May 26, 2020

Ep 263: Paul Dickman - Senior Policy Fellow, Argonne National Laboratory

Senior Policy Fellow
Argonne National Laboratory
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Show notes

Paul Dickman’s Nuclear Resume (0:00-9:49)
(Paul Dickman provides an overview of his introduction to the nuclear space and his experience in nuclear waste and national security)

Q: What’s your background and how did you get into the nuclear space?
A: Paul Dickman got a Bachelor’s degree in history, but became interested in the sciences during a History of Science class he took. This led him to take many science courses like physics, chemistry, and biology and eventually a Master’s degree in nuclear chemistry. In 1977, Paul spent a summer working at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) researching High-Level waste disposal. In his job search a year later, Paul was hired into the Waste Management division at the Idaho National Lab (INL). He spent the first three years researching Low-Level waste and what would eventually be known as Higher-Than-Class-C waste. Paul eventually transferred to the Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas to run some of the environmental studies programs for a few years. This led him to get involved with the Yucca Mountain project in 1987. That same year, amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the project shifted from a good science project to a site with a political overtone. Paul then went to work for the Department of Energy in the defense waste management area, followed by a stint at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Around this time, the U.S. started shutting down the nuclear weapons complex and Paul joined the Office of Facility Transition. Paul was then asked by the Director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to return to Yucca Mountain for five years. His next role was back in the Department of Energy in the National Nuclear Safety Administration. This group focuses on nuclear weapons, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear marinecraft. In 2006, Paul returned to the NRC, bringing him to retirement in 2010. At this point, he went to work for Argonne National Lab primarily on the national security side. His focuses include export control, dealing with international organizations, and advising the Japanese government on the decommissioning of Fukushima.

Clean-up & Revitalization at Fukushima (9:49-19:57)
(How the Japanese government and electric utility managed the clean-up and community revitalization in the aftermath of Fukushima)

Q: Why is dealing with the existing Fukushima site still such an expensive and complicated issue?
A: Paul Dickman serves as an advisor to the Japanese government on the decommissioning of Fukushima. When Fukushima happened, the Japanese government did not address certain key issues early on, specifically the treatment and discharge of water. The Fukushima site receives a lot of rain and there was a lot of contamination seeping into the groundwater. This required the contaminated water to be pumped up and treated, removing everything except tritium, which is naturally occurring in water. Instead of discharging it into the ocean, the water was stored in tanks. Fukushima is one of the great agricultural centers of Japan and the fishermen in the area were deeply concerned that additional release of radioactive materials into the ocean would effectively kill their industry. Japan is a consensus-based society, leading to agreements, not decisions. In Japan, the nuclear village of experts were relied upon by the public for saying the reactors were safe and accidents could never happen, losing credibility after Fukushima. Large parts of the area were evacuated when Fukushima happened and the criteria for reentry was quite strict. People have been allowed to go back for almost three years, yet only 30% of the original evacuees have returned. The infrastructure and services needed to create a viable, sustainable economy haven’t returned. In the U.S., sites like Savannah River and Hanford have brought large amounts of money into the economy for clean-up efforts. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the Fukushima site, is starting to understand they can leverage their spending to help economic revitalization in the area. One of the major factors that helped drive decisions in Japan was the Olympics. The Olympics represented Japan back on its feet after the Fukushima accident, especially since the training center was located in the Fukushima prefecture. The soccer field was actually used as the command center during the accident and has since been returned to the Olympic committee.

