Age Gap Dilemma At Nuclear Power Plants; Soviet-era nuclear material
Date: Sunday, March 18, 2007 @ 21:59:05 MST
Nuclear Engineers In Short Supply
Mar. 14,2007 - ABC - After several decades, there is a new movement afoot to
begin building nuclear power plants again in the United States. Even many
environmentalists believe it's a clean alternative to burning fossil fuels. But
an aging workforce has America's power producers worried about the future.
There's a dilemma brewing at the nation's nuclear power plants. Who will
build them and who will run them?
The average age of a worker in nuclear power is 48, among the oldest of any
industry. In three years, a quarter of those workers will be eligible for
retirement forcing power generators to fill more than 15,000 highly specialized
jobs at 104 reactors nationwide.
Thomas Rumsey, GE nuclear energy:
"Now's the time to make the corrections that we need so that we can meet the
demand in the next 5, 10, 15 years."
Thomas Rumsey is with North
Carolina-based GE Nuclear. He says the current shortage dates back to the late
1970's when skyrocketing costs cooled the investment in new plants.
partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 put an end to the
nuclear industry's ambitious goal of building 1,000 plants and left an entire
generation thinking there was no future in nuclear energy.
Rumsey: "We are graduating fewer engineers in the field than we did 20 years
ago, particularly in nuclear."
Universities nationwide saw enrollment
drop. Thirty-four nuclear engineering departments have closed since 1980. There
are only 29 such programs today.
Professor Per Peterson is with the
nuclear engineering department at UC Berkeley.
Per Peterson: "There were
a number of things going on and one of them was the Cold War and it was
impossible to think of nuclear technology without thinking about the environment
of the Cold War back then."
UC Berkeley has the only nuclear engineering
department left in California.
Per Peterson: "Back in the 1990's,
frankly our nuclear plants were not running very well and we expected that most
of them would be shut down. What did happen though was the utilities figured out
how to run them much better."
According to the Energy Department, the
number of students seeking degrees in the field is rising.
reactors are scheduled to be built in the coming years, but none in California.
The Golden State has two existing nuclear power plants.
moratorium has kept any new plants from being built until a national repository
can be established to deal with the waste. That means many of the students
attending school here will likely be wooed out of state or even out of the
Among them, UC sophomore Kenny Lee.
Kenny Lee: "I
actually suspect that if I get a stable nuclear job it will probably be
somewhere in Europe."
Lee is like many students here. He's not worried
about nuclear meltdowns or the problems associated with waste disposal.
Per Peterson: "When you look at the students that are joining nuclear
engineering it's because they are interested in the environment and how to
protect the environment."
Because nuclear power produces none of the
greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, he sees it as a more environmentally
responsible solution to a growing energy need.
Kenny Lee, nuclear
engineering student: "It's time for nuclear power to come about and be one of
those alternate energy sources so we don't have to rely so much on coal and
The nuclear energy industry agrees and has hung the 'help wanted'
Thomas Rumsey: "We've hired about 300 people the last couple
years in a row."
The starting salary for a nuclear engineer out of
college is just over $54,000, that's up 6.6 percent from last year.
it's not just nuclear engineers who are in short supply. Electrical, civil, and
chemical engineers are needed, as well as skilled electricians, plumbers and
Soviet-era nuclear material is a target for smugglers willing to sell to anyone
By Alex Rodriguez
YEREVAN, Armenia - Jobless for two years, Gagik Tovmasyan believed escape from poverty lay in a cardboard box on his kitchen floor.
Inside the box, a blue, lead-lined vessel held the right type and amount of radioactive cesium to make a "dirty bomb." The material was given to him by an unemployed Armenian Catholic priest who promised a cut if Tovmasyan could find a buyer.
He found one in 2004, but the man turned out to be an undercover agent. Tovmasyan spent a year behind bars on a charge of illegally storing and trying to sell 4 grams of cesium-137.
Today the chain-smoking Armenian cabdriver says his actions amounted to simple survival. "That's just the way it was back then," said Tovmasyan, 48, who insisted he had no idea of the danger the material presented. "I was selling all my belongings just to get by."
At a time when the U.S. is grappling with the specter of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, security experts warn that a vast supply of radioactive materials - enough to make hundreds of so-called dirty bombs - lies virtually unprotected in former Soviet military bases and ruined factories.
Desperately poor scavengers looking for scrap metal already have raided many of those sites, fueling an ever-growing concern in the war on terrorism.
There were 662 confirmed cases of radioactive materials smuggling around the world from 1993 to 2004, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. More than 400 involved substances that could be used to make a dirty bomb, a weapon that would spew radioactivity across a broad area. Experts say even these alarming numbers do not reflect the magnitude of the smuggling.
