How to Throw Away Eight Years Worth of Electricity

Here is a recent article I found that talks about the disposition of 3200 tonnes of thorium that was in the US stockpile. The thorium from Curtis Bay alone (2700 tonnes) would produce all the electricity the US needs for eight years, if used in a liquid-fluoride reactor. My own comments are in paretheses and italics.

Curtis Bay Thorium Nitrate Now in Nevada
By John Reinders
Defense National Stockpile Center
Public Affairs Office

The Defense National Stockpile Center’s thorium nitrate disposition project achieved a significant milestone in May when the last shipment of the radioactive material departed the Curtis Bay Depot. All material from the Curtis Bay, Md., storage site is now in Nevada and has been buried at the Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site.

At the onset of the project, DNSC managed an inventory of over seven million pounds of thorium nitrate, stored at two DNSC depots – approximately five million pounds at Curtis Bay and another two million pounds at a depot in Hammond, Ind.

The thorium nitrate was originally acquired during the period 1957 to 1964. Ironically, the material was acquired on behalf of the Department of Energy’s predecessor agency – the Atomic Energy Commission. The thorium was acquired because of its potential use as a nuclear reactor fuel.

(It’s clear that they understood the value of thorium much better back in the 50s and 60s than we do now…back when Oak Ridge was building fluid-fueled thorium reactors to use this marvelous resource.)

According to Cornel Holder, DNSC administrator, the thorium nitrate relocation project has been a major success story.

“Had arrangements not been made to bury the material at the Nevada Test Site, we would have had to pay a lot of money to convert the material to a form for eventual disposition,” Holder said. “Conversion could have added another $40 million to the project.”

(Or we could have used the thorium to produce enough energy to run the United States for a decade…)

The project did not materialize overnight. Realizing in 1999 that there was no longer a Department of Defense need for the material and no viable commercial market, the project got its start with assistance of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, private industry, academia and various government sources. In the first phase of the project, conversion, disposal and long-term storage of the material were considered.

(Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you forgot what thorium could do, so you threw it away.)

A second project phase in 2002 was accomplished by private contractors with the support of ORNL. Material samples and containers were analyzed and tested to determine if the material met the waste acceptance criteria required for burial at NTS.

The third phase for actual transfer of the material began in August 2004 with an on-site audit by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration and a follow-up inspection by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to Michael Pecullan, the thorium nitrate project manager, the process was very intense leading up to actual transfer of the material.

(Intense…they loaded the barrels on new trailers, drove to Nevada, uncoupled the trailers, and drove away. Intense.)

“This was the most complex project undertaken by DNSC in my nearly 28 years with the organization,” said Pecullan. “It involved many cooperative efforts among NNSA, NRC, DOE, the National Transportation Research Center, and private research agencies.”

(Sounds like bureaucratic intensity rather than technical intensity. I’m sure all the bureaucrats were making sure their hands would be clean from this filthy radioactive material.)

ORNL managed the thorium shipments under the auspices of the DNSC environmental office and with oversight from a contingency of stockpile employees from depots located at Binghamton and Scotia, N.Y., Hammond and New Haven, Ind., Point Pleasant W.Va., Warren, Ohio, Clearfield, Utah and Somerville N.J.

Pecullan pointed out that safe handling of the radioactive material has been another success story. “A total of 30,000 ‘no lost time’ work hours were expended on the Curtis Bay project,” he said. “More than 19,000 drums containing thorium nitrate were placed in DOE-approved containers and then transported by a total of 205 flatbed trucks to NTS.”

Upon arrival at NTS, the containers were placed in specially designated pits and were buried under 21 feet of top cover; with DOE accepting ownership and responsibility for the material.

(Could they at least tell us where the pit is so we can go dig it out when the time comes?)

The project cost, including packaging, transportation and disposal at NTS, is approximately $17 million.

(Money that could have been spent developing the thorium reactor technology that would free this nation from foreign energy–wasted on paperwork, meetings, trailer trucks and backhoe work… We probably spend that much money in five minutes on Saudi oil.)

2 thoughts on “How to Throw Away Eight Years Worth of Electricity

  1. You say – "they could at least tell us where the pit is so we can go dig it out when the time comes?"

    Well, do you really want to know? How badly do you want to know? They have in fact already told you!

    Firstly it is in Nevada, right?, that narrows it down a bit.

    The first picture in this article is an image of the pit before it is closed. I have seen on the net another picture similar to this, of the same pit with a mountain range in the background. The profile of the mountain range and the foregoing detail of the range is a signature which can exist at precisely only one location on earth. If you really want to find this, get the most detailed image of this photograph you can find, preferably even more different images if possible. You can probably get some computer mapping software which would allow you to do computer matches and optimizations. A little bit of careful thinking etc. If you are really good you might be able to determine its position close enough to drill a hole. If you get that close I would expect to find telltale signs on the surface where the ground has been previously disrupted. But one thing is certain, that mountain range profile is highly information packed, and is really telling you precisly where it is. There is no other place on earth that will fit exactly that. In fact I would guess that there is enough information in that image to pinpoint its location withing a few meters.

    I wouldn't mind being part of that challenge.

    good luck.

  2. I'm sorry- you guys had me at national stockpile- and now we have a consolidated national stockpile… cool. Oh, right- it's called nuclear waste… lol

    Could it be that hard for DoD/DoE to open the pit (they have the street address, right?)- remove the containers and utilize the materiel at a later date…
    Last time I checked, nobody unintentionally wondered Out of the NTS and with a half life in the billions of years- it might just be there when we want/need it or not… but that is a little bit of radioactivity that could probably be pinpointed by satellite too, right?

    If you really can't find it here -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frenchman_Flat, just write you local congress person and ask… just take a left into area 5- it's a Big pit. Or you could ask anyone of those guys that didn't get lost on the way across country and dropped off all those trailers- safely, you noted. I'd bet if you bought them a beer, they might even tell you what color the containers were.

    Oh, and if you decide to take a field trip… not recommended or course 🙂 watch out for those pesky little underground nuclear test craters… they may have forgot to fence each one individually.

    Happy New Year.

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