific development.”[38]

Even the World Nuclear Association poured cold water on Lockheed Martin’s claims, noting that the ‘compact fusion reactor’ concept remains “undemonstrated” and that Lockheed Martin has itself acknowledged that it is “searching for partners” to help advance the technology.[39] Work is certainly not “well underway” as the Royal Commissioner claimed. Nor is there any credible prospect that such developments “may be less than a decade away” as the Royal Commissioner claimed.

The assertion that nuclear technology “is changing so rapidly” is also wide of the mark. Generation IV reactors appear to be always a generation away. The International Atomic Energy Agency states that (emphasis added): “Experts expect that the first Generation IV fast reactor demonstration plants and prototypes will be in operation by 2030 to 2040.”[40]

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Royal Commissioner said that there have been rapid advances with small modular reactors (SMR), they are about four to five years away from being commercially available, they are safer than conventional reactors, and the cost is likely to be less than 10% of the cost of large-scale reactors.[41] However:

  • Only three SMRs are under construction according to the World Nuclear Association.[42]
  • Interest in SMRs is on the wane. Thus Thomas W. Overton, associate editor of POWER magazine, wrote in a September 2014 article: “At the graveyard wherein resides the “nuclear renaissance” of the 2000s, a new occupant appears to be moving in: the small modular reactor (SMR). … The SMR concept disdains … economies of scale in favor of others: large-scale standardized manufacturing that will churn out dozens, if not hundreds, of identical plants, each of which would ultimately produce cheaper kilowatt-hours than large one-off designs. It’s an attractive idea. But it’s also one that depends on someone building that massive supply chain, since none of it currently exists. … That money would presumably come from customer orders − if there were any.”[43]
  • No company or country is seriously considering building the massive supply chain that is at the very essence of the concept of SMRs (mass, modular construction).
  • Even SMR boosters struggle to put a positive spin on the current situation. Introducing an SMR report by Nuclear Energy Insider, lead author Kerr Jeferies said: “From the outside it will seem that SMR development has hit a brick wall, but to lump the sector’s difficulties together with the death of the so-called nuclear renaissance would be missing the point.”[44] The report points to a “pervasive sense of pessimism” resulting from abandoned and scaled-back SMR programs.
  • Glenn George from KPMG said: “I think that investors are in a wait-and-see mode regarding development of the SMR market. … Investors will want to see SMR learning-curve effects, but a chicken-and-egg situation is at work: Decreased cost comes from production of multiple units over time, yet such production requires investment in the first place.”[45]
  • In the absence of a mass supply chain, costs are likely to be exorbitant. Of the three SMRs under construction, two are esoteric designs (Russia’s floating reactor and China’s pebble bed prototype), and cost information is difficult to come by. That leaves just one SMR based on conventional reactor technology − Argentina’s 25 MWe CAREM, the estimated construction cost of which equates to approximately A$20 billion / 1000 MWe.
  • Steve Kidd, former World Nuclear Industry Association executive, notes: “Even if the costs of construction can be cut with series production, the potential O&M [operating and maintenance] costs are a concern. A substantial part of these are fixed, irrespective of the size of reactor.”[46]
  • Ron Cameron of UK Trade and Investment recently noted that cost increases for some large reactors have been “disappointing to put it mildly. First of a kind (FOAK) reactors have many difficulties, SMRs will too.”[47]
  • Dr Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, points to some economic constraints: “SMR technology will suffer disproportionately from material cost increases because they use more material per MW of capacity. Higher costs will result from: lost economies of scale; higher operating costs; and higher decommissioning costs. Cost estimates that assume quick design approval and deployment are certain to prove to be wildly optimistic.”[48]
  • There is no reason to believe that SMRs will be safer than conventional reactors. Academics M.V. Ramana and Zia Mian state in their detailed analysis of SMRs: “Proponents of the development and large scale deployment of small modular reactors suggest that this approach to nuclear power technology and fuel cycles can resolve the four key problems facing nuclear power today: costs, safety, waste, and proliferation. Nuclear developers and vendors seek to encode as many if not all of these priorities into the designs of their specific nuclear reactor. The technical reality, however, is that each of these priorities can drive the requirements on the reactor design in different, sometimes opposing, directions. Of the different major SMR designs under development, it seems none meets all four of these challenges simultaneously. In most, if not all designs, it is likely that addressing one of the four problems will involve choices that make one or more of the other problems worse.”[49]

In short, the Royal Commissioner’s claims regarding SMRs do not withstand scrutiny.

Given the aforementioned experience with fusion and SMRs, it seems likely that the report of the Royal Commission will give a glowing − and inaccurate − assessment of so-called ‘integral fast reactors’ (IFR) that are heavily promoted in a number of submissions to the Royal Commission. A strident IFR advocate − Barry Brook − was appointed to the Expert Advisory Committee. Brook’s promotion of IFRs has more basis in enthusiasm than evidence and includes the unfounded claim that IFRs could not produce weapons-useable material − a claim flatly contradicted by a leading US scientist with direct experience working on an IFR prototype.[50]

The Royal Commission was strongly encouraged to seek input from Dr David Lochbaum from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists − one of a small number of independent scientists with a deep understanding of IFR technology. The Royal Commission spoke to Dr Lochbaum during an overseas visit – but remarkably did not ask him about IFRs! We note that the Royal Commission has sought some independent advice about IFRs[51] but on the basis of the previous uncritical acceptance of false claims regarding fusion and SMRs, there remains a high probability that inaccurate and exaggerated claims about IFRs may well be included in the Royal Commission’s interim and final reports.

3.3 Expert Advisory Committee

Membership of the Royal Commission’s five-member Expert Advisory Committee is clearly biased in favour of nuclear proponents. Three members − Barry Brook[52], Timothy Stone and John Carlson[53] − have track records as strong nuclear advocates. Mr Stone has a personal material interest in the wider nuclear debate as a non-executive director of Horizon Nuclear Power, a subsidiary of Hitachi Ltd which plans to build nuclear power plants in the UK. Only one member (Ian Lowe) is a known nuclear critic, while the other member (Leanna Read) has no known track record in the field.

The appointment of nuclear advocates to the Panel is not objectionable per se. Indeed some environmental and anti-nuclear groups recommended the appointment of John Carlson. However the numerical weighting towards nuclear proponents lacks a credible rationale and further undermines community and stakeholder confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Commission process.

No doubt there are issues where balance is illusory and subjective; one person’s balance is another’s bias. The membership of the Expert Advisory Committee is not one of those issues. The Royal Commissioner could have appointed a balanced panel; instead he chose to appoint a panel with a clear pro-nuclear bias. The Royal Commissioner has repeatedly said he is seeking to preside over a “balanced” Royal Commission.[54] While welcome in tone such statements are in contrast to the Commission’s practice.

The imbalance in the composition of the Expert Advisory Committee needs to be urgently redressed. This would be a positive initiative, especially at this time when the Royal Commission is assessing the very large amount of evidence it has received and is no doubt advancing work on the interim report to be released in February 2016.

3.4 Conflicts of interest

The Royal Commission should be commended for publishing information about the interests of its staff and advisors.[55] However, the interests listed raise further doubts on the independence of the process. Several people involved in the Royal Commission have shares or other interests in uranium and nuclear companies. The Royal Commissioner has shares in a uranium mining company. Royal Commission staff member Julian Kelly is Chief Technology Officer of Thor Energy, a Norwegian company focusing on experimenting with the use of thorium in nuclear reactors.[56] Timothy Stone, a member of the Expert Advisory Committee, has numerous interests, e.g. he is a non-executive director of Horizon Nuclear Power, director of Nuclear Risk Insurers, and co-owner of Alpha-n Infrastructure, a company promoting nuclear power.

When this issue was raised the Royal Commissioner stated: “I do not accept that the holding of small parcels of shares in a substantial corporation, such as a diversified mining company like Rio Tinto, could lead to a conclusion that the Commission is partial to one view or another. There is no way in which a finding made by the Commission could lead to any benefit being derived.”[57]

Obviously any Royal Commission recommendations to facilitate the expansion of the uranium industry would, if implemented, be likely to benefit the uranium industry and those who hold shares in uranium mining companies. It is odd to assert that any pro-nuclear findings or recommendations from the Commission would not have a benefit for companies active in the sector. This is after all the rationale underpinning the whole Commission’s Terms or Reference and process.

4. Aboriginal People and the Royal Commission

SA Premier Jay Weatherill said in March 2015: “We have a specific mandate to consult with Aboriginal communities and there are great sensitivities here. I mean we’ve had the use and abuse of the lands of the Maralinga Tjarutja people by the British when they tested their atomic weapons.”[58]

Yet the SA Government’s handling of the early stages of the Royal Commission process systematically disenfranchised Aboriginal people. The truncated timeline for providing feedback on draft Terms of Reference disadvantaged people in remote regions, people with little or no access to email and internet, and people for whom English is a second language. This was compounded when the Commission was formulated as there was no translation of the draft Terms of Reference, and a regional communications and engagement strategy was not developed or implemented.

The Premier’s powerful words have not been reflected in the Commission’s actual practice.

Aboriginal people have repeatedly expressed frustrations with the Royal Commission process. One example (of many) is the submission of the Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob:

“Why we are not satisfied with the way this Royal Commission has been conducted:

Yaiinidlha Udnyu ngawarla wanggaanggu, wanhanga Yura Ngawarla wanggaanggu? – always in English, where’s the Yura Ngawarla (our first language)?

The issues of engagement are many. To date we have found the process of engagement used by the Royal Commission to be very off putting as it’s been run in a real Udnyu (whitefella) way. Timelines are short, information is hard to access, there is no interpreter service available, and the meetings have been very poorly advertised. Engagement opportunities need to be fair and equitable (readily available to all people) and the Native Title interest is no more important than the wider community. A closed and secretive approach makes engagement difficult for the average person on the street, and near impossible for Aboriginal people to participate.”

The Royal Commission has made some efforts to overcome its early deficiencies − such as the appointment of a (non-Aboriginal) regional engagement officer and some limited efforts to translate written material. However it would be fair to summarise the attitudes of very many Aboriginal people by saying that the Royal Commission’s efforts have been too little, too late.[59] The following ABC article addresses some of these concerns:

SA nuclear royal commission: Indigenous voices lost because of ‘difficult’ JP requirement, community leader says

Nicola Gage, ABC, 22 May 2015,

Indigenous voices will not be heard in South Australia’s royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle because the process is “too difficult”, a prominent Aboriginal woman claims.

The commission is examining the potential for an expansion of SA’s role in the nuclear industry, including whether a nuclear power station or nuclear waste dump should be built.

Meetings have been held in Adelaide as well as the state’s far north, including in the APY Lands and Coober Pedy.

Karina Lester, whose father Yami was affected by nuclear testing at Maralinga in the 1950s, said residents were told they would need a Justice of the Peace (JP) to sign any submissions before they would be accepted.

She said many communities did not have a JP, making it “very difficult for people”.

“For example my father, 27 kilometres west form Marla Bore, (he) doesn’t drive, wouldn’t have a JP on hand, and would probably need to travel down to Coober Pedy,” Ms Lester said.

“But he certainly has a story to tell and certainly would love to have input into the royal commission.”

Ms Lester said a number of people at remote meetings did not speak English and she was frustrated because some, including a gathering at the Umoona community, did not include interpreters.

“I think they were a little bit confused,” she said.

“They haven’t simplified the talk to the community and straight away you will get disengagement when it’s a language that’s not understood by the general community.”

