Too Hot to Touch – Matt Wald’s review of new book on nuclear waste issue

Matt Wald of the New York Times recently reviewed a new book on America’s nuclear waste storage saga titled Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste.

Aside: Sadly, Matt’s post was one of the last posts ever published on Green, which just announced its demise due to budget constraints. It’s a crying shame; Green provided excellent coverage and interactive discussions of issues that are extremely important for us now and for our children’s future. End Aside.

Wald uses an interesting analogy to describe the challenge of containing used nuclear fuel:

The spread of nuclear waste is a little bit like the flow of hot wax down the side of a candle on the dinner table; the question is not so much whether it will drip as whether it will stop before damaging the tablecloth.

I like analogies and like playing around with those proposed by others. I think Wald is closer than he realizes to helping people understand how silly the nuclear waste discussion can be. Anyone who has ever let candles drip to the point of collapse onto a table should know that congealing wax has little chance of permanently harming most table cloths. It has almost zero chance of harming the table beneath the table cloths or the people who enjoyed the meal around the candle lit table.

By the time the wax has actually dripped down the side of the candle and fallen onto the table cloth, it is pretty cool and almost congealed. It pools on the table cloth in a form that can be easily scraped off without any lasting harm to the cloth – unless it happens to be a decorative, purposely fragile lace table cloth. The table beneath the cloth is protected by the material and usually shows no ill effects at all. The wax does not turn into a flowing river and it does not wash into the laps of the diners. In fact, formerly melted wax generally comes to rest within a centimeter or two of the bottom of the candle.

I still find it hard to believe that we have spent so many billions of dollars trying to solve a trivial issue with no risk to human health and are apparently still fifty years from the answer. Used nuclear fuel might be able to get hot enough to damage the carefully engineered containers that we use to store it, but if it does, it is exceedingly unlikely to move any significant distance or to harm any people. The natural reactors at Oklo provide some pretty convincing evidence about how little movement there will be, even in a situation without engineered barriers.

The Yucca Mountain project shared many characteristics of other Big Science wastes of money. I am positive there are a substantial body of people who defend the Yucca Mountain project based on all of the fun geologic research it allowed them to pursue, or interesting numerical models it paid them to create, or reliable paychecks it allowed them to cash while living near Las Vegas and working on the project’s paperwork.

I have no doubt that the regulatory evaluation would have proven that waste storage in Yucca would have met the requirements imposed. That does not stop me from stating that I still think that the requirements were stupid and that the program was designed from the start to answer the wrong question.

Here is one of the responses that I posted on Wald’s blog post.

Matt – you and the authors of the book are spreading misinformation in the following statement:

“The Alleys, however, take a more subtle approach. For the site to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they write, it had to be assured that the repository would fully contain the radioactive material and NOT DELIVER A SIGNIFICANT RADIOACTIVE dose to anybody for “time periods beyond our wildest imagination’’ — even the next million years.”

The standard set by the EPA for the dose rate was just 15 millirem per year. That is an incredibly IN-significant radioactive dose on a planet where the average natural background dose rate is about 300 millirem per year.

There is a great deal of scientific evidence that shows that annual dose rates of less than 10 REM per year (10,000 millirem) have effects that are so low they cannot be measured in the background noise of normal risks of living on earth.

Setting a standard of 15 millirem per year over 1,000,000 year indicates that the scenario was purposely designed to fail. However, the people that stacked the deck against nuclear energy, hoping that the incredibly difficult and illogical standard would successfully constipate the industry ended up being afraid that we just might be able to meet that standard.

They pressured their congress critters and senators to halt the still legally required evaluation process before answering the question.

As is my habit, I suspect that anticompetitive hydrocarbon money is involved.

About Rod Adams

15 Responses to “Too Hot to Touch – Matt Wald’s review of new book on nuclear waste issue”

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  1. Daniel says:


    Someone should make a one liner for those people who lived in towns like Odaka. They were evacuated for no goos reasons and they allowed to go back home.

    No one came back. Odaka is now a ghost town.

    I hope they moved to Denver, which I am sure, is more radio active than Odaka ever was.

  2. Daniel says:

    Another thing that is irritating me.

    Why would people state that the NRC is the gold standard for the nuclear industry ?