The risk has grown despite tens of millions of dollars spent by the United States to provide radiation detection equipment and security training in former Soviet republics. Tracking how the money is spent by opaque, often-corrupt governments has proved especially difficult.
The problem is wider in scope than often acknowledged, and the stakes are enormous: It takes only a few grams of a deadly radioactive substance such as cesium-137 or strontium-90 to make a dirty bomb.
Along Russia's barren, jagged coastline on the Barents Sea, enough strontium-90 to make hundreds of dirty bombs can be found in dozens of unguarded lighthouses and navigational beacons. In Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan, once the site of Soviet nuclear weapons testing, scavengers routinely slip through breaches in tunnels where poorly secured strontium-90, cesium-137, plutonium and uranium waste is stored alongside scrap metal, the site's director says.
In the small mountainous republic of Georgia, the director of a former Soviet laboratory in the breakaway province of Abkhazia says separatist leaders have prevented IAEA inspectors from adequately surveying the institute, where stockpiles of uranium, cesium-137, strontium-90 and other radioactive materials cannot be accounted for.
Many former Soviet republics do a poor job of maintaining reliable inventories of radioactive material, according to Lyudmila Zaitseva, a radioactive materials trafficking researcher at the University of Salzburg in Austria. Former Soviet borders are porous, and corruption is rife at border guard posts.
When it comes to protecting radioactive materials, the countries that once made up the Soviet Unon are "the weakest and most dangerous link in the whole chain," said Igor Khripunov, a U.S.-based expert in nuclear and radioactive materials security at the University of Georgia.
Zaitseva and her research colleague Friedrich Steinhausler, who log radioactive materials trafficking cases into a database at the University of Salzburg, estimate that roughly 3 of every 5 cases of radioactive materials smuggling go undetected. "I am far more concerned with what we don't see than with what we see," Steinhausler said.
The U.S. government has been slow to gird its ports and border checkpoints with enough detection capability to prevent smuggled radioactive materials from entering the country. In December 2005, congressional investigators smuggled enough cesium-137 across U.S. checkpoints on the Canadian and Mexican borders to produce two dirty bombs, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report.
Testifying before a Senate homeland security subcommittee in March, GAO officials said they doubted that the Department of Homeland Security could hit its deadline of placing more than 3,000 radiation detectors at border crossings, seaports and mail facilities by 2009. It was likelier, said the GAO's Eugene Aloise, that the department would not finish until 2014.
"Four and a half years after Sept. 11, and less than 40 percent of our seaports have basic radiation equipment," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., the subcommittee chairman at the time during a congressional hearing last March. "This is a massive blind spot."
No one has ever detonated a dirty bomb, but terrorists have made it clear they have the means and desire to do so.
In November 1995, Chechen separatists buried a canister of cesium-137 under the snow in Moscow's Izmailovo Park and told a Russian television network where to find it. Last year, a British court sentenced Dhiren Barot, a London resident linked to al-Qaida, to 40 years in prison for planning a series of terrorist attacks in London and the U.S. that would have included a dirty bomb.
In the dense stands of birch and pine in Russia's far north, special generators used to power lighthouses represent one of the most vulnerable sources of material. Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators create electricity through the decay of strontium-90. A single RTG can house enough strontium-90 for 40 dirty bombs.
Russia has more than 600 RTGs scattered across its 11 time zones. Lighthouses and navigational beacons equipped with them are largely unguarded, at times lacking even a chain-link fence for protection.
In the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions along the Barents coastline, scrap metal hunters have broken into six RTGs in recent years, said Vladimir Kozlovsky, a local official involved in a Russian-Norwegian project to replace the aging RTGs with safer technology.
In March, scrap metal hunters broke into a deserted military base above the Arctic Circle and ripped apart four RTGs, according to Bellona, a Norwegian environmental watchdog organization.
While there are no reports of strontium being taken from an RTG, the scavenging highlights the risks.
Radioactive materials transported in Russia by rail are also alarmingly vulnerable.
Last year Greenpeace activists staked out a train depot in a village near St. Petersburg, Russia, to monitor trainloads of uranium from Western Europe that had been stopping on their way to Siberia for disposal.
"There were no police, no guards, no armed personnel around," said Greenpeace activist Georgy Timofeyev. "The first time we noticed this in May, we called authorities. They said, `If there aren't any guards, then there's no danger.'
"But anyone can walk up and open them because there are no serious locks on the containers," Timofeyev said.
Greenpeace activists say Russian authorities confirmed that the shipments were being handled by Izotop, a state-owned nuclear materials transport company. The firm handles roughly 50,000 tons of nuclear material shipped through St. Petersburg each year, according to Bellona. Izotop officials declined to comment.
In Kazakhstan, once a hub for Soviet nuclear production and research because of its remoteness in the steppes of Central Asia, vast networks of tunnels and boreholes used for nuclear weapons testing pose a unique problem.
