Nuclear Waste Storage

nuclear cooling pool

If technology continues to advance for the next 100 years at the pace we have witnessed in the past, then future technology will solve many of the problems we face today. For this reason, it is safe to assume that engineers in the 22nd century and beyond will not consider nuclear waste — or radioactivity of any kind — too great of a problem to solve (and it is likely that technological advancements will solve the problem before the end of the 21st century).

Take a couple of minutes and try to imagine the tools and technology that will be available to nuclear engineers and scientists 50 years from now.

One obvious possibility is advanced robotics that will surpass anything we have imagined in cost, capability, and widespread use. The handling of radioactive material through future robotics could eliminate all risk of radiation exposure to humans—not only during normal maintenance and inspections like that which is performed today, but also work that cannot be done today because of risk of radiation exposure, such as performing detailed work with the dexterity that now requires direct human contact—hands, and fingers. Future technology will enable an operator to use remote robotics with the ease and dexterity equivalent to direct human touch. And, in the not-so-distant future, such technology will be available for less than hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands of dollars.

Future advances in Nuclear Chemistry and Metallurgy will likely produce technology that will enable inexpensive reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel as well as inexpensive and reliable methods of reducing or eliminating long-term radioactivity.

Think of it this way: what if our forefathers (and mothers) worried over the thought of “dumping” on future generations, their libraries of printed books and papers. What if they believed they had the responsibility of perfecting digital memory storage?

The computer was invented in 1837 by Charles Babbage. The machine was called an Analytical Engine, it was a mechanical digital computer which, viewed with the benefit of over 170 years of hindsight, anticipated virtually every aspect of present-day computers.”

What if the politicians of Babbage’s day had been persuaded to spend the enormous capital required to achieve the goal of digitizing all printed literature that existed in 19th-century libraries? Imagine attempting such a goal restrained by the limited and, from our 21st-century perspective, primitive technology of the 19th century. Today an eight-year-old child has access to the tools and knowledge needed to digitally record more information in one hour than 19th-century scientists could have recorded in one hundred years.

But, what if the 19th-century leaders and engineers were faced with a choice: either digitize all written literature now or ban the publication of all books until digital technology is available?

21st-century leaders and nuclear engineers are faced with a similar choice today: either permanently bury all nuclear “waste” today, guaranteeing that no radioactive material will escape from the burial place, forever, or ban nuclear energy until the technology is available to accomplish the goal.

Why the rush to permanently bury spent (waste) nuclear fuel? Yes, we need to get it out of the cities and away from the nuclear power plants so the nuclear plants can do their job without concern for spent fuel storage, but why the rush to have the FINAL burial place?

Human civilization will have no reason to fear nuclear waste left over from the 20th and 21st centuries. Simply store it above ground today, safely, and wait for future technology. The technology is coming faster than you realize. And the problem never was as big as you have been led to believe.

Can we trust future generations of scientists and engineers to complete what our generation has begun? Yes, we can! And, future generations will applaud our foresight and be grateful that we chose to store our spent nuclear material in a safe but accessible location.

Scientists tell us that all of the spent nuclear fuel existing in the USA today could be stored safely in a building the size of a Wal-Mart Superstore, with modifications of course.

As of January 2009, the United States nuclear energy industry, with over 50 years of safe operation, has accumulated about 60,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from its 104 nuclear reactors operating within the U.S. To put this in perspective, if we were to take all the nuclear waste produced to date in the United States and stack it side-by-side, end-to-end, it would cover an area about the size of a football field to a depth of about thirty feet. How Much Nuclear Waste is in the United States?

Electricity was generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor on December 20, 1951, at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco, Idaho. Today the USA has 104 nuclear reactors generating about 20% of total U.S. electricity. For nearly 60 years the nuclear “waste” from these reactors has been carefully collected and safely stored onsite at the nuclear power plants. But the onsite storage cooling pools are filling up, and it is past time to move the spent fuel to a federal storage site.

60,000 tons of spent fuel needs a new home. But some people are afraid of radioactivity. Some people are also afraid of the dark and afraid of flying, but that should not dictate federal policy about how to handle and store spent nuclear fuel.

The total “waste” from a lifetime of energy consumed by one person—if all of their energy was produced by nuclear power—is about the size of a softball.

The total volume of nuclear waste material, including all military-related nuclear waste, accumulated over 60 years is less than .01% (one-hundredth of one percent) of the total volume of coal burned every year in the USA—every year!

