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Nukin’ it

February 7, 2009

Prompted by a somewhat exciting piece of news on the nuclear energy front,1 I’ve been reading a fair amount of material about it all—probably more than I ever had before.  I’ve noticed three things in my reading: (1) a lot of comparisons of nuclear energy to coal; (2) certain people see nuclear as a bridge to renewable energies, such as solar and wind; (3) others see nuclear power as a viable, long-term energy solution.  I’ll quickly address all three as I see them and then move a little deeper into the pros and cons of nuclear power.

1. “With coal killing 800,000 people a year nuclear looks real good actually.” What we have here is actually a false dilemma.  Compared to coal-fired power plants, I agree that nuclear power has many benefits.  However, there are also several concerns around nuclear that cannot be ignored just because coal may be “worse.”  The underlying assumption here is that we need this energy source to fuel industrial society into the future.  The use of the word “need” here is of key importance.  Living as we do today in a society that uses energy in an unsustainable manner, the real need is a reduction in energy to reach a level that can be sustained.  The grow-or-die economy is what needs enormous amounts of energy to live, not the human populations that live within our societies.  The lifestyle is what needs the energy, not the life.  For all but the last fraction-of-a-percent in human history we haven’t had anything close to the energy-intensive lifestyle humans today enjoy.

2. We can use nuclear energy until the technology for renewable sources becomes good enough to implement on a massive scale. I, personally,  have a few problems with this point of view, but I prefer it to the view that nuclear power is a long-term solution.  First, I don’t think the trade-offs—that is, the negative side-effects of nuclear energy, namely the waste—are worth the gains.  Some say we can use nuclear power for 20 years and by then solar and wind will be scalable, and others make different estimates.  But are the tons of waste that will be produced that must be kept away from any living thing for 10,000 years worth the 20 years of power it gave us?  (More on this later.)  And let’s say we use it for 20 years: then what?  Nuclear fission produces enormous amounts of energy, and if it fueled the grow-or-die society for 20 years that society might adopt this as the new standard, and thus have trouble changing again.  What if by the end of those 20 years the renewable energies still can’t compete?  If they are having trouble competing with the fossil fuel market of today it’s hard to imagine they could compete with the nuclear market of the future.

3. Nuclear fission is the energy source of the future; we must reinvest in it today so we can begin powering our society on it immediately. Can nuclear power realistically power us for more than those 20 years?  Most certainly.  But for how long?  The conclusions I’ve come to suggest we may repeat the fossil fuel cycle just without the fossil fuels.  It’s easy to forget that we’ve only been on oil for about a hundred years.  Is a hundred years long term?  This is a subjective question, but I certainly wouldn’t think of it as such.  If an average human lifetime is roughly 70 years, that means at this rate we’ll be looking for a new source of energy every 1.4 generations.  I cannot consider this long.  Just as with fossil fuels, fissile radioactive materials are subject to supply/demand issues and there are limited amounts.  (More on this later as well.)

Anyway, the news in the article originally had me excited.  My objection to nuclear power has always been an objection to nuclear waste.  The statistics generally debunk the FUD tactics used to protest nuclear power in the past; nuclear power is safe—much safer than other popular energy production methods—and chances of mishap are low.  The waste has never been figured out though.  Even though nuclear fission has been used to produce energy for decades, the best solutions for disposal of radioactive waste have been burying it or putting it in above-ground containers.  Although in the United States it isn’t done, considerable efforts have been made in other areas of the world, most notably in France, to reprocess waste.  This obviously sounds like the best option.

Currently in the United States we’re looking at Yucca Mountain, a large burial facility that may be safe, but has its own issues:

Toxic nuclear waste is stored at sites around the U.S. Debate surrounds the construction of a large-scale geological storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which many maintain is costly and dangerous. The storage capacity of Yucca Mountain, which is not expected to open until 2020, is set at 77,000 tons. The amount of nuclear waste generated by the U.S. will exceed this amount by 2010.

So if the amount of waste produced by next year will exceed the amount of waste Yucca Mountain will have capacity for, something needs to be done to get around the issue.  Enter the fusion-fission hybrid:

“We have created a way to use fusion to relatively inexpensively destroy the waste from nuclear fission,” says Mike Kotschenreuther, senior research scientist with the Institute for Fusion Studies (IFS) and Department of Physics. “Our waste destruction system, we believe, will allow nuclear power–a low carbon source of energy–to take its place in helping us combat global warming.”

