In comments on the last post, a number of people were asking about the explosion reported earlier this morning at a nuclear reprocessing facility in Marcoule, France. With the caveat that early reports are always incomplete and often wrong, here’s the latest from the Guardian. Apparently, an oven used to melt down uranium and plutonium pellets exploded. The pellets are low-level waste, according to the story. One worker was killed (“carbonized”), and four were injured.
If anyone sees new information on this, or wants to discuss it, here’s a thread.
Je dirai une prière pour vous, mes amis.
Here’s the AJE page, although at this point they’re lagging behind the Guardian.
But our Nukular power is totally safe. Couldn’t happen here. Let’s license a few new plants…
Guardian duplicates everything I read in the midilibre which is a local French paper. 1 gravely injured and airlifted out, the others being treated locally. No exclusion / evacuation zones nearby, they just “locked” the perimeter fence or something along those general lines.
@scav: Le Monde says more or less the same thing. One death – from the explosion. One gravely injured, several others injured. The injured display no radiation contamination. No plan to evacuate workers.
Don’t the French use more nuclear power than anyone in Europe? Or something like that?
Sad and terrible. I hope it is contained and that it isn’t a lot worse than they are saying right now.
From the BBC report on the incident:
“The EDF spokesman said the furnace affected had been burning contaminated waste, including fuels, tools and clothing which had been used in nuclear energy production.” From that report it sounds like a waste incinerator rather than a high-temperature furnace used to melt uranium oxide for processing into fuel pellets.
I suspect the Guardian report conflated “fuel” with “nuclear fuel” and ran with it; their writers are not known for their scientific or technical accuracy in general.
In other news more than a hundred people have been reported killed in a Nairobi shantytown in Kenya courtesy of a leaking petrol pipe, but that’s not nuclear energy so it’s not as newsworthy.
What part of “Apparently, an oven used to melt down uranium and plutonium pellets exploded. The pellets are low-level waste, according to the story,” did you miss? An oven exploded. Thank goodness that never happens in non-nuclear environments.
Sounds like a run of the mill industrial accident … involving extremely dangerous substances. The French are one of the few nations which have civilian fast breeder reactors, which should cause some concern. I don’t know what kind of facility this one is, though.
My sympathy to those involved and associated and my hope that it doesn’t get worse.
I assume that “carbonized” means the body was burnt and blackened. It may very well have been instant.
This story may have a heightened poignancy, occurring just one day after the six-month anniversary of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami and the still-unfolding catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power complex.
From what we continue to learn about that incident, one must read government and industry updates on faciltiy conditions and contamination risks at the Marcoule site with close attention and some measure of skepticism.
It should be noted that the plant’s owner, EDF, the French national electricity company, enjoys political prestige and influence not dissimilar to that of Japan’s TEPCO, owner of Fukushima. (Evidently, the Marcoule facility is operated as a joint public/private venture between the French atomic energy organization CEA and the nuclear power company AREVA.)
Lets give the same coverage every time someone dies in a coal mine – would provide some perspective but wouldn’t leave room for much else in the newspaper.
What part of “Apparently” did YOU miss?
It happened at a nuclear plant so the stories and rumours started flying around the world, conflated and inflated beyond belief while truth was getting its boots on.
Terry Pratchett used to work for the Central Electricity Generating Board in the UK as a Press flack; as he told us in the convention bar once there was a time in the 1980s when a full-disclosure policy over incidents at nuclear facilities meant that he would occasionally be woken up at four in the morning by a phonecall from one of the nuclear reactor site managers who would always start with “I don’t want to worry you Terry but…”
Most of the incidents Terry reported on were of the “exploding transformer” variety, things that also happened at non-nuclear facilities but the policy was to put out press releases promptly and the readers usually never got past the “nuclear” bit of the headlines before panicking.
How about going a step or two further and adding breathless coverage of the number of premature deaths caused by breathing air that’s been polluted by coal-fired generators?
Luckily, we can trust those figures because the coal industry, end-to-end, has absolutely no political clout.
@Dennis SGMM: Were you one of the people who told us not to worry about Fukushima, as well? I don’t remember. There were quite a lot of people here telling people to calm down back in March. Of course now we know there were only three reactors with core to the floor meltdowns in Fukushima in March. Nothing to worry about there. In fact a researcher in Kyoto was reporting finding Iodine 131, with a half life of 8 days, in mid August. Where could that have come from? There is no criticality at any of the those reactors we are being told.
Meanwhile a supermarket down the road from me, 700 miles from Fukushima, was found to be selling beef tainted with Cesium 137. Nice. Actually the tainted beef was shipped to locations all over the country.
On the upside beef is cheap these days.
