Teach Me Something I Don’t Know About Nuclear Power

I mentioned in another post, Senators Put Their Arms Around Nuclear Power, that nuclear facilities are targets for terrorism. I quickly received a rebuttal claiming that “the death toll incurred by a nuclear plant being hit would be nothing compared with the death toll associated with a skyscraper collapsing”. I understand that nuclear power plants have improved throughout the years, but what about the storage and transportation of nuclear waste? What about the radio active waste that is created at these nuclear facilities?

Why is it that any time someone gets on the band wagon about nuclear power, they never include the dangers and the problems surrounding nuclear waste in their flag waving? From the pulpit of John McCain’s Presidential Run 2008, where he proclaimed that we have being riding safely on Nuclear Subs for decades, to the countless others who say that it is the most economical way to generate electricity – Why is there never a pause for the most obvious drawback to nuclear energy? Like an albatross that looms over us;We have no real solutions for the disposal of nuclear waste!

For decades we have tossed around ideas about what to do with the nuclear waste that is stored in facilities across the country without ever coming up with a real solution. There are over 121 facilities across the country where nuclear waste is stored. As we have seen with the waste produced by the coal industry, tons of radioactive waste are ending up in landfills because of political loopholes.

The standard disposal of nuclear waste is housing them in containers that have a shelf life of up to 20 years. Some of those containers have been dumped out at sea and some are housed at storage facilities. Many containers are long past their prime and are leaking into the earth. And yet we are still debating about what we are going to do about them…let alone about producing more of them.

As a result of the cold war between Russia and the United States, theHanford Energy Site in Washington State, houses “some 525 million gallons of radioactive waste that were generated by Hanford between 1944 and 1988 according to a Government Accountability Office report, and at least 56 million gallons of the stuff remains on site in leaky tanks. Already a million gallons of it has seeped into the ground and contaminated the Columbia River.”

In our most recent history, the Yucca Mountain in the Nevada Desert has been the central focus as a place to house a central repository for nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive waste. Plans to store the majority of our nation’s spent at a central repository underneath Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert 80 miles from Las Vegas were first hatched in the mid-1980s. But the project has languished primarily due to opposition from Nevadans who don’t want to import such dangerous materials into their backyard. Critics of the plan also point out that various natural forces such as erosion and earthquakes could render the site unstable and thus unsuitable to store nuclear isotopes that can remain hazardous to humans for hundreds of thousands of years to come.

So for all of the experts who hail the wonders of Nuclear Energy and the economical solutions that it brings to the woes of our economy and the environment, why don’t you include in your offerings a real plan for the disposal of radioactive waste. If you can solve that problem and tell me what we should do with the billions of gallons of waste already causing environmental disaster, then you will have something to tell me.

Cited: Plenty.mag
Hanford Energy
Scientific American

8 comments on “Teach Me Something I Don’t Know About Nuclear Power

  1. Michael Ashcroft

    Jason,When I referred to nuclear fission as “inelegant”, I meant purely from a physics point of view. It, like fossil fuels, involves breaking something apart and heating a fluid. It’s still wasteful and messy. Compared to directly converting solar photons into photoelectrons in a semiconductor, or fusing two hydrogen nuclei together, say, I would say it is inelegant. That said, I agree that nuclear power is a viable option, and that there are alternatives to uranium as a fuel. Thorium could work, although given the binding energies between thorium nuclei compared with uranium, the energy produced per unit mass of thorium would be less than that of uranium. Not a huge issue; we’d just need more.

  2. Jason Ribeiro

    @snilon – I accept the story about Hanford’s leaks. As to how severe or to what degree the danger if any it poses is another matter. Regardless, that is one case that evolved from the Manhattan project and can’t be testimony for all nuclear energy.I’m not against developing “other alternatives” and there is enough money to go around for both. However, if fighting global warming is as urgent as we believe it to be, then all available resources should go toward the best plans that have the greatest effect. Moreover, both wind and solar are intermittent will not be able to scale fast or well enough to compete against coal and gas.We built over 100 nuclear plants in about 25 years time in this country. The French built around 50 plants in 15 years. And though there were certain logistical and cost problems in the USA, some plants still went up within 4-5 years time. Other plants around the world have gone up under budget and ahead of schedule. Using better/modern development techniques would deploy new plants in a much shorter order. The USA is one of the few countries in the world in which the electrical infrastructure is controlled by private companies. These companies are not bound by law to pay for their pollution. Should that change, then maybe it will provide the significant impetus to begin building more nuclear. “Renewable” mandates do not recognize that nuclear has a renewable profile just as much as solar or wind, even more so if measured by the life of the generator per unit of energy produced. @Michael Ashcroft, I read your essay and while I agree with much of your logic, I wouldn’t describe nuclear energy as “inelegant” nor would I worry about the amount of available fuel. While traditional nuclear type facilities can serve us well into the near and longer term future, advanced designs should be pursued which improve safety, are virtually proliferation proof, and reduce the waste products. Uranium with breeding and recycling is abundant enough to last thousands of years. If used in conjunction with thorium, we would have enough energy for 100’s of thousands of years.

