A Problem for the Future

A nuclear power plant requires a vast investment of money and resources, it has to be decommissioned after a few decades of useful life– a process so expensive and politically unprofitable that we let plants run beyond their original expiration date, as in Vermont.

Nuclear plants produce radioactive waste, some of which is deadly for thousands of years. A commission set up by the Department of Energy will be offering recommendations, and a close reading of the following article suggests that temporary storage is the most likely outcome…

The quest for a national repository for spent fuel has been a festering issue for decades but gained higher visibility after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The disaster not only damaged reactors but led to the loss of cooling water in at least one pool of spent radioactive fuel, raising the risk of the release of radioactive materials.

At nuclear plants in the United States, pools of spent fuel are far more heavily loaded. The National Academy of Sciences warned in a study in 2005 that the presence of vast stores of radioactive fuel could make the plants an attractive target for terrorists.

For now, members of the waste commission say, the panel is unlikely to make a recommendation for starting work on two controversial disposal methods: reprocessing the spent fuel to recover plutonium for reuse, as France and Japan do, or building a new class of reactors that would break up the most troublesome wastes into materials that are easier to handle. Instead, it will recommend more research, the members said. “Neither the technology nor the economics are ready to compel us to make a decision on that at this point,” said Phillip A. Sharp, an Indiana Democrat on the commission.

If we had addressed this problem thirty years ago, with conservation and smart energy use, and invested in better technology, we would not be arguing about whether coal or nuclear was the more deadly option.

We can continue to use tax dollars to subsidize a Soviet-style mega technology of the 20th Century, or use our tax dollars to reduce the waste of what we have, and take advantage of promising new options.

Other nations, such as Germany and China, will move ahead in the clean energy race, if we keep subsidizing Big Oil and underwriting the risk of nuclear power.

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8 responses

  1. “If we had addressed this problem thirty years ago, with conservation and smart energy use, and invested in better technology, we would not be arguing about whether coal or nuclear was the more deadly option.”

    I hear this all the time, but the numbers just don’t add up. Realistically, modern society uses LOTS of electricity. Lights, industrial processes, heating, hot water, and (hopefully) plug-in cars. How much do you think conservation will actually save? I’ve heard very liberal estimates showing that if we went full-blast on conservation, we’d save maybe 20% of our total use, that’s not enough to put coal or nuclear out to pasture. Also, if we went full-blast on renewables, we could maybe generate 20% of our needs; again, not enough (even when combined with conservation) to be able to go without coal or nuclear.

    If anything, the future will likely see massive -increases- in electricity consumption as we move towards non-fossil heating and hot water and start using electric cars in the cities.

  2. That’s 4 BILLIONS of years just from Uranium, on down the periodic table ( which is the remainder of the life expectancy of Our EARTH, herself)!

    1. Bruce, did you know that there is already 4.6 Billion TONS of uranium dissolved in the worlds oceans? It was like that before we got here, too.

      It’s tough to think in these scales, so I’ll make it simpler:

      There is over 130 times as much naturally-occurring uranium in the ocean as there is in the total world’s supply of mine-able land-based sources.

      People really aren’t able to contemplate the massive scale of the earth. I’m not saying it’s cool to dump nuclear waste, just that the runoff from Fukushima WILL dissipate, and it’s not going to permanently alter more than a few footfall-fields’ worth of oceanfront.

      1. Everything goes somewhere. The Pacific will not start glowing in the dark, but radiation will concentrate in the ecosystem and turn up in ways that are harmful to humans and marine life. This is what we are leaving for the future.

      2. “radiation will concentrate in the ecosystem and turn up in ways that are harmful to humans and marine life”

        There are two things you say here that you’re taking as ‘givens’ that are probably not true:

        1. That these isotopes will bio-accumulate. In fact, radiocesium doesn’t bio-accumulate very well in saltwater fish.

        2. That the levels will be harmful to marine life and to humans. Outside of a very short range, the effect of the additional radioactivity will be basically unmeasurable in sea life. Fish (like everything else) have some innate radioactivity to them already, naturally. This might raise that by a few percent, but there’s no way you could draw a line from that to effects on either marine or human health. Again, I’m talking about the effects -outside- the area that is getting directly affected.

  3. Most of the Earth’s surface is saltwater.It also goes to depths that have never been explored or even seen in many areas.
    “The Universe Below”by William Broad a science writer for the NYT is a good,not overly technical introduction to the subject.
    The enormous volume of water in the world’s seas and oceans works to ameliorate anything that enters that realm.
    Even in the smaller scale,the concept of terrorists poisoning reservoirs or lacing them with LSD becomes much less alarming when the chemical action of large quantities of water on dangerous substances is examined dispassionately.
    I’m not sayin water can’t become dangerously polluted,but it usually is due to a degree of stagnation or lack of fresh supply,outlets,etc.Size of the body of water is another consideration.
    I took an Environmental Science course while studying for my Criminal Justice degree(I don’t like too narrow a focus)and it was very interesting and thought provoking.This was back aound 1972.

  4. I hope you’re right that radioactive waste in the ocean is harmless, because there’s more bad news from Fukushima today.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703509104576325110776621604.html?mod=WSJ_WSJ_News_BlogsModule

    1. I don’t think anyone here is saying it’s “harmless”-it’s a matter of how much damage it can do.

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