Forgive me. It’s been almost three months since I last wrote a long form blog or article about the importance of atomic energy as a useful tool for solving many of the world’s most complex and pressing problems.
I’ve been stimulated to take a partial break from my blissful state of being a mostly retired grandfather whose primary responsibility is teaching more than a handful of young cuties how to swim, bike, boat, poop, pee and paddle.
If you’re happy to hear from me, thank Allison MacFarlane, Sharon Squassoni and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists for jointly publishing an article that made me want to scream. Since our summer visitors and my dear wife are sound asleep after yet another day of fun in the sun, I made the prudent decision to react more quietly.
The stimulating article’s headline, Recycle everything, America—except your nuclear waste was seemingly designed as personally focused click bait. Throughout my hobby and career stages as an atomic energy writer and commentator, I have been writing about the importance of applying one of the wisest mantras of responsible environmentalism to radioactive materials – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
It’s almost always irresponsible to casually use any material once and then treat it in a way that makes it difficult or impossible for that material to perform any other function or serve anyone else’s needs. It’s especially irresponsible and wasteful to use rare materials with special physical properties in that selfish and careless manner.
It’s a fact that has been gradually forgotten – or perhaps purposefully submerged – over time, but radioactivity is a rare and incredibly useful property.
Its discovery was so fascinating that it dominated the field of physics for several generations. Radium, one of nature’s more intense but also long lasting sources of radioactive emanations (to use a common term from the early days) became the world’s most valuable material. In 1930 a gram of radium would cost a customer (manufacturer, hospital, university or research institution) $250,000. That’s nominal, not inflation adjusted 1930s era dollars.
Radium didn’t command such a lofty price just because it was rare and difficult to isolate. It was valuable because it could perform important functions that no other material could perform. Its price was also supported by the fact that radioactivity, the natural property that gave radium its superpowers, wasn’t easy for humans to recreate or mimic.
Madam Curie would be disappointed
Fast forward 90 years. Humans unlocked atomic nuclei and learned to create an abundant array of radioactive materials with diverse and useful properties. We even figured out how to produce an almost limitless supply of raw power in a way that produces an almost limitless supply of isotopes whose best and highest use may be discovered in the distant future.
Unfortunately, there were many special interest groups and individuals whose wealth and power were threatened by the possibility of continuously improved ways of putting that raw power to beneficial use. Unfortunately for the prospects of rapid uptake of actinide energy, humans unlocked atomic nuclei while in a Hydrocarbon Era.
Our modern economy rests on a hydrocarbon foundation. Either directly or indirectly, hydrocarbons provide 80-90% of the power that humans have used and continue to use to shape the world. The corporations and individuals involved in the process of supplying those materials have no real interest in being supplanted by materials whose characteristics are so vastly different from the ones they are set up to find, extract, refine, transport, finance and govern.
So instead of embracing the opportunities that abundant energy and controllable quantities of radioactive materials could provide, the established interests fought off their budding competition.
One of the tactics they’ve used in their long, ongoing battle to protect their markets is fear of radioactive materials and their emanations.
They’ve created the perception that spontaneous heat and energy production is a terrible characteristic that makes radioactive materials into challenging waste disposal burdens. They stubbornly insist that the waste issue must be solved, and also stubbornly seek to slow or halt any effort that is progress without being a Final Solution.
Radioactive waste isn’t a solvable problem
There is no solution to radioactive waste, any more than there is a solution to feces production. Managing wastes is an ongoing enterprise that includes numerous steps, processes, equipment and inventions. It should be addressed with the same philosophies that have helped mitigate the costs and impacts of other sources of wastes.
We don’t manage feces production by starving people or animals or by preventing or eliminating their existence. Both integrated petroleum companies and meat packers have historically addressed stubborn waste problems by using science and ingenuity to turn byproducts of their processes into new products.
Gasoline was a waste stream during the early days of Standard Oil – it was burned off after the production of the more immediately valuable kerosene. The internal combustion engine came just in time – or perhaps it was designed in part to take advantage of a low-cost, readily available source of material.
As pork consumption increased, hog producers encountered growing waste challenges that stimulated producers to find ways to “Use everything but the squeal.”
