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

Posts Tagged ‘radioactive waste

Barack Obama, nuclear energy and Yucca Mountain.

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Putting aside, for now, rhetoric like “OMG Obama will kill nuclear energy”, one of the only “anti-nuclear” positions that president-elect Obama has actually made overtly clear on the issue of nuclear energy is that he is opposed to the opening / licensing of the geological repository for radioactive waste disposal at Yucca Mountain.

However, it should be realized that “No Yucca Mountain facility” is not saying “No to nuclear energy”.

I really don’t think a Yucca Mountain style geological disposal facility is a prerequisite for the continuation or the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States for the foreseeable future.

Nuclear energy works just fine at present with no Yucca Mountain, and it will continue to work in future, even without Yucca Mountain going ahead.

If Obama’s position on Yucca Mountain causes the government, the nuclear energy industry, and the public to pause for a moment, step back, and ask if branding all that used fuel containing uranium, plutonium and other useful, valuable material as “waste” and sending it to geological disposal at Yucca Mountain is really a sensible proposal, then I really don’t think that’s a bad thing.

In fact, if Obama was to back efficient utilisation of these nuclear materials as the alternative to disposal at Yucca Mountain, then I wouldn’t expect to see a great deal of opposition to such a plan, from nuclear-literate parties, at all.

The used nuclear fuel removed from a conventional LEU-fueled light-water reactor is about 25 tonnes per gigawatt per year – the equivalent of less than two 15-tonne dry storage casks per reactor per year – something that is clearly not difficult to deal with.

If the uranium and plutonium comprising 97% of the nuclear fuel is recovered and re-used, and the remaining 3%* is put into dry storage casks, then just one storage cask provides enough capacity to store the material for one reactor for twenty years. Of course, of that 3% of fission product material, half the fission products aren’t even radioactive at all, or they have extremely short half-lives. Many fission products, both radioactive and not radioactive, are valuable, exotic and useful materials, with specialised, useful and interesting applications. The assumption that all such fission products would be treated as “waste” is, therefore, especially pessimistic.

* (You can account for the minor actinides (Np, Am, Cm, Cf) in either category. They constitute a very small amount of mass either way. Such actinides, like Pu and U, can be fissioned in a nuclear reactor as sources of energy, and like many fission products, they can also be used for specialised technological and scientific applications, such as the production of 238Pu from 237Np, and the use of Cf and Am:Be as neutron sources.)

Still, it seems a real shame to waste all that money that we’ve already spent on YM if it’s not going to be used. I’m not sure off the top of my head how far underground the tunnels at Yucca Mountain are, but perhaps it could be used as a deep underground laboratory, or something, just as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is?

Still, there are approximately 50,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel already in the United States, the result of the last 50 years of nuclear energy. Opponents of nuclear energy are quick to point that out, but under a scenario similar to that elucidated above, with the separation of easily usable plutonium and uranium, the significantly radioactive fission product materials only constitute 1500 tonnes, or 100 DSCs worth. Until a geological repository is built, or those fission products are put to productive uses, that’s only one additional storage cask that need be stored at every power reactor in the country.

In the foreseeable future, with no Yucca Mountain, dealing with nuclear byproduct materials, storing them safely and securely on site, is not impractical, and it’s not intractable, and it’s not unsafe. There is nothing here which impedes or prevents a revival of nuclear energy generation.

Of course, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the government will have to compensate nuclear utilities for the costs of this storage. No, this does not mean handing out government money to nuclear utilities – it means giving the Nuclear Waste Fund money that is supposed to go to Yucca Mountain back to the nuclear utilities in order to pay for the management of the existing 50,000 tonnes (approx.) of used fuel (and/or processing thereof), and more importantly, it ought to mean not requiring nuclear utilities to pay any more money – more correctly, not requiring nuclear electricity customers to pay any more money – for the Nuclear Waste Fund, until we know that a geological repository for radioactive waste is going ahead. Otherwise, what exactly are they paying for?

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Kentucky senator pushing for fair consideration of nuclear energy

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Atomic Insights reports that Kentucky state Senator Bob Leeper has been doing some reading and listening lately about the coming of a new wave of nuclear plant construction, and he is working to position his state as a potential site for consideration. He has recently introduced a bill that would change the language in the law to allow licensed on site storage as a means of safely handling the byproducts that remain after using fuel in a reactor for a period of time, as compared with current Kentucky law which precludes the construction of a new nuclear power plant until there is a licensed and available location for permanent disposal of used nuclear fuel or the radioactive waste which may be left following recycling of such used fuel, such as the Yucca Mountain facility under development in the United States.