But yeah, make snide remarks and chide everyone expresses concern for nuclear power. And then your sidekick can chime in about how since we aren’t concerned about some other particularly fucked up thing, those concerns are just crap.
whatever. If you are lucky the nuclear reactor near your home won’t fuck up. And maybe the odds are low. But they don’t appear to be all that low to me. There are 440 working commercial reactors in the world and about 85 have been decommissioned since the first commercial reactor went on line in England in 1956. So of about 500 reactors in 50 years, 5 have had core meltdowns. It looks like 4 now have had total or partial containment breech. That’s a pretty crap record as I see it. Especially when one considers the way the body processes Strontium 90 as if it were calcium so that the radioactive isotope becomes part of your bones.
whatever. I’m already fucked. Maybe the risk is acceptable maybe it is unavoidable. But let’s not play bullshit games and try to pretend it’s safe. It isn’t. It may well be that we can’t live without nuclear power(I don’t think so though, Japan has now made it through a blistering hot summer with 70% of it’s reactors off line) but it isn’t safe.
And what part of “Something happened at a nuclear plant so that means nuclear power is BAAAAAD,” did you miss?
Carbonized? Just like Han Solo! Cool!
@snoey: Huge difference in scale. While coal miner deaths are a tragedy, they affect a small number of people—nuclear blow outs, sometimes not so much.
No, I wasn’t one of those saying not to worry about Fukushima. There’s a hell of a difference between having a reactor farm subject to an unusually powerful earthquake and then inundated tsunami and an industrial accident.
No method of generating electrical power is without its hazards. I surf a couple of times a week within less than a mile of the reactor at San Onofre. I’m more concerned about stepping on a stingray than I am about the reactor melting down.
I understand the concerns of those who worry about the risks of nuclear power. OTOH, the US Navy has been operating nuclear powered vessels since 1954 and they have managed to do without any meltdowns. Maybe a USN-level of expertise and care in design and operation of reactors is needed. That’s fine with me. While a US nuclear reactor may someday go terribly awry and kill people burning fossil fuels already kills people. I’ll take “might” over “does” any day of the week. Green energy would be great. The will and the money to change over to it doesn’t exist today and it may never do so.
As for the “you and your sidekick” crack; fuck you with a spent fuel rod.
Just to be a spoilsport and leaven the traditional doughy goodness of well-rehearsed arguments with some currents of info, CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) isn’t reporting any radioactivity outside or downwind and they seem to be an independent source although I’ll cop to not researching their financial history down to first causes. They’re [ETA: This they meaning the govt] also (according to LeMonde) going to be sending their ecology minister on-site today (? by midnight?) which, of inevitable course, means absolutely nothing unless we know how popular/despised/suicidal the Minister of Ecology is. Carry on.
And while were at it lets refer to coal ash piles as low level radioactive waste.
stupid, wrong & a petty idiot
@Dennis SGMM: Some points:
1) Agree in general with what you say about potential dangers of nuclear power, and in particular that Fukushima was the result of some unfortunate circumstances, the magnitude of which was inadequately planned for.
2) Following on from that, regulations on that sector should be much stricter than presently, and better enforced
3) The best technology regardless of if you’re a Green or not, would be nuclear Fusion. In order to start those processes, we will need large fission installations to generate the power.
@nancydarling: As of today there have been no deaths attributable to the radiation leak from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, six months after the explosions and release of radiocative contamination. Coal mining disasters kill (and maim) people immediately but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better outcome.
I don’t know what the running total is for this year but the Chinese authorities have been proudly boasting that last year (2010) only 2,500 coalminers had been killed in mining accidents as that was a major drop from the previous year’s total of over 4,000 fatalities. One can assume with some confidence that the 2009 death toll was not an anomoly so winding the numbers back in time to 1972 when the first Fukushima Daiichi reactor came on stream then it is probable that over 150,000 coalminers have died in China extracting coal to fuel part of that country’s energy needs for the same time period.
A worker was “carbonized”?
Why do I feel like I’m living in a sci-fi movie?
There is no such thing as “low level” plutonium waste. It’s an oxymoron.
@Southern Beale: Sounds like the origin story for a superhero to me. “He was carbonized by an accident at a nuclear reactor, and was turned into RadioIsotopeDatingMan.”
Sorry for the flippancy. I know I shouldn’t.
@dmsilev: That’s ok, here’s the comment I was sitting on: we’ll at least have company it whatever outland we’re banished to. Looks like you’ll be better company though.
@Southern Beale: Because somebody gave a reporter a dictionary and they made it all the way to C? All in all, I’m thinking the right circumstances and a solid housefire could produce a similar result and there are some sad sad steaks I have on my conscience because of similar outcome on grills although not if I stick the more technically correct definition.