Aircraft Carrier

60,000 tons of nuclear waste accumulated over more than a half-century. How much is that, really? The aircraft carrier in this picture weighs between 70,000 and 100,000 tons. They are big; but most of the size is due to empty space inside the ship—space required for the crew, storage, and work areas. For the sake of illustration, how big do you think the ship would be if it was flattened to a solid form, eliminating the empty space inside, and then folded until the solid form was thirty feet thick? The total volume of the crushed ship could be placed in a space requiring less than five acres of land. (The deck of an aircraft carrier covers the equivalent of about five acres.)

So, why do we worry about nuclear waste disposal? What is the problem? Store it safely above ground for another hundred years. Any well-trained, experienced civil engineer can design and construct above-ground containers that will not “leak” during the next one hundred years. In the meantime continue public funding for nuclear energy research and development, and make sure that the above-ground repository is accessible to the research scientists.

It might be a good idea to store all of the country’s spent nuclear fuel above ground at the Idaho National Laboratory, where many of our nation’s nuclear scientists are already working to solve these problems and create a sustainable nuclear energy future. The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is an 890-square-mile complex located in the Idaho desert between the town of Arco and the city of Idaho Falls. At 640 acres per square mile, the INL has more than a half-million acres, mostly barren land, where the USA could store a thousand years of accumulated spent nuclear fuel if needed.

The above-ground storage facility should be called a Strategic Uranium Reserve, rather than referring to it as a nuclear waste dump.

Scientists tell us that spent uranium fuel removed from today’s light-water reactors, after producing the intense heat required for more than a year of electricity generation, is still a good source of future energy. The potential energy remaining in the spent fuel is more than 50 times greater than the energy already produced by the light-water reactor. Light-water reactors consume less than 2% of the potential energy within the uranium fuel. The light-water reactor technology is incapable of using the remaining energy within the spent uranium, which is why it is called “spent fuel.” But the spent fuel is not “waste” — if the spent fuel is kept for another 50 years, then the new advanced nuclear reactors (fast reactors), which scientists are developing today, will be capable of consuming the energy remaining in the spent fuel — if the spent fuel is stored in a safe but accessible place for the next 50 years or so, then when future advanced reactors replace the older light-water reactors, they would have access to the fuel.

Storage of Used “Spent” Nuclear Fuel

Nuclear Waste can be a solution not a problem
Advanced Fast Neutron Reactors (AFR) are fast breeder reactors that can use nuclear “waste” for fuel — the spent nuclear fuel that has been discarded from conventional nuclear plants can power AFR’s, producing clean electricity while destroying radioactive waste.

“Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated.

“If developed sensibly, nuclear power could be truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible and could operate without contributing to climate change. In particular, a relatively new form of nuclear technology could overcome the principal drawbacks of current methods—namely, worries about reactor accidents, the potential for diversion of nuclear fuel into highly destructive weapons, the management of dangerous, long-lived radioactive waste, and the depletion of global reserves of economically available uranium. This nuclear fuel cycle would combine two innovations: pyrometallurgical processing (a high-temperature method of recycling reactor waste into fuel) and advanced fast-neutron reactors capable of burning that fuel. With this approach, the radioactivity from the generated waste could drop to safe levels in a few hundred years, thereby eliminating the need to segregate waste for tens of thousands of years…”
Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste  size: 575 Kb – 8 pages
By William H. Hannum,
    Gerald E. Marsh and
    George S. Stanford

“The utilization of a new, much more efficient nuclear fuel cycle—one based on fast-neutron reactors and the recycling of spent fuel by pyrometallurgical processing—would allow vastly more of the energy in the earth’s readily available uranium ore to be used to produce electricity. Such a cycle would greatly reduce the creation of long-lived reactor waste and could support nuclear power generation indefinitely.”
— Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste

Through the release of atomic energy, our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire.”  —Albert Einstein

energy chart

e=mc2 “The great advantage of nuclear power is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel. Nuclear fission, transforming matter directly to energy is several million times as energetic as chemical burning, which merely breaks chemical bonds. One ton of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to 2 to 3 million tons of fossil fuel… Running a 1000 megawatt (a continuous one million kilowatt) power plant for a year requires 2000 train cars of coal or 10 supertankers of oil but only 12 cubic meters of natural uranium… The spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste requiring disposal after one year would be about 20 cubic meters in all when compacted (roughly, the volume of two automobiles)… The high-level waste is intensely radioactive, of course… But thanks to its small volume and the fact that it is not released into the environment, this high-level waste can be meticulously sequestered behind multiple barriers. Waste from coal, dispersed across the landscape in smoke or buried near the surface, remains toxic forever. Radioactive nuclear waste decays steadily, losing 99% of its toxicity after 600 years – well within the range of human experience… Nuclear waste disposal is a political problem in the United States because of widespread fear disproportionate to the reality of risk. But it is not an engineering problem.”
– Excerpt from: The Need For Nuclear Power, by Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller

By all practical definitions, nuclear fission is a sustainable source of energy. Enough uranium exists in the earth’s crust and oceans to last thousands of years. Future advanced fast reactors will produce 50 to 100 times more energy out of the uranium fuel, extending the reserves to tens of thousands of years.

“The fast reactor with a pyroprocessing-based fuel cycle can provide a vast improvement in energy efficiency. By recycling spent fuel, such a fast reactor system can deliver 100 times more energy from available uranium resources than today’s reactors without harmful greenhouse gas emissions thereby assuring a sustainable long-term energy source.” Advanced Fast Reactor (AFR)

If the United States would plan for a nuclear energy future based on fast reactors using The Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycle, then the spent fuel from existing light-water reactors would not be considered nuclear waste dumped on future generations. Today’s spent nuclear fuel would be considered a gift of energy to future generations and stored in a safe place as a “strategic uranium reserve” to become fuel for future fast reactors. After the future advanced reactors consume the remaining energy in the fuel, there will still be a need for permanent disposal of the end product—the final nuclear waste—but the total volume would be much less than it is in its current form, and it would remain radioactive for less time—hundreds of years instead of thousands of years.

Opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository is based on fear of radiation leaks 10,000 years from now. Such fears assume that earth, in the future, will be populated by primitive humans similar to the Neanderthals who lived on earth about 500,000 years ago. Why else would the future inhabitants of earth unexpectedly stumble upon an ancient nuclear burial ground? Such worrisome nonsense is due to a lack of faith in human progress.

Has anyone stopped to realize that many toxic metals and chemicals dumped in public landfills, such as lead and cadmium from batteries, do not have half-lives? lead and cadmium, along with a host of other chemicals that end up in public landfills are carcinogenic and mutagenic, but unlike radioactive material, they will remain toxic forever. So, why has the media fixated on Yucca Mountain, ignoring public landfill leakage? The groundwater in Nevada is at far greater risk from public landfill leakage over the next 10,000 years than it ever will be from the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. But for some reason, the media and media-driven politicians have allowed anti-nuclear propaganda to convince them that dying from cancer caused by landfill toxins is not as bad as dying from cancer caused by radioactive toxins.

“Stated succinctly, the potential hazard of nuclear waste is no greater than that of many other commonly accepted industrial activities in today’s world and the concern related to its longevity (half-life) is absurd when compared to current levels of concern related to use of stable toxic elements (e.g., lead, cadmium, mercury) which last forever.

“The major concerns related to nuclear waste management can be expressed in terms of hazard and longevity. These concerns may be paraphrased as follows: First, waste is extremely toxic. The radioactive waste from a single nuclear reactor is enough to poison the entire population of the world several times over. It could cause malignancy and other diseases to exposed populations and genetic defects to their descendants. Second, because of the extremely long half-life of plutonium and some of the other components, its toxicity will persist for thousands, and perhaps millions of years.

“Both of these statements are true. However, when viewed from a different perspective, they lose their specter of severity. For example, a valid analogy to the first statement would be the observation that considering such items as cleaning compounds, pesticides, and other chemicals, there is enough toxic material in the average supermarket or hardware store to poison everyone in the community, if not the entire state. The problem has been one of confusing toxicity with hazard. The mere existence of a toxic substance does not constitute a hazard unless that substance is readily available for dissemination and assimilation in the human body.

“Consider, for example, that the lead used in the manufacture of automobile batteries in this country each year is also sufficient if properly distributed, to poison the entire world population several times over. Although long half-lived radionuclides in radioactive waste may persist for centuries or millennia, lead, being a stable element, will exist forever. In addition, lead is also a carcinogen and a mutagen. Nevertheless, lead in automobile batteries is not generally considered to be a serious environmental threat, simply because of its low availability for human assimilation. The annual production of lead in this country, if administered by ingestion, would be sufficient to kill far more people than the annual amount of plutonium produced under the most ambitious nuclear power production program conceivable.”
—Excerpt from Nuclear Waste Disposal: the Nature of the Problem, By Jerry J. Cohen, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Retired.

