Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nuclear waste not a problem?

I always find this sort of article fascinating. From The Guardian Comment, the writer suggests that the development of additional nuclear power capability is crucial in the fight against global warming. OK ........ I think I can follow the basic logic of that argument.

But, and its a BIG but, we get the same old argument about how to dispose of, store, throw away the inevitable nasty stuff that's left over.

"When we need to deal with the leftovers, we'll have the technology."

Errrrm, go on, prove it to me then. And while you're at it, just what is the EnviROI of storing stuff for decades while scientists play around with ideas on how to dispose of it properly, pray?

Although I still believe that nuclear will inevitably have to be part of the mix in terms of future power generation, I'm sorry, but that sort of argument about disposal of the horrendous waste that spent nuclear fuel represents is just not acceptable.

The article suggests several disposal methods that are in the research stage including some that actually make the waste safe (or, at least, a lot safer), but most of these ideas have been around for some 40+ years now, and yet there is still no safe way of dealing with the spent fuel.

The article is entitled: -

Nuclear waste is hardly a worry when the climate change threat is so urgent"

Sorry, but even measured against the worry that climate change induces in many of us, it IS a major worry to anyone concerned about the environment of this little lump of planetary rock.

ADDENDUM - Junkk Male to CiF site

I must share the compliment offered to what has mostly been a civilised and highly informative series of exchanges.

Just one thing.

If we are to squirt the stuff elsewhere rather than doing without or dealing with it (a human trait), can we wait until the tehcnological solutions that have so far resulted in our current extra-orbital attempts scrape to a slighly more reassuring succcess rate.

Oh, and please make it over someone else's head, not in a jet-stream, etc.

Ta very much.


Peter said...

Not quite what you'd expect in the Guardian, eh?

And this is from a pretty qualified dude.


I really worry when I see such as this: 'When we need to deal with the leftovers, we'll have the technology'

That's a bit like playing Russian Roulette on the basis that by your turn you'll have figured out a way to bullet-proof your skull.

I'd prefer a solution before we instigate much more massive poison into an already shaky infrastructure, administered in the main by incompetent jobsworths who operate on the basis they cannot be fired until golden pension time.

With luck they'll be the first to be severely asked probing question by Paxman when we have our Space 1999 moment.

Yet we face a dilemma, and nukes certainly allow more time to wallow in current usage while the CC debate 'rages'.

But I cannot really agree (with him, but obviously do with you) that in timeframe terms for either catastrophic eventuality, that nuclear waste is hardly a worry when the climate change threat is so urgent.


RobC said...

I agree with your skepticism about relying on future technology, but you're investigating the wrong suspect. We keep hearing that future technology will make conservation painless, that technical improvements will make solar panels practical, that someone will invent an energy storage system so homes and businesses can operate when the wind isn't blowing, and that magic new crops will provide biofuels.

But nuclear waste solutions don't depend on new technology. They've already been proved. Recycling not only can but has reduced the volume of waste to a small fraction of the original. Irradiation of waste not only can but has transmuted it into other elements that either are low enough in radioactivity that they pose no threat or decay away in a short time.

Like anything else, the technology no doubt will improve with experience. But the take-away point for now is that the technology already exists. The world's spent fuel is primed for recycling and processing. All that's required is the political will to proceed.

Dave said...

Robc, welcome to the junkk blog and thank you for your input.

I'm still a little concerned, however, as Jim Al-Khalili (a professor, no less) is clearly stating that we do NOT have the necessary technology as yet. Yes, transmutation is theoretically possible but appears to not yet be practically possible, at least on the scale required.

Could you enlighten us a little as to what you mean by take away point? Are you suggesting that the technology is definitely doable now and being withheld only by political intransigence?

Peter said...

Or money?

Either way, I'd really like to know the cold, hard facts to come to an informed opinion.

The way the Guardian blog was/is playing out is quite interesting in this regard.

Some obviously well-read (if not necessarily qualified) folk on there scoring debating points (inc. moi - not keen on a few years of radioactive rain if the next Shuttle doesn't quite make it or a carbon nanotube on a space elevator goes 'twang'), but it all seesm a tad 'academic' to me considering the magnitude of the choices being faced.

RobC said...

Dave, thanks for the opportunity to add details.

Here's a link to a news item:

As it explains, transmutation is being done in the laboratory using linear accelerators. Actually, transmutation is not a new thing: all nuclear reactions are transmutative by nature.

The USDOE has a program for developing advanced "burner reactors" ( This article doesn't mention it, but there are a couple of test reactors already built that could do the work at a demonstration level, one in Idaho and one in Washington State.

I know the UK is involved in this program, but I don't have a reference.

