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United States Science Technology

Better Nuclear Waste Storage Plans than Yucca Mountain 466

Posted by michael
from the moon-still-mostly-empty dept.
NuclearRampage writes "Technology Review has an in-depth article about A New Vision for Nuclear Waste based on the premise that 'storing nuclear waste underground at Yucca Mountain for 100,000 years is a terrible idea.' The article looks at the current DOE plans for Yucca, its shortcomings and what temporary solutions we have to use while a better permanent plan is formulated."
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Better Nuclear Waste Storage Plans than Yucca Mountain

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  • by roman_mir (125474) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:27PM (#10854815) Homepage Journal
    I don't see this as such a big problem as say having thousands of coal power plants churning out millions of tons of poison into the atmosphere.

    Isn't it possible that within a few hundred years there will be a method found to actually use these stored materials for further energy extraction? Not impossible. So let it lay there for a while.

  • So much energy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DrWho520 (655973) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:29PM (#10854839) Journal
    If the waster is radioactive, it is inherently releasing energy. I have never understood why no one has tried to take advantage of this with some kind of "dirty" reactor. Alteast, I have never heard of this. It would obviously not be as efficient as the fision process, but there must be some way to capture that energy and redirect it somehow. Even if you put it in a big bunker and have a thermocouple set up, atleast that is something. Beats tossing it into space.
  • WWFD? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ch-chuck (9622) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:32PM (#10854886) Homepage
    France must be on the leading edge of dealing with nuclear waste - what are they doing about it? France gets a very high percentage of electric power from nukes. I for one admire their dedication to being free from dependance on foreign turmoil.

  • what about... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Legato895 (788993) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:33PM (#10854902) Homepage
    the whole combining radioactive material and dirt and heating it into glass thing? http://news.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/n ews/2004/09/26/nnuke26.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/09/26 /ixhome.html [telegraph.co.uk]
  • Refine It (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dead sun (104217) <aranach@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:34PM (#10854905) Homepage Journal
    How about we refine the waste, make it further useful, and save on the amount of waste we create?

    Really, if this waste is so awful, why don't we try to create as little waste as possible by using everything we reasonably can? You'd think people would be clammoring to cut down the number of times waste (and live fuel) needs to be shipped, and cut down the quantities that need to be stored away for extended periods of time. Though it isn't like there's that much volume of waste. If I remember correctly, one of WI's biggest, Point Beach, produces something like a quarter of a phone booth's worth of waste in volume per year and provides a heck of a lot of power.

  • by scumbucket (680352) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:35PM (#10854925)
    How about we just ship the nuclear waste to the moon, ala Space:1999?

  • Re:Easiest solution (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mogrify (828588) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:37PM (#10854955) Homepage
    The problem with shooting it into space (other than the ethical issues with space littering) is that
    1) It's really expensive to lift chunks of metal into space, and
    2) The pollution associated with burning untold seas of rocket fuel is perhaps worse than the dangers of leaving the stuff where it is.
  • by david.given (6740) <dg AT cowlark DOT com> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:40PM (#10854980) Homepage Journal
    Couldn't that be the solution? (no, not the part about winged monkeys). Why can't we simply send the damn crap into the sun? Isn't the sun a huge nuclear reactor already anyway?

    Because orbital mechanics mean that it's harder to send stuff into the sun than it is to send it into interstellar space. Plus, the heavy-lift rockets you'd need to get it into orbit (let alone to cancel Earth's orbital velocity) are not designed to be reliable, which means they blow up now and again. Uh... no.

    (Yes, you can build boxes designed to remain intact while rockets blow up around them; they're used for RTGs. There was an RTG that was in an exploding rocket. Once they found it, it got dusted off and used again for another satellite. I believe it's still out there somewhere... But they're bloody expensive and very heavy, and there's an awful lot of stuff to get rid of.)

    Better, cheaper, simpler solutions:

    • Vitrify it in glass to make it biologically inert. Pile it in a big heap in the middle of some desert somewhere. Post guards to make sure nobody walks off with it.
    • Bore some very deep holes somewhere in a subduction zone. Put the stuff at the bottom. Forget about it. Over geological time it'll get sucked into the mantle and disperse.

