Sunday, January 17, 2021

Century-Old Reactors? Tritium in Reactor Domes, Atomic Vets, Used Fuel Fires

Dear Readers,

It's been almost a year since my last newsletter, although I did post a few comments online (URL's below). But I have been busy: In the meantime, I created nearly 300 animations illustrating what happens when people don't wear masks (they spew Coronavirus). These animations have been viewed on Twitter more than a million times.

Currently I've been tested for CoViD six times, all clean. However, last fall a blood test revealed I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, and I've been getting chemotherapy treatments about once per month. So far, so good. Three more treatments to go, and then, hopefully, a stem cell transplant if all goes well. If not, my wife will let you know...

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Items in this newsletter:

(1) The Hundred Year Nuclear War Against the Environment
(2) URLs for recent essays
(3) How much Tritium is in San Onofre's concrete domes?
(4) Three Tritium essays from 2004, 2006 and 2007
(5) How long does radiation last?
(6) Spent Fuel Fires and Criticality Events
(7) Atomic Veterans and Atomic Victims
(8) EIGHT SIMPLE RULES for protecting your heart
(9) Newsletter authorship notes

(1) The Hundred Year Nuclear War Against the Environment:

On January 21, 2021, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold an all-day virtual public hearing on the insane proposal to extend nuclear power plant licenses to 100 years from the current maximum of 80 years, which is already double the original life expectancy the plants were designed for: A maximum of 40 years. The NRC is doing this not because it's safe or logical, but because it's cheaper and easier than trying to build a new reactor. Also because in some states, such as California, new reactors are forbidden until an out-of-state permanent nuclear waste repository is established and operating. (Never mind that each so-called "refueling" actually places a NEW REACTOR (or at least 1/3rd of a new reactor) inside the reactor pressure vessel, but who's quibbling?)

Recently, famed investigative reporter Karl Grossman published an article about the proposal to extend the reactor licenses to 100 years. The article is well worth reading ahead of the NRC meeting and is available online here:

Additionally, here are some other things to consider:

One of the times San Onofre had to shut down was because a thick cable (as I recall it was over two inches thick) finally gave out after about 30 years -- gave out because it was squished between the floor and the refrigerator-size breakout box it was connected to -- it had been installed carelessly and took decades to fail, but fail it did, eventually.

Also at SanO, the thickness of one of the main steam pipes to the generators had significantly worn over the years, as much as 90% of its thickness had been lost in some parts. But the steam-pipe deterioration wasn't noticed until after the plant had permanently closed due to recently-replaced steam generators vibrating and leaking.

At all reactors, there are only a certain number of sample slugs inside each Reactor Pressure Vessel. These slugs are supposed to be removed one by one over time for destructive testing, in order to judge how well the RPV is holding up. How can they run the reactors safely if these slugs are all used up?

The containment domes were never designed to be strong enough to withstand large airplane strikes, despite initial assurances in the aftermath 9/11. Over time, the cement and iron rebar have been bombarded by radiation, and have been weathering for many decades. It is unlikely they are as strong as they used to be.

And lastly, nobody is left who was around during the design and fabrication of the reactors. The plans have all been removed from local libraries and universities, and instead are only available in Bethesda, Maryland. Nobody knows where all the wires go anymore. More than 90% of each reactor simply cannot be inspected even if they wanted to! Reactors operate on a "fix-on-fail" basis because it's cheaper then pro-active repair/replacement.

(2) URLs for recent essays:

These essays have not been distributed in this newsletter before:

Small Modular Reactors: Stupid 20 years ago when they were first considered, even stupider now. (Sept., 2020):

Reprocessing benefits no one in the long run... (Sept., 2020):

Can spent nuclear fuel be transported safely in America with the current procedures and standards? No! (Sept., 2020):

Is San Onofre's plan to inspect the dry cask nuclear waste storage sufficient? NO! (Oct., 2020):

(3) How much Tritium is in San Onofre's concrete domes?

The concrete dome of a typical nuclear power plant contains approximately 500,000 cubic feet of concrete (about 18,000 cubic yards). A cubic foot of concrete weighs about 150 pounds, so a typical nuclear reactor dome contains approximately 32 billion grams of concrete.

Tritium appears in the concrete in two ways: Some tritium is absorbed or adsorbed into the concrete from inside the containment dome. Some tritium is created within the concrete from neutron absorption by lithium atoms which then decay, creating a tritium atom in the process.

Rolphton, a small early experimental CANDU reactor in Canada, had concentrations of tritium in its concrete containment structure as high as 82,000 Bq per gram when measured in the early 1990s (1), after operating from 1962 to 1987. The Rolphton reactor was about 22 Megawatts, or about 1/50th the size of San Onofre's reactors. The San Onofre reactors operated for about the same length of time as the Rolphton reactor.

U.S. Light Water Reactors produce about 1/30th as much tritium as CANDU reactors (and release about 1/20th as much into the environment while operating).

