Heritage Foundation blogger Nick Loris produced a blog entry dated August 5, 2008 and titled Nuclear Energy’s Great, But What about the Waste? that includes several passages that might have been influenced by the same thinking that has resulted in my used nuclear fuel strategy. For example, Nick wrote:
Let’s start with some basics. What is nuclear waste? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines high-level nuclear waste as “highly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors.” But to actually call it waste is misleading; this “used” fuel generally retains about 95 percent of the uranium it started with, and that uranium plus some other elements can be recycled. (There is also a separate definition for low-level radioactive waste here.)
So it can be classified as either waste or potential energy?
I could have written that passage. Do a search on “used fuel” on this blog if you do not happen to recognize that as one of my main points about the whole “waste issue”. Many of my friends and colleagues feel the same way.
Even though we recognize the same starting point about the nature of nuclear fission byproducts, we do not reach a similar conclusion about what to do with the material. For his solution, Nick points to a Heritage Foundation paper by Jack Spencer. I posted a comment offering a different path, and in an old Atomic Insights tradition, I will share that comment with you here. (Like many well run blogs, comments on the Heritage Foundation blog are moderated, so it may take a while for my comment to appear.)
I read through Spencer’s proposed solution. We have some common ground, but his proposal leaves much to be desired. I especially dislike the notion of some kind of monopoly private entity controlling access to Yucca Mountain while still assuming that all current and future nuclear plant operators would have to use the facility. That would give that monopoly excessive power and influence over the course of the nuclear business and its ability to compete with fossil fuels and take their markets away.
It would also limit human creativity and competition among nuclear power system operators.
Yucca Mountain is, at best, the right answer to the wrong question. Here is roughly the way the question is stated today: “Assume that atomic fission by-products cannot be used for any purpose. Assume that people in the future will lose all knowledge of how to safely handle radioactive materials. Assume that all radiation levels, no matter how tiny, must be avoided at all costs. Assume that transportation costs will be born by someone else. Now, nuclear industry, government regulators, and ill informed public, where do you want to put your used fuel?”
Yucca may be the right answer to that question.
I prefer to change the question, since I do not like the initial assumptions or the way that the answer to that question is being implemented. Essentially all of the by-products of atomic fission reactions are rare materials with unique physical and chemical properties. Some of them are be exceedingly useful and valuable and some might fit that definition in the near or distant future.
When my company begins to operate nuclear power plants, I would like to obtain the rights and responsibility of full and complete ownership of the byproduct material, subject to a few reasonable rules:
1. Do not use it to build weapons or sell it to anyone who will do that.
2. Do not allow any workers or members of the public to receive dangerous levels of radiation exposure.
3. Do no allow any workers or members of the pubic to receive dangerous levels of chemical exposure from the byproducts or the processing chemicals.
I fully recognize the responsibility part and the need to implement systems – including human training and development – to ensure that we protect workers and the general public indefinitely. That responsibility, however, is no different that that associated with any other POTENTIALLY dangerous industrial ingredient.
If some plant operators do not want to deal with their waste, they could pay someone – like AAE – to take it and allow that entity to capture any residual value. Just like any other industrial or biological waste stream, there is a good chance that enough entities will see the value in the waste stream that they will actually bid for the privilege of taking title to the waste, thus turning what is currently a burden for nuclear plant operators into a revenue generating opportunity.
IMHO – this is much closer to a free market solution to the issue of used fuel than making the silly assumption that there is some kind of inherent limit to our ability to find long term storage space for material that builds up in such tiny amounts that it would be hard pressed to fill up a single sports stadium after a couple of hundred years of operation.
Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Producer, The Atomic Show Podcast