    Basically, radioactive waste is not a problem. It's just the politics around the waste that's the problem. Yucca Mountain is a really, really bad solution and everybody knew that from the start, but the project has now entered that strange, necromantic state where it'll suck up money until someone finally cuts its heart out and it will never, ever achieve anything worthwhile. Except lining someone's pockets.

  • Go for Heavy Metal (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tim the Gecko (745081) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:45PM (#10855055)
    American Scientist magazine has an article [americanscientist.org] on "heavy metal" reactors that transform some of the nastiest components of spent fuel into a more acceptable range of isotopes.
  • Yucca is not PERFECT (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SirLanse (625210) <swwg69@yahoPOLLOCKo.com minus painter> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:52PM (#10855150)
    But it is better than a bunch of casks all over creation. These are only good for 100yrs. Send them to Yucca. If a good idea for using the waste material comes up, we can pull it out of Yucca. This stuff came out of the ground. Rain water is percolating through uranium deposits all of the time. I would rather be down wind of TMI than a coal plant. Put wind mills on top of any building over 10 stories high. That would be a middle finger to the middle east.
  • by Art Deco (529557) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:03PM (#10855263)
    We have been having a heck of a time getting breeder reactors to work right. The few breeder reactors that have been built have produced electricity so expensive that their operation had to be subsidised and they are very inefficent at producing more fuel. Running a breeder reactor makes more waste disposal problems instead of fewer. Breader reactors produce more high level waste than conventional light water reactors. President Carter was knowledgable about nuclear energy having studied at the Navy nuclear school. There is the problem of pruducing plutonium but the main problem with breeder reactors are that they are too expensive and don't work well at the current state of the art. Currently there is plenty of uranium so breeder reactors remain an interesting technology for the future if uranium prices increase.
  • by DaFallus (805248) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:14PM (#10855432)
    Um, what evidence do you have of this climate change? I have seen no drastic change in the frequency of El Nino over the past 225 million years. El Nino is largely affected by the earth's temperature, so if the temperature is rising, then the frequency of this phenomenon would increase. However, through the use of dendrochronology one can look at the rings of a modern tree and compare them to those of a 225 million year old petrified tree, showing that the frequency of El Nino 225 million years ago is practically identical to that of today. You also have to keep in mind that we are still technically coming out of an ice age.
  • by Rei (128717) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:32PM (#10855702) Homepage
    Well, the big problem with a subduction zone is the fact that the rate of subduction isn't that significant in comparison to the rate of nuclear decay. However, that doesn't mean that digging a really deep hole to store nuclear waste in is a bad idea; in fact, it'd probably be better to drill your really deep holes far from earthquake-and-volcano-prone subduction zones.

    One of the neat things about extremely deep burial is how the properties of rock change. At extreme depths, rock starts to become soft; consequently, the heavy elements found in fuel rods would likely migrate downward. Of course, you don't need such deep burial; just deep enough that there is no realistic way erosion or any other factor could release the radioactive waste.

    One of the problems, of course, will be radioactive gasses that form, such as iodine, from percolating to the surface if the fuel rods break down. I would suppose that with proper selection of burial sites you could make sure that there were appropriate "cap rock" layers above it, and then choose an appropriate sealing material for the hole itself. It'd take some research. Perhaps you could make the first level of material used to close the hole be highly reactive with iodine. Another option would be to reprocess all spent fuel rods (which some countries do anyways), and in the process separate all radioiodine and get it securely chemically bonded up before burial (say, sodium iodide). That might pose an economic problem, however.

    I once read about an interesting proposal concerning deep waste disposal. The idea was that enough heat would be generated down there that you could use it for extra power if you used a thermally conductive cap and had insulated water pipes run down to the cap. Sort of an "artificial geothermal energy" situation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:44PM (#10855874)
    I can imagine giving a speech in front of Congress:

    "Once I thought about being a nuclear physicist. I really wanted to help work on solving the world's energy problems, and at that time it was clear that nuclear fission was the best technology to accomplish that. Fusion wasn't thought to be possible on Earth then. The reason that I'm not a nuclear physicist is that a small amount of research showed that nuclear fission was a solved problem. We <i>have</i> safe, efficient fission reactors. We <i>have</i> solutions for disposing of the waste, but they are being denied to the people of the United States. I don't regret my career decision back then, even with workable fusion power looming on the horizon, but I still want to help solve some energy problems, and that's why I'm here today.
    "Our fission processes today take about 2% of the energy from the fuel sources we use, then discard the other 98% of the energy in the waste. This is absolutely outrageous. If you filled your car up with gas, but immediately dumped 98% of that gas onto the ground, you'd be viewed with contempt by others. If you did that as a factory, you'd soon go out of business. The United States is currently doing that as a country with our nuclear fuels. What's more, this great amount of energy we're disposing of is creating more problems for us. Our storage solutions for this radioactive waste aren't good enough. They don't last long enough, and any process that makes them safe(er) also creates trouble if they're ever to be used again as fuel.
    "In this world today, we are on the cusp of an energy crisis. Scientists have been predicting the end of fossil fuel power for quite a long time, and they'll eventually be right. If that day were to come tomorrow, we'd find that the only technology mature enough to fulfill our power needs would be nuclear fission. In that event, using our current fission methodologies, we would run out of fissionable materials in as little as 100 years.
    "This is not a technology problem. It is a political problem. The waste produced from fission today can be reused for fission, but the process for doing this is very similar to the process for creating plutonium for weapons, which is why it was banned. We don't have the luxury of denying ourselves energy sources anymore. Allow us the use of breeder reactors, and we'll be able to extend our energy supplies until fusion comes about. After efficient fusion is achieved, we won't have to worry about energy anymore, but that won't matter if we run out of energy sources twenty-five years short of fusion. Without fusion and without fossil fuels, we will be required to lift the breeder reactor ban anyway, simply to function. Instead of being forced into it later by a catastrophe, let's do it now. Lift the ban on breeder reactors."

    Fun facts:

    • That nuclear waste is radioactive at all is proof that we're not using it to it's potential. Using fissionable materials to their maximum also makes them safer to store.
    • You could get very rich by building fission reactors along the California border. California doesn't allow new nuclear power plants, and they also have problems (Google: "rolling blackouts") with conventional energy sources. You can sell nuclear-produced electricty to Californians for less than they pay for fossil fuel produced electricty, but for far more than what it cost to produce it.
    • China doesn't have a ban on breeder reactors.
    • (For those who might not know) Energy follows strict rules; among those are the rules of thermodynamics. Any material has a calculable amount of energy stored inside of it. Take gasoline for example. Burning it breaks it down into some constituent elements, some of which are gaseous and want to expand. A car's combustion engine uses those expanding gasses to turn a shaft, and various mechanical devices transform that motion into a moving vehicle. You can calculate how much Work (in the physics sense) is done
  • by Dr. Evil (3501) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:51PM (#10855982)

    Yep, nothing has lasted for 10,000 years, certainly no civilization has lasted 10,000 years.

    Part of the problem is that if the waste is accessible using today's technology, then, in the event of social collapse, or extreme corruption, it is accessible using today's technology.

    If you argue that in a couple hundred years, a better solution for disposing of waste is devised... one might also argue that a better solution for recovering and re-storing any problems in Yucca mountain can also be devised.

    But if there is complete social collapse, future generations may not have the ability to store the waste....

    So what do we do? Assume that we can effectively protect and store the waste for a couple hundred years, or assume that we can't and stuff it in a mountain?

    Is it possible to stuff it in a mountain in a recoverable fashion, and seal it in the event of funding cuts which would prohibit its continued monitoring?

  • Seems obvious but (Score:1, Interesting)

    by notbob (73229) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:52PM (#10855996) Homepage
    Why not put the casks inside of Yucca mountain?

    It's:
    * central
    * big
    * paid for
    * already has big gaping holes in it to put said casks
    * nobody will notice as it's already planned
    * you can leave it there for 100 years just fine

    I mean really combine the two ideas! Or send the stuff to iraq :P
  • by tom's a-cold (253195) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:54PM (#10856024) Homepage
    It's called a breeder reactor and it's as safe as a nuclear reactor is. The problem is that nobody wants to build one because they are afraid of what we did to the people who built the nuclear reactors in the first place. We bankrupted most of them by constantly changing the rules in the middle of the game.
    Yeah, here's what we did that was so horrible and unfair: we removed a small part of the free pass they had to avoid the full lifecycle cost of their uneconomic, toxic technology. The only way nuclear power has ever been economically viable is if someone else is picking up the tab for large portions of its lifecycle, particularly waste disposal and fuel production. Add to this the operational risk profile, where there are low-probability failure modes that can cause very costly damage, and the nuke industry is far from viable. And breeders solve some of the problems around the fuel cycle, but still produce large volumes of waste that has to be dealt with. So again, the only route to profitability is to get society at large to suck up the huge externalities.

