by Staff Writers
Princeton NJ (SPX) May 30, 2017
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relied on faulty analysis to justify its refusal to adopt a critical measure for protecting Americans from the occurrence of a catastrophic nuclear-waste fire at any one of dozens of reactor sites around the country, according to an article in the May 26 issue of Science magazine. Fallout from such a fire could be considerably larger than the radioactive emissions from the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan.
Published by researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the article argues that NRC inaction leaves the public at high risk from fires in spent-nuclear-fuel cooling pools at reactor sites.
The pools - water-filled basins that store and cool used radioactive fuel rods - are so densely packed with nuclear waste that a fire could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey. On average, radioactivity from such an accident could force approximately 8 million people to relocate and result in $2 trillion in damages.
These catastrophic consequences, which could be triggered by a large earthquake or a terrorist attack, could be largely avoided by regulatory measures that the NRC refuses to implement. Using a biased regulatory analysis, the agency excluded the possibility of an act of terrorism as well as the potential for damage from a fire beyond 50 miles of a plant. Failing to account for these and other factors led the NRC to significantly underestimate the destruction such a disaster could cause.
"The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants," said paper co-author Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security (SGS), based at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry's wishes."
Von Hippel's co-authors are Michael Schoeppner, a former postdoctoral researcher at Princeton's SGS, and Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Spent-fuel pools were brought into the spotlight following the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. A 9.0-magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, disabling the electrical systems necessary for cooling the reactor cores. This led to core meltdowns at three of the six reactors at the facility, hydrogen explosions, and a release of radioactive material.
"The Fukushima accident could have been a hundred times worse had there been a loss of the water covering the spent fuel in pools associated with each reactor," von Hippel said. "That almost happened at Fukushima in Unit 4."
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC considered proposals for new safety requirements at U.S. plants. One was a measure prohibiting plant owners from densely packing spent-fuel pools, requiring them to expedite transfer of all spent fuel that has cooled in pools for at least five years to dry storage casks, which are inherently safer. Densely packed pools are highly vulnerable to catching fire and releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The NRC analysis found that a fire in a spent-fuel pool at an average nuclear reactor site would cause $125 billion in damages, while expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry casks could reduce radioactive releases from pool fires by 99 percent. However, the agency decided the possibility of such a fire is so unlikely that it could not justify requiring plant owners to pay the estimated cost of $50 million per pool.
The NRC cost-benefit analysis assumed there would be no consequences from radioactive contamination beyond 50 miles from a fire. It also assumed that all contaminated areas could be effectively cleaned up within a year. Both of these assumptions are inconsistent with experience after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.
In two previous articles, von Hippel and Schoeppner released figures that correct for these and other errors and omissions. They found that millions of residents in surrounding communities would have to relocate for years, resulting in total damages of $2 trillion - nearly 20 times the NRC's result. Considering the nuclear industry is only legally liable for $13.6 billion, thanks to the Price Anderson Act of 1957, U.S. taxpayers would have to cover the remaining costs.
The authors point out that if the NRC does not take action to reduce this danger, Congress has the authority to fix the problem. Moreover, the authors suggest that states that provide subsidies to uneconomical nuclear reactors within their borders could also play a constructive role by making those subsidies available only for plants that agreed to carry out expedited transfer of spent fuel.
"In far too many instances, the NRC has used flawed analysis to justify inaction, leaving millions of Americans at risk of a radiological release that could contaminate their homes and destroy their livelihoods," said Lyman. "It is time for the NRC to employ sound science and common-sense policy judgments in its decision-making process."
The paper, "Nuclear safety regulation in the post-Fukushima era," was published May 26 in Science. For more information, see von Hippel and Schoeppner's previous papers, "Reducing the Danger from Fires in Spent Fuel Pools" and "Economic Losses From a Fire in a Dense-Packed U.S. Spent Fuel Pool," which were published in Science and Global Security in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The Science article builds upon the findings of a Congressionally-mandated review by the National Academy of Sciences, on which von Hippel served.
- SPACE STORY -
Researchers develop magnetic switch to turn on and off a strange quantum property
Researchers develop magnetic switch to turn on and off a strange quantum property
These images show the orbital paths of electrons trapped within a circular region within graphene. In the classical orbit (top image), an electron that travels in a complete circuit has the same physical state as when it started on the path. However, when an applied magnetic field reaches a critical value, (bottom image), an electron completing a circuit has a different physical state its original one. The change is called a Berry phase and the magnetic field acts as a switch to turn on the Berry phase. The result is that the electron is raised to a higher energy level. Image courtesy Christopher Gutierrez, Daniel Walkup/NIST.
