atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

1115: For the 50,000th time JUST RECYCLE THE STUFF!

Oh, the storage of nuclear waste is such a problem how will we ever solve it? This article is why I take a lot of science stuff on Ars Technica with a grain of salt: those guys parrot the econazi party line without a second--without a first--thought. They uncritically treat "global warming=man-made=apocalypse" as proven.

And they obviously know nothing whatsoever about the history of nuclear power. The opening paragraph of the article contains more bullshit-per-syllable than anything I've seen from those douchebags yet. It's about the Yucca Mountain storage facility, and it raises the usual shibboleths:

1) Nuclear power is unsafe.
2) Nuclear power means nuclear weapons.
3) Nuclear power generates a lot of high-level waste.
4) Nuclear waste is hazardous for millions of years.

I've dealt with all of this before, in other posts, so I'm not going to deal with thoroughly obliterating those ignorant assertions as I normally do. Instead I will merely make counter-assertions.

1) Nuclear power is not unsafe, certianly no more hazardous than other forms. If you add all the casualties from coal mining in the 20th century--even just 1945-2000!--you will find that it's killed more people than nuclear power has. The incident at Three Mile Island is considered the worst nuclear accident in the United States, and all the safety systems at the plant worked. There was a controlled release of radioactive hydrogen, but no one working in the plant at the time of the incident was exposed to any unusual radioactivity. The maximum theoretical dose of radioactivity one could have received from the 3MI partial meltdown would have been 1,500 millirem; in order to get that dose, you would have had to camp out atop the containment vessel of the reactor for the duration of the crisis--several days. And certain medical diagnostic procedures routinely expose people to far more radiation than that; in 1979, an angiogram exposed you to 25,000 millirem.

2) Nuclear power does not mean nuclear weapons. Particularly in the context of the United States--remember, the article in question discusses the Yucca Mountain storage facility--since the US already has a huge nuclear arsenal.

I've dealt before with the problems faced by someone who wants to steal plutonium from a processing facility. Plutonium, by itself, isn't a problem in the right kind of nuclear reactor; it could be left in the fuel rods. But if someone wanted to steal plutonium, in order to make a bomb, there would be a lot of other dangerously radioactive stuff around the plutonium.

There would be security around the reprocessing site. Getting in and out unnoticed would be difficult; and if you tried the "frontal assault" method, you would find that it's not very easy to get out of the country with an APB out for X many men in a large truck that's increasingly radioactive.

And besides all that, the plutonium would be a mixture of isotopes, some of which would make building a bomb with the stuff impossible. Either it would spontaneously go off, or it would fail to explode properly--either way, it wouldn't produce an optimum yield.

Yes you need a nuclear reactor in order to make weapons-grade plutonium. No, having a reactor does not automatically mean you're going to be making nuclear bombs. If you already have both reactors and bombs--as the US does--"proliferation" is a non-issue.

3) Nuclear power plants do, yes, generate high-level waste. Yes, it's hazardous.

For a couple of years.

By definition, any substance which emits a lot of radioactivity has a short half-life. It loses its potency quickly. The less radioactive it is, the longer its half-life is. This is basic physics.

The fuel rods which are removed from a reactor go into a "cool down" pool where they sit for many months. The shortest-lived isotopes rapidly decay; once they have done so, the fuel elements can be reprocessed safely. The various elements which "poison" the nuclear reaction can then be chemically removed, and the recycled fuel can be put back into service.

It'll leave you with a small amount of nuclear waste, much smaller than the fuel load it came from. Recycling nuclear fuel would vastly reduce the amount of nuclear waste we have to deal with. The article says "60,000 metric tons"; how much of that could be reprocessed and reused?

4) "Radioactive waste is dangerous for millions of years"? It depends on what you mean by "dangerous". Uranium 238 has a half-life of four billion years--but "dangerous" it is not, unless you inhale some of it. U-238 emits alpha particles--helium nuclei; if you want to protect yourself from it, you must obtain an esoteric and high-tech shielding material called PAPER. (Latex paint works very well, too. In fact, stay about ten feet away from an alpha emitter, and you're probably safe, just because of the air between you and the substance.)

Any radioactive substance with a half-life of "millions of years" is not going to be as dangerous as the stuff that comes right from the reactor. Yes, you can get sick or die if you spend too much time near too much of the stuff, and it really ought to be stored somewhere--not just left out in the open--but "dangerous" is relative.

If you want to worry about nuclear waste being "dangerous", though, worry about the stuff with the short half-lives, because that is the stuff that'll kill you the quickest, that needs the most shielding between you and it to keep you safe.

I'd rather live next to a ton of U-238 for a year than stand next to a gram of Strontium 90 for an hour.

* * *

Besides all that, though, there's another point the article makes in that first paragraph: that nuclear power is non-renewable.

Sure, if you treat uranium ore as the source of nuclear power, then yes--it's not renewable. Technically. We have a finite amount of exploitable uranium ore in the Earth's crust.

But the funny thing about a nuclear reactor: if you put something in there, where the neutrons are flying around, some things get their nuclei rearranged. We've known how to build breeder reactors since the 1940s; there are plenty of ways to build a nuclear reactor that allow you to both extract power and make more fuel at the same time.

Uranium is just one useful power metal, though. Plutonium can be used. Thorium can be used. Anything that makes neutrons can, one way or another, be used to generate power.

A single charge of enriched uranium could be used over and over and over again until all the uranium in it has been converted into other elements. We don't know how long that would take because we've never tried it, but as the fuel is used, the U-238 is converted into other elements; eventually, if the fuel is run through enough times, all the "original" U-238 will be turned into something else.

Right now, we use a fuel rod until it's "poisoned"; then we stick it in storage and plan to entomb it in Yucca Mountain.

And it doesn't have to be like this.

The article does not mention--as such articles never do--that the entire reason we don't reprocess nuclear fuel is that Jimmy Carter signed an executive order making it illegal to process spent nuclear fuel--which means it's been not less than 28 years since we've been able to recycle spent nuclear fuel.

It was made illegal through executive order--by fiat--and a simple stroke of a pen or a law passed by Congress could make it legal again. No President since Carter has bothered to rescind that executive order, though.

So what do we have? A stupid decision made by one man has led us to having to build a multi-billion dollar facility which--so far--has not stored so much as one pound of nuclear waste, while for the last thirty years slightly-used nuclear fuel has been piling up.

When all we have to do to resolve 90% of the problem is simply to recycle the stuff.


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