Ms Lester said many Aboriginal people had become disengaged with the process. She wanted oral submissions to be accepted to stop people walking away.

“They have a story, let them tell their story,” Ms Lester said.

“The commission needs to now find ways and means of how they can go and gather those stories.”

Conservation Council of South Australia chief executive officer Craig Wilkins said there were huge barriers stopping Aboriginal people from participating.

“Requiring a member of the public to travel to a JP and swear an oath in front of them before they can lodge a submission is a highly unusual, unnecessary and a surprising restriction that will stop people getting involved,” he said.

“If they are concerned about fake or spam submissions, all they need is for individuals to self declare and sign a coversheet.

“To be forced to swear an oath in front of a JP just to have your say is simply not necessary.”

The commission has hired a regional engagement officer to work with Aboriginal communities.

It said it would do everything in its power to ensure indigenous voices were heard.

Commission opening old wounds, community executive says

Yalata chief executive Greg Franks said discussions about the nuclear fuel cycle was opening old wounds for many people affected by the Maralinga nuclear testing.

“Every time issues come up regarding nuclear energy and in particular nuclear bombs, it is still a raw wound with many people in community, particularly the older ones,” he said.

Yami, in his 70s, claims to have been blinded from nuclear testing at Maralinga in the 1950s.

“He was out there as a young man or a young boy on country, when the black mist rolled north of where the tests took place,” Ms Lester said.

“There was a camp, people started getting very sore in their eyes, people started to get rashes on their skin.

“He lost his sight overtime from those tests so he’s now blind and we are reminded everyday on how it’s affected the family.”

Mr Franks said many Aboriginal people were confused about how to make sure their voices were heard.

“The first language of the community is Pitjantjatjara so the formal structures around having to make submissions, doing things online, formal signoffs by JPs for example, although there is one here in community, they are difficult things to do,” he said.

“They’re barriers for getting people to provide good feedback.”

Further concerns are expressed in the submission to the Royal Commission by West Mallee Protection (WMP), representing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from Ceduna:

Royal Commission Issues Paper 4.7: What are the processes that would need to be undertaken to build confidence in the community generally, or specific communities, in the design, establishment and operation of such facilities?

WMP finds this question superficial and offensive. It is a fact that many people have dedicated their time and energy to investigating and thinking about nuclear waste. It is a fact that even elderly women that made up the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – a senior Aboriginal women’s council committed years of their lives to stand up to the proposal for a low-level facility at Woomera. They didn’t do this because of previously inadequate “processes” to “build confidence” as the question suggests but because:

A) Individuals held a deep commitment to look after country and protect it from a substance known as ‘irati’ poison which stemmed from long held cultural knowledge

B) Nuclear impacts were experienced and continued to be experienced first hand by members and their families predominately from nuclear testing at Emu Fields and Maralinga but also through exploration and mining at Olympic Dam.

C) They epitomized and lived by the worldview that sustaining life for future generations is of upmost importance and that this is at odds with the dangerous and long lasting dangers of all aspects of the nuclear industry.

The insinuation that the general population or target groups such Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta or the communities in the Northern Territory that succeeded them and also fought off a nuclear dump for Muckaty were somehow deficient in their understanding of the implications and may have required “confidence building” is highly offensive.”

The Royal Commissioner said at a Public Session of the Royal Commission: “I also understand from submissions from many indigenous communities more generally the deep concerns, and in many instances, the opposition of Aboriginal people to the activities being considered by the Commission. If such activities were to go ahead, a fair, full and informed process would need to occur.”[60]

Those comments are welcome, although an informed process is no substitute for informed consent.

But what happens when the Royal Commission’s recommendations are handed to the SA Government? Presumably a continuation of the disenfranchisement seen during the public comment period for the draft Terms of Reference with scant effort to seek out the views of Aboriginal people and little reason to expect that these would be listened to and respected.

Existing nuclear industry practices in SA illustrate how Aboriginal rights and interests have been subordinated to commercial imperatives. For example the Roxby Downs Indenture Act was amended in 2011 and the amended Act retains extraordinary exemptions from Aboriginal heritage protection laws. When quizzed on this at the time a state government representative told Parliament: “BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that.”[61]

The report of the Royal Commission could draw attention to the retention of those exemptions, and it could comment critically on the failure to consult Traditional Owners. However this seems unlikely. The Royal Commission’s Issues Paper #1 incorrectly states that Aboriginal sites of significance are protected by the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988. It fails to note that under the Roxby Downs Indenture Act, BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine and some 15, 000 sq km of the surrounding Stuart Shelf are exempt from the Act.[62] In fact, those areas are not subject to the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 but BHP Billiton must instead partially comply with an earlier version of the Act − an earlier version that was never proclaimed!

When this highly significant factual error in the Royal Commission’s Issues Paper was drawn to the Royal Commissioner’s attention, he refused to correct it.[63] The Royal Commission repeatedly promotes itself as a fact and evidence-based inquiry however this reluctance to address clear errors of fact is in conflict with this positioning.

5. Conclusions and Recommendations

Rather than being a disinterested forum the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission is essentially a feasibility study to consider whether there are opportunities for new business in the nuclear field. As such, it prioritises economic considerations and industry assumptions over other considerations. It is not investigating the merits of the nuclear industry from a neutral and objective position and it has omitted or glossed over important problems in its Issues Papers. It has taken the trouble to ensure that it hears critical perspectives, but has given much more time to nuclear proponents. Furthermore, technocratic and economic perspectives have been privileged over other relevant perspectives.

The general public has been given opportunities to contribute, but at the same time unnecessary barriers have actively discouraged community engagement and participation. Although we recognise that the Royal Commission is separate from government, it has failed to meet the standards promoted in ‘Better Together: Principles of Engagement’, the South Australian Government’s key policy document on public engagement.[64]

Our organisations are disappointed that this important opportunity to advance a full community discussion around the costs and benefits of Australia’s past, current and potential future engagement in the nuclear sector appears instead to be increasing moving to advance a partisan and pre-determined outcome.

It is not too late to partially rectify some of the problems associated with the Royal Commission. For example, the Expert Advisory Committee could be expanded to redress the clear bias in the Committee as it is currently constituted, and to redress the lack of any direct Aboriginal involvement in the Royal Commission at any level (Royal Commissioner, Expert Advisory Committee, or Royal Commission staff). As mentioned (in section 3.3), expanding and balancing the Expert Advisory Committee would be a forward-looking initiative, especially at this time when the Royal Commission is assessing the very large amount of evidence it has received and has begun work on the draft report to be released in February 2016.

The SA Government needs to balance the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission with a dedicated review that further explores the states renewable energy opportunities. This could build on reports such as the State Government’s Low Carbon Economy Expert Panel report[65], and the detailed report by energy expert Dr Mark Diesendorf commissioned by the Conservation Council of SA.[66]

As the Low Carbon Economy Expert Panel noted in its November 2015 report:[67]

“Given South Australia’s abundance of wind and high solar rating, South Australia has the capacity to move to 100% renewable energy more quickly than other States and has already made significant progress in decarbonising its electricity supply utilising these advantages. Establishing a secure, low carbon energy supply can position South Australia as an attractive location for future industries needing energy in a carbon constrained world.”

There are both economic and environmental imperatives to thoroughly assess South Australia’s renewable energy potential, and to complement the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission with a comparably resourced investigation of the state’s renewable energy potential.

The nuclear industry embodies unique, complex and long lasting safety, security, environmental and public health challenges. The sector remains actively contested and lacks a secure social licence. In such a context it is imperative that any consideration of an expansion of the industry is predicated on the highest standards of evidence, rigour, transparency and inclusion. Sadly our organisations are not seeing these traits reflected in the tone and approach of the current Royal Commission.

[1] As a sceptical Whyalla resident put it: “It used to be royal commissions were held to investigate things that were done wrong, now they’re using them to justify doing the wrong thing.”


[3] The Statute of the IAEA:


[5] We identified only one reference to what could be called a critical text. That was a reference to a report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (Issues Paper 2, reference 11).

[6] Chernobyl Forum, 2005, ‘Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts’,

World Health Organization, 2006,

[7] A number of these studies are discussed at:



[10] See also MAPW’s submission to the Royal Commission.

[11] Letters received from the Royal Commissioner dated 11 June 2015 and 5 August 2015.

Statement published on the Royal Commission’s web site, ‘Response to recent media reports regarding written submission requirements’, 26 May 2015:


[12] Press Conference 24 July 2015 (from about 8:30 minutes in the following YouTube recording):


[14] 6 October 2015 Public Session,

[15] IAEA, 2007, Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power: Developments and Projections − 25 Years Past and Future’, tables 33 and 34, p.56,




[19] 6 October 2015 Public Session,, p.487












[31] IBISWorld, ‘Uranium Mining in Australia: Market Research Report’, A IBISWorld [Accessed 15 July 2015]


[33] See p.90-99 of joint NGO submission:







[40] Peter Rickwood and Peter Kaiser, 1 March 2013, IAEA Division of Public Information, ‘Fast Reactors Provide Sustainable Nuclear Power for “Thousands of Years”,










[50] Dr George Stanford notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”

[51] See for example the transcript of Dr Edwin Lyman’s 17 November 2015 discussion with the Royal Commission:




[55] Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission web site, ‘About the Commission’:

About The Commission


[57] Letter to Friends of the Earth Adelaide, 11 June 2015.


[59] Relevant submissions to the Royal Commission include the following:

Frank Young (Amata community member); Mike Williams, Mimili Community; Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara; Bobby Brown; James Brown; Campbell Law; Kaurna; Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob; Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation; Frank Young.

Submission from Representatives of Native Title Parties: Antakirinja Matu Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Corporation; Dieri Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC; lrrwanyere Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC; Narungga Nations Aboriginal Corporation; Nauo Native Title Claimants; Ngadjuri Nation Aboriginal Corporation; Yankunytjatjara Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (YNTAC); Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka Traditional Land Owners Aboriginal Corporation.

Separate Native Title Representative submission dated 10 September 2015.

[60] 12 Nov 2015 Public Session




See also:

[64] South Australian Government, Better Together: Principles of Engagement:

In fact, we believe the Royal Commission’s performance to date has been inadequate on all six of the principles in this document.


[66] Full report: click here.