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Now, there is a way to control the outcome, thanks to an international research group led by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The team has developed the first switch that turns on and off this mysterious quantum behavior. The discovery promises to provide new insight into the fundamentals of quantum theory and may lead to new quantum electronic devices.
To study this quantum property, NIST physicist and fellow Joseph A. Stroscio and his colleagues studied electrons corralled in special orbits within a nanometer-sized region of graphene - an ultrastrong, single layer of tightly packed carbon atoms. The corralled electrons orbit the center of the graphene sample just as electrons orbit the center of an atom. The orbiting electrons ordinarily retain the same exact physical properties after traveling a complete circuit in the graphene. But when an applied magnetic field reaches a critical value, it acts as a switch, altering the shape of the orbits and causing the electrons to possess different physical properties after completing a full circuit.
The researchers report their findings in the May 26, 2017, issue of Science.
The newly developed quantum switch relies on a geometric property called the Berry phase, named after English physicist Sir Michael Berry who developed the theory of this quantum phenomenon in 1983. The Berry phase is associated with the wave function of a particle, which in quantum theory describes a particle's physical state. The wave function - think of an ocean wave - has both an amplitude (the height of the wave) and a phase - the location of a peak or trough relative to the start of the wave cycle.
When an electron makes a complete circuit around a closed loop so that it returns to its initial location, the phase of its wave function may shift instead of returning to its original value. This phase shift, the Berry phase, is a kind of memory of a quantum system's travel and does not depend on time, only on the geometry of the system - the shape of the path. Moreover, the shift has observable consequences in a wide range of quantum systems.
Although the Berry phase is a purely quantum phenomenon, it has an analog in non-quantum systems. Consider the motion of a Foucault pendulum, which was used to demonstrate Earth's rotation in the 19th century. The suspended pendulum simply swings back and forth in the same vertical plane, but appears to slowly rotate during each swing - a kind of phase shift - due to the rotation of Earth beneath it.
Since the mid-1980s, experiments have shown that several types of quantum systems have a Berry phase associated with them. But until the current study, no one had constructed a switch that could turn the Berry phase on and off at will. The switch developed by the team, controlled by a tiny change in an applied magnetic field, gives electrons a sudden and large increase in energy.
Several members of the current research team - based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University - developed the theory for the Berry phase switch.
To study the Berry phase and create the switch, NIST team member Fereshte Ghahari built a high-quality graphene device to study the energy levels and the Berry phase of electrons corralled within the graphene.
First, the team confined the electrons to occupy certain orbits and energy levels. To keep the electrons penned in, team member Daniel Walkup created a quantum version of an electric fence by using ionized impurities in the insulating layer beneath the graphene. This enabled a scanning tunneling microscope at NIST's nanotechnology user facility, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, to probe the quantum energy levels and Berry phase of the confined electrons.
The team then applied a weak magnetic field directed into the graphene sheet. For electrons moving in the clockwise direction, the magnetic field created tighter, more compact orbits. But for electrons moving in counterclockwise orbits, the magnetic field had the opposite effect, pulling the electrons into wider orbits. At a critical magnetic field strength, the field acted as a Berry phase switch. It twisted the counterclockwise orbits of the electrons, causing the charged particles to execute clockwise pirouettes near the boundary of the electric fence.
Ordinarily, these pirouettes would have little consequence. However, says team member Christopher Gutierrez, "the electrons in graphene possess a special Berry phase, which switches on when these magneticallyinduced pirouettes are triggered."
When the Berry phase is switched on, orbiting electrons abruptly jump to a higher energy level. The quantum switch provides a rich scientific tool box that will help scientists exploit ideas for new quantum devices, which have no analog in conventional semiconductor systems, says Stroscio.
F. Ghahari, D. Walkup, C. Gutierrez, J.F. Rodriguez-Nieva, Y. Zhao, J. Wyrick, F.D. Natterer, W.G. Cullen, K. Watanabe, T. Taniguchi, L.S. Levitov, N.B. Zhitenev, J.A. Stroscio. An on/off Berry phase switch in circular graphene resonators. Science. May 26.
Kiev (AFP) April 26, 2017
The presidents of Ukraine and Belarus toured Wednesday the site of the Chernobyl plant to mark 31 years since the "unhealing wound" of the world's worst civil nuclear accident spewed radiation across Europe. The station's fourth reactor in the north of former Soviet Ukraine exploded in 1986 after a safety test went horribly wrong at 1:23 am on April 26. Around 30 people were killed on si ... read more
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