Say what you will about nuclear power plant proliferation but keep in mind that the risk of repeat meltdowns like Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 are passe.
There are 441 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries, according to the nuclear energy office of the U.S. Department of Energy, accounting for 17% of the worldwide electricity generation grid.
With a world population of approximately 6.7 billion, nuclear power delivers electricity to 1 billion.
That’s a lot of nuke juice.
Say what you will about the reasons for such a large nuclear energy portfolio, but consider German sociologist Ulrich Beck who cautions in today’s Guardian that emotional reactions to climate change and rising oil prices are propelling a global push for nuke construction.
In the wake of a recent U.S. Congress initiative to develop a warning system for Earth inhabitants in 10,000 years about soon-to-be locations for nuclear waste disposal sites such as Yucca Mountain, Beck probes into the sociopolitical line of conflict between G8 desires to support nuclear energy and greener alternative forms of energy production.
Many decisions over large-scale risks are not a matter of choosing between safe and risky alternatives, but between different risky alternatives, and often between alternatives whose risks are too qualitatively different to easily compare. Existing forms of scientific and public discourse are no match for such considerations. Here governments adopt the strategy of deliberate simplification. They present each specific decision as one between safe and risky alternatives, while playing down the uncertainties of nuclear energy and focusing attention on the oil crisis and climate change.
After reading his commentary and the Slashdot opinions that led me to the article, I recall an April 2008 article in Slate about nuclear storage and R&D pipeline ideas involving proton beams, isotope-trapping microbes, and metal sulfide remedies, not to mention what-if scenarios about building fusion or antimatter plants.
Why is nobody seriously looking into reusing or recycling the waste?
Surely, depositing the used fuel rods in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain by 2017 is not the only solution that the best and brightest in the United States government and scientific community can devise.
Granted, President Jimmy Carter passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1979 that banned nuclear fuel recycling in the United States, but keep in mind that President Ronald Reagan reversed the ban in 1981.
To be fair, Reagan failed to provide federal subsidies to launch commercial projects so the 1977 status quo remains, but why can’t the incumbent George W. Bush or potential successors Barack Obama or John McCain state on the record how they feel about nuclear energy and position the U.S. to be like France, Russia, Japan, India, and the United Kingdom and engage in plutonium reprocessing?
And I don’t refer to France’s PUREX system either, which extracts plutonium and uranium by bathing the used fuel in nitric acid.
Rather, I refer to the combined knowledge and suggestions of a trio of U.S. physicists, who, in this December 2005 Scientific American report, argue for funding and research of pyrometallurgical recycling of nuclear waste via the positioning of policy away from thermal reactors and toward the development of advanced liquid metal reactors and fast reactors that don’t use volatile heavy water and therefore reduce leakage and the cause of nearly all meltdowns.
Through illustrations, the physicists explain that U.S. thermal reactors and European PUREX reactors currently waste 94-95% of nuclear fuel because depleted uranium cannot be burned. But with pyrometallurgical recycling trigenerated with thermal and fast reactors, less than 1 percent is wasted.
“The spent fuel is not waste but rather a valuable energy resource for the future,” said Donald Dudziak, a Los Alamos National Laboratory fellow and former professor of nuclear engineering at North Carolina State University in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed.
Isn’t that something? Recycling nuclear waste? On the surface, it sounds more economical than the U.S. purchasing plutonium from Russia.
Maybe the DoE’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership will develop a reprocessing schema more improved than pyrometallurgical recycling, given recent proposals on business plans, costs, timelines, governance models, workforces from 2008 through 2100, existing technologies and current constraints, financing through the Nuclear Waste Fund and other mechanisms, and engaging utilities, research universities, and national labs.
Researching data for this article, I quickly got frustrated with groups who claim to be for or against nuclear energy but fail to provide proof. For instance, the Maryland-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service has no online information about what to do with used rods and used fuel, merely stating nuke plant construction shouldn’t occur. That’s all and well but doesn’t help provide perspective.
With recent stories in Discover Magazine, Utne Reader, and Mother Jones arguing both sides of the nuclear storage debate, the consensus is nuke plant proliferation isn’t halting and rightly so.
I was 4 when the TMI incident hit the airwaves and 11 for Chernobyl. Much of my nuclear knowledge began in high school.
Respecting those who are older than me and are skeptical about nuke construction, I look at the facts and that thousands of Americans die every year from lung cancer and other diseases (in)directly caused by fossil fuel production plants, and I wonder what I am missing. The industry is much different today than 20 years ago.
If the what-if questions about used waste were solved with known or future technologies, would people like Ulrich Beck still be cautious about building new plants? Or is my logic flawed?