WHAT ABOUT IT?
Following the items I've posted advocating nuclear as ultimately the only
way to go, a number of people have repeated the frequently asked question of
what to do about the waste. My response is that it's a needlessly manufactured
political problem, not a technical one. And in any case the problem itself is
minor compared to what we have at present.
A single 1,000 Megawatt coal plant releases something like 600lb carbon dioxide
and 30lb sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere per second, and as much
nitrogen oxides as 200,000 automobiles, all of which is estimated to cause 25
premature fatalities and 60,000 cases of respiratory complaints per year, per
plant. In addition, it has to get rid of 30,000 truck-loads of ash annually--enough
to cover a square mile sixty feet deep--full of carcinogens, highly acidic or
highly alkaline depending on the kind of coal, and, ironically, emitting more
radiation from trace uranium than a nuke is permitted to. That's a real waste-disposal
nightmare for you.
The hysteria about toxicity is not justified by anything factual. After its
initial on-site cooling-off period (i.e. at the point where it would be transported
to a deep-burial site as currently proposed) high-level wastes would be about
as toxic as barium or arsenic if ingested, and 1/10th that of ammonia or 1/1000th
that of chlorine--which we use liberally to clean our bathtubs and swimming
pools-- if inhaled. After 100 years, these figures drop to 1/1000th, 1/100,000th,
and 1/10,000,000th respectively. The "conventional" types of waste
remain lethal, and far less easily detectable, forever.
250 nuclear plants would generate enough waste to kill 10 billion people. True,
if it were freely accessible, and people obligingly lined up to receive their
daily dose or intake of it. The same is probably true also of gasoline. By the
same token the U.S already produces enough:
-- arsenic trioxide to kill 10 billion people
-- barium to kill 100 billion.
-- ammonia to kill 6 trillion.
-- phosgene to kill 20 trillion.
-- chlorine to kill 400 trillion
As for plutonium having a long half-life, so what? Compost heaps and incense
sticks have long half-lives; napalm bombs and gunpowder have short ones. The
public health limits on plutonium in drinking water are 400 times higher than
for radium, which is used safely as a matter of course in practically every
In short, N-waste turns out to be significantly less hazardous than many other
substances that are handled routinely in far greater volumes, and with far less
The sensible way to deal with waste (actually a potentially valuable by-product)
is to reprocess it into new fuel and burn it up in reactors, which not only
solves the "problem" but would save about $4 billion in imported oil
costs in the lifetime of a 1,000 MW plant. Roughly 96% of the spent fuel that
comes out of a plant can be handled in this way. The remaining "high level"
waste from a year's operation of a 1,000 MW (large) plant takes up about
half a cubic yard.
This is what the U.S. nuclear industry was set up to do--as the rest of the
world is doing--until political obstructionism in the late 1970s halted work
on the Barnwell facility in South Carolina, which was being built to handle
commercial wastes. Legislation passed at the same time cut the utilities off
from the military facilities that had been handling commercial wastes safely
since the 1950's. The result was that 100% of what comes out of the reactors
is having to be treated as if it were high-level waste, to be stored in ways
that were never intended, and this is what gets all the publicity.
So, in answer to "What about the waste?" What about it?