James Hansen’s nuclear fantasies

James Hansen’s Generation IV nuclear fallacies and fantasies

Jim Green, 25 Aug 2017, Nuclear Monitor #849,

The two young co-founders of nuclear engineering start-up Transatomic Power were embarrassed earlier this year when their claims about their molten salt reactor design were debunked, forcing some major retractions.1

The claims of MIT nuclear engineering graduate students – Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie – were trumpeted in MIT’s Technology Review under the headline, ‘What if we could build a nuclear reactor that costs half as much, consumes nuclear waste, and will never melt down?’2

The Technology Review puff-piece said Dewan “introduced new materials and a new shape that allowed her to increase power output by 30 times. As a result, the reactor is now so compact that a version large enough for a power plant can be built in a factory and shipped by rail to a plant site, which is potentially cheaper than the current practice of building nuclear reactors on site. The reactor also makes more efficient use of the energy in nuclear fuel. It can consume about one ton of nuclear waste a year, leaving just four kilograms behind. Dewan’s name for the technology: the Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor.”2

A February 2017 article in MIT’s Technology Review ‒ this one far more critical ‒ said: “Those lofty claims helped it raise millions in venture capital, secure a series of glowing media profiles (including in this publication), and draw a rock-star lineup of technical advisors.”1

MIT physics professor Kord Smith debunked a number of Transatomic’s key claims. Smith says he asked Transatomic to run a test which, he says, confirmed that “their claims were completely untrue.”1

Transatomic’s claim that the ‘Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor’ could “generate up to 75 times more electricity per ton of mined uranium than a light-water reactor” was severely downgraded to “more than twice.”1 And the company abandoned its waste-to-fuel claims and now says that a reactor based on the current design would not use waste as fuel and thus would “not reduce existing stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel”.1

Hansen’s Generation IV propaganda

Kennedy Maize wrote about Transatomic’s troubles in Power Magazine: “[T]his was another case of technology hubris, an all-to-common malady in energy, where hyperbolic claims are frequent and technology journalists all too credulous.”3 Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman said that “other start-ups with audacious claims are likely to receive similar levels of scrutiny” and that it “may have the effect of putting other nuclear energy entrepreneurs on notice that they too may get the same enhanced levels of analysis of their claims.”4

Well, yes, others making false claims about Generation IV reactor concepts might receive similar levels of scrutiny … or they might not. Arguably the greatest sin of the Transatomic founders was not that they inadvertently spread misinformation, but that they are young, and in Dewan’s case, female. Aging men seem to have a free pass to peddle as much misinformation as they like without the public shaming that the Transatomic founders have been subjected to. A case in point is climate scientist James Hansen. We’ve repeatedly drawn attention to Hansen’s nuclear misinformation in Nuclear Monitor5-9 ‒ but you’d struggle to find any critical commentary outside the environmental and anti-nuclear literature.

Hansen states that a total requirement of 115 new reactor start-ups per year to 2050 would be required to replace fossil fuel electricity generation ‒ a total of about 4,000 reactors.10 Let’s assume that Generation IV reactors do the heavy lifting, and let’s generously assume that mass production of Generation IV reactors begins in 2030. That would necessitate about 200 reactor start-ups per year from 2030 to 2050 ‒ or four every week. Good luck with that.

Moreover, the assumption that mass production of Generation IV reactors might begin in or around 2030 is unrealistic. A report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety − a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health − states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”11

Likewise, a US Government Accountability Office report on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US concluded: “Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant.”12

An analysis recently published in the peer-reviewed literature found that the US government has wasted billions of dollars on Generation IV R&D with little to show for it.13 Lead researcher Dr Ahmed Abdulla, from the University of California, said that “despite repeated commitments to non-light water reactors, and substantial investments … (more than $2 billion of public money), no such design is remotely ready for deployment today.”14


In a nutshell, Hansen and other propagandists claim that some Generation IV reactors are a triple threat: they can convert weapons-usable (fissile) material and long-lived nuclear waste into low-carbon electricity. Let’s take the weapons and waste issues in turn.

Hansen says Generation IV reactors can be made “more resistant to weapons proliferation than today’s reactors”15 and “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks”.16 But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation and are they reducing proliferation risks? In a word: No. Fast neutron reactors have been used for weapons production in the past (e.g. by France17) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. by India).

India plans to produce weapons-grade plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors.18 Compared to conventional uranium reactors, India’s plan is far worse on both proliferation and security grounds. To make matters worse, India refuses to place its fast breeder / thorium program under IAEA safeguards.19

Hansen claims that thorium-based fuel cycles are “inherently proliferation-resistant”.20 That’s garbage ‒ thorium has been used to produce fissile material (uranium-233) for nuclear weapons tests.21 Again, India’s plans provide a striking real-world refutation of Hansen’s dangerous misinformation.

Hansen states that if “designed properly”, fast neutron reactors would generate “nothing suitable for weapons”.20 What does that even mean? Are we meant to ignore actual and potential links between Generation IV nuclear technology and WMD proliferation on the grounds that the reactors weren’t built “properly”? And if we take Hansen’s statement literally, no reactors produce material suitable for weapons ‒ the fissile material must always be separated from irradiated materials ‒ in which case all reactors can be said to be “designed properly”. Hooray.

Hansen claims that integral fast reactors (IFR) ‒ a non-existent variant of fast neutron reactors ‒ “could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation”.22 That’s another dangerous falsehood.23 Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”24

Hansen acknowledges that “nuclear does pose unique safety and proliferation concerns that must be addressed with strong and binding international standards and safeguards.”10 There’s no doubting that the safeguards systems needs strengthening.25 In articles and speeches during his tenure as the Director General of the IAEA from 1997‒2009, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei said that the Agency’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to improve the system were “half-hearted”, and that the safeguards system operated on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department”.

Hansen says he was converted to the cause of Generation IV nuclear technology by Tom Blees, whose 2008 book ‘Prescription for the Planet’ argues the case for IFRs.26 But Hansen evidently missed those sections of the book where Blees argues for radically strengthened safeguards including the creation of an international strike-force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse or to divert nuclear materials. Blees also argues that “privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide” and that nuclear power must either be internationalized or banned to deal with the “shadowy threat of nuclear proliferation”.26

So what is James Hansen doing about the WMD proliferation problem and the demonstrably inadequate nuclear safeguards system? This is one of the great ironies of Hansen’s nuclear advocacy ‒ he does absolutely nothing other than making demonstrably false claims about the potential of Generation IV concepts to solve the problems, and repeatedly slagging off at organizations with a strong track record of campaigning for improvements to the safeguards system.27


Hansen claims that “modern nuclear technology can … solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently.”16 He elaborates: “Nuclear “waste”: it is not waste, it is fuel for 4th generation reactors! Current (‘slow’) nuclear reactors are lightwater reactors that ‘burn’ less than 1% of the energy in the original uranium ore, leaving a waste pile that is radioactive for more than 10,000 years. The 4th generation reactors can ‘burn’ this waste, as well as excess nuclear weapons material, leaving a much smaller waste pile with radioactive half-life measured in decades rather than millennia, thus minimizing the nuclear waste problem. The economic value of current nuclear waste, if used as a fuel for 4th generation reactors, is trillions of dollars.”28

But even if IFRs ‒ Hansen’s favored Generation IV concept ‒ worked as hoped, they would still leave residual actinides, and long-lived fission products, and long-lived intermediate-level waste in the form of reactor and reprocessing components … all of it requiring deep geological disposal. UC Berkeley nuclear engineer Prof. Per Peterson notes in an article published by the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute: “Even integral fast reactors (IFRs), which recycle most of their waste, leave behind materials that have been contaminated by transuranic elements and so cannot avoid the need to develop deep geologic disposal.”29

So if IFRs don’t obviate the need for deep geological repositories, what problem do they solve? They don’t solve the WMD proliferation problem associated with nuclear power. They would make more efficient use of finite uranium … but uranium is plentiful.

In theory, IFRs would gobble up nuclear waste and convert it into low-carbon electricity. In practice, the IFR R&D program in Idaho has left a legacy of troublesome waste. This saga is detailed in a recent article31 and a longer report32 by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior scientist Ed Lyman (see the following article in this issue of Nuclear Monitor). Lyman states that attempts to treat IFR spent fuel with pyroprocessing have not made management and disposal of the spent fuel simpler and safer, they have “created an even bigger mess”.31

Japan is about to get first-hand experience of the waste legacy associated with Generation IV reactors in light of the decision to decommission the Monju fast spectrum reactor. Decommissioning Monju has a hefty price-tag ‒ far more than for conventional light-water reactors. According to a 2012 estimate by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, decommissioning Monju will cost an estimated ¥300 billion (US$2.74bn; €2.33bn).30 That estimate includes ¥20 billion to remove spent fuel from the reactor ‒ but no allowance is made for the cost of disposing of the spent fuel, and in any case Japan has no deep geological repository to dispose of the waste.

Generation IV economics

Hansen claimed in 2012 that IFRs could generate electricity “at a cost per kW less than coal.”33,34 He was closer to the mark in 2008 when he said of IFRs: “I do not have the expertise or insight to evaluate the cost and technology readiness estimates” of IFR advocate Tom Blees and the “overwhelming impression that I get … is that Blees is a great optimist.”35

The US Government Accountability Office’s 2015 report noted that technical challenges facing SMRs and advanced reactors may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large light-water reactors or power plants using other fuels.36

A 2015 pro-nuclear puff-piece by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) arrived at the disingenuous conclusion that nuclear power is “an attractive low-carbon technology in the absence of cost overruns and with low financing costs”.37 But the IEA/NEA report made no effort to spin the economics of Generation IV nuclear concepts, stating that “generation IV technologies aim to be at least as competitive as generation III technologies … though the additional complexity of these designs, the need to develop a specific supply chain for these reactors and the development of the associated fuel cycles will make this a challenging task.”37

The late Michael Mariotte commented on the IEA/NEA report: “So, at best the Generation IV reactors are aiming to be as competitive as the current − and economically failing − Generation III reactors. And even realizing that inadequate goal will be “challenging.” The report might as well have recommended to Generation IV developers not to bother.”38

Of course, Hansen isn’t the only person peddling misinformation about Generation IV economics. A recent report states that the “cost estimates from some advanced reactor companies ‒ if accurate ‒ suggest that these technologies could revolutionize the way we think about the cost, availability, and environmental consequences of energy generation.”39 To estimate the costs of Generation IV nuclear concepts, the researchers simply asked companies involved in R&D projects to supply the information!

The researchers did at least have the decency to qualify their findings: “There is inherent and significant uncertainty in projecting NOAK [nth-of-a-kind] costs from a group of companies that have not yet built a single commercial-scale demonstration reactor, let alone a first commercial plant. Without a commercial-scale plant as a reference, it is difficult to reliably estimate the costs of building out the manufacturing capacity needed to achieve the NOAK costs being reported; many questions still remain unanswered ‒ what scale of investments will be needed to launch the supply chain; what type of capacity building will be needed for the supply chain, and so forth.”39

Hansen has doubled down on his nuclear advocacy, undeterred by the Fukushima disaster; undeterred by the economic disasters of nuclear power in the US, the UK, France, Finland and elsewhere; and undeterred by the spectacular growth of renewables and the spectacular cost reductions. He needs to take his own advice. Peter Bradford, adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, said in response to a 2015 letter10 co-authored by Hansen:40

“The Hansen letter contains these remarkably unself-aware sentences:

‘To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice.’

‘The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking.’

‘The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long held biases when it comes to nuclear power.’

Amen, brother.”