I do indeed mean the technology is doable now. I wouldn't call the problem intransigence so much as distraction. The world is facing so many monumental problems now (I'll spare you the recitation, which you've surely memorized) and nuclear waste isn't causing any harm, so naturally no one gets around to pressing for progress on this subject.

Peter, here are the hard, cold facts as I see them:

(1) Nuclear energy has the best safety record and the best environmental record of any energy source available.

(2) Global warming is real, and its main cause is the burning of fossil fuels.

(3) Renewable energy sources, as valuable and necessary as they are, cannot provide all the energy the world needs now, even under stringent conservation regimes.

(4) China and India are raising their energy consumption at startling rates, and other underdeveloped countries should be encouraged and helped to do the same because all humans deserve to live above the starvation level.

Now I'll offer promises.

(1) An electricity source that doesn’t depend on wind or sunlight or the limited amount of energy storage available, and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. It could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen, which could be used directly in automobiles and trucks or added to biofuels to make their production higher by a factor of three. Presently, transportation accounts for about 33% of CO2 emissions; all of that could be eliminated through conservation, electrification, and alternate fuels.

(3) A huge reduction in air pollution, lowered trade deficits, and freedom from Middle-East involvements.

#1 and #3 are deliverable now. #2 faces daunting challenges because because of the need for portable fuels. But from here it looks like hydrogen will be needed whatever the solution turns out to be.

Nuclear energy can make these promises. Nothing else can.

Peter said...

I think I'll keep playing devil's advocate if I may, at least from a position of simple questioning.

Let me say from the outset that I can fully appreciate the dilemma caused by 'our' thirst for energy, the obvious inability of alternative means to cope, and the lack of will on all sides to even consider cutting back.

However, I still remain uneasy with the notion that one boards an aircraft to take a journey on the basis that there will be a runway to land upon when the time comes.

What you have shared is interesting, and possibly even encouraging, but seems a long way off much that is tangible by way of any kind of timeframe I can get too excited about. Especially when there is a large gulf between what can be done in a lab and on industrial scales.

And I don't think I am alone in questioning whether...'nuclear waste isn't causing any harm'. Is that really the case? I'm thinking those around Chernobyl might shake their heads (however may be sprouting).

So if not I'd say it is more than pressing to resolve this aspect, which begs the question as to why it is not being given much attention/priority.

To your facts may I add a few comments and/or questions?

(1) Nuclear energy's safety record - I'm not sure what measure you are using? Industrial? I can see how building and running a reactor is less hazardous than operating an oil rig. Unless of course it melts down. Environmental yes, unless it melts down. Plus there are some significant counter arguments out there surrounding disposal issues.

(2) Global warming - well I don't think anyone is reading this blog without being aware we're on board with these notions.

(3) Renewable energy sources - ditto.

(4) China and India - ditto.

(4a) other underdeveloped countries - that's another issue. A big and complex one. And in brings in many factors, including such as population control. But I agree that efforts should be made, if only for selfish reasons, to move such economies away from burning wood inefficiently or cutting down forests.

As to promises that I hope you can keep:

(1) An electricity source that doesn’t... all noted. Why the 'could'? As mentioned, I'm not so sure its carbon footprint is as low as often touted.

(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen - noted. Though maybe our addiction to unnecessary travel needs to be addressed rather than finding new ways to feed it. Especially as the stockpile 'issue' is still piling up.

(3) A huge reduction - hate to come back to the core (sorry) issue here - safety. I wasn’t too thrilled with what blew over from Chernobyl by air. And as to our relations with our Middle Eastern brothers (sisters safely locked away), proliferation of fissionable materials that can feed less benign energy aspirations... not so keen.

I'm not disputing the deliverables. I remain concerned abut the tidy-up-ables.

Sadly, I am erring on accepting that, IF 'we' demand limitless energy NOW, Nuclear looks like the only one that can deliver without a carbon legacy.

So maybe the wrong questions are being asked to end up with the answers we are being provided?

RobC said...

Peter, thanks for your thoughtful post.

You mention Chernobyl twice, which is quite reasonable. Ordinarily, that's not included in the nuclear waste question but as a safety issue. By waste, most people refer to the spent fuel and the low-level waste that results from routine maintenance. Despite looking, I've never found a case in which wastes harmed anyone.

What Chernobyl did was set the upper bound for a nuclear accident. For decades antinukes argued that a nuclear accident would lead to an unprecedented catastrophic death toll. Chernobyl showed that even an unsafely built and unsafely operated nuclear plant with essentially no safety features could, in a worst-case accident, result in harm equal to routine disasters that happen year in and year out.