    The nuclear power industry is just another bunch of subsidy whores, sucking money out of the government and at the same time begging for impunity for the damage they cause to the environment and to their workforce.

    Since the cat's already out of the bag, we'll need long-term storage. But to prevent the problem from getting worse, this should be coupled with an initiative to shut the nuclear industry (including weapons production) down completely, starting in the US and eventually worldwide. The problem is not regulation: it's nuclear power itself.

    Oh, and those of you who thing that space disposal makes sense: look at the enormous volumes of low-level waste that are produced, and the cost per kilo of payload based on even the most optimistic scenarios. You get some ridiculously large numbers.

  • by Billy the Mountain (225541) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:55PM (#10856041) Journal
    The Acoustic Stirling, a new engine that has been recently been developed, Acoustic Stirling Press Brief [lanl.gov], could take the heat energy that is generated by nuclear waste and convert it into electrical energy. When the waste is doing work for you, it's no longer waste.

    BTM
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:00PM (#10856129)
    It's completely foolhardy to believe that any sort of engineered barrier could last 10K+ years, let alone 100K. But the DOE has drawn a line in the sand and decided that Yucca is the ONLY answer.

    Sen. Reid (and the rest of the NV Congressionals) aside, there is nothing legally that can really be done about the opening. It will open. When? Not likely in 2010. But, it will open.

    That being said the DOE has also reiterated a NAS position that a "deep geologic" repository is needed. Fact is DOE already has one. It's called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) [www.wipp.ws]. While it is only holding TRansUranic (TRU) wastes, I see no reason it couldn't handle Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF), as well. (In fact, some of the TRU waste has radioactivity levels as high as SNF.)

    Alas, the DOE has spent so much money and spent so much time with Yucca, that it is what they have to use. On the bright side, it will be interesting to see if engineered barriers can really work. (At least I'll be dead long before they can make this determination.)

  • Re:Refine It (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Pxtl (151020) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:01PM (#10856132) Homepage
    Actually, my understanding was it was the terrified cowards who were afraid of breeders because of the weapons-grade plutonium concerns.

    Of course, it doesn't matter here in Canada, as we use Candu reactors. No refining necessary so you don't have to worry about refinery accidents (like that mess in Japan) but they use deuterium as a medium and generate plutonium as waste.
  • by logos22 (808943) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:06PM (#10856189) Homepage
    Breeder reactors are a type of fast neutron reactor that produce their own fuel and a surplus. This allows them to sustain the nuclear reaction without adding more fuel and the surplus fuel can, in turn, be used to create other breeder reactors. As of 2001, the only breeder reactor still operational is located in Japan.

    For more info click here [wikipedia.org].
  • by Tsunam (815302) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:10PM (#10856230) Homepage
    The entire problem in the US stems from the fact that the government wanted cheap reliable fuel and saw nuclear power as the solution to it. Among the consessions they made to get companies to build these hugely expensive power generators (beyond the obvious subsidy's) is that the government would take the waste that was produced and dispose of it. The nuclear reactor's are now calling the governments bluffs (which it was), causing them to scramble for a solution. Yucca mountain was the ideal location. It is remote, [sarcasm]who lives near a giant mountain in the nevada desert anyways? [\sarcasm]. Everyone knows people live in either Vegas, Reno or Carson City. (yes i do live in nevada as a warning). The problem with this solution is a couple of things. Transport of the nuclear waste. You have large sites of waste from the east coast that would have to travel to the west coast. The idea was to use the rail system to transport this. However, you will go through many many residential and commercial area's along the way. If you were to have a train derail or a vehicle hit and turn over the boxcar holding the waste, you could have a huge spill in a highly populated area. Secondary, there is no way to guarentee that you won't have some of the radiated water from yucca seep into the ground water. This ground water is pumped up by farmers and used to spread on crops. Thus you will have radiated food being fed to your people potentially. Don't you want to eat food that glows at night? Finally, you have earthquake falts in the area. San Adreas being the big one. Its the transition of the pacific plate to the North American plate. From research data, its long overdue for a big earthquake. Something bigger then the 7.0's we get periodically in california. Yes, the fault is some hundreds of miles from the site. But then you get a 7.1 earthquake 60 miles north of Big Bear and you feel a 6.7 in San Diego. So you would have the possibility of a huge quake (not sure how big. I believe it was stated somewhere at least a 8.0 if San Andreas was to go off), traveling this significant distance and shaking up a mountain filled with radioactive waste and fluids, above a aquafer that is believed to stretch well beyond the limited area of nevada (something like to the midwest). Now, those people who say that it doesn't matter store it there...i don't want to see it. Do you want the consequences when something happens along the way, or at the site. That will effect you in some way?
  • Re:So much energy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jafuser (112236) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:36PM (#10856574)
    It doesn't even have to be "dirty". Read up on the Energy Amplifier [wikipedia.org].

