One of the most frequently used arguments against using nuclear energy is “the waste issue.” When people ask me, “what do you do with the waste”, my standard answer is “recycle it.” The truly curious then ask for more information. A few days ago, Nuclear Street shared a video produced by Argonne National Laboratory that explains their ongoing research into pyroprocessing.
This video was first posted in May, 2012. Even if I have linked to it before, it is worth watching again. It is encouraging to remember that there are plenty of options that enable nuclear energy to have an amazing potential for future improvements by following the adage of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” to shrink an already minuscule quantity of waste per unit of energy to even smaller sizes and easier to handle forms.
There is a communications risk associated with telling some people about the incredible potential associated with nuclear fuel recycling. The video alludes to the challenge; if we can recycle the used material produced by our current fleet of reactors at a reasonable cost, the enterprise would reduce or even eliminate the need to mine uranium. If the process lives up to the promise, it might reduce investment interest in developing thorium based reactors.
I ran into an example of this challenge during my involvement in the issue of uranium mining in Virginia. At one meeting, I had a hallway discussion with a few of the attendees who were opposing the effort by Virginia Uranium to have the current moratorium lifted. My conversation partners told me they were not strongly opposed to using nuclear energy, they were, however, concerned about the effect of allowing uranium to be mined near their homes, farms or businesses.
During the next meeting I attended, several of the people who spoke in opposition to the mine introduced the idea that the mine was not needed because nuclear fuel could be recycled. They were not the same individuals that I spoke to, and there is a strong possibility that my introduction of the recycling notion had nothing to do with it being used as an argument against mining.
However, I had to think for a little while and wonder if my enthusiasm for recycling was being used against my enthusiasm for making beneficial use of a large natural resource. I often cringe when fellow enthusiasts for nuclear fuel recycling or thorium reactors talk about how their technology will eliminate the need to continue mining uranium.
Mining of all kinds is absolutely necessary to support a vibrant economy; that statement has been true for hundreds, if not thousands of years. There is a need to do it with care and concern for worker safety and environmental impacts, but mining and using valuable material is one of the most reliable ways to increase society’s overall wealth.
The other thing to remember is that a recycling infrastructure will not develop rapidly and it will certainly not develop at all without dedicated people who are willing to invest time and dollars in a long term process. During the decades in which recycling is entering the market, there will be plenty of need for newly mined fuel. In fact, I believe that conclusively demonstrating that it is possible and advantageous to recycle used fuel will increase the demand for new materials and increase its market value.
The “waste issue” would be proven to be a chimera. We could stop describing the potential and instead point to real hardware being constructed and operated to turn waste into useful energy.
It is exciting to know that a tiny pellet of uranium dioxide fuel contains as much energy as a ton of coal, three barrels of oil or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Just think how valuable and exciting it would be to multiply those three comparisons to fossil fuels by a factor of about 20 and to also realize that the pellet represents only about 1 part out of 9 of the mined uranium due to the need to enrich the fuel.
Energy is the ability to do work. Power is the amount of energy used per unit time. Humans could be doing a lot more work at a much faster rate to make the world a better, safer and more prosperous place to live if they had access to virtually unlimited quantities of low cost, emission free, reliable power. Instead, our potential is being constrained by the false assumption that energy is scarce and should be conserved at all costs.