No Accidents in Over 30,000 Years!
April 4, 2005 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Pro-forma nuclear safety is harder than ever to sell. There's ass-kissing to the sci-fi community (.pdf, download it), the instructional video (warning, boring .wmv, > 12 mins long). But... The design lifetimes of Yucca Mountain and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant won't protect future generations from groundwater absorbing transuranic waste (Pu239 and like toxins, deadly when ingested for 240,000 years). Do you have this stuff in your back yard today, and how will it get there safely? On top of that, the capacity problem, which looks intractable as long as we keep relicensing plants. If I didn't know better, I assume the only way the government could succeed in getting this done would be to hoodwink us.
posted by nj_subgenius (34 comments total)
Oops - Waste Isolation Pilot Plant link here.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:06 PM on April 4, 2005

...and if the .pdf is too slow, try this.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:10 PM on April 4, 2005

Well, we are going to have to figure it out. It sure looks like, aside from going back to the stone age, nuclear is all we have got once we run out of oil in the next 10-100 years (completely made those numbers up).

Limited to no progress on cold fusion; solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal seem to be band-aids and/or supplemental. Coal is horrendously dirty. Natural gas is hard to transport and also limited. Etc...

Would be nice if we actually had a serious energy policy thinking about this stuff...
posted by teece at 4:10 PM on April 4, 2005

Agreed, teece. There is so much more that is possible in waste encapsulation.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:12 PM on April 4, 2005

Limited to no progress on cold fusion; solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal seem to be band-aids and/or supplemental.

Oh, this is nonsense. There's been massive progress in wind, solar, and geothermal power generation over the past decade. And you're completely leaving out "hot" fusion, which continues to make incremental progress.

I would also argue that, from a scientific point of view, the problem of nuclear waste encapsulation is next-to-impossible. 30,000 years? How can you reasonably claim that you've solved a 30,000 year problem? The number of assumptions and approximations that would have to be made to even begin to approach such a problem is staggering. I certainly wouldn't want to base a life-or-death decision on them. Maybe send the stuff into the sun, or into deep space, but only once there's a dead-reliable launch technology available.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:27 PM on April 4, 2005

Wow, that "back yard" link is cool. I live 2.5 miles from the nearest waste transport route, and 35 miles from the nearest storage facility.

(It misses Rocky Flats, which is closer than that, but not a storage sight, but supposedly heavily contaminated with plutonium. Or maybe it's all been cleaned up).

mr_roboto: run the numbers. We aren't replacing oil with solar, wind, hydro, or geothermal. Sure, there has been great progress. But none of them alone, nor all of them combined, are likely to be able to replace oil. It is staggering how much cheap energy we get from oil.
posted by teece at 4:31 PM on April 4, 2005

Oops, not just oil. Try to crunch the numbers without oil, coal, or natural gas.
posted by teece at 4:35 PM on April 4, 2005

What everyone is missing in the argument about WIPP is the lack of an alternative. Right now hundreds of tons of nuclear waste is sitting in above ground pools in reactor backyards for far longer than containment designs planned for. I say that a reasonable shot at 3,000 year safety is MUCH preferable to the current state of affairs.
posted by zwemer at 4:39 PM on April 4, 2005

teece: Sorry; I misread your punctuation. I thought you were saying that there had been no recent progress in wind, geothermal, etc. The progress there is very encouraging, but I haven't seen the numbers, and I don't know how much progress needs to be made to replace hydrocarbons.

I still say waste disposal is a deal killer for fission....
posted by mr_roboto at 4:50 PM on April 4, 2005

I don't have any strong opinions on nuclear as long as the private sector doesn't have operational control over it... the US Navy runs a tighter ship than the Enrons...

It may be staggering how much energy we get from cheap oil, but I find it even more staggering how much free energy from solar/wind, geothermal, and wave sources we let dissipate uncollected.

All throughout the sunbelt we have gas-fired power plants fired up to power... air conditioners . Think about it.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:50 PM on April 4, 2005

I'm with zwemer on this one... i prefer Yucca mountain 100x over Savannah River and other sites spread all over the country.
posted by trinarian at 4:52 PM on April 4, 2005

Yes trinarian, the lesser of evils in a perfect world is to bury it in one place. But that's not the point. It's all about the engineering and whether it's good enough. Think 1960's space program, or worse, 1950's Polaris program. Then there's the problem of 'deep time', tens or hundreds of millenia away. I'm not saying Yucca FLats is a bad idea per se, I just think we can to a hella lot better.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:07 PM on April 4, 2005

All throughout the sunbelt we have gas-fired power plants fired up to power... air conditioners . Think about it.

