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Lockheed Martin Claims Nuclear Energy Breakthrough

Washington (AFP) – Lockheed Martin Corp says it has made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, with reactors small enough to fit on the back of a truck.

The aerospace and security firm, which made the announcement Wednesday, says it expects its first operational reactor to be ready in as little as 10 years.

And thanks to the reactor’s smaller size, the company based just outside Washington in Bethesda, Maryland, said it can design, build and test the new compact fusion reactor in less than a year.

After completing several of these cycles, Lockheed’s team said it plans on being able to produce a prototype in five years.

“Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” said Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs.

The Skunk Works team also plans to search for partners to help further the technology.

Roger Dargaville, a research fellow and leader of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne, Australia, stressed that nuclear energy will be an important part of power generation in countries where other low carbon alternatives are not viable.

“The potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news as the dangerous by-products of fission reactors are a major disadvantage of the technology,” said Dargaville.

But, he added, “The lack of political will to address the general resistance to nuclear power within the population means the option for using nuclear will come too late.”

Lockheed’s announcement is still a “long way” from a working prototype or commercially viable power generator, said Joel Gilmore of Australia-based ROAM Consulting.

“Fusion requires incredibly high temperatures and pressures, which is challenging, and a lot of people have been working on fusion for a long time. So I won’t get too excited yet,” he said.

“Even if successful, the big question is what will fusion power cost? It will be challenging to compete with the falling costs of conventional renewable energy sources, especially in Australia with our world class wind and solar resources.”

Photo: AFP via Eric Piermont

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Two Reactors Declared Safe As Japan Edges Back To Nuclear Power

By Lars Nicolaysen, dpa

TOKYO — Two nuclear reactors in Japan passed new safety standards Wednesday, for the first time since the nuclear disaster at Fukushima three and a half years ago.

The move brings Japan closer to restarting domestic nuclear power generation after the government shut down all of its nuclear plants in the wake of the reactor meltdown at Fukushima, which followed an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

Two reactors at the Sendai power plant in Kagoshima prefecture in the south of the country obtained safety clearance from regulators on Wednesday.

The plant operated by Kyushu Electric was unlikely to start operating before December due to unfinished paperwork, Kyodo News agency reported.

The Sendai plant would still need the approval of local authorities, with public opinion nationwide on balance opposed to the resumption of nuclear power.

Currently all 48 of Japan’s commercial reactors are idle. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in April that it was planning a return to nuclear power.

In May a local court in the central prefecture of Fukui found in favour of anti-nuclear activists and blocked the restarting of two reactors at the Oi plant by operator Kansai Electric Power Co, ruling that the risk from earthquakes was unknowable.

But the government is still pushing for nuclear plants to come back online. Imports of fossil fuels to make up the shortfall using thermal power plants has helped drive the country’s trade balance into the red for the past two years.

The two Sendai reactors have a capacity of 1.8 gigawatts, or around 5 per cent of the former total output of the country’s nuclear power stations, which supplied around a third of the grid’s energy.

Nuclear was unlikely ever to contribute such a high proportion of the energy mix again, experts said. Fewer than half of the reactors were thought likely to pass the tightened security tests.

Any more than 40 years old were to be automatically mothballed, and Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi has ruled out the building of any new ones, at least for the foreseeable future.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Radiation Leak Forces Closure At New Mexico Waste Burial Site

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

The Energy Department suspended normal operations for a fourth day at its New Mexico burial site for defense nuclear waste after a radiation leak inside salt tunnels where the material is buried.

Officials at the site, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, activated air filters as a precaution and barred personnel from entering the 2,150-foot-deep repository as they investigate what caused the leak. Radiation sensors sounded alarms late Friday, when no workers were in the underground portions of the plant.

Officials at the site discounted any effect on human health, saying no radiation escaped to the surface. But they said little about the extent of the problem or how it could be cleaned up.

“Officials at WIPP continue to monitor the situation,” spokeswoman Deb Gill said. “We are emphasizing there is no threat to human health and the environment.”

How long the repository will be closed and the impact on the defense nuclear cleanup program was unclear.

The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, a federal operation in eastern Idaho that is the biggest user of WIPP, said Monday that it had suspended waste shipments.

Gill said the repository shutdown occurred earlier this month after another incident in which a truck caught fire in an underground tunnel. That matter is still under investigation.

Any prolonged shutdown could cause a backup of waste at a dozen nuclear-weapons-related sites across the nation. In 2012, those dozen sites made 846 shipments to the dump, more than two per day. A spokesman at the Idaho operation said it was continuing normal business and storing the waste onsite.

WIPP officials have said little about what could have triggered the radiation leak.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he believed the cause most likely involved radioactive material on the outside of a container that was not been properly decontaminated. Waste is typically packaged into sealed containers. Any contamination on the outside of the containers normally would be cleaned, Lyman said.

A less probable cause, he said, was a radiological process inside a container that forced material out. WIPP has acceptance criteria for the waste that is supposed to prevent such an accident.

Lyman said the extent of the cleanup operation necessary to get the repository back in operation depends on the intensity and range of contamination in the underground tunnels.

“It could be a mess,” Lyman said. “If there is airborne contamination and it involves plutonium, they are going to need to decontaminate surfaces. If it is in the ventilation system, it could have spread to other areas.”

WIPP is the repository for so-called transuranic waste, which includes plutonium and other artificial elements heavier than uranium. In Idaho, for example, contaminated clothing, tools, wood and paper are bundled up in 55-gallon drums, then crushed into 4-inch “pucks.” The pucks are put into massive, lead-lined shipping containers with 3-inch-thick tops and bottoms designed to withstand highway crashes.

The New Mexico repository places the waste inside shafts within an ancient salt bed, which is supposed to collapse around the waste in the future and seal it. The operation began in March 1999.

The nuclear waste sent to WIPP is far less radioactive than the spent fuel or sludge from nuclear weapons production that was intended to go to a dump at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. After technical and political problems with that project, the Obama administration has studied an alternative site. Federal officials had hoped an exemplary record at WIPP would help build support for a more complex high-level repository.

“It hasn’t been a good month for WIPP,” Lyman said.

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory via Flickr