Han Solo seemed to come through his carbonite experience ok.
To be fair, ‘carbonised’ might be a perfectly good French word which wasn’t translated correctly. Something like ‘charred’ or ‘third-degree burns’ might be the correct replacement.
EEEK! My old ISP sold their domain name and stuck me with an inferior replacement, which caused me to have to correct my email address. Which leaves me in moderation limbo …
I’m with @Dennis SGMM. Before we get carried away pontificating about the danger of nuclear power, lets take a look and compare the number of deaths from nuclear power plant accidents with the number of deaths caused by extracting and burning fossil fuel. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_and_radiation_accidents
Not even close!
Even if we look at the total number of people worldwide that may have died from causes related to excessive radiation exposure (as opposed to looking only at the number of workers killed from injuries sustained in the line of their work), I am sure it can’t hold a candle to the number of people worldwide who have died from causes related to fossil fuel extraction and burning which include respiratory problems, mercury poisoning and even deaths brought on by catastrophic flooding that may be a result of global warming that is exacerbated (if not caused exclusively) by carbon particle emission into the atmosphere.
BTW – the first link clearly shows that Chernobyl was a gross out-lyer, which we can probably attribute to the antiquated and unsafe graphite reactor technology and inept management put in place by the Soviets. There are now reports that the Japanese power company (or government agency?) was relying on lowly paid and imported contractors to do most of the “dirty” work at their power plants and was not subjecting their plants to the rigorous level of management and safety required by any large-scale power generator. It seems the real problem with nuclear reactors is a human one, not a technological problem.
@snoey: This is also not headline news at BJ: “Taliban claim Afghanistan truck bomb attack that wounded 77 US troops”
on september 11. That date seems to ring a bell.
Tone In DC
A mini flame war about a nuclear plant explosion. What the hell goes on here?
Sign up for UFC or something, get this pent up aggression out of your damn system.
Might as well play Big Ten or NFL ball.
@Tone In DC:
“What goes on here” is getting pent up aggression out of your damn system, and then later there is stuff about how to prepare butternut squash
@Larry: look…its regulatory capture. A
bugfeature of the “freed” market. the same thing that caused Fukushima and the BP gulf spill.
The “carbonised” part is super funny but probably not to the uncombusted family
Ah . . . the open question of whether capitalism can even handle energy in any other way . . . wait until we’re regulating orbital solar arrays.
Still wondering about the deafening silence on the Libya-Chad uranium deposits, French nuclear dependence, and their government’s apparent conviction on doubling down.
While I can understand your cynicism, there is a real dilemmma that underlies the whole energy discussion. Every means we have right now for generating mass energy to power the electrical grid, not autos, etc., has some serious hazards and down sides economically and environmentally. Coal generated electricity is as dangerous to us and the environment as nuclear generation (though less obviously spectacular). Hydrogeneration has lain waste to who valleys and river systems and destroyed the Pacific salmon among other species, in the United States and elsewhere.
We need serious discussion and awareness that whatever we choose, we will be making some downside decisions as well. We cannot play around that there is not a downside risk to every solution that we currently have with the current technology. Yes, of course, we must develop solar and wind power to their fullest, but its going to take some time and until that time, if you want electricity to power your lifestyle, you will be using one of those noxious choices.
Here’s a link to the Beeb’s latest article:
Turns out the plant produces MOX fuel, which is what powered Unit 2 at Fukushima Daichi, the only unit there so-powered and therefore, the only one containing plutonium (in a blend).
They bloody well better never have a release to the environment, Languedoc-Roussillon produces darn good wine.
Uncle Clarence Thomas
Fortunately, that will never happen here because of President Obama’s wise policy of providing government loan guarantees to the nuclear industry.
All reactors have plutonium in the fuel rods if they’ve been running for any length of time. Neutron capture of non-fissile U-238 produces the short-lived isotope Neptunium-239 which then changes into Pu-239. It’s the basic principle behind “breeding”. Some of that Pu-239 captures another neutron and makes Pu-240 given a bit of time and more neutrons. At the same time the Pu is being bred it is also getting burnt as it’s fissionable just like U-235 but at the end of the fuel burn when the reactor is shut down for defuelling, inspection and refuelling there’s always some Pu left unburnt once the fission process stops. I think for light-water reactor fuel cycles plutonium makes up about 1% or so of the spent fuel by volume. Fuel reprocessing operations such as PUREX extract that Pu and it gets incorporated in fresh MOX fuel rods along with decommissioned nuclear warhead material to about 7%-9% of the total mass of the fuel pellets.