For four decades, the treeless stretches of scrub outside Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan served as the Soviet Uni0n's ground zero. The Soviet military machine conducted 458 nuclear weapons tests at the 7,200-square mile site. Most of the blasts occurred in 181 iron-lined tunnels a half-mile below the ground, or in the site's 60 boreholes.
After the collapse of the Soviet Uni0n in 1991, Kazakhstan relinquished its entire nuclear arsenal and sealed Semipalatinsk's tunnels and boreholes with concrete.
Those seals have failed to deter impoverished Kazakhs, who fashion propane tanks into makeshift bombs to blast their way into the tunnels. Their quarry is scrap metal, but local authorities worry that the vast amounts of strontium, cesium, plutonium and uranium waste still inside the tunnels could attract those intent on building a dirty bomb.
"Anyone who wants to make a dirty bomb can target by-products of the blasts," said Kayrat Kadyrzhanov, director general of the Kazakhstan National Nuclear Center, which oversees the site. "When test blasts were done, not all of the particles burned out. Even taking soil samples would be of value to a terrorist or rogue state.
"When people get into the tunnels, we assume it's for iron. But that's our assumption," Kadyrzhanov said.
The U.S. government has given Kazakhstan more than $20 million to seal up tunnel and borehole entrances, Kadyrzhanov said, "but the problem is still there." Kazakh authorities deploy only four patrol teams_made up of a local police officer, a radiation detector specialist and a driver - to cover 181 tunnels and a tract of steppe the size of New Jersey.
"The scrap hunters are well-equipped," Kadyrzhanov said. "They've got cell phones and warn each other about approaching patrols."
Radioactive flotsam left behind by the Soviets in Georgia is just as worrisome. Canisters of cesium-137 and other radioactive materials have been routinely found at abandoned military bases, research laboratories - even in farmhouses, according to nuclear safety specialists with the Georgian government.
Last summer, inspectors found cesium-137 amid a pile of nuts and bolts in a soap container at a farmer's house in the village of Likhauri.
"We came across many cases where radioactive material was found in the street, in a forest, or in fields," said Grigol Basilia, a scientist with Georgia's Nuclear Radiation Safety Service.
Georgia's biggest worry is the rebellious province of Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast, where a separatist government defies Tbilisi with the political and military backing of Russia.
Abkhazia is home to the Sukhumi Institute of Physics and Technology, or SIPT, founded in 1945 as a cog in the effort to build the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb. In 1992, civil war broke out in Abkhazia. Abkhaz separatists drove out Georgian troops in a year of fighting that claimed 17,000 lives. Georgian scientists at the institute fled, leaving the laboratory and its storehouse of uranium, plutonium and other radioactive materials in the hands of Abkhaz separatists.
Today, those Georgian scientists have no control over the fate of SIPT's deadly array of radioactive substances. Guram Bokuchava, the institute's director, operates out of a small office in downtown Tbilisi, not knowing how those materials are guarded or even how much are left.
In 2002, when IAEA inspectors flew to Sukhumi to check on uranium stored at the institute, Abkhaz authorities would not let them inspect the storage site, Bokuchava said.
"It's not known how much uranium is there," Bokuchava said. "And it's not known how much cesium-137 and strontium-90 is there. Of course, we're concerned about what happened to these materials ... but the Abkhaz side is not giving any information about this."
Georgia also continues to be a major transit nation for radioactive materials smugglers. In the most recent case, Oleg Khinsagov, a 50-year-old Russian trader, was caught trying to smuggle 100 grams of highly enriched uranium through Georgia last year. He was convicted of nuclear materials trafficking and sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison. Georgian authorities believe the uranium originated in Russia.
Khinsagov fits the profile of the opportunistic radioactive materials smuggler working the Caucasus region: He was a simple trader, with no criminal background and no known connections to organized crime or terrorists.
Tovmasyan, the Armenian cabdriver, and the other men arrested with him fit the same profile.
The man who gave Tovmasyan the cesium, Asokhik Aristakesyan, was a priest and also unemployed, said Vahe Papoyan, an investigator with the Armenian National Security Service. So was another man who tried to sell the cesium, Sarkis Mikaelyan, a jobless economist. They each were convicted and also sentenced to a year in jail
"Especially in countries with low standards of living," Khripunov said, "people can be very enterprising."
The U.S. has aggressively tried to shore up border checkpoints in Georgia and other former Soviet republics to stem the flow of radioactive materials smuggling. From 1994 to 2005, Washington spent $178 million to provide radiation detection equipment for border posts in 36 countries, many of them former Soviet nations.
A March 2006 GAO report acknowledged that the new equipment helps, but the bigger challenge is corruption.
"Border guards often don't know what they're dealing with," Zaitseva said. "They're bribed to switch off their detection equipment. They don't know what's being smuggled, and they really don't care."