Nuclear Waste: Human Danger or Hidden Opportunity

Nuclear Waste: Human Danger or Hidden Opportunity

Some day in the near future, the first of many loads of the most toxic industrial waste ever known will be transported secretly by truck or rail, inevitably past populated areas, to a facility buried deep in a dry, geologically stable rock formation. Once filled, the facility itself – along with others to follow around the world – will have to be kept off-limits to humans and animals for at least 100,000 years.

For decades, chlorine-36, neptunium-237, and other nuclear energy byproducts – some with a half-life of over 2 million years – have been accumulating at power plants and temporary holding depots on almost every continent, with responsible officials knowing something more permanent would eventually have to be done. The New Mexico-based Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, for the disposal of weapons-related radioactive material, became operational in 1999, and pressure is growing to similarly confine civilian waste.

Much has happened politically since the early 1990s, when scientists and government officials settled on long-term plans to bury spent nuclear fuel in underground caverns and began identifying sites in France, Finland, Germany, Japan, and Sweden, as well as the United States. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have not only made clear their intention to create mass destruction with a nuclear or biological disruption, but have inspired willing conspirators within target countries.

Yet something less well-known has also changed over the intervening years. In 1942, the late University of Chicago physicist Walter Zinn developed what is today called a fast-neutron reactor (FNR) which, along with associated chemical processes, allows scientists to separate plutonium and fission products from spent fuel, such that the plutonium can be recycled and reused. While engineering problems back then made the FNR less economically viable than the fast breeder reactors (FBR) currently in use, recent progress has dramatically altered the equation.

Bill Gates is just one of many wealthy investors pouring money into companies building power plants that can run on nuclear waste. Gates’ own TerraPower has designed a liquid sodium-cooled reactor based on FNR principles. And in the U.K., a start-up called Moltex Energy is working along similar lines. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are now about 20 FNRs in operation around the world with some already supplying electricity commercially.

While all this may sound a bit technical to the layperson, these developments are potentially world changing, for it turns out that what we commonly call “nuclear waste” is not waste at all. Typical uranium reactors use less than 1% of their fuel, leaving the 99% in temporary storage pools or dry concrete containments onsite.

To get an idea of what recycling spent fuel could mean in terms of both cost savings and the reduction of atmospheric pollution, the US currently has 70 thousand tons of so-called “waste,” which converted into electricity at a consumer price of 15 cents per kilowatt hour, would produce $110 trillion of non-carbon energy. That is a $2 million savings per resident.

University of Toronto Biophysics Professor Peter Ottensmeyer has calculated that “burning up” the spent fuel temporarily stored at US power plants in fast-neutron reactors would avoid almost 640 billion tons of fossil fuel emissions – or 20% of all the CO2 now in the atmosphere. In a paper written for delivery at the Third Canadian Conference on Nuclear Waste Management in September, he estimates that recycling the nuclear waste from Ontario’s reactors alone would power the entire province for 3,500 years at present consumption levels – again without any hydrocarbon emissions.

An added point in favor of recycling, typically lost in discussions of nuclear fuel, is that not all radioactive waste comes from the production of energy or weapons. For over 40 years, Canada’s National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, Quebec, has been producing the isotope molybdenum 99 (Mo-99), which is processed into so-called Tc-99 generators and used in hospital medical procedures world-wide.

By agreement with the US government, 23,000 liters of highly enriched uranium (HEU) waste are currently slated to be sent down the Eastern seaboard in as many as a hundred separate shipments over the next four years to a Savannah River, South Carolina facility. Once there, it will be chemically treated, with the radioactive residue encapsulated in glass and held until it can again be transported to more permanent storage.

But physicist John Hilborn, inventor of the SLOWPOKE reactor and a researcher at Chalk River since the 1950s, believes the HEU could instead be converted onsite to low enriched uranium (LEU). This would result in a six-fold gain in production, supplying all of North America with Tc-99 generators for 30 years – and effectively using up the radioactive material without ever having to move it down through the US. Public safety alone would suggest recycling the uranium and keeping it in the Chalk River inventory.

One might think environmental groups would be thrilled at the prospect of depleting reactor fuel onsite, but many seem so obsessed with ending nuclear power that they would risk transporting and storing spent fuel in order to accelerate plant closings. The welfare of humanity is best served by recycling industrial waste, they say, except when it comes to the radioactive kind … in which case it should be shipped long distances to where it will take hundreds of thousands of years to decay, hopefully undisturbed by earthquakes or ground water.

Even utility company officials find the current waste storage strategy politically preferable to lobbying for a superior alternative they know green activists will mercilessly demagogue. However nonsensical it is to bury an energy source that could safely and productively be depleted onsite, at least it is settled government policy in an era when it takes over a decade to license and build a power plant.

The big losers in refusing to consider the recycling of reactor waste are future generations who, if current policy stands, will pay a high price for today’s nuclear ignorance and paranoia.

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