I’m skeptical on the use of the word “destroy.”  The article does briefly describe the process—

The scientists’ waste destruction system would work in two major steps.

First, 75 percent of the original reactor waste is destroyed in standard, relatively inexpensive LWRs. This step produces energy, but it does not destroy highly radiotoxic, transuranic, long-lived waste, what the scientists call “sludge.”

In the second step, the sludge would be destroyed in a CFNS-based fusion-fission hybrid. The hybrid’s potential lies in its ability to burn this hazardous sludge, which cannot be stably burnt in conventional systems.

—but as I became more familiar with the reprocessing technique used by the French, I formulated a question in my mind: Is the waste actually “destroyed,” or is it merely converted to a different form?

In an article I was linked to (by someone offering it up as “proof” that nuclear energy and the waste produced by the processes have been figured out):

In that years-long recycling process, the French recapture 97 percent of the spent fuel’s plutonium. Unlike U.S. utilities which are stuck with it all, they’re left with only 3 percent to be disposed of as highly radioactive waste.

In stark contrast to the French approach, the United States intends to bury its spent fuel in a deep hole in the desert at Yucca Mountain, Nev., without reusing so much as a single curie of it. The fuel is so hot with radiation that it must be isolated from humans for at least 10,000 years, though some portions of it will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

[…]

Even with reprocessing, a second large repository still would be needed for all the wastes that are not as dangerous as plutonium. There would be even more of that type of waste than there was to begin with because reprocessing creates more contaminated materials. The upside, if you can call it that, is that the waste is somewhat less dangerous than what has not been reprocessed, and thus needs to be isolated for only 300 to 500 years.

But we need a second repository in any case to cope with the waste already in hand. So it’s worth asking if we should have one 10,000-year repository for plutonium and a second, 300-to-500-year one for less dangerous reprocessed waste. Our present plan is to build a second 10,000-year repository. But, as we have yet to demonstrate we can build one 10,000-year repository, a second one is hardly a sure bet.

But if that second repository held reprocessed waste, that repository would need to last only for 300 to 500 years. It’s almost within human grasp to assure its safety for that period. And that would provide a rather impressive 9,500-year safety advantage.2

Again, this is the way the French do it, and I’m unsure on whether the fusion-fission process would literally destroy waste or merely convert it into this new, 300-500 year waste.

Here we have another false dilemma.  The underlying assumption is that nuclear is the preferred path, so the two choices are: (1) extremely dangerous radioactive waste that must be isolated for 10,000 years or (2) even more not-as-but-still-very dangerous waste that must be isolated for 300-500 years.  It’s a false dilemma because we don’t have to use nuclear power in the first place.

And the French system isn’t bulletproof like some people would like to claim; a very quick search showed that in 2006 there were worries about nuclear waste polluting groundwater.3

Here’s where I inject some uncertainty of my own: Nobody knows what the world is going to be like in 300 years, 500 years, and we are certainly in the dark about what it will be like in 10,000 years. So ask yourself, Is it responsible for any government to leave tons and tons of hazardous waste laying around when there are no guarantees of its safeguarding? The United States itself is only a little over 200 years old—but it’s a good idea to keep nuclear waste around for potentially several times longer? I really hope the hybrid technology truly destroys the waste, because anything less is, in my mind, completely unacceptable.

I considered another aspect of the feasibility of nuclear energy as a long-term solution when I came across someone suggesting we’d be trading in Peak Oil for Peak Uranium.  This was an interesting proposition.  In discussions about nuclear energy I’ve alluded to the fact that we could easily “run out” of uranium just as easily as we could “run out” of fossil fuel, but I never really knew the numbers behind it.  So I looked it up.

(Something of a side-note first: Even those who refute “Peak Oilers” sometimes say that there is enough oil left to fuel society for another 100 years.  One man, in an interview I listened to recently, didn’t even say it’d last that long.4 What they don’t seem to realize is that this is exactly what Peak Oilers are saying.  If it took us 100 years to reach the peak, which we are either at or around, it will take 100 years to “exhaust” the resource, exhaust probably not being technically what will happen.  Peak theories are not about running out, as it seems popular among refuters to claim.)