    Excerpt:
    The energy amplifier uses a cyclotron accelerator to produce a beam of protons. These hit a Thorium target and produce neutrons by the process called spallation. Thorium nuclei absorb neutrons, forming fissile uranium-233. This isotope of uranium is not found in nature and is not the isotope used in nuclear weapons. Moderated neutrons stimulate U-233 fission, releasing energy.


    If a beam energy of 7 Megawatts (7 mA protons produced by a 1 GeV cyclotron) is used, the energy amplifier would produce 280 MW of thermal energy, corresponding to about 100 MW of electrical power after steam production and turbine generation. As the power needed to operate the accelerator is about 20 MW, there would thus be a net production of over 80 MW. Larger designs could achieve higher energy gains in the range 30 to 60.

    Pros:
    - Subcritical, cannot meltdown
    - Uses Thorium fuel (abundant, easier to process than Uranium)
    - 500 year halflife (instead of 10,000+)
    - Can break down existing nuclear waste
    - Does not produce by-products usable for weapons

    Cons:
    - Requires a cyclotron to be built ($$$)

    Why we don't invest in something like this seems quite irrational, although typical.
  • by zmollusc (763634) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:43PM (#10856680)
    If it can do that, then let's use geothermal power. Throw some of those Acoustic Stirling things down a hole and shut down the reactors.
  • by rumblin'rabbit (711865) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @03:03PM (#10856943) Journal
    I've never understood why we could not place spent fuel at the bottom of abandoned uranium mines in the Athabascan basin in northern Saskatchewan. The ground water within these mines is already contaminated from natural uranium, it's in a remote area relatively immune from terrorist attack, and the Canadian Shield is one of the most stable (and hardest!) geological features on the planet.

    Perhaps /. readers could explain the problems with this plan.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 18, 2004 @03:33PM (#10857331)
    1. Space Elevator to low earth orbit
    2. Tiny cheap solar ion booster
    3. Planet-fall into the sun

    Much cheaper and safer than Yucca Mountain.

    But that's not the goal...

    JSMS III

    P.S.
    I attended a seminar on the Clock of the Long Now at Stanford some years ago. For whatever reason there were a bunch of DOE and Military types in attendance and there followed some discussion of Yucca Mountain. There was talk of marking the area with large berms or pyramids.

    I immediately thought, hmm, I wonder what's buried under the Great Pyramid?

    p.p.s
    Bruce Sterling was also in attendance. Strange gathering...

  • Re:Refine It (Score:2, Interesting)

    by X-rated Ouroboros (526150) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @03:47PM (#10857526) Homepage

    How about we refine the waste, make it further useful, and save on the amount of waste we create?

    The cost of reprocessing irradiated plant materials is considerably higher than simply making them from new materials. Add to that, the fact that everyone that works with former plant materials will require special radiation training... and a bigger paycheck (both to account for their training/knowledge and their radiation exposure).

    Also the preprocessing plant would generate huge volumes of waste on its own. Steels are relatively dense and stable wastes. Reprocessing would generate a lot of liquid waste. Also, with many of the reactor wastes, the main danger is radioactivity... the reprocessing wastes would present heavy metal and a variety of interesting chemical wastes. Have you ever tried to dispose of radioactive, heavy metal, hazardous chemical, liquid waste?