  1. James Temple, 24 Feb 2017, ‘Nuclear Energy Startup Transatomic Backtracks on Key Promises’,
  2. Kevin Bullis, 2013, ‘What if we could build a nuclear reactor that costs half as much, consumes nuclear waste, and will never melt down?’,
  3. Kennedy Maize, 8 March 2017, ‘Molten Salt Reactor Claims Melt Down Under Scrutiny’,
  4. Dan Yurman, 26 Feb 2017, ‘An Up & Down Week for Developers of Advanced Reactors’,
  5. Nuclear Monitor #814, 18 Nov 2015, ‘James Hansen’s nuclear fantasies’,
  6. Nuclear Monitor #776, 24 Jan 2014, ‘Environmentalists urge Hansen to rethink nuclear’,
  7. Michael Mariotte, 21 April 2016, ‘How low can they go? Hansen, Shellenberger shilling for Exelon’, Nuclear Monitor #822,
  8. M.V. Ramana, 3 Dec 2015, ‘Betting on the wrong horse: Fast reactors and climate change’, Nuclear Monitor #815,
  9. Michael Mariotte, 9 Jan 2014, ‘The grassroots response to Dr. James Hansen’s call for more nukes’,
  10. James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley, 4 Dec 2015, ‘Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change’,
  11. IRSN, 2015, ‘Review of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems’, Direct download:
  12. U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 2015, ‘Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts’, GAO-15-652,
  13. A. Abdulla et al., 10 Aug 2017, ‘A retrospective analysis of funding and focus in US advanced fission innovation’,;
  14. 9 Aug 2017, ‘Analysis highlights failings in US’s advanced nuclear program’,
  15. James Hansen, 7 June 2014, ‘Scientists can help in planet’s carbon cut’,
  16. K. Caldeira, K. Emanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley, 3 Nov 2013, ‘Top climate change scientists’ letter to policy influencers’,
  17. See pp.44-45 in Mycle Schneider, 2009, ‘Fast Breeder Reactors in France’, Science and Global Security, 17:36–53,
  18. John Carlson, 2014, submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Parliament of Australia,
  19. John Carlson, 2015, first supplementary submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Parliament of Australia,
  20. P. Kharecha et al., 2010, ‘Options for near-term phaseout of CO2 emissions from coal use in the United States’, Environmental Science & Technology, 44, 4050-4062,
  21. Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015, ‘Thor-bores and uro-sceptics: thorium’s friendly fire’,
  22. Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, March 2013, ‘Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power’, Environment, Science and Technology,
  24. George Stanford, 18 Sept 2010, ‘IFR FaD 7 – Q&A on Integral Fast Reactors’,
  25. See section 2.12, pp.100ff, in Friends of the Earth et al., 2015, ‘Submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission’,
  26. Tom Blees, 2008, ‘Prescription for the Planet’,
  28. James Hansen, 2011, ‘Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid’,
  29. Breakthrough Institute, 5 May 2014, ‘Cheap Nuclear’,
  30. Reiji Yoshida, 21 Sept 2016, ‘Japan to scrap troubled ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor’,
  31. Ed Lyman / Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug 2017, ‘The Pyroprocessing Files’,
  32. Edwin Lyman, 2017, ‘External Assessment of the U.S. Sodium-Bonded Spent Fuel Treatment Program’,
  33. Mark Halper, 20 July 2012, ‘Richard Branson urges Obama to back next-generation nuclear technology’,
  34. 27 Dec 2012, ‘Have you heard the one about the Entrepreneur, the Climate Scientist and the Nuclear Engineer?’,
  35. James Hansen, 2008, ‘Trip Report – Nuclear Power’,
  36. U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 2015, ‘Nuclear Reactors: Status and challenges in development and deployment of new commercial concepts’, GAO-15-652,
  37. International Energy Agency (IEA) and OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), 2015, ‘Projected Costs of Generating Electricity’,
  38. Michael Mariotte, ‘Nuclear advocates fight back with wishful thinking’, Nuclear Monitor #810, 9 Sept 2015,
  39. Energy Innovation Reform Project Report Prepared by the Energy Options Network, 2017, ‘What Will Advanced Nuclear Power Plants Cost? A Standardized Cost Analysis of Advanced Nuclear Technologies in Commercial Development’,
  40. Peter A. Bradford, 17 Dec 2015, ‘The experts on nuclear power and climate change’,

Don’t nuke the climate! James Hansen’s nuclear fantasies exposed

20 Nov 2015, The Ecologist,

Climate scientist James Hansen is heading to COP21 in Paris to berate climate campaigners for failing to support ‘safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power’, writes Jim Green. But they would gladly support nuclear power if only it really was safe and environment friendly. In fact, it’s a very dangerous and hugely expensive distraction from the real climate solutions.

James Hansen will be promoting nuclear power − and attacking environmental and anti-nuclear groups − in the lead-up to the UN COP21 climate conference in Paris in December. The press release announcing Hansen’s visit to Paris berates environmentalists for failing to support “safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power”. It notes that the Climate Action Network, representing all the major environmental groups, opposes nuclear power − in other words, efforts to split the environment movement have failed.

Hansen won’t be participating in any debates against nuclear critics or renewable energy experts. His reluctance to debate may stem from his participation in a 2010 debate in Melbourne, Australia. The audience of 1,200 people were polled before and after the debate. The pre-debate poll found an 8% margin in favour of nuclear power; the post-debate poll found a margin of 24% against nuclear power. The turn-around was so striking that Hansen’s colleague Barry Brook falsely claimed the vote must have been rigged by anti-nuclear and climate action groups. “I can think of no other logical explanation − statistically, such a result would be nigh impossible”, Brook claimed.

‘Nuclear safety’ − a contradiction in terms?

An article co-authored by Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, published in the Environment, Science and Technology journal, claims that between 1971 and 2009, “global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning”.

Kharecha and Hansen ignore renewables and energy efficiency, setting up a false choice between fossil fuels and nuclear. Even as an assessment of the relative risks of fossil fuels and nuclear, the analysis doesn’t stack up.

Kharecha and Hansen cite a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report to justify their figure of 43 deaths from the Chernobyl disaster. But the UNSCEAR report did not attempt to calculate long-term deaths from radiation exposure from Chernobyl, citing “unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions”. The credible estimates of the long-term cancer death toll from Chernobyl range from 9,000 (in Eastern Europe) to 93,000 (across Eastern and Western Europe).

Hansen states: “No people died at Fukushima because of the nuclear technology.” The impacts of the disaster are more accurately summarised by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie:

“In sum, the health toll from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is horrendous. At the minimum:

  • “Over 160,000 people were evacuated, most of them permanently.
  • “Many cases of post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders arising from the evacuations.
  • “About 12,000 workers exposed to high levels of radiation, some up to 250 mSv.
  • “An estimated 5,000 fatal cancers from radiation exposures in future.
  • “Plus similar (unquantified) numbers of radiogenic strokes, CVS diseases and hereditary diseases.
  • “Between 2011 and 2015, about 2,000 deaths from radiation-related evacuations due to ill-health and suicides.
  • “An, as yet, unquantified number of thyroid cancers.
  • “An increased infant mortality rate in 2012 and a decreased number of live births in December 2011.”

There are many reasons to conclude that Kharecha and Hansen’s figure of 4,900 deaths from nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 is a gross underestimate, yet they claim that the figure “could be a major overestimate relative to the empirical value (by two orders of magnitude).”

However a realistic assessment of nuclear power fatalities would include:

  • Routine emissions: UNSCEAR’s estimated collective effective dose to the world population over a 50-year period of operation of nuclear power reactors and associated nuclear fuel cycle facilities is two million Sieverts. Applying a risk estimate of 0.1 fatal cancers / Sievert gives a total of 200,000 fatal cancers.
  • Radiation exposure from accidents, including Chernobyl (estimated 9,000 to 93,000 cancer fatalities) and Fukushima (estimated 5,000 long-term cancer fatalities), and the large number of accidents that have resulted in a small number of fatalities.
  • Indirect deaths.

In relation to indirect deaths at Fukushima, Japanese academics state:

“For the Fukushima coastal region, no-one, not even Self-Defense Forces, could enter the area for fear of exposure to radioactive materials, and the victims were left in the area for a long period of time.

“This resulted in so-called indirect fatalities, people who died due to difficult and long-term evacuation, or those who committed suicide, lamenting the radioactive pollution of their farm lands and farm animals and who had lost hope to ever rebuild their lives.

“These are considered as fatalities related to the nuclear accident, and their numbers have risen to 1459 as of September 2013, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Office. Though they are considered indirect deaths, they would have not died if there had been no nuclear accident.”

Kharecha and Hansen ignore non-fatal impacts. For example, the permanent relocation of 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster was associated with a great deal of trauma. Four and a half years after the Fukushima disaster, over 110,000 of the original 160,000 evacuees remain displaced according to the Japanese government. Using those figures (350,000 + 110,000), and the global experience of around 16,000 reactor-years of power reactor operations, gives a figure of 29 ‘nuclear refugees’ per reactor-year.

Nuclear power is safer than fossil fuels when considering accidents and routine emissions (by a wide margin, though not as wide as Kharecha and Hansen claim) − but we also need to consider the unique WMD proliferation risks associated with the nuclear industry as well as related security issues such as attacks on nuclear facilities.

But of course the ‘nuclear versus fossil fuels’ argument is a false one. When accidents and routine emissions are considered, renewables are clearly safer than either nuclear power or fossil fuels, and of course nuclear power’s proliferation and security risks don’t apply to renewables.

Yet Hansen falsely claims that “nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology.”

Nuclear WMD proliferation

Kharecha and Hansen correctly state that “Serious questions remain about [nuclear] safety, proliferation, and disposal of radioactive waste, which we have discussed in some detail elsewhere.” However the paper they cite barely touches upon the WMD proliferation problem and what little it does say is a mixture of codswallop and jiggery-pokery:

  • It falsely claims that thorium-based fuel cycles are “inherently proliferation-resistant”. Irradiation of thorium produces fissile uranium-233 which can be − and has been − used in nuclear weapons.
  • It falsely claims that integral fast reactors (IFRs) “could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation”. Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”
  • And the paper states that if “designed properly”, breeder reactors would generate “nothing suitable for weapons”. India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor will be the next fast neutron reactor to begin operation. India refuses to place it under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. John Carlson, former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, describes the risks associated with India’s plans: “India has a plan to produce [weapons-grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds. Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists).”

Hansen and his colleagues argue that “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks”. But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation? In a word: No. Fast reactors have been used for weapons production in the past (e.g. by France) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. by India).

Thorium − another not-so-modern ‘modern’ nuclear technology − has also been used to produce weapons (e.g. by the US and India) and will likely be used for weapons production in future (e.g. India’s breeder/thorium program).

It is disingenuous − and dangerous − for Hansen to be waving away those problems with claims that modern nuclear technology can somehow be made inherently proliferation-proof.

False hope: Generation IV nuclear technology

Here’s Hansen’s take on Generation IV nuclear technology − hyped up for it’s claimed ability to burn up nuclear waste. Nuclear waste “is not waste”, he writes. “It is fuel for 4th generation reactors! … The 4th generation reactors can ‘burn’ this waste, as well as excess nuclear weapons material, leaving a much smaller waste pile with radioactive half-life measured in decades rather than millennia, thus minimizing the nuclear waste problem.”

Hansen’s views take little or no account of the real-world experience with fast neutron reactors (and Generation IV technology more generally). That real-world experience is littered with accident-prone, obscenely expensive reactors (and R&D programs) that have worsened waste and proliferation problems. Most countries that have invested in fast reactor R&D programs have decided not to throw good money after bad and have abandoned those programs.

Hansen’s views are also at odds with reports published this year by the French and US governments. The report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) − a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health − states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”

IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: “At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors, except perhaps for the VHTR [Very High Temperature Reactors] … “

Moreover the VHTR system could bring about significant safety improvements “but only by significantly limiting unit power”.

The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:

“While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges. Both SMRs and advanced reactors require additional technical and engineering work to demonstrate reactor safety and economics …

“Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels …

“Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process … “

The glum assessments of the US and French governments are based on real-world experience. But Hansen prefers conspiracy theories to real-world experience, claiming that an IFR R&D program in the US was terminated due to pressure from environmentalists with devious motives.

The real reasons for the termination of the IFR program were mundane: legitimate proliferation concerns, the already-troubled history of fast reactor programs, the questionable rationale for pursuing fast reactor R&D given plentiful uranium supplies, and so on. But Hansen has a much more colourful explanation:

“I think it was because of the influence of the anti-nuclear people who realised that if this newer technology were developed it would mean that we would have an energy source that is practically inexhaustible − it could last for billions of years − and they succeeded in getting the Clinton administration to terminate the R&D for the fourth generation nuclear power plants.”

