Greenpeace recently issued a press release warning about a potential hazard associated with putting nuclear waste containers in a salt formation at Gorleben. The author of the press release and the gullible reporters who faithfully reported the concern without any questions or fact checking neglected a simple physical fact – there is a minimum temperature required to ignite any material. That temperature is not a matter of opinion, it can be determined by experiment and measured repeatedly with great accuracy.
For methane – also known as natural gas – the auto ignition temperature is 842 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of the nuclear waste containers that will be put into Gorleben will reach a maximum of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, this is not a matter of opinion – it is a matter of engineering, design, testing and measurement.
The only conclusion that a scientist, an engineer, or a reasonably well-informed journalist could reach is that even if you put these particular nuclear waste containers in a room full of natural gas with the optimum mix of gas and oxygen for burning, the mixture would not ignite without some kind of additional ignition source. The conditions are not even close to a danger point; the max actual temperature is 200 degrees F versus a required 842 degrees F.
After reading a UPI article that faithfully reported the Greenpeace issued press release without question, I posted a short article on Atomic Insights describing the above logic. One of my German readers responded to my post with an email letting me know that the Greenpeace press release was most likely designed to be part of what he called the largest theater show in Germany – the annual shipment of nuclear waste. Here is a quote from his email:
There is one transport each year. And this takes place this weekend, you can’t escape it in the newes or internet: Germanys biggest theatre event. The actors: some 10 thousend demonstrants and 15 thousend policemen. The story: each time the same, most demonstrans keep peasefully show their opinion, which acceptabale for me (e
Some are blocking the tracks and the roads; those have to be removed by the police. Removal by Police is conflicting sometimes with injurys at both sides. Blocking of tracks and roads is not accepatabale. Some even do sabotage on the tracks and roads. Thats criminal. If a train would derail, poepole could be killed or injured.
(Note: Please understand that my reader is not a native English speaker or writer.)
That email encouraged me to provide a bit more context than you might find in other stories about the shipment.
The waste shipments are containers loaded with vitrified glass logs that are produced at La Hague, which is about 25 kilometers from Cherbourg, France. Some reports have given the impression that the material is “French” but it is being sent back to Germany because it was originally produced in Germany.
German nuclear power plant operators have a long standing recycling contract with Areva, the vertically integrated French nuclear company that was formed by merging together a number of specialized nuclear firms. Used nuclear from German reactors is sent to Areva’s facility at La Hague for recycling. The process used at La Hague strips off the protective cladding and dissolves the fuel rods. The materials that are useful for near term use as new nuclear fuel rods – plutonium and uranium – get extracted.
Those heavy metal materials will eventually serve as the raw material for mixed oxide fuel (MOX) rods. The material from about 7 used fuel rods is recycled into one MOX rod that will then serve for another 4.5-6 years as the heat source in a nuclear reactor. A 500 kilogram nuclear fuel assembly can produce approximately 7,000-8,000 Megawatt-days worth of electricity during its residence in a reactor. My house consumes about 1500 kilowatt hours per month. A single MOX fuel assembly can provide enough electricity to keep that house operating for 112,000-128,000 months
The portions of used fuel that are not immediately useful as new fuel – mostly zirconium cladding and a mixture of fission fragment isotopes – are mixed with glass and vitrified into glass logs. After they are produced, these logs rest under the floor in a gymnasium-sized building for a few years worth of cooling off, but then they get packaged up and shipped back to their origination for permanent storage.
Aside: I came really close one day to being able to walk across that floor, but we were running short of time on our tour of La Hague and needed to leave to catch a train. I saw the storage building from the window of the van as we drove past. End Aside.
This year, the total mass of the shipment – which represents the waste from operating 17 nuclear power plants supplying 25% of Germany’s electricity for one year – is just 123 tons. That is less than the mass of two typical train car loads of coal. It will be packaged and carried on 11 train cars, each with about 100 tons worth of protective material surrounding just over 10 tons worth of glass logs. A power plant producing as much electricity as just one of the German reactors will burn approximately 100 train car loads of coal each day and produce 10-30 train car loads of ash depending on the source of the coal.
For a variety of reasons, groups like Greenpeace have used the occasion of the annual waste shipments as an excuse to hold a 950 mile long carnival of protests. I remain convinced that a major motivation for the people that supply the funds for this party is that they want to do everything they can do discourage their nuclear competitors from taking more market share from fossil fuel. The people currently paying Gerhard Schroder’s salary at Gazprom are probably quite disappointed that Angela Merkel has voided the deal that he made. That deal would have decommissioned Germany’s reactors decades before the end of their useful lives and replace their output by buying and burning more Russian gas. It would not surprise me to learn that some of the protesters have been paid in rubles.
I would bet that some of the participants in the annual event – both the protesters, the law enforcement teams, and the transport workers – have developed lasting friendships that get renewed each year. Based on the description of the resources associated with the shipment in a November 5, 2010 NPR story, I expect that there are towns along the route that enjoy the annual burst of pre-holiday season income from feeding and housing the protesters, supplying the personnel for guarding the trains, and hosting the journalists and their crews that come to cover the entertaining conflicts between the protesters and the police.
However, as my German reader pointed out, sometimes the protests turn ugly, property gets damaged and people get hurt. That is a cause for regret – without the protests the chances of anyone ever getting hurt from the process of handling used nuclear fuel are slim and none.