The wonderful blue glow
A Washington Post editorial titled That Eerie Green Glow published on August 17, 2006 provided the opinion that nuclear power is back on the table as a serious option, mainly as a result of increasing concern over the effects of global warming helped by some concerns about the viability of continued dependence on oil, coal and natural gas.
The editorial then devotes almost half of its valuable space to calling for a “politically and technically viable plan for storing the deadly radioactive waste that nuclear power plants produce”. There are several emotionally charged and technically inaccurate statements made in the article, calling the material of concern “sludge” stating that the material is “piling up on sites next to reactors, in many cases close to population centers”. Even the title of the article is not accurate, the glow seen in used nuclear fuel pools, which is caused by Cerenkov radiation, is definitely blue.
Used nuclear fuel is a corrosion and heat resistant solid material that looks almost identical to the fuel rods that were initially loaded. The tubes are still shiny! There are also no “piles” of used fuel, the fuel assemblies are either stored in highly engineered racks under about 30 feet of water or they are stored in licensed dry storage containers that are inventoried, monitored and secured. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, certainly one of the more risk averse agencies in the federal government, considers that used nuclear fuel can be safely stored in these containers for decades, perhaps even centuries, given proper care and continued inspection. For each plant, a few acres of land would suffice for storing 60 or more years worth of used fuel.
The anti-nuclear industry has had a stated policy of using the waste issue as a means of constipating the development of nuclear power for more than 30 years. At every possible occasion members of antinuclear movements insert the word “deadly” in front of the words “nuclear waste” even though there has never been a single instance of a person being killed, or even severely injured, from exposure to the used fuel from a commercial nuclear power plant. I do not even consider that the material is waste; more than 95-97% of the initial potential energy remains locked in that material.
For now, there is no compelling case for immediate recycling of that material, but there certainly will come a time when the inventory of cool, relatively low radioactivity fuel that has been resting for several decades will be at least as accessible and easy to use as fresh uranium from mines. When that cross-over point is reached, surely there will be entrepreneurs and investors ready to build the necessary facilities.
There is little doubt in my mind that the real reason the waste issue keeps coming up is that there are people with good reasons for disliking nuclear power. One obvious reason that is not often clearly stated is that nuclear power plants actually replace fossil fuel consumption, thus making that industry less profitable. (I think that most of us kind of like that prospect, but the people that make their money in that industry probably do not.)
Another reason to continue opposing nuclear power development is the very human resistance to admitting error; while some former anti-nuclear activists like Patrick Moore and CAMECO CEO Jerry Grandy have taken that step, but others, like Amory Lovins and Paul Gunter will likely go to their graves before they admit that their life’s work has been fighting on the wrong side of an issue that has huge implications for human development and prosperity.
We will keep hearing about the waste issue, but it is no reason to slow down in the quest to actually build new plants as quickly as we can given all of the other constraints on the construction process.