Wrong, stupid, and offensive: Hansen lines up with far-right nuts who argue that environmentalists want everyone living in caves. No wonder he is having so little success winning the green movement over.

Renewables and energy efficiency

“Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future?” asks Hansen. “It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

But there are credible studies for the countries that Hansen mentions:

  • USA: The Nuclear Information & Resource Service maintains a list of reports demonstrating the potential for the US (and Europe) to produce all electricity from renewables.
  • China: A 2015 report by the China National Renewable Energy Centre finds that China could generate 85% of its electricity and 60% of total energy from renewables by 2050.
  • India: A detailed 2013 report by WWF-India and The Energy and Resources Institute maps out how India could generate as much as 90% of total primary energy from renewables by 2050.

There is a growing body of research on the potential for renewables to largely or completely supplant fossil fuels for power supply globally.

The doubling of global renewable energy capacity over the past decade has been spectacular, with 783 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable power generation capacity installed from 2005 to 2014 − compared to a lousy 8 GW for nuclear.

As of the end of 2014, renewables supplied 22.8% of global electricity (hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2%). Nuclear power’s share of 10.8% is less than half of the electricity generation from renewables − and the gap is widening.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) anticipates another 700 GW of new renewable power capacity from 2015-2020. The IEA report also outlines the spectacular cost reductions: the global average costs for onshore wind generation fell by 30% from 2010-2015, and are expected to decline a further 10% by 2020; while utility-scale solar PV fell two-thirds in cost and is expected to decline another 25% by 2020.

There’s also the spectacular potential of energy efficiency that Hansen sometimes ignores and sometimes pays lip-service to. A 2011 study by University of Cambridge academics concluded that a whopping 73% of global energy use could be saved by practically achievable energy efficiency and conservation measures.

Making nuclear power safe … how would you do it?

But let’s go with Hansen’s argument that renewables and energy efficiency aren’t up to the job of completely supplanting fossil fuels. It’s not an unreasonable place to go given that the task is Herculean and urgent. What would make nuclear power more palatable, reducing the risk of Chernobyl- and Fukushima-scale catastrophes and reducing the WMD proliferation risks? ‘Super-safe’, ‘proliferation-resistant’ Generation IV reactor technology that’s both unproven and grossly uneconomic? Not likely.

So how about improved safety standards and stricter regulation? That’s something that really would reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents. A strengthened − and properly funded − safeguards system would reduce the WMD proliferation risks.

And therein lies the greatest irony of Hansen’s nuclear advocacy. Many of the environmental and anti-nuclear groups that he attacks have a commendable track record of campaigning for improved safety and regulatory standards and for improvements to the safeguards system. Hansen has said little and done less about those issues.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a longer version of this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!

More information

Betting on the wrong horse: Fast reactors and climate change

M.V. Ramana − Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University

Published in Nuclear Monitor #815, 3 December 2015,

In the last decade or so, many people who would likely identify themselves as environmentalists have turned to nuclear power as a way to deal with climate change. Among them are James Lovelock, Patrick Moore, James Hansen, and George Monbiot. Of these, Hansen has to be, and in some circles has been, taken most seriously. He is, after all, arguably the scientist who has done the most for raising concerns about climate change. What is also notable about Hansen is that he argues not just for any kind of nuclear power, but one based on a specific kind of a reactor − a fast reactor.

Climate change is such an important threat to our planet that it is quite justified to assess whether nuclear power should be deployed to a much larger extent as a way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This article does not − deliberately − address that question in general, but focuses on whether fast reactors could play a significant role in such a strategy. I argue below that because of the multiple problems with such reactors, relying on fast reactors to combat climate change is misguided.

In his book, Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen explains the details of the reactor and how he came to believe in the potential of this reactor system:

When asked about nuclear power, I am usually noncommittal, rattling off pros and cons. However, there is an aspect of the nuclear story that deserves much greater public attention. I first learned about it in 2008, when I read an early copy of Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees, who had stumbled onto a secret story with enormous ramifications − a story that he delved into by continually badgering some of the top nuclear scientists in the world until he was able to tell it with a clarity that escapes technical experts. I have since dug into the topic a bit more and observed how politicians and others reacted to Blees’ information, and the story has begun to make me slightly angry − which is difficult to do, as my basic nature is very placid, even comfortably stolid.
“Today’s nuclear power plants are “thermal” reactors, so-called because the neutrons released in the fission of uranium fuel are slowed down by a moderating material. The moderating material used in today’s commercial reactors is either normal water (“light water”) or “heavy water,” which contains a high proportion of deuterium, the isotope of water in which the hydrogen contains an extra neutron. Slow neutrons are better able to split more of the uranium atoms, that is, to keep nuclear reactions going, burning” more of the uranium fuel.
“The nuclear fission releases energy that is used to drive a turbine, creating electricity. It’s a nice, simple way to get energy out of uranium. However, there are problems with today’s thermal nuclear reactors (most of which are light-water reactors). The main problem is the nuclear waste, which contains both fission fragments and transuranic actinides. The fission fragments, which are chemical elements in the middle of the periodic table, have a half-life of typically thirty years. Transuranic actinides, elements from plutonium to nobelium that are created by absorption of neutrons, pose the main difficulty. These transuranic elements are radioactive materials with a lifetime of about ten thousand years. So we have to babysit the stuff for ten thousand years − what a nuisance that is!
“Along with our having to babysit the nuclear waste, another big problem with thermal reactors is that both light-water and heavy-water reactors extract less than 1 percent of the energy in the original uranium.
“Most of the energy is left in the nuclear waste produced by thermal reactors. (In the case of light-water reactors, most of the energy is left in “depleted-uranium tailings” produced during uranium “enrichment”; heavy-water reactors can burn natural uranium, without enrichment and thus without a pile of depleted-uranium tailings, but they still use less than 1 percent of the uranium’s energy.) So nuclear waste is a tremendous waste in more ways than one.
“These nuclear waste problems are the biggest drawback of nuclear power. Unnecessarily so. Nuclear experts at the premier research laboratories have long realized that there is a solution to the waste problems, and the solution can be designed with some very attractive features.
“I am referring to “fast” nuclear reactors. Fast reactors allow the neutrons to move at higher speed. The result in a fast nuclear reactor is that the reactions “burn” not only the uranium fuel but also all of the transuranic actinides − which form the long-lived waste that causes us so much heartburn. Fast reactors can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined, compared with the less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors. So fast reactors increase the efficiency of fuel use by a factor of one hundred or more.
“Fast reactors also produce nuclear waste, but in volumes much less than slow (thermal) reactors. More important, the radioactivity becomes inconsequential in a few hundred years, rather than ten thousand years.”

All of this description clearly suggests that Hansen thinks of fast reactors as a good, if not perfect, solution. Elsewhere he has expanded on the various other virtues of fast reactors. What Hansen does not talk about, however, are the various problems with fast reactors. And we have about six decades of experience with those problems.

Hansen actually does refer to the long history of fast reactors in his book, saying:

“The concept for fast-reactor technology was defined by Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and a principal in the Manhattan Project, and his colleagues at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. By the mid-1960s, the nuclear scientists at Argonne National Laboratory had demonstrated the feasibility of the concept.”

The demonstration of the feasibility of fast reactors actually goes back to the early 1950s, with the Experimental Breeder Reactor constructed in Idaho in the United States. The term breeder is significant. It refers to the fact that in some fast reactors, those neutrons that are escaping the core are captured by a blanket made of “fertile materials”, which then eventually get transformed into a new element that is itself fissile, i.e. can be used as a fuel in a reactor core. An example of such a fertile material is uranium-238, which gets converted into a fissile isotope of plutonium, plutonium-239. Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of uranium, constituting about 99.3 percent of naturally available uranium. It is this process of conversion of uranium-238 into plutonium-239 that makes a fast reactor utilize uranium much more efficiently.

If the fast reactor is designed suitably, it could produce more fissile material in its blankets than is consumed in its core. It is then said to “breed” plutonium and these reactors are called breeder reactors. The long-standing attraction of breeder reactors for nuclear power proponents is that when nuclear power was first developed, uranium was thought to be scarce and there was widespread concern that global resources would be insufficient to support the anticipated large expansion of nuclear power. This is why the United States started constructing the EBR-I so early into its nuclear power program.

Nuclear meltdowns

Indeed, on December 20, 1951, EBR-I became the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant when it produced sufficient electricity to illuminate four 200-watt light bulbs. On June 4, 1953, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced that EBR-I had become the world’s first reactor to demonstrate the breeding of plutonium from uranium. About two years later, on November 29, 1955, the reactor had a partial core meltdown, not something that Hansen appears to talk about in any detail.

A decade later, in October 1966, it was the turn of Fermi-1 (yes, named after the famous physicist), a demonstration fast breeder reactor located in Lagoona Beach, Michigan, which suffered a partial core meltdown. What is more interesting is the cause of the accident. Pieces of zirconium from the “core catcher”, a safety system that is supposed to prevent molten fuel from liquid sodium into a part of the core, leading to those fuel elements melting down because they could not be cooled. The implication; additional safety features, could, under some circumstances, end up causing accidents in unexpected ways.

These meltdowns also have a different cause that has to do with operating a nuclear reactor using fast neutrons. In fast reactors, when fuel starts melting locally and coming closer together, it increases the rate at which the chain reaction occurs. If this process were not stopped extremely fast − for example, by the insertion of control rods that absorb neutrons − the runaway reaction would cause the pressure inside the core to rise fast enough to lead to an explosion. Again, it was an illustrious physicist, Hans Bethe, who pointed out this possibility back in 1956. Such an explosion could fracture the protective barriers around the core, including the containment building, and release large fractions of the radioactive material in the reactor into the surroundings. This so-called “core disassembly accident” has therefore been a longstanding safety concern with fast reactors.

A second difference between breeder reactors and the more common thermal reactors is their choice of coolant. Because breeder reactors do not have any moderator to slow down neutrons, their cores, where most of the fissions, and thus energy production, occur are smaller in size as compared to thermal reactors. Thus, their power density will be much higher. Efficient transfer of this heat requires the use of liquid metals rather than the more commonly utilized water. The coolant that has been used in all demonstration breeder reactors to date is a liquid metal that melts at relatively low temperatures − sodium.

Though sodium has some safety advantages, it reacts violently with water and burns if
exposed to air. This makes fast reactors susceptible to serious fires. Almost all fast reactors constructed around the world have experienced one or more sodium leaks, likely because of chemical interactions between sodium and the stainless steel used in various components of the reactor. Finally, since sodium is opaque, fast reactors are notoriously difficult to maintain and susceptible to long shutdowns.

The question of costs

Having to deal with all these properties and safety concerns naturally drives up the construction costs of fast reactors, to the point that they are significantly more expensive than the more common thermal reactors that Hansen talks about. In addition, they also operate with less reliability. Economically, therefore, fast reactors have proved to be uncompetitive with current generation thermal reactors.

This is the main reason that decades after breeder reactors were piloted, no country has successfully built a commercial breeder reactor. France, the country that is most reliant on nuclear power in the world, did try. The Superphenix started operating in 1986, experienced a series of accidents, and was shut down in 1997. During this period, it generated less then 7% of the electricity of what it could have done at full capacity. Currently, only a few demonstration reactors are being built or operated, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor that is being constructed in Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu being one such reactor. This result is not for want of trying; just the OECD countries, between themselves, have spent about US$50 billion (in 2007 dollars) on breeder reactor research and development and on demonstration breeder reactor projects.