In my quick search I came across some useful information, but I’m certainly no expert.  An article on The Oil Drum helped provide some perspective, and a quick glance over the Wikipedia entry helped out a bit too.5 It seems that in 11 countries uranium production has already peaked—the darling child, France,  included.  Furthermore, only 10 countries worldwide are responsible for 94% of the extraction.

There is no consensus on when the peak occurred/when it will occur—indeed there isn’t even consensus on whether or not there will be what can be considered a “peak” if demand remains relatively low.  As I see it, though, if nuclear energy becomes more sought-after in the near future, a similar situation to what we’re facing now with oil is certainly a possibility that should be kept in mind.

I don’t like it and I don’t think nuclear power should see widespread deployment until the waste issue is figured out.  Current methods of disposal just seem completely irresponsible to me; they seem to ignore the constant state of flux the world is in.  If this fusion-fission hybrid literally gets rid of the waste, as in makes it gone forever, then it’s something that should be researched and developed.  If not then we should just embrace our reduced-energy future, because that’s what we’ll have to face sooner or later anyways.

EDIT, Feb. 8, 1:11am: I suggest reading the post titled “Why nuclear power still sucks,” which should be linked below under the related posts.  The post contains a bit of FUD tactics, but it makes some good points.  As far as the comments are concerned: hit ctrl+f and type in the word “waste” (no quotes); if your browser allows the option to highlight all instances, enable it; scroll down.  Of all the proponents of nuclear energy not one of them mentions radioactive waste.  I  have noticed the same across the ‘net, on TV, in politics, etc.  The waste generated from nuclear fission is best left unmentioned by proponents.

EDIT, Feb. 10, 9:59pm: An interesting look into the mind of (some) nuclear energy proponents.  After pointing out in the comments section of a news piece that radioactive waste was not brought up, one user responded with “Because it’s a minor problem?”  After explaining that it wasn’t a minor problem (10,000 years, mere micrograms of plutonium can kill a person, can’t contaminate water or surrounding areas, etc.) he again responded:

Why? Sounds minor to me. It’s just poison. It might scare some backward village people but anyone from an industrial setting should be quite accustomed to poison by now. In fact, I have pipes running through my house carrying a gas that can either asphyxiate me or burn me alive. It’s no biggie, I don’t give it a second thought, even if unlike your “hardly a minor problem” it has often killed.

So the insight I gather from this is that people who have a lot invested in the industrial, energy-intensive lifestyle will do whatever it takes to keep it, even if they know it is poisoning them.  And this, I think, is part of why the world is in trouble.  I responded with this:

I guarantee if there was nuclear waste in every house it’d be a much bigger problem than whichever gas is going through yours, and it’d kill people on a constant basis. It’s not a fair comparison and you’re not being as clever as you might think.

Just because you’re used to poison doesn’t mean poison is a good thing.

Notes and Links

  1. Nuclear fusion-fission hybrid could contribute to carbon-free energy future at physorg.com
  2. The French fix at seattlepi.nwsource.com
  3. The nuclear waste crisis in France at greenpeace.org
  4. Just this segment (268kb, low-bitrate Ogg Vorbis) or the whole show at leftbusinessobserver.com
  5. Uranium Depletion and Nuclear Power: Are We at Peak Uranium? at theoildrum.com & Peak uranium at en.wikipedia.org

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2009 10:54 pm

    I’m with you on this issue. I know you don’t believe in religious prophecies but there’s one that says the earth
    will be destroyed by HEAT. Maybe nuke waste will do that.

  2. thequantumbuddha permalink
    February 9, 2009 1:33 am

    Bravo, Tony. This is a great source of information on nuclear power. I love your comments:

    “Living as we do today in a society that uses energy in an unsustainable manner, the real need is a reduction in energy to reach a level that can be sustained. The grow-or-die economy is what needs enormous amounts of energy to live, not the human populations that live within our societies. The lifestyle is what needs the energy, not the life.”

    “Nuclear fission produces enormous amounts of energy, and if it fueled the grow-or-die society for 20 years that society might adopt this as the new standard, and thus have trouble changing again.”

    We will acheive sustainability–the question is, will it be by altering our lifestyles, or by the collapse of organized society as we know it?

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