    It is the death standard.

  3. James Greenidge says:

    Have the Japanese government proclaim that “forbidden” town for free homesteading and see how fast the ghosts will be run out.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • Daniel says:

      Have the Japanese Prime Minister open some important office there. Walk the walk.

    • Gareth Fairclough says:

      That would be a hell of an opportunity for us pro-nukes to show the nuke-agnostic masses that even if something does go wrong, it’s perfectly safe to stay put.
      That and it’s free land for a bunch of pro-nukes! Although I’d hate to see the insurance bills for any homes put there!

      Rod, an informative post as always.

  4. Atomikrabbit says:

    I believe Wald’s dripping wax analogy was meant to say that “it’s not a question of IF, but WHEN the dangerous radioactive particles will ooze their way into the biosphere” (wax hitting the tablecloth). Obviously your interpretation of it better describes the physical reality.

    I tried contacting Wald several times regarding why his blogroll included only anti-nuclear environmental groups and no pro. Although I spoke respectfully, I never received a reply, and the list was never revised.

    Wald remains an influential commentator, and I believe he is educable regarding the benefits of atomic energy, if they are convincingly shown to him. It is important that proponents emulate Rod and occasionally wade through the cesspool of FUD that accumulates on the NYT (and Huffington Post) comments sections to provide an alternate viewpoint to that of the swarming vociferous opposition.

  5. John Englert says:

    The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder hosted a Seminar by the Alleys based on their book. I started watching it but I had to stop after spotting several gross inaccuracies with the first few minutes of the talk. I’ve included a link, but it’s not working at the moment.

  6. Joe says:

    Come on….
    Wald is a smart guy, but he works for the New York Times, which has been alarmist and dishonest about Fukushima.

    Wald has had many bad blog/articles for those paying attention. His main source of nuclear information has been Alverez for God’s sake. Look how many times he has quoted him in 2011. I count 7 times.

  7. CJ Milmoe says:

    Thanks Rod. If I had not read your review, I might have purchased the book, which appears to tell either this we already know or things that are wrong.

    The LNT theory is junk science and is killing the nuclear industry. The nuclear community should stop defending itself against the anti nukes and start attacking the junk scientists who feed public fears. Fight bad science with good science.

  8. JBW says:

    When discussing used fuel the natural reactors in Oklo seem to be the gold standard. However, when discussing Yucca Mountain I find reference to the large uranium deposit at Pena Blanca, Mexico, to be more useful. The geography and climate of the two locations are very similar and Pena Blanca has the much dreaded oxidizing environment.

    Pena Blanca consists of a large uranium deposit that is exposed to the environment. However, even after millions of years, it is still there. Exposure to water didn’t suddenly make the uranium dissolve and disperse itself over hundreds of square miles. The exposed surface oxidized (as expected) and the layers remaining underneath are still just a nice black, intact UO2. This just shows that even if the fuel pellets were exposed to water in an oxidizing environment the outer part of the pellet would oxidize but the bulk of the pellet would remain intact and continue to safely contain the fission products.

    • jmdesp says:

      However water does slowly dissolve uranium. That’s why there’s so much in the seawater, it slowly accumulates from the soils.

      • JBW says:

        The key word being slowly. The “conservative” estimates or uranium dissolution rates used for Yucca Mountain is easily a factor of 10 higher than what a reasonable conservative estimate should be. Some naysayers like to paint a picture that shows the used fuel being instantaneously dissolved as soon as it comes in contact with water. The fact is, it takes a really long time for the UO2 to dissolve and release its fission products (Cs, Sr, and I do release quickly but the half lives are short enough they do not factor into long-term storage).

  9. UnGorgonStare says:

    “Rod Adams

    Pro-nuclear advocate .. Former submarine Engineer Officer”

    Well, Mr. Adams, Matt Wald wrote an article a few years before 9/11 detailing daily training exercises and how the AF/ANG at NEADS was notified early in the morning of assets available and exercises planned for that day. Later claims by NEADS that they had no assets and were unaware of what was where can be found in that article, alone.

    Yet Mr. Wald never referred anyone to his own work, afterwards.

    As you are ex-Navy, Mr. Adams, any insights as to Giant Killer’s role on that day?