The fact that thousands of other chemicals and metals are also extremely toxic does not make nuclear radiation less dangerous — but an exaggerated fear of nuclear radiation while showing little concern for the other equally toxic substances that exist within and around our communities is what makes the fear of nuclear energy irrational.

If you want an expert’s opinion of the psychology behind the irrational nuclear fears, take a few minutes and read A PBS interview with Dr. Robert DuPont, a psychiatrist, and expert on fears and phobias who have studied and analyzed social perceptions of nuclear energy.  

— Dr. Robert L. DuPont is a practicing psychiatrist and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is also the author of “The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction” and “Nuclear phobia—phobic thinking about nuclear power: A discussion with Robert L. DuPont”.

       “…Nearly everyone agrees privately that safe disposal of spent fuel or other high-level radioactive material is not a technical problem, but a political one… If one accepts the view apparently held by the majority of scientists working in the nuclear waste field that public apprehension regarding the problem is grossly exaggerated, then it is reasonable to ask how this condition came to exist. How did the myth evolve? …the public has been rational. Their fears and apprehensions are understandable, given the information available to them.
       “ In ancient times, myths (beliefs not necessarily based upon fact) became embedded in the folklore of culture over long periods of time by passing from generation to generation. Often such myths were embellished and amplified with each passage. Laws and rules governing society, such as the witchcraft laws in colonial America, were predicated on such beliefs since they came to be regarded as fundamental truths. Today, in the age of mass communication, myths can become established far more quickly. The advent of science during the last few centuries may have had a mitigating effect on adherence to mythology, particularly in modem societies, but this is by no means always the case. The folklore regarding nuclear waste presents a particular case in point where beliefs, not supported by science and logic, have played a major role in the development of our policies, rules, and laws.”
       —By Jerry J. Cohen, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Retired.
           Nuclear Waste Disposal: the Nature of the Problem

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies, and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one-third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all-pervasive carcinogen, oxygen.”
— Nuclear power is the only green solution  By Dr. James Lovelock, preeminent world leader in the development of environmental consciousness, originator of the Gaia hypothesis.

We need nuclear power, says the man who inspired the Greens:

We need nuclear power, says James Lovelock, the man who inspired the Greens. “We reject nuclear energy with the same unreasoning arguments that our ancestors would have used to reject geothermal energy, the effort to harness the heat of the Earth. Compared with the imaginary dangers of nuclear power, the threat from the intensifying greenhouse effect seems all too real. I wholly support the Green wish to see all energy eventually come from renewable sources but I do not think that we have the time to wait until this happens. Nuclear power is unpopular but it is safer than power from fossil fuel. The worst that could happen, if Chernobyls become endemic, is that we live a little less long in a mildly radioactive world. To me, this is preferable to the loss of our hard-won civilization in a greenhouse catastrophe.
Nuclear electricity is now a well-tried and soundly engineered practice that is both safe and economic; given the will it could be applied quickly. It is risky if improperly used but, even taking the Chernobyl disaster into account, it is, according to a recent Swiss study, by far the safest of the power industries. Disinformation about its dangers sustains a climate of fearful ignorance and has artificially inflated the difficulties of disposing of nuclear waste and the cost of nuclear power. If permitted, I would happily store high-level waste on my own land and use the heat from it to warm my home. There seems no sensible reason why nuclear waste should not be disposed of in the deep subducting regions of the ocean where tectonic forces draw all deposits down into the magma.
What stands against the use of nuclear power are not sensible scientific or economic arguments but a widespread, but unjustified, public fear… The Greens have so frightened their supporters that a change of mind would be almost impossible.
“The accident at Chernobyl is almost always presented as if it were the greatest industrial disaster of the 20th century. Even the BBC, in a recent program, stated that thousands had died there. Such exaggeration suspends rational thought and is an unnerving triumph of fiction over science. In fact, 45 died at Chernobyl, according to the UN report on the disaster, and many of them were the firemen and helicopter crews who tried to extinguish the fire. It was an awful event and should never have happened, but it was far less lethal than the smog of 1952 when 5,000 Londoners died from poisoning by coal smoke.”

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