A single Bq is one radioactive decay per second. The half-life of tritium is about 12.3 years. For reference, the average 70 kg human gets about 5,000 Bq of radiation from internal K-40 (2).

During decommissioning, the tritium can get released a number of ways: If the concrete is heated to a high temperature (perhaps while cutting rebar apart) then tightly bound tritium can get released. At lower temperatures around the boiling point of water, loosely bound tritium can be released. Also, during crushing of the cement, tritium can more easily migrate out of the cement into the atmosphere.

(1) Ian Fairlie, letter to Roger Johnson
(2) K-40 value from Health Physics Society web site.

(4) Three Tritium essays from 2004, 2006 and 2007:

These three essays were inspired by a suggestion to learn about, and write about, Tritium by Dr. Helen Caldicott. They were written with the help of Dr. Marion Fulk, a tritium expert who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Labs in Berkeley, California (mistakes, however, are surely mine):

Tritium -- A response to Mr. Richard Warnock's published comments in the North County Times:

Tritium Explained (why "Low Level Radiation" can be
disproportionately harmful):

It's all about the DNA:

(5) How long does radiation last?:

The first large, intentional release of man-made radiation was the Trinity blast in New Mexico in the summer of 1945, prior to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Nuclear explosions release a lot of radiation: Millions of curies. But Trinity only released a tiny fraction -- probably less than 1% -- of the radioactivity that a nuclear power plant creates *every day*.

Yet, more than 75 years after the Trinity blast lit up the morning sky, the blast site in New Mexico is *still* "hot." (See quote, below.)


"Radiation levels in the fenced, ground zero area are low. On an average the levels are only 10 times greater than the region's natural background radiation. A one-hour visit to the inner fenced area will result in a whole body exposure of one-half to one milliroentgen."

(6) Spent Fuel Fires and Criticality Events:

A spent fuel fire at the San Onofre Nuclear Waste Dump can be worse than a reactor meltdown: It can release more radioactivity, especially if it involves a criticality event. And that's always a possibility because any used reactor fuel fire can result in physical damage to the reactor spent fuel assemblies. Each assembly weighs about two tons. There are 20 to 30 (or more) assemblies in each dry cask, and each assembly is comprised of several hundred long thin tubes. Each tube is filled with a hundred or more pellets of Uranium fuel. Reactor fuel assemblies are typically about 12 feet long.

All these tubes of pellets need to be kept carefully apart. And that's not easy if anything happens which deforms the entire container, such as by crushing it. This could happen if one of hundreds of bridges it will eventually travel on collapses as it travels across the bridge or if the bridge itself falls on the transport cask when the spent reactor fuel train or truck passes underneath. Perhaps by an act of terrorism: Violent white supremacists have long fantasized about attacking a nuclear facility. Spent fuel is the softest target, especially during transport.

And assuming they do get moved some time in the future, how safe are these containers during transport, what with fuel oil and chemical cars roll back and forth on the same routes that would be used for nuclear shipments? They are bound to be on adjacent rails or roads many times as 10,000 or more used reactor fuel canisters are moved throughout the country.

These shipments must be made in secret (for security reasons). So you can't disrupt the usual rail traffic very much, or terrorists would know a shipment is going to occur.

There is plenty of risk even when the spent fuel container is not traveling on the open roads or rails. Terrorists can place explosives inside the large air gap between the spent fuel cask and the cement "cocoon" that surrounds it. A jet aircraft impact can also deform a canister, as well as earthquakes and asteroids -- and everything in between.

Keeping the spent fuel pellets apart if a fire occurs (such as after a jet aircraft impact) is not easy, because the tubes or ("cladding") that contains the uranium pellets are made of an alloy of zirconium (sometimes called "zircalloy") which, once lit, burns furiously. In fact, the cladding is pyrophoric.

Used reactor fuel is kept in a container that has been permanently (we HOPE!) sealed after being carefully (we HOPE!) dried and then carefully (we HOPE!) backfilled with helium. (A few grams of water always remains, though.) The sealed (we HOPE!) container just sits there...for 10 years...20 years...100 years...300 years...

Who knows how long?

Some additional helium is created by the continuing process of nuclear fission. This will go on for thousands of years.

Helium isn't flammable, but if an opening in the canister ever occurs in the future, the helium is going to escape very quickly, and get replaced with outside air, which can support a fire. Helium could be used to extinguish a fire, except, being lighter than air, it will quickly escape, at least everything physically below the leak point. Most of the rest will mix with incoming air and eventually be replaced through turbulence within a leaking canister.

The introduction of air into the canister provides a flammable environment for the zirconium cladding. Hydrogen that might be present could also provide an explosive environment. If any of the uranium has flaked apart -- which is likely -- the fragmented pieces of uranium, or any uranium dust in the canister, is also pyrophoric.

If there's a leak, then along with the helium, a variety of radioactive particles will also be released, because the UO2 (Uranium Dioxide) ceramic pellets are splintering, cracking and deforming, and releasing radioactive gasses and fission products that have been trapped inside. New fission products are still being created, but most were created while the reactor was operating.