    On top of all that relatively high level waste is the medium and low level stuff... tools, anti-contamination clothing, analytical equipment, etc. Reprocessing most emphatically does not reduce the amount of waste.

  • by Christopher Thomas (11717) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @03:48PM (#10857534)
    a quarter of a phone booth's worth of waste in volume

    How much energy in burning Libraries of Congress could a phone booth of nuclear waste produce?

    If we assume that only the books are burning, and that they weigh a couple of pounds each (say 1 kg), and that they give off the same energy from combustion that an equivalent weight of carbon would (very rough approximation), we can estimate the BLoC energy unit as about:

    115M books * 1 kg/book * 390 kJ/mol CO2 / 0.012 mol C/kg ...or on the order of 4 petajoules.

    Let's assume the phone booth contains about 2 cubic metres of nuclear waste. Let's assume that it has a density of about 10 g/cm^3, as it's oxides, and that virtually all of this represents the weight of the heavy nuclei. We'll take a value of 10 MeV as the total decay energy of each heavy metal nucleus as it traverses the decay chain down to lead (or some other stable isotope, if it starts off lighter than lead, though most of the fuel rod will still be U238). We'll assume an atomic weight of 250 AMU for each nucleus, to make the math easier. As 1 AMU is approximately equivalent to 1 GeV (i.e. mass of a proton or neutron), we have a rest energy of each nucleus of 250 GeV, meaning 1/25000 of its rest mass is converted to released energy.

    The phone booth contains 2 m^3 * 10000 kg/m^3 = 20000 kg of material. This has a rest energy of about 1.8e+21 J, meaning we get about 70 petajoules out if we wait long enough for all of its constituent elements to decay.

    So, a phone booth full of nuclear waste could produce about 18 BLoCs worth of energy.

    In practice, you'll only get around 1% of this out in any reasonable timeframe (short-lived isotopes, vs. the U238 that you'll have to wait a few billion years for unless you stick it back in a reactor).
  • by ttfkam (37064) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @03:52PM (#10857584) Homepage Journal
    The fuel could be more valuable, too. For decades, industry and government officials have recognized that "spent" reactor fuel contains a large amount of unused uranium, as well as another very good reactor fuel, plutonium, which is produced as a by-product of running the reactor. Both can be readily extracted, although right now the price of new uranium is so low, and the cost of extraction so high, that reprocessing spent fuel is not practical. And the political climate does not favor a technology that makes potential bomb fuel--plutonium--an item of international commerce. But things might be different in 100 years. For starters, the same fuel could be reprocessed much more easily, since the potentially valuable components will be in a matrix of material that is not so intensely radioactive.

    While the time waiting for it to cool off is a legitimate argument, the cost relative to mining uranium ore is not. Why? Because the costs for short-term and long-term storage have not been applied.

    If you reduce the volume of waste by half, you have already saved a huge amount of money in the long run. Cooling pools are expensive. Spent fuel caskets are expensive. Homeland security measures for all the spent fuel is expensive. Yucca Mountain is ridiculously expensive. Reprocessing so that the fuel can be used again is cheap by comparison.

    Fast neutron burner reactors. We've already got the waste, and burner reactors reduce the volume of waste while simultaneously producing large amounts of power thus reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Why is this even an issue anymore?

    Because we're waiting for close to 100,000 square miles of solar cells or millions of new windmills to be built? Please!
  • Drop it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by philge (731233) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @04:00PM (#10857716)
    Drop it into a subduction zone. It will then be returned to the magma. By the time it comes up again it should have decayed away
  • by jadavis (473492) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @04:31PM (#10858090)
    First, technological innovation doesn't always appear in the areas we expect it. Take the flying car, for example, which we've been expecting for a long time, as well as robot servants.

    Also, if we are leaving a problem for generations to come, isn't it better to leave the problem in the desert under ground that may (according to some people, at some time thousands of years in the future) need attention, rather than in casks above ground that will NEED attention for SURE? Future generations are just as likely to solve the Yucca problem as invent a miracle disposal system.

    And one more thing. Even if the costs of fixing Yucca 1000's of years into the future are very large, the PDV* of the cost will be practically nothing.

    *PDV = Present Day Value, an economic calculation to evaluate a future cost as a present cost.

  • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @06:08PM (#10859291)
    But that particular bit of logic says we should NOT have addressed pollution! After all, the tech to do so will be better in a century!

    Seriously, blowing things off till your children have to pay for your misjudgements is a bad idea. A not unusual idea, but bad, nonetheless.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 18, 2004 @06:16PM (#10859393)
    Why, if proximity to radioactivity is so bad, are there people living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why are scientists able to open and enter the cavities of some of the first underground nuclear tests with minimal health risks? Why are tourists allowed at the Trinity test site?

    The answer is that nuclear detonation doesn't create the huge quantity of heavy, long-lived daughter radionucleides that are created in the "slow, low-temperature stew" of nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors, by their design, won't allow any high-temp combustion because the spent-fuel would be a radioactive slurry making it much harder (if not impossible) to handle and dispose. Obviously, nuclear plants can't be designed to operate by way of nuclear detonation but such detonations do provide a solution to the spent fuel problem.

    I propose this solution for the nuclear waste issue: As suggested in the article, reprocess the fuel rods to retrieve the valuable components of the rods (or not, as the economics and politics dictate). Dig a deep hole in the Nevada nuclear test site. Lower the unsalvagable waste to the bottom and line the cavity. Add hazardous biological and chemical waste for good measure. Lower an outdated nuclear weapon or the newest model fresh off the showroom floor or, perhaps, even design a device particularly suited to the task. Have a dramatic countdown. Detonate.

    The overpressures and heat will reduce the high-level waste to much lower-level radionucleides. The bio and chemical waste will be an elemental vapor. Your long-term storage problems are solved. Terrorists are a non-issue because the area is virtually unreachable. The issue of ground water contamination is solved because the heat fuses the silicates in the cavity creating a glass enclosure.

    Since one of the issues of the Yucca Mountain debate is that they'll be taking a radioactively pristine area and fouling it with some very nasty stuff, those contamination issues are minimized at the Nevada test site because it is already "crapped up". It's unlikely you're going to do much more radiological harm than already exists. Politically, I see a much more agreeable path for this disposal method.

    Economically, this disposal method would require only a few of these detonations to eliminate all of America's waste. Ever the entrepreneur, I say go commercial and charge foreign nuclear nations a hefty fee to take care of their nuclear waste in this manner.

    Quite frankly, I'm at a loss as to why this idea has never been proposed. But, then, this solution doesn't provide a multi-billion dollar boondoggle for the politicians campaign "donors".

    Comments?
  • by rk (6314) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @08:36PM (#10860496) Journal

    Gravity will pull it closer to the sun, but it will not pull it into the sun. If you drop your speed relative to the sun, all you will get is a closer orbit around the sun. Witness the wacky path we took with Mariner 10 [nasa.gov] and the even longer and even crazier path we're using for MESSENGER [jhuapl.edu]. And that's just to get to Mercury.

    The grandparent is right. You basically need a velocity of about 31.8 km/sec [Gurzadyan 1996, Theory of Interplanetary Flights, pp. 58-60] to actually get to the sun from Earth, unless you use a gravity assist from other solar bodies.

    Orbits just don't "decay" in the sense that radioactive materials decay. Some are stable, some are instable, and some are affected by interactions with atmospheres or collisions with other particles. All are affected (however slightly) by the gravitation of everything else. This makes long term precise orbital calculations in the real world very difficult. Bank shotting radioactive material around the solar system sounds pretty dangerous to me. Even if we had rocket motors that could get us to Sol directly, there's a chance you could miss and put the stuff on a highly elliptical orbit with aphelion near the Earth's orbit. We could shoot ourselves nicely with that.

  • by Christopher Thomas (11717) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @09:06PM (#10860706)
    If this sounds reasonable to you, I think you have a problem with your brain not being screwed on tight.

    Do this per household. You will be enlightened.

    The numbers I hear are along the lines of 10 kWh/day per household. Solar panels have about a 10% duty cycle, due to sunlight and weather. Let's take 10% as a ballpark efficiency value (by the time it became economical to roll this out, the technology would have improved, but this is a reasonable minimum). That means you need 10kWh / (0.01 * 24h * about 1 kW/m^2) = about 40 square metres of solar cells, per household.

    Around here, in a medium-sized city, a typical lot that's not downtown is 20 m^2. This makes the panel area most definitely comparable to the area being lived on. Multiply this by 400M people, and sure, you'll get a scarily-large number, but remember - you're already building over a comparable area for roads, sidewalks, houses, and so forth, so the scariness is a red herring.

    Let's give it an amortized lifetime of 10 years (some of it lasts longer, but it needs to be replaced, time value of money, and so on). You need to pay for 4 square metres per year. An equivalent power bill for that time period is $180 (at 5 cents per kWh; quite cheap, but we get that up here). That means you have about $40/m^2 for your panel costs for it to be _better_ to put in panels than to pay for power off the grid.

    Can we expect thin-film cells that are 10% efficient be produced for $40 per square metre within the next couple of decades? You're darned right we can.

    In summary, the numbers work out just fine. Re-check them yourself if you like.

    [Your power consumption numbers are about 10x higher than the figures I've heard quoted. This likely includes industrial power use and equivalent figures for things like vehicles. That pushes the price per unit area for breakeven to $4 per square metre, though your longer maintenance interval pushes it back to $12 per square metre - assuming that home-owners are the ones footing the bill for industry, which is questionable. Main impact of accepting the higher power fictures is space, which is still far smaller than the farmland already allocated to human use, and can furthermore be in areas we don't currently care about, as opposed to nice, arable land.]
  • by syncrotic (828809) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @11:50PM (#10861669)
    A selected point-by-point reply, not to the AC but to the article:

    Nuclear energy is still too expensive and too dangerous. Huge amounts of water are needed in a time of increasing water shortage. Uranium supplies are limited.

    Huge amounts of water, yes; huge amounts of drinking-quality water, no. We're talking about running heat exchangers. It just so happens that a large natural body of water is a pretty good heatsink, so drawing cold water from a lake and dumping warm water back into it works well. It's also notable that this doesn't actually use any water. Even water turned to steam isn't used up, as every third grade student knows.

    The risks are minimized or declared technically surmountable.

    Is there anything to suggest that the risks are, in fact, insurmountable? A nuclear reactor is just a big process control design problem: it's not very different from a large chemical plant. In and around every major city are chemical plants with tanks of high pressure sulfur dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid, benzene, and a million other deadly chemicals. Accidents are rare, and when they happen (Bhopal anyone?), they can be a LOT worse than the worst conceivable nuclear disaster. Yet, for some reason, we still make plastics and refine oil.

    At the same time, renewable energies are denounced as uneconomical, with their potential marginalized in order to underscore the indispensability of nuclear energy.

    Maybe they're denounced as uneconomical because, well, they are. I would love to see it proven otherwise... the renewable energy industry needs to put up or shut up. Start making large amounts of power and selling it at a profit.

    Trivializing the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl is part of this strategy.

    Yes, this is part of the strategy - except it's not trivialization, but rather a refusal to continue blowing it out of proportion. We can debate the death toll all we want. Both the nuclear and chemical industries have had their disasters, but no one is suggesting we live without plastics. For the record: Bhopal: 2000 people dead immediately, 6000 dead later, estimates of 150 thousand injured. But really, the thing that makes Chernobyl practically irrelevant today is that it was the result of braindead operating procedures at plant in a crumbling soviet system, run by unqualified personnel, with important operating characteristics kept as military secrets, based on a fundamentally flawed design. It's ridiculous to compare modern nuclear energy to that.

    The deployment of nuclear energy is the result of gigantic mechanisms of subsidization and privilege. ... Between 1974 and 1992, $168 billion was spent on nuclear energy and only $22 billion on renewables.

    True. It's also notable that the author called $22B on renewable power research "practically nothing." I'd say that's actually a lot of money for power sources that have yet to contribute anything meaningful to the nation's electrical output. That said, there have been legitimate reasons to question whether nuclear power could survive without government subsidies. No one these days is saying that nuclear power is the cheapest option... if we want least-cost, we continue burning coal. Renewable energy can't survive without subsidies either. I'm not an economist, and this is a complex topic about which much more could be said.

    Uranium reserves estimated at a maximum 60 years refer to the number of plants currently in operation.

    I'm getting somewhat tired of seeing this statement thrown around. For the last bloody time, the mining industry quotes reserves based on known minable tonnages. If demand for U goes up, companies start exploring for it. Uranium prices go up, allowing previously uneconomic deposits to become reserves. The price of nuclear fuel is almost trivial compared to the

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