When I get into conversations with people that dislike the use of nuclear power, it never takes long before they ask the often heard question “What about the waste?”
As anyone that has ever really looked around the world and visited industrial facilities, it is pretty obvious that most human creative activity produces waste materials that need to be properly handled and disposed of. It is also quite obvious that some waste is not very well handled – remove the filters from your eyes and look around at the leaking dumpsters, the overflowing trash cans, the mounds of municipal waste, the junk yards, and other concentrations of industrial waste. Even at the consumer level, many of us use toxic chemicals for activities like cleaning, painting, yard maintenance, and pest control and are not always careful to store and dispose of these materials in a proper fashion.
However, few industries get attacked about waste with anything close to the volume of noise that is directed at the nuclear industry. This used to confuse me because I am very well aware of the special levels of control associated with radioactive materials. As a submarine officer, I spent about 18 months as the Chemistry and Radiological Controls Assistant, and then about 40 months as the Engineer Officer. Both of those jobs require a great deal of care and procedural compliance and the results of our efforts are subject to intense scrutiny during inspections by outside agencies. I do not have much personal experience with the commercial nuclear industry, but I have talked to a number of colleagues and visited enough sites to know that their requirements are not substantially different.
When it comes to carefully controlling, inventorying, monitoring, and accounting for waste materials, I feel pretty safe in asserting that no industry does it better than the nuclear industry. (Some might come close, however.)
My confusion about some of the reasons behind the noise started to disappear, however, when I realized just how much money is spent on nuclear site clean-up. The old saw “One man’s cost is another man’s revenue” came to mind when I attended an American Nuclear Society meeting in the mid 1990s and realized that 60% or more of the industry booths at the associated trade show were devoted to opportunities for contracts in the D&D (decontamination and decommissioning) industry.
I found out that many companies in the nuclear industry were actively promoting the notion that the nuclear industry had a serious waste problem that required the investment of a great deal of taxpayer money to solve. In other words, these guys were marketing their services and encouraging the efforts of people that would normally be considered to be their opposition. Both groups of people LIKED the idea of a crisis – nothing else seems to get the money flowing quite as fast or as profitably.
Memories of that experience flooded back to me when I read the BBC article titled Investors and firms eye nuclear future. The article, which I expected from the title to be dedicated to talking about the opportunities for investing in new production facilities to provide emissions free power to replace coal and natural gas fired power, was instead dedicated to the huge, long term contracts associated with cleaning up Sellafield, a site with a long history of producing nuclear fuel materials.
I wondered – why is it so lucrative, with “vast, long-term contracts could soon be up for grabs”, to clean up shielded buildings whose contents are described like this?
The waste is stored in stacks of 10 small steel cylinders the size of milk churns, that are in turn sealed into place by two-metre deep yellow shielding plugs.
Then I remembered; it is lucrative because the contractors that are seeking those contracts have been working for years to help people that are opposed to nuclear energy promote the idea that there is a crisis.
When the Second Atomic Age starts up in earnest, some of the cleaned up sites are going to be pressed back into service because the factors that made them valuable production facilities in the past still apply. The money and the effort spent to return them to “greenfields” will be completely wasted from the point of view of the taxpayers – with the small exception of those few taxpayers that are the recipients of the contracts and their employees.
What a world! Almost makes me ashamed to want to be a businessman.