Yup, it does seem rather stupid. But I also understand why: solar is not as cost-effective as the grid. That's one of the first things they'll tell you at the "off-grid" power places. We can't help you save money with solar. (Now, you can save money with conservation ...)

So, the choice is to build the house with a grid-powered AC unit at $X, or build the house with a solar-powered AC unit at $2X. People right away choose the latter, especially when the house is being built for no reason other than to make profit.

I have researched putting solar on my house, to supplement the power from the grid. The return on the capital investment was many years (like 15 I think?). The savings over decades was significant, but not earth-shattering. Still, not a bad thing to do, but it is trumped somewhat by short-term economic motives.
posted by teece at 5:17 PM on April 4, 2005

The real issue with any energy technology is energy return on energy invested.

There are lots of factors in the economy that obscure this, making it impossible to look at costs to get an answer. For nuclear there is the not in my back yard syndrome that makes it seem more expensive than it really is. There is also the unknown amount of energy required to clean up at end of life which makes it seem cheaper than it really is.

Other than international treaty, what is wrong with the idea trumpeted by Pournelle, dumping waste in deep sea subduction zones and letting plate tectonics eliminate the problem?
posted by Chuckles at 6:19 PM on April 4, 2005

When GW came to Nevada in 2000, he promised Nevadans that he would build Yucca Mtn on "sound science", but now with all the leaked e-mails about people faking data and just pulling numbers out of thin air, and the President saying Yucca will go forward nonetheless, it seems like its being built on Science Fiction. Disclaimer: I live 90 miles from Yucca Mtn, in Las Vegas.
posted by SirOmega at 6:24 PM on April 4, 2005

30,000 years? How can you reasonably claim that you've solved a 30,000 year problem?

Do we really need to? We have other wastes that are similarly toxic in the you-really-don't-want-to-eat-them sense, but because they're not radioactives they'll continue to be toxic right to the big crunch at the end of the universe. These, we mostly leave sitting around in big piles. Presumably we're being a wee bit silly about one or the other, or both. At minimum, we're being very inconsistent about the risks we endure, which is deeply irrational.

Just put the stuff on a big, thick concrete pad in the middle of Antarctica and put a big fucking dome on top. If anyone can get there in 12,000 years, they'd have to be part of a technological civilization and presumably will be able to figure out what it is before any appreciable harm is done. And then it's easily accessible for reprocessing into, well, whatever the hell our great-grandkids might want to do with the stuff.

If you really really want to get rid of it, drop it into subduction zones on the seafloor, but I can imagine people down the line being pissed at a waste of resources like that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:25 PM on April 4, 2005

Chuckles: mutant sea-cucumbers rising from the deep and terrorizing women in skimpy bikinis (I mean, have you ever seen a sea cucumber in a bikini? bleccch.).

Also, any oceanographers that visit the site, and probably several workers there, will grow very large and sprout giant animalistic canines, as well as perhaps becoming more hirsute, while their evil mutant clothes inexplicably grow with them. Happened to Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane every other week, it seemed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:29 PM on April 4, 2005

I think that the promise of nuclear power is greater at this time than ever before, and the process of sequestering the waste is a serious one but not one that should stop us from going forward with a major nuclear power initiative.

I don't think we need solve the 30,000 year problem - we only need to keep it out of the way until we can dispose of it safely. How long before you think we can send a barge of waste to the sun? 100 years, maybe? ROU_Xenophobe, I think you have it half right - thick concrete pad and big fucking dome indeed. We put it somewhere it's not going to hurt anyone for the next few hundred years, and count on advances in disposal or reuse technology to take them out. I know - "lets dump it on future generations!" - But really, the future generations are the ones who will say, "Now that we have invented this safe, cheap form of disposal, I wish my grandparents had voted to expand nuclear power, cause I keep bumping into the 5 billion windmills they installed to power Seattle."
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:14 PM on April 4, 2005

In Japan; According to the Atomic Energy Ministry, "54 nuclear reactors in Japan are currently producing 1,500 to 2,000 kg of spent nuclear fuel a year". they have this plan (PDF version here)
posted by X4ster at 7:22 PM on April 4, 2005

X4ster, thanks for that link. I wonder how many tones are being shipped by sea every year already so that France and the UK can reprocess Japan's waste... Amazing...

