I have been getting into conversations with people about nuclear energy for several decades now, and nearly every one of them eventually gets around to “the waste issue”. It happened to me again on Monday night during an interesting conversation with a politically active federal government employee.
Here is the scene. I was at a reception for an old friend and USNA classmate who was celebrating the victorious culmination of a four year battle to win the seat for New York’s 29th Congressional District. He had packed a room in a popular Capitol Hill watering hole with a diverse group of supporters including constituents, friends, family, and political allies. I was chatting with a small group that included an engineer from Alstom who works for the company in Rochester, which is just outside of the 29th congressional district. I congratulated him on the company’s recent agreements associated with Unistar and we got into a discussion about energy, which led to a discussion about nuclear – surprise.
The politically active government employee – did I mention that my friend is a Democrat – indicated her cautious support for nuclear power, but said those famous words “what do you do with the waste”? As I explained about storage, the long established record of safety, the lack of any releases to the environment, and then about recycling, I again wondered how this issue became such a hurdle for nuclear when no one seems to ask the same question about coal, oil and gas.
Fortunately, that situation might be changing as a result of the widespread media attention being paid to the devastating coal ash pond collapse that occurred a couple of days before Christmas at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Power plant. Though no one was apparently hurt in the immediate aftermath of the spill, the millions of gallons of potentially toxic sludge has covered 300-400 acres under a gooey mess that contains arsenic, mercury, lead and trace naturally occurring radioactive materials.
This morning’s New York Times contains an article that describes the risk that the spill from the TVA plant’s pond could be repeated at any one of the 1300 or so similar ponds around the country, many of which are on major waterways or drinking water sources. It talks about the challenge that the industry faces in handling the 130 million (and growing) tons of material produced every year. It also talks at length about the success that the coal industry has had in delaying any regulation of the material, despite the fact that many components of fly ash are recognized as hazardous materials.
Here is the kicker for those who keep talking about how cheap coal is – the main reason given for not putting coal ash into more secure places than earthen dam ponds is that it would cost too much to handle it with at least as much care as we give to household garbage.