Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NNSA to Remain in DOE

Well, that didn't take long:
The Obama administration has scrapped a plan to study placing U.S. nuclear-weapon research under the control of the Defense Department, Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Martin Chavez said following a Friday meeting of U.S. mayors and top administration officials (see GSN, Feb. 6).

"I think that one is nipped in the bud," Chavez said after discussing the proposal with Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

It will be interesting to see how DOE changes under this administration--Obama's emphasis on energy issues (and the very large sums for energy and science research he's proposing) imply a need for serious changes in the way DOE is organized and run. Only time will tell how these issues play out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Down To Earth

Atomstroiexport has issued a new tender for the proposed nuclear complex in Turkey:
Russia's Atomstroiexport has offered to cut the price of power from its planned nuclear power plant in Turkey by 27 percent, the state Anatolian news agency said on Friday.

Atomstroiexport and its partners -- Russia's Inter Rao (IRAO.MM) and Turkey's Park Teknik -- will sell power from the planned plant for $0.1535 kilowatt hour, instead of $0.2116, Anatolian said, citing Duran Gokkaya, general manager of Tetas, the state power company.

Atomstroiexport was the only bidder in a September tender for Turkey's first nuclear license.

I put a fair amount of effort last month into determining why the original tender was so expensive, but details of the bid were not public knowledge. In any case, the Russians have now offered a new price that, while steep, is not unreasonable. We'll see if the Turks take it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

A VERY Special Relationship

A rather shocking revelation published in The Guardian:

The US military has been using Britain's atomic weapons factory to carry out research into its own nuclear warhead programme, according to evidence seen by the Guardian.

US defence officials said that "very valuable" warhead research has taken place at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire as part of an ongoing and secretive deal between the British and American governments.

The Ministry of Defence admitted it is working with the US on the UK's "existing nuclear warhead stockpile and the range of replacement options that might be available" but declined to give any further information.

Basically, this is tantamount to an admission that the RRW is a joint American-British project, with the Atomic Weapons Establishment providing vital assistance with research that the US weapons labs are apparently unequipped to do. This makes sense in light of the British decision to build new Trident subs--after all, the main purpose of the RRW is probably to replace the W88s on the USN's Trident II SSBMs.

This news makes it clear why the RRW program is unlikely to disappear, even if Obama elects to formally cancel it. The RRW is supported by powerful, entrenched interest groups and is likely to be realized eventually, even if it is delayed another ten years or so. The project has apparently been shared with our closest ally, presumably with the condition that the new warhead could be manufactured at AWE for deployment by the RN. If this is any indication, the "special relationship" between America and Britain is stronger than ever.

Friday, February 06, 2009


Obama's pondering it, apparently:
The Obama administration is considering moving the nation’s federal weapons complex, including New Mexico’s Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, under military control, ending decades of civilian oversight.

The Albuquerque Journal, in a copyright story Wednesday, said an internal memo it obtained shows the administration is looking into turning over control of the labs to the Department of Defense. They currently are controlled by the Department of Energy.

The Office of Management and Budget memo, which carried no date, said such a change would not occur until at least 2011.

I'm not sure what this would entail for some of the labs. LLNL and Los Alamos would presumably move to DOD control; but would ORNL remain with DOE while the Y-12 weapons complex moved to DOD? Growing up in Oak Ridge I do think that the current DOE management of the national labs leaves a lot to be desired, but DOD might not make a better home. Perhaps a better idea would be to recreate the old Atomic Energy Commission and delegate DOE's various nuclear functions to it. In my view, DOE's big problem is that it wears far too many conflicting hats; an agency with a narrow nuclear focus might do a better job than DOE dealing with issues ranging from managing the weapons complex to developing advanced nuclear fuel cycles.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Soviet "Doomsday Device" Myth

Those of you who watch the History Channel may have come across this clip, which is from a series titled "Secrets of War." The speaker, Victor Suvorov, is the author of a notorious and now wholly-discredited book about the Soviet entry into WWII. I was wondering where this persistent "Soviets planned a doomsday machine" myth came from, and it appears it is simply another of Suvorov's many imaginative fabrications. I can find no Russian-language references to this tale whatsoever, and all the English ones lead back to this "documentary," and to the ever-unreliable Mr. Suvorov. Given what I know about Soviet nuclear war planning (my field of academic specialization) the story is ludicrous on it face, as well. The concept of self-immolation implicit in a doomsday machine like this is absolutely alien to Soviet political and strategic thought. The Soviet "doomsday machine" is no more than a fairy tale to concocted to amuse American basic cable subscribers, nothing more.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Aqueous Homogenous Reactor Research in US

As I noted in my recent post, the Russians are developing an aqueous homogeneous rector (AHR) for medical isotope production at the Kurchatov Institute and the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in Obninsk. But as I read a Russian-language article about the problem of Mo-99 production using LEU, I was surprised to discover that the Russians have some American competition.

The resurrected Babcock and Wilcox is developing a 200kW AHR called the Medical Isotope Production System to produce Mo-99 and other isotopes. As described by the September 2008 IAEA report Homogeneous Aqueous Solution Nuclear Reactors for the Production of Mo-99 and other Short Lived Radioisotopes:
Current concepts under consideration include a 200 kW reactor, capable of producing approximately 1,100 six day Ci/week of 99Mo and other useful isotopes. An existing containment structure formerly housing a pool type research reactor at the BWXT facility in Lynchburg, VA, is under consideration for an initial commercial facility (Figure 1). The reactor would contain approximately 150 L of LEU solution and would operate at approximately 80˚C and atmospheric pressure. A new separation/purification facility is envisioned with hot cell capacity for the several separation/purification/packaging and shipping functions as well as a waste management facility.

The recently-published Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium has more details. B&W hopes to field the MIPS 5-6 years after a radiopharmaceutical partner is identified, but faces a bevy of challenges related not only to the conceptual design of the reactor, but also to the fact that NRC regulations are ambiguous as to the classification of an AHR and its waste stream. They hope to convert an existing containment structure in Lynchburg, Virginia from an old pool-type reactor to house the first unit. B&W is hiring a lead project engineer to manage the development effort. Anyone out there with experience in liquid-fueled reactor design?

UPDATE: B&W has announced a partnership with radiopharmaceutical manufacturer Covidien to develop the MIPS.