  3. Michael Ashcroft

    The gauntlet has been thrown down…Alas I have precious little time to dedicate to researching an answer that I would deem suitable to respond to such a challenge, but I can offer you this, my (rather wordy) opinion on why nuclear power must feature as part of our energy mix.Michael

  4. snilon

    Hi Jason,From the things that I have read: Hanford does have a leakage problem. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2003810014_hanfordside28e.html and http://www.wagingpeace.org/articles/2008/10/24_stclair_inside_hanford.php to name a few.That being said, my point was that nuclear power isn’t the only answer. Just because it is better than fossil fuel and better than coal, doesn’t mean that we should stop there.The problem that I have is the mentality that all the money should go to developing more nuclear power plants and not towards other alternatives. We have not lived long enough to give definitive answers about what will happen to the nuclear waste that we are stock piling. If we stopped now, we would have enough to deal with in the future, but the amount of spent fuel that we are generating will grow to insurmountable proportions. The same ignorance that underlined the mentality of the fossil fuel argument. “There’s plenty to go around. Why should we have to worry?” But we know enough now that it is not that simple.

  5. Jason Ribeiro

    After 50 years of using nuclear reactor technology in the United States, not one person has been killed or harmed by nuclear waste.We know how to contain it via simple methods of shielding, time and distance. If we could move beyond nuclear energy in terms of cost, efficiency, and energy yeild, we would. Renewable energy, on a massive scale, is more expensive, yeilds less energy and is less efficient especially if backup systems are considered. Renewable energy systems simply cannot do the job of powering the baseload of the grid. Nuclear can.To put it another way, if wind and solar were as effective or even more so than nuclear, then they would have easily captured 20% or more of the electricity market in 25 years or less by now. Nuclear energy has done that already. Many would argue that if it were not for “subsidies” to nuclear energy this wouldn’t be so. On the contrary, nuclear is one of the least, if not perhaps last, to receive subsidies, direct or indirect, as an energy source. Per unit of energy, renewables receive the most subsidies of any energy technology. Moreover, nuclear plants have contributed billions in tax revenues and to the communities in which host them. As a nuclear advocate, I do want to give renewables a chance, though renewable advocates don’t want to give nuclear a chance. I find much of the anti-nuclear arguments based on arguments that are false, misleading, uninformed, and disingenuous. I understand that nuclear is a philisophical -no-no to the green movement, but this is the legacy of second-hand ignorance passed from the 1970’s to the 21st century. While nuclear energy may not be a silver bullet, it is more “silvery” than most if not all others. To advocate taking it off the table for consideration will put the energy problem complex into an even more difficult bind. To practice that type of philosophy is making the perfect the enemy of the good. I used to think right along the same lines as nuclear opponents. When I started to study the technology to confirm what I “knew”, I found an different story to nuclear energy. I also became more appreciative of the vast quantity of energy required to run our civilization and realized the strict renewable path has severe limitations to meet that demand, so much so that it is virtually impossible. Many prominent people in the green movement have changed their minds about nuclear. Yet there are still those like Amory Lovins that pander to the green utopian ideals while taking money from fossil companies. For this reason, I feel my “green” advocacy is far greener than Lovins’ rigid philosophy. He has not “analyzed” nuclear energy, he’s put his ego on the line against it. There are real solutions for nuclear spent fuel. It is not waste. It can be transmutated, vitrified, recycled, elements can be separated and used. Yes, Hanford has been a problem as you point out, but Hanford does not represent most nor the future of nuclear plants. The containers used at nuclear sites are not leaking as you say. The containers are extremely robust and can last longer than king Tut’s tomb.

  6. Marcel F. Williams

    Western nuclear reactors have never harmed anyone, at least not through radiation. And even the horribly built Chernobyl reactor which didn’t even use a containment structure, killed less than 60 people. Compare that with the largest renewable energy producer, hydroelectricity, which killed over 170,000 people in China through flooding, famine, and epidemics after the breach of the Banqiao Dam in China on August 8th, 1975.Wind and solar are of course extremely land and material intensive relative to nuclear power. Wind turbines are also extremely deleterious to bats and predatory birds. Photovoltaics require toxic chemicals for their production that are harmful to the environment and some are potential super greenhouse gasses if released into the atmosphere. So I’m not really aware of any energy system that is completely environmentally benign. But the fact that the US and western nuclear power industry has never killed anyone, is remarkable, IMO. And even if you include the Chernobyl disaster, the coal industry kills 170,000 people annually world wide and has probably resulted in the deaths of more than 6 million people over the past 50 years. And in the long run (less than a thousand years), the reprocessing and utilization of spent nuclear fuel actually reduces radiation in the environment below the level of the uranium ore originally mined. Marcel F. Williamshttp://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/

  7. snilon

    You are absolutely right. Coal is far worse than nuclear when it comes to the dangers. And if I had to pick between the two, I would pick nuclear energy. But why is nuclear power the answer? It still produces a product that causes harm. Why can’t we move beyond it and focus on alternatives that give something good without such a high cost?I’ll be reading your solutions next…

  8. Marcel F. Williams

    First of all, nuclear power plants produce 100 times less radioactive waste than the equivalent amount of power from a coal power plant. The new energy secretary, Steven Chu has also noted this point. Coal ash is full of radioactive uranium and thorium. Yet this is not perceived by the public as a looming disaster. Of course, unlike radioactive material, the other toxic materials in coal ash remains dangerous– forever! I published my solution to the relatively minor problem of nuclear waste last year on my blog: Short & Long Term Solutions for Nuclear Waste at: http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/08/short-long-term-solutions-to-nuclear.htmlMarcel F. Williams

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