As for future disposal technology... Basic principles of physics do impose limits on the possibilities. Launching waste into space is probably never going to be a good idea.
posted by Chuckles at 7:46 PM on April 4, 2005

I think ROU_X... makes an excellent point: I think a lot of the reaction to nuclear waste is irrational. That 1500 to 2000 Kg mentioned above is very manageable. Sure, radioactive waste is nasty. But at that volume, even a half-assed plan for waste management probably has less impact on the environment than burning coal. And if done correctly, waste management can have very minimal impact.

But, somewhere in the next century or two, we get to the point where we don't have choice. Without cheap energy, I doubt this planet can actually sustain 7, 8, 9...20 billion people. And it really does seem like nuclear fission is our only option right now, once the oil and gas run out. Barring some new energy source, we're going to figure out waste disposal. Or die trying.

Once, researching an alternative energy project in a science class long, long ago, I read that more radiation is released into the atmosphere by coal plants, per day, than in all nuclear events in human history, combined. Why? There are often trace amounts of uranium in coal, and we burn A LOT of coal. I'd love to track that down, one of these days when I am bored ...
posted by teece at 7:53 PM on April 4, 2005

ISTR that it's more thorium than uranium, but that there's more fissile energy in a ton of coal than there is combustion energy.

Long term... power sats and O'Neill colonies, maaaan. But I still don't wanna live under the rectenna.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:10 PM on April 4, 2005

Okay, we have to put it SOMEWHERE. Yucca isn't great. But isn't it better than putting it in the back-yard of a power plant for the next 200 years while we try and find a place that is absolutely stable and doesn't have a lot of electoral votes?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:23 PM on April 4, 2005

HAH! Thanks for that, ROU_Xenophobe! Thorium it is. That word led me to a confirmation of that 15-year-old and hazy fact. I've always wondered if I remembered that right, after all these years. Now I know:

Former ORNL researchers J. P. McBride, R. E. Moore, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco made this point in their article "Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants" in the December 8, 1978, issue of Science magazine. They concluded that Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants that meet government regulations.

posted by teece at 10:03 PM on April 4, 2005

Here's another link teece, The amount of thorium contained in coal is about 2.5 times greater than the amount of uranuim

Today 52% of the capacity for generating electricity in the United States is fueled by coal, compared with 14.8% for nuclear energy. Although there are economic justifications for this preference, it is surprising for two reasons. First, coal combustion produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are suspected to cause climatic warming, and it is a source of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which are harmful to human health and may be largely responsible for acid rain. Second, although not as well known, releases from coal combustion contain naturally occurring radioactive materials--mainly, uranium and thorium.
posted by X4ster at 10:27 PM on April 4, 2005

Apologies teece, It's the same link
posted by X4ster at 10:30 PM on April 4, 2005

It's alright, X4ster: it's an amazing link.

It posits that we actually spit out more raw tonnage of wasted uranium every year as a by-product of burning coal than we actually use in nuclear reactors.

That's rather astounding. And there is twice as much radioactive thorium as there is uranium in coal.

And the toxicity of those two elements is minor compared to the toxicity of other by-products of burning coal. Oh, and don't forget the greenhouse gasses. Absolutely astounding. I remember coming to this same conclusion when I studied this way back in high school, but I had always figured I was a dopey kid and misunderstood it.

posted by teece at 10:38 PM on April 4, 2005

nj_subgenius: At what point do we do the best that we can with the technology that we have with have a certain expectation that as technology improves new solutions will be thought up and applied. Necessity will dictate progressively better inventions.
posted by trinarian at 12:57 AM on April 5, 2005

trinarian, that's the core problem (no pun intended).

