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ODU Researcher Finds 'Minor League' Nuclear Facilities Pose 'Major League' Problems

ODU researcher Adrian Gheorghe

Few Americans would expect news reports relating to nuclear weapons proliferation to come from the commune of Magurele on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania. But Old Dominion University engineering professor Adrian Gheorghe and several of his critical infrastructures research collaborators in Romania were not at all surprised by the news from Magurele last month.

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced on June 30 that it had removed more than 50 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear research facility in Magurele and safely transported it by aircraft to a secure nuclear facility in Russia. "This represents a major step forward in NNSA's ongoing efforts to implement President Obama's unprecedented nuclear security agenda by securing vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide and reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism," said the agency's administrator, Thomas D'Agostino.

Media reports about this development were brief compared to others about nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran, and even about President Obama's pledge in a speech in Prague in April to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in the world within four years.

But it did not take screaming headlines from Magurele to support Gheorghe's contention that "academic research often is conducted ahead of the news."

Gheorghe, who holds the Batten Endowed Chair in Systems Engineering at ODU, said the NNSA administrator was right to place the Magurele operation in a broader perspective, and he noted an academic precedence. This was a technical paper issued in the spring of 2009 authored by Gheorghe along with Dan Vamanu, Valentin Acasandrei and Bogdan Vamanu, researchers at Romania's National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, which operated the Magurele research facility.

The paper states that it sought to draw attention "to a number of issues that may go underplayed on the agenda of the critical infrastructure analysts concerned with risks: the vulnerabilities induced by nuclear research facilities facing decommissioning." The authors concluded that the smaller nuclear research facilities scattered throughout the world pose sizeable risks, even in comparison with the bigger nuclear facilities-such as nuclear power plants. Why? Because abnormal things are more likely to happen at these so-called "minor league" facilities, at least partially because a lot of them are in "resource- and management-deficient…and geopolitically-uncertain environments."

Gheorghe said the authors tried to work around political entanglements and, instead, projected "the cool light of facts supported by convincing quantitative assessments of how to manage one of the legacies of the early years of the Nuclear Era."

This takes us back to Magurele. In 1957, when Romania was part of the Soviet block, a Russian-designed nuclear research reactor was installed in this sparsely populated commune. At the time, there was beginning among the superpowers a concerted effort to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and this reactor near Bucharest was designed to further this goal via a broad agenda of research and the production of radioisotopes for use in medicine and industry. Hundreds of similar facilities eventually were built, the majority before 1980, with the greatest concentrations being in the United States and the countries of the old Soviet Union. But these powers also helped to distribute research reactors to countries around the globe.

Spring forward nearly five decades to the first years of the new century. One finds a research reactor in Magurele that is no longer a bright and shining example of technological progress. In fact, it has outlived its designed life span, although it is still harboring weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium fuel. In addition, Magurele is no longer a sparsely populated commune. The Bucharest metropolis has grown out to almost meet the research facility.

This may well be a pattern of some generic significance, Gheorghe said. The research paper he and his colleagues wrote documents the existence of 671 research reactors that are operating, or have been shut down but not yet fully decommissioned, meaning that highly radioactive fuel and/or radioactive materials from the reactor itself or from the enclosing structure are still on the site. At the time the paper was drafted there were fewer of the much larger nuclear power reactors either operating or not yet decommissioned -589 by a cursory count.

These totals are not the whole story, however. As the paper's authors note, research reactors overall are older than the power reactors and they are more widely scattered throughout the world, meaning that developing countries have more research reactors than power reactors.

Moreover, the decommissioning of any nuclear reactor is a long, costly and dangerous process that is rife with security and political concerns. Workers who take down the reactor facility and the nearby populations could be exposed to radiation in excess of the legally admissible levels. The facilities often are more difficult to secure during decommissioning than they are during normal operations. In many countries, decommissionings are drawn out and money is tight, resulting in cutbacks in highly trained reactor personnel and erosion of maintenance and security routines. Breakdowns can occur in the redundant safeguards of the "defense in depth" design and operational procedures that have been mandated for nuclear reactors. Terrorists and insurgents could take advantage of slack administration and security to vandalize facilities, releasing radiation, or to steal radioactive materials that can be used in conventional or dirty bombs.

Also, security issues posed by a research reactor under decommissioning do not die out completely once fresh and/or spent fuel is vacated from premises. Many tons of radioactive materials may still remain on the site for an indeterminate period, this including metals, liquids and even bricks. Full decommissioning must sometimes wait because there is no money for it, or because there are no free slots in the work schedules of authorized processing plants in Russia, the United States or elsewhere to accommodate subsequent spent fuel and waste shipments. It is also unclear how much of the worldwide nuclear cleanup the United States can afford to shoulder.

The Magurele scenario is likely to be repeated many times throughout the world for the more than 300 research reactors that are at least 40 years old and due for removal, Gheorghe said.

When it comes to the security of nuclear reactors, most of the attention of the media and of governments has been devoted to the large power reactors. The amount of radioactive fuel and other materials in these reactors and on these sites is much greater than at the "minor league" facilities. Nevertheless, because the risks are higher for these large power reactors-no one has forgotten Three Mile Island or Chernobyl-the safeguards are more predictable also. Gheorghe also notes that these large facilities typically are located away from population centers, they are of more consistent and well-documented design so their dismantling is not subject to surprises, and, as noted above, they are primarily in countries with stable governments, militaries and police forces that are less vulnerable to terrorism.

"These factors combined should have their bearing in talking 'minor league' versus 'major league' in relation with managing the future of nuclear facilities, wherever they are, whatever the future in question," Gheorghe said. "And this is, in essence, what the authors of the Norfolk-Bucharest paper are telling their readers."

The theme and technical elements of the paper, "Critical Issues with 'Minor League' Nuclear Infrastructures: The Back End of the Life Cycle," were first introduced at the 2nd Annual Homeland Defense and Security Education Summit at the University of Maryland University College in March 2008. A full-extent paper integrating the summit feedback was subsequently published in Inderscience's International Journal of Critical Infrastructures.

Gheorghe said the paper includes no scientific revelations and could be called old news by nuclear facility managers. Its purpose, he said, was to apply "unwaveringly formal" risk analysis to the issue.

He was asked if nuclear facilities managers were aware of the dangers posed by these research facilities awaiting decommissioning, why were remedies lagging so far behind that it took a presidential initiative to move them ahead? And does he see any connection between the research paper he and his collaborators authored and the evacuation of sensitive material from the Magurele premises this summer?

"I get your drift," he answered, "but, beware! Seeing cause-and-effect relationships in every trail of events is one of the worst, and most ridiculous, conclusions a scientist may jump to! In the limit, one may at most, contemplate the notion that scattered efforts to address a hot issue may have a way of their own to converge."

After being educated in Romania and England, and before joining ODU in 2006, Gheorghe served in several positions in Europe, including director of the Centre of Excellence on Risk and Safety Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. At ODU he is working with the National Centers for System of Systems Engineering and the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center.

This article was posted on: July 31, 2009

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