The thousands of pounds of combustible radioactive pellets are MOSTLY made of uranium dioxide, mostly U-238, and also between 1 and 2% U-235, which is the one that they split to generate electricity. Another 1% or so is now plutonium, which is thousands of times more hazardous than U-235 or U-238. And lastly, there are the fission products. Fission products are what's left when a uranium or plutonium atom splits and releases a few neutrons. There are usually two fission products after a uranium or plutonium atom splits. Hundreds of different kinds of isotopes are created by radioactive fission, and nearly all are radioactive, many with half-lives within human lifespans.

Nuclear fuel assemblies are removed when they become financially inefficient to use in a commercial power reactor. This occurs after about five years in the reactor, because by then the UO2 pellets are contaminated with the fission products, which don't themselves fission, but they do get in the way if they get hit by another fission event's neutrons. The U-238 also gets in the way, but in commercial nuclear reactors, there has to be at least 80%, and normally closer to 95% or more, non-fissile U-238 in a fuel pellet.

If your uranium object has more than 20% U-235 in it, you have either a nuclear bomb or a military naval reactor. Some university research reactors have up to 20% U-235, but commercial reactors are limited to about 5% U-235.

Uranium dust or small fragments are pyrophoric, but even intact uranium pellets can burn, and fiercely. It requires more heat than a zirconium fire normally produces to ignite UO2 pellets, but many weapons a terrorist might use will produce sufficient heat to ignite the Uranium.

If the zirconium rods that hold the uranium pellets burn, the uranium pellets will fall to the bottom of the spent fuel canister, and that's when a criticality event might occur, especially if water is introduced into the cask (which is possible -- or even likely -- for a variety of reasons).

How does water cause a criticality event? Because the nuclear reaction works best if the neutrons are slowed down to "terrestrial" speeds (hundreds of miles per hour, rather than their speed when they are initially ejected, which is orders of magnitude faster (an ejected neutron probably starts out at or near the speed of light and is mostly energy, not matter). Water slows the neutron down to speeds where it has about the same mass as any other neutron in the universe. That's when uranium atoms are most likely to absorb the neutron.

This has been a simplified description of how a spent fuel fire or any deformation of the fuel in a spent fuel canister can cause a criticality event. There's no telling how "likely" it is, but we all better hope it NEVER happens.

(7) Atomic Veterans and Atomic Victims:

A few years ago my wife and I recorded several presentations by, and did several interviews of, atomic veterans during "Atomic Veterans Day" at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Nevada. One veteran actually parachuted into ground zero shortly after the blast. Many of his fellow soldiers had long since died of various cancers by the time we interviewed him. These recordings are available at my You Tube channel (URLs below).

From the very beginning the U.S. military has misunderstood radiation effects, and has sought to minimize any perception of the danger to the public and to the veterans who have been exposed. For example, the Smyth Report (published by the U.S. Government in August, 1945) explicitly stated that little was known about the health effects of plutonium at the time it was used for the Nagasaki and Trinity bombs.

Fast forward to the military's use of Depleted Uranium weaponry against Falluja during the Gulf War, which has resulted in thousands of childhood deformities and cancers among civilians living in the area. When above-ground weapons testing began in Nevada, the poison gas clouds were ignored completely until the Kodak company started complaining that their film stock was being ruined!

It's long past time for the U.S. Government to come clean about what it knows -- and doesn't know -- about radiation dangers to the public, and to properly compensate and care for our Atomic Veterans.


Here are the URLs for the Atomic Veteran interviews and presentations:

Atomic Bomb Test Veteran Max M. Miller talks about his experience witnessing a test

Bud Feurt is the California Commander of the National Association of Atomic Vets.

The aircraft shown in the thumbnail is an L-20 Beaver, the type Hinshaw maintained while on Enewetok.

Al Tseu, Paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Tseu was dropped into the radioactive "ground zero" area following a test blast at the Nevada test site. This recording is part of an oral history project. This is the second of two videos of Al Tseu recorded at the NATM.
Al Tseu 2nd video:

Dr. Livingston's middle initial is M, not K. I apologize for the error.

I did a complete article about Dr. Livingston's idea for neutralizing nuclear waste with lasers (with his help):

Atomic Veteran Roger Stenerson:

Atomic Veterans Al Gettier, Larrie Adams:

Atomic Veteran Wally Lyons:

Bonus video!
Tuskegee Airmen Tribute February 20, 2016 at Palm Springs Air Museum, Palm Springs, CA

(8) EIGHT SIMPLE RULES for protecting your heart:

1) Exercise hard and often.
2) Watch your diet and weight.
3) Avoid tobacco smoke and other pollutants.
4) Control your blood pressure.
5) Minimize stress and enjoy life.
6) Know the warning signs of a heart attack.
7) Get regular medical checkups.
8) Know where the nearest cardiac care facility or hospital is located.

(9) Newsletter authorship notes:


Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
Free download:
Carlsbad, CA
Email: ace [at]