Considerations for Nuclear National Security (19:57-29:48)
(A look at the concerns about dual use nuclear technology and how safeguard reviews are used to account for nuclear material)

Q: What are some of the concerns related to nuclear exports?
A: Paul Dickman has worked in many different facets of the national security side of the nuclear industry. From a national security standpoint, there are always concerns about the misuse of nuclear technology. Per the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there are obligations to try and limit the spread of certain technologies while not limiting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Certain technologies are dual use, meaning they could either be used for the advancement of nuclear weapon development or for nuclear power. One example is the production of heavy water, which is a traditional method to produce nuclear materials for weapons. However, it is also used peacefully in the Canadian CANDU reactors. Anything that can produce nuclear material that is weapons-usable is usually considered dual use, including the production of tritium and plutonium. All reactors must undergo a safeguards review. Some of the newer technologies being looked at have not gone through the rigorous safeguards review typical to more mature technology. The designs and procedures must include processes where the materials that are introduced into a reactor, and extracted from a reactor, are accounted for. Some ways to maintain safeguards at the spent fuel pool include monitoring systems, cameras, and inspection crews. One of the biggest concerns today about advanced reactors is the exportation of nuclear technology related to theft over intellectual property. Many of these advanced reactor developers are looking at international partners, due to market demand. In the export community, companies looking to find international partners need to follow provisions put in place for transparencies, assurances about use of the technology, and enforceability. The U.S. has essentially stopped doing business with China. The Chinese government has recently said that there are basically no barriers between the commercial nuclear sector and the military nuclear sector. The transfer of technology from the commercial sector to the military is prohibited. One of the concerns in doing business with India is related to liability laws in the country, which the U.S. and other countries have not yet accepted.

Nuclear Waste Storage Considerations (29:48-48:25)
(Conversations about radioactive waste and which different nuclear waste storage solutions were considered and vetted)

Q: Why do we treat nuclear waste any differently than we treat other industrial wastes, like arsenic or cadmium, that might have toxicity that last forever?
A: To a certain extent, toxic metals are not radioactive and are toxic infinitely long. In nuclear waste, cesium and strontium only have 30 year half-lives, so they are gone after approximately 300 years. The reason for treating nuclear waste as lasting for one million years is due to the decay daughters of plutonium and uranium. Many other isotopes are around that are water-transportable. Several studies were done for Yucca Mountain, but essentially, after a few hundred years, the vast majority of radioactivity has been diminished. However, there are still radioisotopes of concern that last for thousands and tens of thousands of years. The human body can purge iodine; when a nuclear disaster happens, potassium iodide is distributed to overwhelm the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine. The body evolved through a time at which there was significantly more radioactivity in the background, which is the reason why the body needs materials like selenium. Selenium acts like a vitamin in small doses, but can be toxic in large doses. The human body accepts radiation with no impact at low levels. Nuclear waste needs to be isolated in such a way that it can be done within this generation’s periods, leading to the solution of geologic repositories. Heavy metals, which can’t be destroyed, are put into a matrix so they are not solubilized to keep them out of the groundwater and out of the air. Nuclear waste is extremely dangerous at the time it’s produced, requiring shielding, protection, and isolation. In hundreds or thousands of years, it is not as dangerous because the more dangerous aspects of the radioactive emitting parts have decayed away. The million year standard for nuclear waste is quite controversial. On the toxic side, the EPA no migration petition calls for 10,000 years. In a perfect world, the spent fuel could be recycled to the extent it could and the portion of the material that needs to be isolated for 300-1000 years could be extracted to decay away. The reality is that the U.S. and other countries don’t need to recycle because there is plenty of uranium. There are many natural analogs like coal mines or uranium mines. However, they cannot be placed in an area where there is still an economic resource that could be exploited. Twenty-eight sites were originally considered suitable for what would eventually become Yucca Mountain. The 1984 Act included a provision for monitored retrievable storage of nuclear waste, and even though a proposal was made, it was eventually rejected. If Paul Dickman could have changed one thing in the Nuclear Policy Act would be to require an extended interim storage provision before disposal. This gets the material into a managed position to allow an option for people to look at technologies for utilizing the material. The day of the large reactor is gone, but there needs to be base load. One of the biggest problems to come is melding of intermittent renewable technologies and base load technologies, which may be dominated by nuclear energy in the future. Nuclear in the future is smaller, more agile, and more integrated into smart grids to allow dispatchable power. People are going to look at reactors and technologies that are load-following.

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