In today’s electricity markets, with nuclear power rapidly losing ground to cheaper renewables, the idea that fast reactors would establish an economically viable path forward for nuclear power is far-fetched, to say the least. Hansen’s advocacy of fast reactors therefore seems a little at odds with current economic realities.

What of nuclear waste?

What of the other argument Hansen makes; about the ability of fast reactors to deal with the nuclear waste problem. Here again, what is not mentioned is as important, if not more important, than what is said. First, actinides are not the only long-lived radioactive materials produced in a nuclear reactor. There is also what is called fission products, some of which have a very long radioactive half-life; Technetium-99, for example, has a half-life of 200,000 years.

Second, there are so many actinides and they have a variety of nuclear reactions that are trying to “transmute” (i.e., convert) them into elements that have shorter lifetimes, or even radioactively stable elements, requires an elaborate strategy involving the reprocessing of spent fuel, multiple rounds of special fuel fabrication, and irradiation in fast reactors. In 1996, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences examined the potential benefits of such a scheme and concluded: “none of the dose reductions seems large enough to warrant the expense and additional operational risk of transmutation”.

Third, just in the process of doing this transmutation, a large quantity of radioactive materials that are currently held within the spent fuel from nuclear reactors will be released into the biosphere in the form of liquid or gaseous wastes. This is what happens at all reprocessing plants and estimates of the radiation dose to populations around the world from just the gaseous fission products routinely released by reprocessing plants suggest that these exceed the doses from future leakage from geological repositories.

To conclude, James Hansen’s advocacy of a nuclear solution to climate change based on fast reactors is misplaced. The six decades of global experience with breeder reactors shows that they are very problematic, much more so than nuclear power in general. So any strategy based on rapid construction of these untested technologies is very likely to suffer from setbacks. There is simply not enough time for us to go down these blind alleys.

Let’s Call Them What They Are: Climate Liars

Linda Pentz Gunter, 20 Nov 2015, CounterPunch

In 2004, when I was working at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I had an interesting email exchange with my fellow countryman and ardent climate change columnist, George Monbiot.

This was before he went to the dark side and became a nuclear power apologist. We were discussing climate skeptics and, as we did so, I began to think about their similarity to Holocaust deniers. I suggested to Monbiot that climate “denier” was a more apt term than “skeptic.” Monbiot ran with it. Today it’s in the lexicon.

But it’s time for a change. Because, as the revelations surrounding Exxon clearly illustrate, these “deniers” actually know better. Even Donald Trump, for all his repulsive policies and personality traits, is not necessarily stupid. He probably gets climate change. It’s just vaguely possible that even Ted Cruz and Ben Carson do, too. Which means none of them are really Climate Deniers. They, like Exxon, are Climate Liars.

This makes them worse than genuine skeptics because they are deliberately sabotaging the long-term survival of our planet for short-term gain. Some are doing this to win election to, or retain, public office. Others are simply lining their pockets, eager for the lavish handouts the fossil fuel industry is willing to make to stay alive and perpetuate the myth that it is relevant.

Whether lying or denying, dismissing climate change is a winning formula because the public has been fed a steady diet of misinformation about the urgency of global warming. More disturbingly, we are bombarded daily with news about truly inconsequential, often celebrity-driven gossip, or quotidian stories that are sensationalized into national dramas. These obliterate the opportunity to impart information of genuine significance. Instead, click bait and trivia have created an addiction to soft, rather than hard, news.

Meanwhile, the empirical facts languish like leftovers, of no interest to a fast-food consumer who prefers an easily digestible sound bite, even if it isn’t true. Politicians know this and latch onto the messaging that will serve their ends, regardless of the veracity factor.

Mired in this melange of myths is nuclear energy. Its spokespeople include a handful of misguided climate scientists like James Hansen who should know better but are pushing nuclear anyway as a climate change solution. Just before the recent violent events in Paris, Hansen was promoting a press conference he planned to hold there during the upcoming COP 21 (Conference of Parties) climate talks. Although COP is still going ahead, it’s not yet clear how many, if any, of the side events will.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the ravages of climate change are now a present crisis rather than a distant threat, the Hansen crowd will be unrelenting in their promotion of nuclear energy. This has historically stifled progress on climate change, and will continue to do so.

Are Hansen and his followers nuclear deniers, or actually nuclear liars? It’s hard to know. Hansen has refused to debate us or answer the obvious flaws in his thesis — such as the fact that nuclear energy cannot possibly come on line in time or in sufficient capacity to address climate change.

Hansen’s press releases and public statements tend toward rhetorical over-reaching and even insults. This has become a favorite pastime of the nuclear power panderers, catering once more to the easy sell and quick snicker at the opposition’s expense. Thus, Hansen, with all his lofty NASA credentials, has stooped to calling on donors to pull funds from green groups that oppose nuclear energy. He even mocks solicitation requests that are “doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear.” Such cheap shots seem unworthy of a man who professes to represent serious science and uses his august curriculum vitae as a door-opening calling card.

Rectifying this problem is no easy task. For one thing, blasting people with the truth about nuclear power doesn’t always work. It is too technical, too complicated, too wonky and too grim. Try telling someone about the dangerous state of a nuclear reactor drywell liner. It’s a problem that could lead to disaster, cost people their lives and livelihoods, and force permanent evacuation. But as a piece of messaging, it is dead on arrival compared to the “safe, clean and reliable” misleading mantra adopted by the pro-nuclear cronies.

The dialogue has to change, and obviously, though fun and even effective, name calling, like “climate liars,” isn’t the answer either. Or at least, it isn’t an answer. What we must do is stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. taxpayer dollars funding further, futile attempts to build a better nuclear mousetrap.

Like the billions spent on bombing raids that create more terror rather than eradicating terrorism, the never-ending flow of dollars toward the illusory phantom of a so-called “next generation” nuclear reactor is a failed strategy. Such nuclear reactors have been “in progress” for decades and will likely never arrive in time for climate change, if at all. They have demonstrated no strong likelihood that they will even work or ever be safe and will simply swallow up precious dollars and time that we cannot afford to waste.

For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a “next generation” favorite, the Small Modular Reactor (SMR), since the 1990s. Today, there are still no SMRs in operation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to receive a single license application.

Climate disruption is adding to the terrible strife in our world. Another nuclear disaster would destabilize the globe even more. Things could not be more urgent. Like terrorism, nuclear energy delivers fear and tragedy. From leukemia clusters to meltdowns; the environmental racism of uranium mining to the exclusion zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima; we live in the perpetual shadow of disaster as long as nuclear power continues.

As everyone from Hansen to Huckabee doubtless knows, there are other ways forward. They need look no further than the empirical evidence found in the 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, where we see nuclear energy continuing to stagnate and even decline while wind and solar energy soar globally. It’s time to follow the example of Germany and take nuclear power out of the energy equation. Continued nuclear irresponsibility will have only one, tragic outcome; allowing the climate crisis to slip beyond the point of no return.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

Fires and radioactive waste repositories

Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

Reprinted from WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, #813, 4 Nov 2015

In the last issue of the Nuclear Monitor we reported on the smoldering underground fire that has come within 350−400 metres of a radioactive waste dump, the West Lake Landfill, in the U.S. state of Missouri. The site has been in the news again with an above-ground brush fire on October 24, started by a faulty switch inside the landfill’s perimeter. The fire was doused before it reached the area containing radioactive waste. The EPA sent a letter reprimanding site operator Republic Services for the incident.1

On October 26, about 300 local residents attended a ‘Community Advisory Group’ meeting to discuss the West Lake Landfill smoldering fire (which has been burning since 2010) and the October 24 fire. Many are sceptical about the reassurances provided by government and company representatives. “I’m scared,” said Darlene Hartman, a life-long resident. “You try to eat healthy, you try to be good citizens. And you don’t know who to trust.”2

Nevada fire

On October 18, a fire broke out at a radioactive waste dump in southern Nevada. The fire followed flash flooding that shut down the town’s escape routes: U.S. 95 and Highway 373. County officials and law enforcement agencies declared an emergency. The site, operated by U.S. Ecology, is home to 22 low-level radioactive waste storage trenches that range in size from shallow holes to chasms hundreds of feet deep and wide as football fields.3

Associated Press reported on October 25:4

“The operator of a closed radioactive waste dump that caught fire in southern Nevada last weekend was troubled over the years by leaky shipments and oversight so lax that employees took contaminated tools and building materials home, according to state and federal records.

“A soundless 40-second video turned over by the firm, U.S. Ecology, to state officials showed bursts of white smoke and dirt flying from several explosions on 18 October from the dump in the brown desert, about 110 miles north-west of Las Vegas.

“In the 1970s, the company had its license suspended for mishandling shipments – about the same time state officials say the material that exploded and burned last weekend was accepted and buried.

“Nevada now has ownership and oversight of the property, which opened in 1962 near Beatty as the nation’s first federally licensed low-level radioactive waste dump. It closed in 1992. State officials said this week they did not immediately know what blew up.

“A state fire inspector, Martin Azevedo, surveyed the site on Wednesday. His report, obtained on Friday by the Associated Press, described moisture in the pit and “heavily corroded” 55-gallon drums in and around the 20ft-by-30ft crater. Debris from the blast spread 190ft. Two drums were found outside the fence line. …

“In 1979, the then Nevada governor Robert List ordered the Beatty low-level waste facility shut down and launched an investigation after a radioactive cargo fire on a truck parked on U.S. Highway 95, at the facility gate.

“The fire came three years after employees were dismissed for stealing radioactive building materials, tools and even a portable cement mixer, according to a 1994 report prepared by the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

“Operations at Beatty resumed “only after assurance was given by the federal government that the rules governing shipments … would be enforced,” according to the Idaho lab report.

“List expressed doubt that anyone will ever know what is really underground at the site. ‘Good luck with that,” he said. “What we found when we did our investigation was they had very, very skimpy records about what was there.'”

The Nevada Department of Public Safety said in an October 19 statement that high altitude and intermediate altitude testing resulted in negative readings for radiation.
The Department said it would initiate an investigation to determine the cause of the fire.5

WIPP fire

The underground chemical explosion at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Nevada on 14 February 2014 has generated huge public and media interest … so much so that a fire that occurred nine days earlier has been all but forgotten.6 A truck hauling salt caught fire on 5 February 2014. The fire consumed the driver’s compartment and the truck’s large front tires. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated.