In contrast, the Three Mile Island accident showed that a normal power reactor could even experience a core meltdown and still not cause any injuries to any person. It's because of the defense-in-depth design employed in all free-world reactors. I don't think you can improve on a perfect safety record, but nuclear designers claim that, partly because of the TMI experience, new nuclear plants are even safer.

You also questioned whether CO2 reductions would really be reduced. All the objective analyses I've seen show a stunning reduction, based on life-cycle studies. For example, yields the following, in equivalent tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt-hour:

Coal 974
Combined-cycle natural gas 469
Photovoltaic 39
Nuclear fission 15
Wind 14
DT fusion 9

You've hinted that the real solution will be to reduce energy demand, for example by curtailing aviation. This is an important question, but to me it seems imponderable. In a democracy, can the government impose unpopular restrictions on people's choices? It depends on how unpopular they are. Fuel efficiency standards and building energy codes do much to contain energy waste. Would politicians go so far as to outlaw vacation trips? What about wilderness recreation where public transport is unavailable? Everywhere I've been, wealthy people build extravagantly large houses. Will governments ration living space?

I don't have answers to these questions. But my sense is that really strong energy conservation won't be accepted. To minimize the peril of global warming we need to maximize the alternatives to fossil fuels. That will take all the renewable energy we can manage, all the nuclear plants we can build, and more conservation than anyone wants.

Peter said...

Thoughtful maybe, but not always well informed, which is why I value contributions from guys like you!

I will hang my head a tad that I confused operational safety issues with disposal considerations. I can see how they are different.

That said, there is a lot of goo that is destined for the ground (assuming they don't decide to risk lobbing it into orbit) and as it stacks up all seem to accept that, at the moment, it's nasty stuff and there's currently no way to make it nice.

All things considered, the death toll from Chernobyl was astoundingly low. Around a hundred directly attributable.... so far? Of course some have pointed out that adverse genetic mutations are yet to be clearly assessed.

The blame of course gets laid at politics, economic rushes, cut corners and lack of accountability.

Which brings us to trust. Tony Blair was/is perhaps one of the greatest proponents for the nuclear option. Now he is one smart cookie, and thinks a lot more strategically than most pols. But having lived with his leadership for a decade I would not trust a thing he says or which comes out of his mouth.

And that, in moving towards a rational 'better than nothing' approach to juggling human nature with nature's correction systems is a pretty major hurdle.

If there's bad goo but we have to live with it, who are we going to trust to ensure that it is not just viewed as a short term (lifespan) measure to see a career through and/or make it very comfy while it lasts?

Before I say OK, I need to know this stuff is not just safe, but will be until the point it can be rendered inert (also it won't be used to 'buy' time to pass on difficult decisions to the next generation).

Stuff happens, and although it has not happened yet, the more stuff there is, the more chance that 'it will happen' increases.

And after the recent flood's farce, I dread to think of how we'd cope if our ground water came out glowing (I exaggerate for effect).

As to the debate on reductions... in use, aspirations, freedom of choice... etc, I agree. I guess for another place and time.

RobC said...

Peter, you're smart enough not to be asking for guarantees. So instead I'll just point out an economic fact. The fact is that spent nuclear fuel is immensely valuable. Recycling the fuel multiplies its energy content by a factor of more than 20. After its energy content ultimately has been exhausted, its volume is even smaller than before (which already was tiny) and also considerably less dangerous.

Coal waste, in comparison, is vastly more dangerous than nuclear waste, and can't be recycled at all.

If renewable energy could somehow be made available on demand, this whole analysis would change. We'd have to compare the environmental effects of renewables with each other and with nuclear. Are the toxic wastes from solar panels less dangerous than nuclear wastes? People are studying that question and don't always conclude that solar wastes are less dangerous.

But that's not the situation we're in. Our real choice is between nuclear and coal, and the waste comparison favors nuclear by a wide margin.

I can't overcome your reservations about unproven technology. The best I can suggest is that laboratory experience shows nuclear waste can be rendered harmless. In contrast, no alternatives can be shown to be practical even in the laboratory.

I think that's the closest we can come to certitude in this global challenge.

Peter said...

There are still a few twiddly bits I'd like to knaw upon, but time, as some have noticed, is not with us.

Rob, you have kindly debated rationally and offered fair counterpoints.

So I'm coming over all Prof. Lovelocky.

I'll take your word that this stuff can be rendered harmless, and thus hope that the powers that be... lieve in lots of power do their sums and figure out a balance - one that invests in sorting this out PDQ from lab to salt mine to buy us some time in our headlong, unchecked, hedonistic rush to oblivion, whilst at the same time also working out a programme that allows that more folk + more aspiration will still get us to an end point eventually unless 'we' decided a check level and stick to it.

So for me, I'll say... can't say fairer than that! At least, for now....