Of course, some people, such as Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a name that those with their finger on the pulse of nuclear energy policy in the United States and elsewhere will have heard before, has other ideas:

 “One problem with nuclear reactors is what to do with the high-level waste they produce. This waste is actually a cocktail of chemicals such as Cesium-137, Iodine-129, Strontium-90 and Plutonium-239, each radioactive and cancer-causing.”

There’s no way that it is appropriate to call these kinds of materials waste –  they are radionuclides with useful and important technological, scientific and industrial applications. Of course, if we greatly expand the use of nuclear fission as an energy source throughout the world, along with the recycling and efficient re-use of the materials contained within irradiated nuclear fuels, it is likely that the inventories of such fission products thus created will ultimately dwarf demand for some of these radioactive materials – and it could be decided that these surplus quantities might be moved to deep underground storage, either for very long term storage, or permanant disposal.

“The waste decays slowly, remaining in dangerous amounts for thousands of years, and must be kept from escaping into the air, water and food supply”

Relatively short lived fission products, such as caesium-137 and strontium-90, with half-lives of 30 years and 29 years respectively, must be isolated from the environment for around 300 years, not thousands of years.

Longer lived fission products, such as iodine-129, one of the very longest lived of the fission product nuclides, can have half-lives of millions of years – with correspondingly smaller specific activities, and in most cases, much smaller nuclear fission yields. Some such long-lived fission products, such as I-129 and technetium-99, have sufficiently large neutron capture cross sections such that destruction of the radioactive nuclide by way of nuclear transmutation in a nuclear reactor is feasable.

I get especially bothered when these people talk of plutonium-239 and “waste” in the same sentence – it is one of the most potent, most energy dense, and most useful fuels known to humankind. There is absolutely no way that it should ever be thought of as “waste”, and it should not be wasted.

 “Another potential health problem is a large-scale release of radioactivity from a meltdown. Accidents have occurred at several reactors, including the 1986 total meltdown at Chernobyl and the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. But in addition to accidents, a terrorist attack could also cause a meltdown. Safe evacuation would be impossible, and local residents would be exposed to toxic radiation, causing many thousands to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancer.”

The Chernobyl disaster was not a meltdown in the usual sense of the term – it was a disaster triggered by complete destruction of the reactor core caused by a massive, explosive power excursion and steam explosion, not a fuel damage accident caused by a loss of coolant accident.

 The design, operation and physical characteristics of the RBMK power reactors at Chernobyl during the era of the Soviets have absolutely nothing  to do with the operation of the commercial nuclear power industry in the world today. The Chernobyl disaster is absolutely irrelevant, it has absolutely no relevance at all, to the use of light water reactors in the commercial nuclear power industry in the United States today.

No accident even remotely comparable to the Chernobyl accident, which, in the absence of any kind of real containment around the nuclear reactor, spewed radioactivity from the destroyed reactor core for thousands of miles, has ever occured in the commercial nuclear power industry in the Western world.

At Three Mile Island, where a loss of coolant accident and partial meltdown occurred in 1979,  was safe evacuation impossible? Were local residents exposed to “toxic radiation”? What dose of ionizing radiation did they receive? This was what is usually claimed as the most dangerous nuclear power reactor accident ever in the United States – did it cause “many thousands to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancer”? Did it harm anyone?

“Although it has never had a nuclear power reactor, Kentucky is no newcomer to nuclear plants. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has been enriching uranium for nuclear weapons and reactors since 1952 — and contaminating the local environment for decades.”

 Does the USEC Paducah plant produce HEU for nuclear weapons applications? That’s an open question to my readers – I’d like to know the answer.

What evidence, is there, that Paducah has been “contaminating the local environment for decades“? Is there any evidence of health or ecological effects on the surrounding community?

Local residents have breathed, drunk or eaten these contaminants, and they may have suffered. In the past quarter century, the death rate in the four closest counties (Ballard and McCracken in Kentucky, Massac and Pulaski in Illinois) is about 9 percent above the U.S. rate for both whites and blacks. This amounts to nearly 3,000 “excess” deaths in a population of only 95,000. The four counties have no obvious health risk, like language barriers, lack of education or extreme poverty, so Paducah must be considered as a potential factor in these high rates.

Kentucky already has the highest cancer death rate of any state in the nation. There is no need to increase cancer risk by introducing a hazardous means of producing electricity.

Has any scientific, peer-reviewed, epidemiological study of  health, death and disease, and the aetiology of any such abnormalities, in these counties ever been performed?

Is there any evidence, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of any kind, that nuclear energy is a “hazardous means of producing electricity” which “increases cancer risk”?