A March 2014 report by the Department of Energy’s Accident Investigation Board blamed Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the contractor that operates the WIPP site. The Accident Investigation Board said the root cause of the fire was NWP’s “failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground. This includes recognition and removal of the buildup of combustibles through inspections, and periodic preventative maintenance, e.g., cleaning and the decision to deactivate the automatic onboard fire suppression system.”7

In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board, reported that WIPP “does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations.”8

Spent fuel pools and reactors

Fire could result in a catastrophic accident if it compromised spent nuclear fuel pools. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff calculated that if even a small fraction of the inventory of a Peach Bottom reactor pool were released to the environment, an average area of 9,400 square miles (24,300 square kilometers) would be rendered uninhabitable, and that 4.1 million people would be displaced over the long-term.9

Reactors are also at risk. The Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a 2013 paper: “Fire poses significant risk to nuclear power plant safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimates that the risk of reactor meltdown from fire hazards is roughly equal to the meltdown risk from all other hazards combined − even assuming that plants comply with fire protection regulations, which many do not. Because of this risk, the NRC established a set of fire safety regulations for nuclear plants in 1980 and an alternate set in 2004. However, today − more than 30 years after those regulations went into effect − nearly half of U.S. operating nuclear reactors do not comply with either set of regulations.10

A report found that there were around 100 fire incidents at nuclear sites in France in 2011 − reactors, reprocessing plants and other nuclear sites. The dangers must be “taken very seriously”, said Jean-Christophe Niel, managing director of national nuclear safety regulator ASN. About 10 of the 100 fires were considered significant in terms of nuclear safety, Niel said.11

A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy details many of the interconnections between climate change and energy. It noted that power lines, transformers and electricity distribution systems face increasing risks of physical damage from wildfires that are growing more frequent and intense.12

Peaceful nuclear explosions

The nexus between fire and nukes is an altogether unhappy one. If there is an exception, it is this unlikely yarn about ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ from the science and culture blog io9:13

“All in all, nuclear civil projects were a massive mistake. There was one use, though, that seemed to work. The Soviet Union tried it several times, and actually had some success: it turns out nuclear bombs are great ways to put out fires. That’s not as unimpressive as it sounds! Underground fuel reserves are vast stores of combustible material that cannot be reached by human firefighters, but can quite merrily burn. Coal, peat, and gas fires can burn for decades. Centralia, Pennsylvania had a coal seam that caught fire in 1962 and is still burning. The Urtabulak gas field caught fire in 1963. It burned steadily for three years. In 1966, the Soviet Union decided to do something about that.

“The gas fire was ventilated by the holes that had been drilled to harvest the gas; if the holes could all be sealed shut, the fire would go out. Naturally, no one could go into a vast gas fire to shovel earth into a deep hole. Geologists and physicists calculated that a nuclear explosion equal to about 30 kilotons of TNT could seal shut every hole within about 50 meters. The rock would basically melt over the fire. In the fall of 1966, a special nuclear bomb was detonated in one of the holes, and fire was out in 23 seconds.

“But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Within a few months of that fire going out, a new fire, in another gas field, erupted. In 1968, the Soviets dropped a bomb into that one. This took longer. For a few days, rock and other earth flowed into the holes, but eventually it worked. The fire went out. In 1972, another well was sealed off after it caught fire. The last known attempt at sealing a gas fire with a nuclear weapon was done in 1981, and it did not work out. The scientists couldn’t get accurate data on the location of the vents in the well. The bomb went off, but the well never entirely sealed shut.”

Finally, if there is a nukes-and-fire story more bizarre than the use of ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ to put out underground gas fires, it involves U.S. shipyard worker Casey James Fury, who in May 2012 was having problems with his ex-girlfriend and wanted to leave work early. So, naturally, he set fire to a nuclear submarine. The USS Miami sustained US$450 million damage in the blaze, and Fury was given a 17-year jail sentence.14



Brush fire at West Lake Landfill sparks concern


3. Kyle Roerink, 20 Oct 2015, ‘Beatty residents call for transparency after nuclear fire’,

4. Associated Press, 25 Oct 2015, ‘Radioactive waste dump fire reveals Nevada site’s troubled past’,

5. Nevada Department of Public Safety, 19 Oct 2015, ‘Media Release: Update on the U.S. Ecology Industrial Fire in Nye County’,

6 June 2014, ‘Fire and leaks at the world’s only deep geological waste repository’, Nuclear Monitor #787,




10. Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2013, ‘NRC’s Failure to Enforce

Reactor Fire Regulations’,

11. Platts, 28 Aug 2013, ‘French nuclear power plants must improve fire safety measures: regulator’,

12. U.S. Department of Energy, July 2013, ‘U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather’,

Fire threatens radioactive dump in Missouri, USA

Jim Green

Reprinted from WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, #812, 15 Oct 2015

A radioactive waste dump in Missouri, USA, is under threat from an underground fire. The fire at Bridgeton Landfill, near St. Louis, is as close as 350−400 metres from the West Lake Landfill. The West Lake facility was contaminated with radioactive waste from uranium processing. The waste was illegally dumped in 1973 and includes material that dates back to the Manhattan Project.1,2

The cause of the fire is unknown. It has been burning since 2010. The issue has received media attention recently because of the release of a St Louis County emergency plan.3

The emergency plan states that if the underground fire reaches the waste, “there is a potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region.” The plan calls for evacuations and the development of emergency shelters, both in St. Louis County and neighbouring St. Charles County.

Last month, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said he was troubled by new reports about the site. One found radiological contamination in trees outside the landfill’s perimeter. Another showed evidence that the fire has moved past two rows of interceptor wells and closer to the radioactive waste. Koster said the reports were evidence that Republic Services, operator of both the Bridgeton Landfill and the West Lake Landfill, “does not have this site under control.”4

Four school districts near the radioactive West Lake Landfill recently sent letters to parents explaining their plans for a potential emergency at the site. “We remain frustrated by the situation at the landfill,” wrote Mike Fulton, superintendent of the Pattonville School District. Rhonda Marsala, a local who has two children at nearby schools, said: “We prepare our kids for tornadoes, fire drills, intruder alerts, but how do you prepare them for something like this? The fact that these young children know about it, and they have anxiety over it, it’s very unfair to them.”5

The state of Missouri is taking legal action against Republic Services, initiated in 2013, alleging negligent management and violation of state environmental laws. The suit is set for trial in March 2016.4

Missouri Coalition for the Environment wants the radioactive waste removed, saying that the EPA’s 2008 decision to “cap and leave” means the wastes will remain a constant threat to drinking water, public health, and the environment.6

The ‘Just Moms St Louis’ group wants responsibility for the site passed from the EPA to the US Army Corps of Engineers and for it to be managed under its ‘Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program’.7 That call has also been made by St. Louis-area members of Congress and both of Missouri’s U.S. senators.2

Underground smouldering is common, especially in abandoned coal mines. At least 98 underground mine fires in nine states were burning in 2013, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Perhaps the most notorious was the fire that began in 1962 and burned near and beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, for more than 50 years. Only a few people remain in a town that once had 1,000 residents.1


1. 10 Oct 2015, ‘Underground fire outside St. Louis has burned since 2010, nears nuclear waste dump’,

2. Editorial Board, 10 Oct 2015, ‘Editorial: Help residents near West Lake and Bridgeton landfills breathe easy’,

3. St Louis County, Oct 2014, West Lake Landfill Shelter in Place / Evacuation Plan,

See also Kevin Killeen, 5 Oct 2015, ‘St. Louis County Releases Disaster Plan for West Lake Landfill’,

4. Attorney General’s Office, 3 Sept 2015, ‘AG Koster releases new expert reports concluding radiation and other pollutants have migrated off-site at Bridgeton Landfill’,

5. Blythe Bernhard, Oct 2015, ‘School districts prepare for West Lake Landfill emergency’,



More information:

Missouri Coalition for the Environment:

Just Moms St Louis:


13. Esther Inglis-Arkell, 27 March 2015, ‘How To Fight Fire With Nuclear Bombs’,

14. Daily Mail, 8 Aug 2013, ‘Nuclear submarine set alight by worker who wanted to go home early will be scrapped because of military budget cuts’,

Indigenous Protected Areas at risk

Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) enable environmental conservation of Australia’s most vital ecosystems; they facilitate the prosperity of Indigenous communities as well as generating a range of cultural and social benefits.

In 2015, IPAs are under threat. The Federal Government has refused to ensure future funding for the Caring for Country and IPA programs. IPAs have NO secure funding after 2018.

Since 2001 Friends of the Earth’s Barmah-Millewa Campaign, now known as the River Country Campaign, has stood in solidarity with Indigenous communities working to protect country. Now, we are calling on the Federal Government to allocate long-term, adequate funding to the IPA and Caring for Country programs.

Today, there are over 55 million hectares of land included in the IPA program. The expansion and continuity of IPAs would ensure protection and rehabilitation of precious ecosystems as well as the revival of threatened species. Indigenous people have unique knowledge and skills to manage Australia’s natural ecosystems.

At FoE we strive to ensure the protection of rare and unique landscapes. IPAs encourage and endorse the role of Indigenous Nations as custodians achieving sustainable outcomes.

Crucially, IPAs recognise the economic, cultural and spiritual well-being of Indigenous peoples.
Expansion of IPAs leads to increased job opportunities for Indigenous communities. Hundreds of Indigenous rangers are empowered to work on country through sustainable employment under the Caring for Country program.

Today there is an enormous capacity for IPA’s to expand, if Traditional Owners are provided with appropriate opportunities .

Current funding for IPAs is minimal, with no long-term funding security past 2018. The IPA program has proven to be an effective collaboration between Traditional Owners and the Australian government.

Friends of the Earth is advocating for:

1. increased funding for land management and Indigenous rangers

2. Long term security of funding for IPAs

3. Support to expand the IPA reserve system

4. Greater opportunities for Traditional Owner land management on other public land


We are currently working to support current IPA conservation goals and advocate long term commitments to promote the expansion of this program. We are preparing a report on the current state of the IPA program and the potential for establishment and expansion of Indigenous managed land in NSW and Victoria. This infographic has been produced to raise awareness and recognition of the importance of Indigenous peoples’ rights to care their country.

Increased funding and ongoing commitment is critical to ensuring our national reserve system is protected in the long term as well as solidifying and improving the outcomes for Indigenous Nations through cultural continuity and employment opportunities.

Watch this space for potential actions in a sustained campaign to protect Indigenous Ranger programs and securing the future for IPAs and Indigenous Communities living on country.

Background reading: Article from The Guardian. Journalist: Helen Davidson, May 7, 2015. Indigenous rangers call for expansion of ‘world-leading’ jobs scheme

Radioactive Racism in the Wild West

Mia Pepper

You’d be forgiven for thinking Western Australia was the Wild West. The announcement from the WA government that it planned to close 150 Aboriginal remote communities came hot on the heels of plans to gut the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act have two main objectives: one is to make it easier for Aboriginal Heritage Sites on the Aboriginal Heritage Register to be de-listed; the other is to make it harder to get Aboriginal Heritage Sites listed in the first place. One of the key factors in a site getting and staying on the register is proving an ongoing connection to the site – a logistical factor made much harder if people are being forcibly removed from remote communities.

Pastor Geoffrey Stokes, a Wongutha man from Kalgoorlie, was out hunting one day near Mt Margaret when he encountered a mining company, Darlex, literally about to dig into a cave – an Aboriginal Heritage Site. This particular site had been lodged with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by the Goldfields Land and Sea Council 23 years earlier – but had not been officially registered. The company was about to destroy the site without having gained permission or consulting with the Aboriginal custodians and had no requirements to do so because the site did not appear on the register. On inquiries made to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) about this site, it was revealed that something like 10,000 sites have been lodged but never registered.

This is how the system works. Traditional Owners can lodge a site with the DAA and the Department may or may not register it – depending how busy they are over a period of about two decades. Once it is registered a mining company can then apply to destroy it anyway, but rest assured that if it’s registered you’ll be consulted about the sites impending doom. However if you don’t visit the site regularly, under a changed Aboriginal Heritage Act, it’s likely to be deregistered aka no one is coming to talk to you before they destroy your heritage.

I’m reminded of being at a mining conference in WA where the then Minister for Mines and Petroleum gave a keynote presentation. He ended by inviting everyone to stay around for a raffle – “the prize is a free Aboriginal Heritage clearance.” The miners roared with laughter. The Minister re-used the joke when calling the raffle – allowing us to record this sick joke about the religion and culture of Australia’s first people. When played back to him in Parliament, he scoffed and said it was taken out of context.

