Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Thinking about “nuclear waste”.

with 3 comments

Many people worry greatly about “nuclear waste” from the production of nuclear energy.

Let’s consider stars – you know, like that big, hot, relatively close one you can see in the sky for about half the day.

Stars are vast nuclear reactors – they produce vast amounts of energy, by nuclear means, and it is that vast amount of energy which makes it possible for life, at least on this world, for sure, and perhaps on other worlds, too, to exist.

Life exists in a very low state of entropy – it requires large amounts of energy to exist. The nuclear fire within the stars provide that energy.

But, as a byproduct of that energy generation, stars produce new nuclei – nuclear waste, right?

The nuclear waste from the stars is the stuff of which solar systems and planets, asteroids and worlds, and all life, including ourselves on our world, and all our material things are made. That’s nuclear waste, right?

Does this put nuclear waste into perspective for you? “Nuclear waste” is filled with perfectly usable, perfectly valuable materials – why can’t they be used productively?

Written by Luke Weston

March 18, 2008 at 5:44 am

3 Responses

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  1. Tritium forms in the upper atmosphere and falls to earth in precipitation. It has a constant rate of production and decay so that it remains at a constant level of about 1 Becquerel per liter in fresh water. Tritium is hazardous if ingested , inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Every exposure increases the risk of genetic damage, birth defects and cancer. Nuclear reactors in the Great Lakes area in Ontario Canada have caused tritium levels to rise to about 5 to 10 Becquerels per liter in Ontario. Tritium from a small tritium light manufacturing facility in Peterborough nearby has raised the tritium level in apples nearby to as high as 5540 Becquerels per liter, water to over 2000 Becquerels per liter and ground water near the facility to as high as 1.5 million becquerels per liter.

    Tritium does occur naturally. Since inside a cell it is a dangerous agent of change, maybe mother nature has a point leaving it at that constant rate of 1 becquerel per liter. I believe there is a balance in nature and we haven’t quite figured out all the details. Maybe nuclear power would be more acceptable if it was a closed system and was not designed to routinely dump radioactive pollution into our air, water and earth.

    Jeff Brackett

    May 27, 2009 at 1:08 am

  2. I’m confused about the usage of the becquerel unit. If a liter of water has a tritium (or other radioactive substance) level of 1 becquerel per liter, does that mean that in that liter of water there’s one tritium particle decaying every second?
    Or does that mean that there’s only one tritium particle that will decay someday?

    I’ve also seen people using becquerels as a measure of quantity. For example, 3x10e6 becquerels of tritium. Same idea, does that mean that this amount of tritium contains 3x10e6 particles that will someday decay, or that 3x10e6 tritium particles are decaying per second?

    Demian

    October 20, 2009 at 11:14 pm

  3. Thanks for the question.

    It means that there’s one nucleus (of that particular radioactive nuclide) decaying per second.

    It’s a rate at which the radioactive material is decaying – but the magnitude of that decay rate is proportional to the number of radioactive nuclei, so it is also a measure of the amount of radioactivity is present.

    Luke Weston

    October 22, 2009 at 12:19 pm


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