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November 16, 1998

Nuclear Again

Waste Disposal

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.

Some figures:

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 hospital.

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 care.

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?

 
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