Mulga Rocks

Just around the corner from Mt Margaret is Mulga Rocks – the site of the latest uranium mine proposal by a company, which has recently changed its name to Vimy Resources. Vimy is like an all-star cast with a former Fortescue Metals Group executive as Director, a former Liberal MP on the Board of Directors and generously funded by Twiggy Forrest. Vimy recently submitted a scoping study for Mulga Rocks, which is near Kalgoorlie and adjacent to the Queen Victoria Springs − an A Class Nature Reserve.

In submissions made to the scoping study, the DAA provided comment in response to the proposal saying the company should minimise impact to Aboriginal Heritage, should consult with the DAA and the Central Desert Native Title Service, and suggesting that some sites may “still be under the protection” of the not-yet-gutted Aboriginal Heritage Act. The company responded: “No Native Title Groups claim the areas and no traditional owners undertake any traditional activities in the area.”

That comment was based on a 1982 ‘study’ by an American anthropologist – using a dubious methodology. The anthropologist just asked around in the nearest town (150 kms away), a process that identified at least one family who use to go out, and no further inquiries were made about that family. The family survived and live in the area but are yet to be consulted. Neighbouring communities and interested communities are yet to be consulted and the company refuses to consult, stating the project won’t impact anyone so there’s no need.

The closest community to the proposed Mulga Rocks mine is called Coonana and has been on the government’s hit list of communities to close down for many years. Slowly but surely the WA government has cut all funding to the community, which is now virtually a ghost town. Coonana is a refugee community − people that have been moved from community to community over generations. Known as the Spinifex people, they came across the border from South Australia following the nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s. The government used to kick Aboriginal people hitching a free ride west off the train but then had a bright idea: give Aboriginal people a free ride west and get them off the atomic bomb testing sites permanently. The dislocation that began during the atomic bomb tests is very much alive today.

The starving of services at Coonana should sound alarm bells about what this government is capable of doing. At Oombulgurri in the Kimberley, the strategy was to demolish houses: no resettlement, no alternative housing, nothing. As the country tries to heal from centuries of displacement and bad government policy, this government is creating another generation of displaced people.

The changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act are due to be debated in the WA Parliament in August/September 2015. The plans to shut 150 remote Aboriginal communities are much more secretive − the Premier Colin Barnett has promised consultation but refused an invitation from the Kimberley Land Council to join a joint Land Councils meeting about the closures in early 2015. Proposals to use royalties’ money from the mining industry to meet the funding shortfall have been squashed by the Premier. As the mining boom crashes and the government’s focus is on supporting industry rather than communities, we are expecting further attacks on communities and culture to make it easier and cheaper for mining companies to get projects off the ground.


In addition to proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the WA government has released a draft Heritage Bill 2015, covering the protection of all WA heritage sites except Aboriginal sites of significance.

Prof. Ben Smith from the University of WA, and a spokesperson for the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA), told the ABC on August 13 that the discrepancies and contradictions between the two proposed sets of changes were “untenable”. He noted that in the new Heritage Bill, the decision to add or remove a site will remain with the minister for heritage, while in revisions to the Aboriginal Heritage Act the decision will be left with a senior public servant. “We have watering down of the Aboriginal Heritage Act,” Smith said, “whereas we have continued strength of non-Aboriginal preservation.”

The AAA also raised concerns about a “tiered approach” to fines for those who damage sites. Smith said under proposed changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, an individual found to be damaging an Aboriginal site on their first offence will face a fine of up to $100,000. If a corporate body is found to have damaged a registered Aboriginal site in the first instance, they will be fined up to $500,000, with the maximum penalty of $1 million only levelled for repeated offenders. In contrast, the Heritage Act doesn’t make provision for first and second fines − if an individual or a body corporate damages a piece of non-Indigenous state heritage, they instantly face a $1 million fine.

Smith said: “Why would we want a tiered structure? If you damage any piece of Aboriginal heritage, you are committing a crime of great seriousness, just as if you damage any piece of Australia heritage. Why is one subject to a lesser process? It’s extraordinary in an international context. How will these be perceived by UNESCO?”

Phil Czerwinski, chair of the WA Association of Consulting Archaeologists, said all heritage sites should be treated equally.  “We seem to want to protect white fella heritage better than we want to protect black fella heritage,” he said.

A petition against changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act is posted at:

Mia Pepper is the Nuclear Free Campaigner at Conservation Council WA, and Deputy Chair of the Mineral Policy Institute.

Antony Hegarty supporting Martu Traditional Owners

Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons recently visited Australia to support Martu Traditional Owners in their struggle to stop the proposed Kintyre uranium mine in the WA Pilbara from proceeding. Hegarty joined Martu artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for the opening display of ‘Kalyu’ (water), a painting by nine Martu artists to depict the risks the proposed mine poses to the region’s precious ground and surface water.

“The painting is our home, our country. It is part of us. Our country, our homelands are under serious threat from uranium mining,” said artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor. “We need to tell people that those paintings only exist because of our obligation to our country, it is not a choice to look after it, the country is us − we just have to do it”.

Hegarty said: “My current trip to Australia has been very much motivated by my desire to help the Martu campaign against this uranium mine plan. I was honoured to be welcomed by the Parnngurr community and artists and I want to lend my voice and support to help protect country that is very important to my friends there.”

Martu resettled Parnngurr community in the 1980s as a protest camp against uranium exploration. The community remains opposed to uranium mining in the area.

“It will remain like that, with no mine. That poison is no good,” said artist Karnu Nancy Taylor. “You can’t reverse what the old people have said. We’re going to stop it!”

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,

Can Australia learn from international experience in managing radioactive waste?

Anica Niepraschk

For over 20 years the Australian government has been trying to find sites to host our radioactive waste in a centralised facility: first in South Australia and then the Northern Territory. All of these attempts were flawed and ultimately failed – most recently the attempt to dispose of Australia’s low-level radioactive waste and store the intermediate level waste in Muckaty, NT. In 2014 the sustained opposition by Traditional Owners and a broad alliance of civil society organisations finally resulted in the Commonwealth abandoning its aggressive pursuit of the site.

With it came the conclusion that imposing nuclear dumps on communities does not work and that a shift is needed towards a voluntarist approach. This is current international best practise and indeed a very welcome change in attitude.

In March, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane called on landowners across Australia to nominate their land to host a radioactive waste management facility. The two-month nomination period ended in May. It is currently followed by a desk-study to evaluate the nominated sites’ suitability to host the facility according to a number of social, environmental and economic factors. The resulting shortlist of sites, as well as a complete list of all nominations received, is expected to be released shortly.

It is therefore timely to have a look at what a voluntarist siting process should actually encompass and how Australia’s new approach rates against that.

In a new report titled ‘Wasting time? International lessons for managing Australia’s radioactive waste’, commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation, I analyse international experience in siting radioactive waste facilities. The lessons that can be drawn from this experience are of direct relevance to the ongoing Australian National Radioactive Waste Management Project.

Apart from other critical factors, the key characteristics of a successful and truly voluntarist siting process are community consent, continuous engagement with the local community throughout the duration of the project, and a flexible timeframe.

Community consent refers to a site not being declared for hosting a radioactive waste facility before the community has fully agreed to it. This could be established, among others, by a local referendum or a council decision and requires that the community can withdraw from the process at any point of time, until the final decision is taken. This factor is the true core of a voluntarist approach to avoid imposing a facility on an unwilling community.

The community should furthermore be continuously engaged, meaning that the engagement continues beyond the siting stage into the construction, operational and closing phases of the project to ensure ongoing attention is paid to community wellbeing and ownership.

Additionally, a voluntarist siting process should not set out a rigid timeframe for a decision to be taken but rather leave the community to engage in ways it finds meaningful and helpful until it feels ready to take an informed decision.

Looking at Australia, none of these factors is prominent in the current approach laid out by the Department of Industry and Science. Not only does it propose a very limited timeframe for the shortlisting of nominated sites, conducting site characterisation studies and a detailed business case to inform the final selection of a site, but it also leaves almost no room for community participation during this process. Beyond a 60-day commentary period following the announcement of shortlisted sites, most planned engagement with communities seems to be providing information rather than engaging in consultations.

Landholders can only withdraw from the process until site characterisation begins and communities as a whole seem to have no expressed right at all to withdraw or veto. In fact, community consent is not a precondition for a final site to be declared and will not have to be established at any point during the process. This entirely contradicts voluntarism and deeply undermines not only the project’s character but also its likely success.

If the federal government’s intention of following a voluntarist approach is sincere, it will have to take these factors into account – plus a number of other points that have proven essential and are outlined in the report. The next 12 months will show if we will once again witness a forceful attempt to deal with Australia’s radioactive waste or if the government is taking its promise of voluntarism serious – and how willing it is to learn from others and its own past.

The report, ‘Wasting time? International lessons for managing Australia’s radioactive waste’, is posted at:–-discussion

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,

Our heart jiggled with joy: Celebrating one year since historic nuclear dump decision

Friday June 19 marked one year since the federal government agreed not to pursue plans for a national radioactive waste dump at Muckaty, 120 km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. The campaign opposing the dump proposal persisted for over eight years.

Traditional Owners launched a federal court case challenging the Muckaty site nomination in 2010. The court had heard evidence in Melbourne, Tennant Creek and on country at Muckaty and was due to travel to Darwin the following week when the decision to abandon the plan was announced.

Beyond Nuclear Initiative coordinator Natalie Wasley said that community members are still elated about the news, which came as a surprise amidst the intensity of the court proceedings: “One year on, there is a mixture of pride, relief and concern. The determination and resilience of the community prevailed and networks and friendships were built that will last long in to the future. Sadly, some elders who were strongly opposed to the nuclear dump passed away before hearing that the land had been protected.”

Muckaty Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes said, “Everyone is feeling very happy that we won; we struggled that long to get it over and done with. It is special for us to celebrate one year and we are looking forward for the government to stay away from Muckaty and any remote area around Tennant Creek in the future. If anyone else around the country wants support to stop a nuclear dump, we will come along and help them to go against the waste. We had so much support when we were struggling, if anyone calls we will go straight there.”

At the time of the announcement, Warlmanpa woman Marlene Bennett Nungarrayi said: “Today will go down in the history books of Indigenous Australia on par with the Wave Hill Walk-off, Mabo and Blue Mud Bay. The Warlmanpa Nation has won an eight-year battle against the might and power of the Commonwealth Government and Northern Land Council. Justice has prevailed and this is a win for all Territorians.”

Muckaty Traditional Owners and supporters are monitoring the current site selection process for a national radioactive waste facility and will support any community that is shortlisted without full, informed consent.

Statement from Muckaty Traditional Owner Isobel Phillips:

It has been one year, since we stopped the nuclear waste dump at Muckaty.

Looking back now on how we struggled, it was the hardest. Keeping it up was the worst because of the pressure that our land will be destroyed.

We first felt sad, heartbroken and betrayed that the government would put the nuclear waste on our country.

And our grief is for our elders who have passed away − they helped us but their spirit is here with us today.

There is one thing that we have − our culture, lore, and family connection on the land.

We kept going with the fight until we won our land back.

Our heart jiggled with joy and smiled when we heard the good news that the government was not going ahead with the nuclear waste dump on our country.

We jumped and we danced with excitement − what a blessing.

We are so happy, so strong and still smiling with pride.

Don’t give up fighting for your land.

In the end, the land will not give up on you.

We will not give up the struggle about dumping nuclear waste on our country or on anyone else’s land.

We believe in the land, the land believes in you.

You know, it will be there for you.


Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,