I don’t know what you’ve got against plutonium compared to the other witches’ brew of radioisotopes (Sr-90, Co-60 etc.) the fuel monkeys work on at Marcoule — you might have been listening to Ralph Nader lying his ass off about how uniquely dangerous plutonium is or just heard it from so many sources that you believed it had to be true since lots of people agreed with him.
Medical science has studied plutonium and the results say, basically, avoid it if you can but if you can’t then don’t worry about it too much. Its half-life of 24,000 years (Pu-239, the most common form likely to be released during a reactor incident) means it’s not very radioactive. It has a high melting and vapour point meaning it takes a lot of heat to get it out of fuel elements or indeed any containment and into the environment unlike caesium-134/137 and iodine-131 which are much more mobile. The best way to disperse a lot of plutonium particles into the environment is to fire it off in a nuclear device as the US did in Nevada a couple of hundred times in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. A nuke only burns a few percent of its “fuel”, the rest is scattered by the force of the explosion before it can fission. All of that surplus Pu is still around in the soil or blowing around as dust over the rest of the US, Canada and Mexico as well as the rest of the planet. The Napa Valley isn’t that far from the Nevada test range, is it?
As an aside the MOX fuel rods in Fukushima no. 2 reactor came from the UK, not from France. Japan is building its own fuel reprocessing facility and that will be able to make MOX fuel assemblies in the future.
“Safety implications differ depending on the amount of MOX fuel that is used. For example, at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, about 6 percent of the fuel in reactor #3 is MOX fuel, which contains about 200 kilograms of plutonium. This amount is a small enough that it will likely make no significant difference in the amount of plutonium that may escape into the environment. However, the use of MOX fuel can lead to increased safety problems when it is a larger fraction of the fuel (e.g. 30 percent or more, as is done in France). In such a case the MOX fuel can increase both the likelihood that certain types of accidents will occur and the public health consequences should one occur.”
Also, too, I wrongly cited Unit 2, it’s Unit 3.
@trollhattan: That’s the Union of Concerned Scientists you’re quoting, right? UCS? Just checking. I’ve been less than impressed by some of their previous utterances on the subject of nuclear power although their information about nuclear weapons is usually pretty decent.
Plutonium’s threat biologically speaking to human beings, animals and plant life lies in its radiotoxicity and not its chemical toxicity. Someone would have to inhale or ingest amazingly large quantities of Pu for it to cause bad effects biochemically speaking. Compared to beryllium, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and even lead it is basically innocuous, on a par with uranium which is similarly bio-ineffective.
Radiotoxicity basically depends on the half-life of the element, the type and energy of its emission when it decays and also the biological uptake of the element or a compound of said element. Strontium can be incorporated in bones so it remains in the body for years or decades and Sr-90 has a halflife of about 30 years which makes it pretty “hot” compared to, say, Pu-239 with a halflife of 24,000 years and no biological pathway that would create a reservoir in the body like, say, iodine-131 (halflife 8 days) does in the thyroid. Pu dust inhaled into the lungs gets expectorated by the normal processes the lungs use to clear themselves of solid particles over the course of a few days although most folks unconsciously swallow the mucus. It passes through the gut and is, ahem, eliminated after a couple more days.
During nuclear wepons development in the 1940s and early 1950s a bunch of American workers inhaled and/or ingested Pu in dust or particle form during experiments and manufacturing operations. They were carefully monitored subsequently. From memory, of ten of these people about four had died by the 1990s when they would be in their 60s and 70s. One had died of cancer, the rest from heart disease and other causes. The others were still alive at this point, receiving the best healthcare the US government could provide. I’d also bet that many of them smoked cigarettes as most adults did during that period.
Uranium (half-life of 750 million/4 billion years) is a lot less radiotoxic than plutonium but partially-burnt and spent fuel is, as I described it, a witches brew of all sorts of much more problematic isotopes than Pu, even in fuel rods with high MOX concentrations. If things go wrong those elements also get out of the reactor’s pressure vessel a lot more easily than Pu having lower boiling points and they disperse a lot further than Pu when shit does go wrong — see Fukushima as an example where nearly all of the contamination escaping the reactor buildings was due to mobile forms of Cs-134 and Cs-137 and I-131. The Pu in the reactors stayed put. When the investigators sampled the reactor site they found minute traces of plutonium in the sorts of isotope ratios that indicated it was mostly or all residue from assorted nuclear weapons tests (Soviet mainland and US, British and French Pacific test sites) as well as some leftovers from the Hiroshima bomb. I don’t think they could identify any Pu as having come from the reactors.
Basically MOX is not really more of a threat to the environment than regular enriched uranium fuel if another Fukushima or even a Tchernobyl (which did release noticable amounts of Pu from its meltdown) happens. It’s just got that scary plutonium vibe to it.