There just isn't much evidence to suggest there's an aggressive scientific and engineering effort to render spent nuclear fuels more effectively. I believe nuclear is good, just as I believe eating is good. But both leave by-products. OK, poo is not the same...but consider this. We have $2.06 trillion in outstanding municipal bond issues, probably half or more of that being water and sewer bonds. And, the technology in water treatment is continually improving. Because without water we die, and not in 10,000 years. Compare that to the latest Yucca annual budget forecast of $650 million (about a 50 percent reduction from prior year). We're just not investing enough on the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

We have to eliminate our fossil addiction. We have to have nuclear fission in the picture. It benefits us economically to make nuclear sustainable, to the point where plants might actually be built again. Everyone agrees fuel pools, etc., are horrible. Yucca and WIPP are incremental improvements, but the reality is that we're expending the fuel at a rate that will exceed the capacity to store it by 30 percent in 2010. And we're cutting the budget?

DOE has to demonstrate vision beyond these repositories and back it up with money and breakthrough science.
posted by nj_subgenius at 3:00 AM on April 5, 2005

With regard to the issue of radiation spread by coal. The raw quantity of radioactive material is not the only consideration. How dangerous the contamination is has a lot to do with how concentrated it is...

If a radioactive waste containing rocket blew up and dumped a 1 gram grain of something very hot in my back yard I might be in trouble. That same gram spread out across three or four acres probably wouldn't bother anybody.

It is a lot like the myth of the dirty bomb... To make it effective you have to spread the material in just the right way. Too much dispersion and nobody ever notices. Not enough dispersion and you just put a rope around that building and tell everybody to walk around it. Of course there are also the psychological effects, but that is kind of off topic...
posted by Chuckles at 3:22 AM on April 5, 2005

This is absolutely some excellent stuff.

Thanks all!

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce your energy consumption as a first step. Do things like insulating your home, driving a smaller vehicle, buying energy efficient appliances, etc.

Nuclear, closely regulated, is preferable to fossil fuel energy, especially coal. Having said that, solar is the best option. Teece is correct that a system for a homeowner is around 15 years payback. Some of that cost can be offset by many states offering rebates and other subsidies.

Imagine home-owner solar power getting the kinds of subsidies that fossil fuels get, it'd be damn near free to install! With no moving parts, just some minor maintenance, you have FREE electricity for a very long time. Many solar power installations are still producing after 40 years! And zero pollution while you save that expensive utility bill. Too good to be true? Not at all. Just sensible use of resources.

Then why isn't it happening gang-busters wild? Corporate interests. It can only happen if individuals make it happen. The countries of Germany and Japan are great examples of how solar can be utilized, in many areas of those countries today you can hardly find a roof space that doesn't have a solar grid. And that with just a little government incentive.

Back on topic:
The current method of storage of spent fuel is unacceptable. The Yucca mountain alternative may not be be much better but is it better nevertheless. I think the process, as with any nuclear power activity, deserves watching VERY closely.
posted by nofundy at 8:22 AM on April 5, 2005

Today 52% of the capacity for generating electricity in the United States is fueled by coal, compared with 14.8% for nuclear energy.

That's freakin' insane.

Canada's electricity is about two-thirds hydroelectricity. Now, hydro isn't a trouble-free solution: the First Nations got royally screwed, a couple of the megadams in BC were implemented without first cutting out the forests(!)*, there's always a helluva impact on animals and, sometimes, on the stability of the landmass, etcetera.

Many of our biggest dams were built in the 1950s, when the rape of land, animals, and natives wasn't much of a big deal in society's mind. It's far more difficult to get these projects off the ground now.

But for all the short-term environmental damage, these are very long-term, non-polluting energy sources, with capacity that increases as our generation technology advances.

Good stuff, in my mind, and the trend toward micro-hydrogeneration is intriguing: household/small town amounts of electricity with no significant environmental cost.

* and, surprisingly, a logging operation fifty years later!
posted by five fresh fish at 11:06 AM on April 5, 2005

That's freakin' insane.

Canada's electricity is about two-thirds hydroelectricity.

Sure, but Canada has a much smaller population, and relative to that population has more usable waterflow and more land to put under water than the US does. Canada and hydropower is kinda like Iceland and geothermal, but less so.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:12 PM on April 5, 2005

Seems to me you have some mighty big rivers, including some in enormous canyons. I'm not entirely convinced you couldn't have had most of your electricity needs met by hydro.

It won't ever happen now, of course: the environmentalist movement would bust a nut should anyone dare suggest flooding a grand canyon or two.

But, yah, I suppose you're right, we've got an unfair advantage.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:52 PM on April 5, 2005

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