Even natural gas, the highly valued source of fuel for cleaner electricity and home heating has often been a dangerous waste produced in association with producing a more valued product. Even today, there are far too many places where methane (aka natural gas) must be wastefully burned (flared) to prevent it from accumulating in explosive, difficult to handle quantities.
None of these examples, solve waste production issues. Instead, they mitigate them and produce streams of income that enable responsible research and development aimed at continued improvements in efficiency and material reuse.
Ownership is a key ingredient
A common element of that stimulates efficient waste reduction and material reuse in other industries has been, perhaps purposely, withheld from the nuclear industry.
In industries where operational guidance of “reduce, reuse and recycle” has achieved the greatest influence and success for both the environment and the economy, participants own the “waste.” Regulators provide oversight and legislators establish the rules, but the participants devise, implement and manage solutions.
But rendering isn’t just efficient; it’s also quite profitable — a $10 billion business. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, is a $14 billion company, with $1 billion coming from rendering.
“Once you get to the processing stage, the manufacturers often own the product at that point. It’s certainly in their interest to use every little bit of it that they can,” says Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who studies food waste.From NPR Sep 29, 2014 “Everything But The Squeal: How The Hog Industry Cuts Food Waste”
For the nuclear industry, this approach has worked for certain waste streams, but the one that is the most troublesome and has gotten the most attention as something that isn’t being solved is treated uniquely.
Nuclear power plant operators do not own used nuclear fuel (historically and legally called “spent nuclear fuel”). Neither can any other private entity. It cannot be legally sold and it cannot be separated into useful, purified compounds or elements.
Instead, the federal government long ago established a tightly controlled monopoly on ownership. By law, the government forced power plant operators to sign contracts that require them to allow the government to pick up and take title to all used fuel. They cannot sell the material and they cannot separate and reuse any of the components of the material.
This declared monopoly is the cause of what has often appeared to be unseemly corporate behavior, especially for people whose philosophy tends toward free market principles. They – logically enough – cannot understand why nuclear plant operators band together to demand that the government solve the spent nuclear fuel problem.
Power plant operators are working hard to convince a contractor (the federal government in this case) to fulfill its contractural obligations. The courts have generally agreed and have held the government liable to pay the additional monetary costs that have been incurred as a result of its failure to deliver its contracted service.
But even people who strongly support nuclear science and agree that nuclear fission is a terrific way to safely produce electricity without air pollution believe that the “unsolved” waste issue is a solid reason to slow or stop waste production until it can be solved.
Incentives are all wrong or non existent
Though history has proven that safe handling and storage of used nuclear fuel can be turned into a rather routine industrial activity, there is a continuing stalemate that looks and sounds like an immovable obstacle.
“The waste issue” has become one of the strongest weapons in the arsenal of arguments used by people that either don’t understand nuclear energy or who fear that allowing it to succeed or fail on its own merits might pose an existential threat to their wealth, power or employment.
The people assigned to government agencies that have legally assigned responsibilities for removing fuel cannot be held accountable for failures caused by lack of appropriate resources.
Legislators are often told about the huge savings account that has accumulated over decades of accessing fees to pay the government for its promised (and required) service of taking possession and title for used fuel.
But current budget rules allow them to use that spreadsheet cell as an offset that makes the federal budget deficit look a little smaller. There is no actual lockbox that prevents the money from being used for other purposes.
Study after study has been done to show that recycling used fuel would be uneconomical, but those studies always assume that the government will own resulting material and be required to sell only certain parts while disposing of the rest it under current paradigms.
No government employed individual or team has the kind of incentive to market material or devise processes that are remotely similar to those available in private industry.
Don’t expect final solutions. Allow progress, innovation and creativity
The nuclear waste issue will never go away. It’s not fundamentally different from any other waste issue that is a permanent part of all productive processes, both natural and man-made.
It is an issue, however, that can be addressed and handled with ever improving steps, processes and equipment. The most straightforward way to enable the issue to shrink into a routine part of a valuable industrial activity is to make modest changes in the rules that make the government the owner of the material.
It’s the government’s job to provide oversight. It should establish and enforce rules that provide a reasonable assurance of adequate protection, but it should allow multiple entities the freedom to devise useful parts of a functional enterprise.
Like all other successfully handled – but never solved – waste challenges, the used nuclear fuel enterprise should be governed by the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle.