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United States Science Technology

Better Nuclear Waste Storage Plans than Yucca Mountain 466

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 coupland ( 160334 ) * <[dchase] [at] []> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:25PM (#10854788) Journal

    >"But here's the twist: with nuclear waste, procrastination may actually pay ... ... technological advances over the next century might yield better long-term storage methods.

    Sorry, but this kind of stupidity really irks me. If the Yucca plan is flawed, then we should be working constructively to fix it, not criticizing it and offering no solutions. Certainly not assuming that in a hundred years we'll have genetically engineered winged monkeys who will fly all our nuclear waste into outer space. The problem is here now, so we've got to face it now, with today's technology. It's the height of irresponsibility to assume that our children will be smart enough to solve a problem a hundred years from now whose solution has completely eluded us.

    • by grub ( 11606 ) <> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:33PM (#10854891) Homepage Journal

      we'll have genetically engineered winged monkeys who will fly all our nuclear waste into outer space.

      Those won't work, the wings are useless in space. We have to wait for the genetically engineered monkeys with liquid oxygen and fuel tanks. That'll be another few hundred years.
    • It's the height of irresponsibility to assume that our children will be smart enough to solve a problem a hundred years from now whose solution has completely eluded us.

      But the extra radiation is sure to net us some mutated super geniuses!

    • by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:35PM (#10854923) Homepage Journal
      "It's the height of irresponsibility to assume that our children will be smart enough to solve a problem a hundred years from now whose solution has completely eluded us."

      Yeah, because history shows that the past two centuries have been nothing but *stagnation* in terms of technological development.

      • 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.

    • That's it! I'm going to being lobbying for government funding for my genetically engineered winged monkey experiment. Thanks for the pep talk!
    • by Bodrius ( 191265 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:06PM (#10855311) Homepage

      After reading the article, I found it sorely lacking in the "New Vision" part, but filled with a pletorah of maybes, could bes, perhaps, and hopefullys.

      It's great that they're suggesting a decent Plan B if Yucca fails, but to state that failure of Plan A is the best outcome because some hypothetical future invention will make it obsolete is not very scientific.

      To those with boundless faith in the progress of technology: it's not whether science advances at the same rate in the future, it's whether its direction can be predictable.

      As of now, by early 20th century speculation, we were supposed to have safe nuclear reactors powering our flying cars, and spaceships moving tourists to the moon.

      This article does not even substantiate the speculation with specific current developments in an avenue of research or two. It just makes the assumption someone will come up with something new, soon, that may have something to do with the problem.

      • by shotfeel ( 235240 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:14PM (#10856281)
        I found it lacking in the consistency part.

        There's no guarantee that Yucca Mt. will work for hundreds of thousands of years, so we'll settle for 100 years when some of the radioactivity will have decayed and we may have better ways of managing it.

        That's better than putting it in Yucca Mt. for a thousand years when much more of the radioactivity would have decayed and we may have exponetially better ways of handling it?

        AFAIK the only reason Yucca Mt. is a "failure" is because of the lawsuits arguing that it can't be guaranteed to last forever.
    • The main fallacy that I see with the article is that it keeps repeating that "in 100 years the waste won't be as hot!"

      That assumes that we won't be making any waste during the next 100 years, which strikes me as incredibly unlikely. I would expect better thinking from the MIT Technology Review than, "Of course we'll be able to solve today's problems in 100 years!" And this without considering that in those 100 years the problem will grow.

      I also don't understand why if casks are so great, why not store them at Yucca Mountain instead of the Skull Valley site, which is open air and closer to Salt Lake than Yucca Mountain is to Las Vegas.

    • by Thagg ( 9904 ) <> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:17PM (#10855481) Journal
      Read the article. It's remarkably good, and makes a good case for temporary "cask" storage for a hundred years or so. There is little that you can say for certain about the future, but the one thing you can say is that it will be very different than the present, and different in unforseeable ways.

      If you're really ambitious, read the Yucca Mountain reports from the goverment, available at John Young's indispensible [] among other places. The documents are amazingly detailed and well researched, and describe the truly monumental efforts proposed to make the best of the sadly misguided site that is Yucca Mountain. Radical alloys, glass matrices to bind the material, titanium drip shields, it just goes on and on and on. (The word "monumental" is actually literal, not just figurative. Part of the proposal describes the need for monuments to warn people away from the site for the next 10,000 years.)

      The engineers and scientists working on Yucca Mountain were given the task to keep the amount of radiation leaking out of the site to low levels for 10,000 years. If everything goes exactly right, if there are no unforseen events, and the experimental materials they are using perform exactly as predicted under high radiation and hydrological stress for that time, the site will meet that mission. Astonishingly, the radiation release graphs go off the chart after 10,000 years -- there's still enough radiation there after that time to be terribly dangerous, and all protective measures will hae failed by that point.

      Yucca Mountain was chosen and designed based on the assumption that it was dry. It's wet. That's such a huge difference that the original decision was simply wrong.

      Thad Beier

      • 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.


      • by ajs ( 35943 ) < minus berry> on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:36PM (#10856567) Homepage Journal
        So the concerns are as follows:
        • After 10,000 years, Yucca becomes unpredictable
        • The multiply redundant materials involved need to remain safe
        Ok, part 1 I'm willing to blow off. For those who think 10,000 years is "coming up sooner than you think," consider this: If one significant scientific discovery is made in terms of engineering such containment every lifetime (about 80 years, not every generation which would be about 20 years), then 125 such discoveries separate us from the time where we'd better have a decent solution. It's also 5 times the length of time since the fall of the Roman Empire. I'm sure I'm incapable of imagining what we'll be capable of by then.

        That said, the second problem is a serious one, but the poster I'm replying to is over-stating. If ALL of the materials used fail to perform exactly as expected, we still have a decent chance of containment. But that's not going to happen. What's going to happen is that some of those materials will do something unexpected and failsafe materials will stand between us and a rather difficult national emergency. How can I know this? I can't, of course, any more than I can know that the next launch of the space shuttle won't start some strange chain reaction that will ignite the atmosphere. I am, however, satisfactorilly encouraged that our current state of materials engineering, combined with redundancy in planning is capable of measuring up to the job.

        If you don't think that's the case, then you should never step into a building made of concrete and steel again. I can assure you that the tolerances employed in designing such structures (even when accounting for the difference in planning horizon) are much less strict than those employed in planning Yucca Mountain.

        I, for one, would happily live near the site, as it's probably the area least likely to suffer any sort of man-made disaster in the US.
    • The article defends this point in several ways:

      First, after several tens of years, the composition of fuel rods changes significantly -- the shorter-lived components will decay and the waste will generate far less heat. The ideal storage environment changes substantially then.

      Also our current waste-management techology is immature, and not proven to be good enough. But a few new developments are on the horizon.

      Future technology is likely to make fuel reprocessing more economic (and I think he did this
    • I think he worded this poorly. The point is that taking the waste and immediately putting it in a high density facility is bad because it is releasing heat so fast -- apparently many problems with Yucca engineering are due to this high heat release. By having a lower density staging area you both solve this problem and allow time for the development of better long-term solutions.

      This sounds like talking about solutions to me. One of his main points is that the Department of Energy is ignoring alterna

  • by clinko ( 232501 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:27PM (#10854810) Journal
    As long as we keep it away from a remote, unwatched island. The Japanese already learned this lesson the hard way.

    And for the software industry to celebrate this disaster with a name like "MoZILLA" is insulting.
  • 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.

    • by Ironsides ( 739422 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:34PM (#10854908) Homepage Journal
      We already have the technology. We shove them into a breeder reactor to get nuclear material that we can use. The problem is that Carter put a ban on breeder reactors in the US.
      • 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 nuc
      • and the american government along with the sheep that are the citizens see anything with the word nuclear as the glowing green boogeyman that will come and lower their savings instrest rate, increase their heating costs and possibly force them to drive [OH THE HORROR] a compact car!

        Now add the word "breeder" and "reactor" to the nuclear phycosis in america??? you have mass hysteria waiting to happen.

        This is the problem with a mostly undereducated/uneducated populace. Most high school students graduate
        • by Ohreally_factor ( 593551 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @01:40PM (#10855813) Journal
          I've got nothing against breeder reactors, at least if they've been properly married. It's those homosexual reactors wanting to marry that worry me. They threaten the stability of the nuclear family, our Christian values, and our Merican way of life.
        • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @02:00PM (#10856125) Homepage
          Yeah, I really want to use a reactor that uses *Liquid Sodium* as coolant (that fact alone made them incredibly hard beasts to work with - it reaks havoc on the pumps). There's still research going on to make more economically viable and technologically realistic breeder reactors, but as for now, the tech just isn't there.
    • 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?

      You mean, such as using a breeder reactor to turn low-energy waste to high-energy fuel? Why, yes, theoretically, we could do that--if by "theoretically" you mean "as a requirement of making world-destroying nuclear weapons", that is.

      We stopped using breeder reactors simply to keep from making plutonium. Which would take care of the worst of the nuclear wast
    • There is a solution for further energy extraction!

      1. Reshape nuclear 'waste' heavy metals into high density projectiles for use in tank turrets
      2. Select a small, mostly defenseless country laden with natural resources, and plagued with poverty, political oppression, and religious fervor
      3. Invade!!
      4. Institute a puppet regime and an occupying force
      5. Extract their energy!

      now, back to hiding under my bridge, where sanity still exists!

  • 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.
    • American Scientist magazine has an article [] on "heavy metal" reactors that transform some of the nastiest components of spent fuel into a more acceptable range of isotopes.
    • Re:So much energy (Score:5, Informative)

      by Christopher Thomas ( 11717 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:52PM (#10855142)
      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.

      The problem is that the fuel has been "poisoned" by decay products from previous reactions. Enough of these absorb neutrons that you can't sustain a critical fission reaction, and so you're left with sub-critical decay. This gives off energy, but far, far more slowly than a nuclear plant's active fuel bundles do. So you can't put them in a conventional reactor, and you can't get useful amounts of heat off them outside of one.

      There are some types of reactor - actinide-burning fast-breeders - that have less trouble with these decay products than conventional slow-neutron reactors. These are widely viewed as one method of disposing of or at least reducing the amount of spent fuel waste. You can also chemically reprocess the fuel to remove the decay products (which are then disposed of as waste, but the majority of your "spent" fuel is reused). Neither of these solutions is allowed in the US, due to proliferation risks and handling concerns.
    • I think there was some plans for whats called a breeder reactor, which basically revitalizes spent uranium. Believe it or not it was cut for fear of the waste getting into the hands of terrorist. (this was in the 90's not post 9/11) shrugs.
    • Re:So much energy (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jafuser ( 112236 )
      It doesn't even have to be "dirty". Read up on the Energy Amplifier [].


      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

  • I wonder how my neighbors will feel when they find out nuclear waste from TMI (which I see on my way to and from work every day) will be stored nearby!
  • 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? ews/2004/09/26/nnuke26.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/09/26 /ixhome.html []
  • Refine It (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dead sun ( 104217 ) <aranach AT gmail DOT com> 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.

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

      The US decided not to do this, as it presented a proliferation risk (the spent fuel contains significant amounts of plutonium, which was deemed a security problem after reprocessing stripped out the decay products poisoning it).

      My understanding is that there was a fuel reprocessing plant online in the US at one point, and I believe the French nuclear power program does reprocess spent fuel. If you're doing fu
  • How about we just ship the nuclear waste to the moon, ala Space:1999?

  • send the crap into the sun. its the most efficient disposal system we have, and for heaven's sake, its only 93 million miles away.

    (yes, i know the main concern out there is that suppose the rocket blows up before it leaves earth during launch? that's one giant dirty bomb dumping its load right into the atlantic...).

    And hell, it was the sun's ancestor star that made all that junk in the first place, and deep in the core, our own sun is making more of the junk itself, so it won't notice.
  • Now, I'm no nuclear physicist...

    That out of the way, is there some specific reason we don't start feeding this stuff to breeder reactors? That seems to solve two problems at once: what to do with nuclear waste, and possibly weaning us off our reliance on coal.
    • Plutonium is the reason. It's a political minefield. Also, breeder reactors so far have used liquid metal as a coolant, rather than the water or heavy water which most other reactors use. This is believed to be a less safe design.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    If the idea is that we can come up with more permanent solutions if we just wait, then why not use Yucca as the temporary solution?

    The article predicts it will take 100 years for us to come up with a permanent storage solution, which is about how long these casks are good for. What if it takes 200 years? Or 300? Will the casks still be good?

    Would Yucca? So what if it isn't a 100,000 year solution. If it's still a longer solution than anything else, that makes it the best solution.
    • I think its a given that everyone hopes that in a century, we will be able to effectively and safely deal with this material...BUT, what if the US is no longer a nation? What if there is some other cataclysm that sets back humanity a few thousand years? What if this new tech doesn't arrive or simply isn't implemented by future generations? Thats why you have to build this site to last, its just to dangerous to underengineer it.
  • that say that there is no issue with global warming or those that say garbage isn't that big a deal, how about burying it in their backyards?
  • by vlad_petric ( 94134 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:42PM (#10855013) Homepage
    You only have to store it for the duration of your office (4-8-whatever years). After that, it becomes Someone Else's Problem.
  • by Ricerocket63 ( 762497 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:46PM (#10855069)
    Is what are they going to do with all the Nucular waste. That's a much bigger problem than this...
  • Just drop the stuff in an ocean trench and let it get subducted into the crust. It can come out in 100,000 years as part of a vocanic eruption like most other radioactive gases in the atmosphere.
  • by kippy ( 416183 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:49PM (#10855119)
    Why not just press for reprocessing of spent fuel? All the 250,000 year stuff is from material that can be recovered back into the fuel cycle. If you remove the junk lower down on the periodic table (the real nuclear waste) it only will be dangerous for a few hundred years.

    On a side note, has anyone heard of the natural reactor in Oklo []? A naturally occurring nuclear reaction there produced all the same waste of a modern reactor and it all stayed in place in de-facto geologic storage.

    yucca is ready to accept waste, vitrification [] is mature. I really don't see why Yucca is still a controversy other than NIMBY and ignorance.
  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:52PM (#10855144) Homepage
    The climate is changing NOW. We need to use an alternative to fossil fuels NOW. Wind power, solar power etc arn't up to the job , only nuclear is. Theres no point worrying about what will happen in milennia if we screw up the climate in this century since if that happens there might not be anyone around in 102,004 AD to have to worry about nuclear waste!
    • there might not be anyone around in 102,004 AD to have to worry about nuclear waste!

      Much earlier than that, I'm predicting a war was beginning in A.D. 2101...
    • 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 pract
  • Yucca is not PERFECT (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SirLanse ( 625210 ) <swwg69 @ y a> 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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:53PM (#10855155)
    A couple of things about this story annoy me.

    One, is storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain really a "terrible" idea? Storing nuclear waste in the middle of a major city would be a terrible idea. Storing nuclear waste in a volcano would be a terrible idea. Dumping nuclear waste in the ocean would be a terrible idea. Storing nuclear waste at Yucca mountain may not be the best idea, or a great idea, it may even be a bad idea, but is it really a "terrible" idea? Or is saying it's a "terrible" idea one of those little pieces of hyperbole designed to subconsiously sway an argument.

    Second, after about a thousand years even high-level radioactive waste is only going to be about as radioactive as the ore it was mined from. Not that 1000 years is a trivial length of time, but is saying we can't protect this material for "100,000 years" really a valid argument, or is it another one of those bits of hyperbole?

    But I forgot, this is Slashdot, where we're pro nuclear power, but anti nuclear waste.

    I know, -1 troll, but I had to say it.

    • Why is dumping nuke waste in the oceans a bad idea?

      No, seriously.. if we dumped it in the middle of the pacific spread over several hundred square miles and not all piled in a single spot, what's the harm? Isn't there naturally radioactive material down there anyway?

      At extreme depths there shouldn't be any noticeable radiation even if you did pile it all in one spot.
    • Storing nuclear waste in the middle of a major city would be a terrible idea

      The main point of the article is that this is what is going on RIGHT NOW! Yucca is so bad a site that making it safe is taking so long that the stuff is still sitting around in really stupid places waiting.

      Your second point is hyperbole on your part. Also one of the nice things about "the ore it was mined from" is that it is by definition geologically stable (e.g. won't poison groundwater) - metal casks in a wet Yucca mountain

  • I have an idea... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @12:55PM (#10855179) Homepage
    If Yucca Mountain won't be safe for a million billion years, how about you just use *it* as the "temporary solution" before you come up with a permanent one? Say what you will about the long-term stability of Yucca Mountain, consider the pathetic short-term storage facilites and warehouses where the stuff is being stored now.
  • Too bad there isn't some way to send it to the core of the earth and let it burn up...

    But drilling holes that release hot magma generally isn't a good idea.

  • There is opposition to Yucca. There are alternatives to Yucca. There are better techniques than those used at Yucca.

    It doesn't matter, Yucca is a done deal. There hasn't been any indication the govt is backing off of the Yucca plan, any talk now is just pissing in the wind.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Nuclear Energy Belongs in the Technology Museum
    by Hermann Scheer

    (This article originally appeared in DIE ZEIT, 32/2004 and has been translated from German.)

    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. In Europe $1 trillion was spent on nuclear research while renewable energy fell by the wayside.

    The end of the fossil energy age approaches. Its eco
  • Like an earlier poster said. Glass it all into big lumps of glass. Now that its stable, put a bunch of thermocouples around them, or sink them in a big vat of water and use a similar method to the way they get geothermal energy. If you do it right, you can have a decent energy source that could probably actually profit over time.

    Of course, anything 'dangerous' is likely wanted to be buried and forgotten about than used for the greater good of man.

    The only problems I see with this are location, stable d
  • 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 [], 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.

  • 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 kravlor ( 597242 ) on Thursday November 18, 2004 @03:20PM (#10857169) Homepage

    Disclaimer: I am a nuclear engineering graduate student.

    The main reason we're having such problems with nuclear waste repositories such as Yucca mountain is because of the rather long timescales of decay of a small class of fission byproducts. This class of elements (the 'transuranics' ; Z > 92) comprises a very small fraction of the total waste volume and has (in general) the majority of ill-effects, such as long half-lives, toxicity, excessive heat generation, etc. (Different isotopes contribute to each of these effects in some small fashion.)

    A key insight to the problem is that we do not have to store the waste as it comes out of the reactor (or otherwise packaged for long-term storage). It is possible to process the spent fuel in a way to transmute the problem isotopes into others that decay away quickly (days to tens/hundreds of years vs 1x10^6 + years). Neutron bombardment is one method of 'bumping' these decay chains onto different tracks. Doing this effectively, efficiently, and economically is the challenge; many people (including some of my professors) have been working on it at Los Alamos. A good introduction to the process and its rationale are located here [].

    Of couse, these transmutation schemes require their own energy to run them, and we can't beat the second law of thermodynamics -- it has to come from somewhere. These days it's mostly coal, the same source we're trying to replace with nuclear power! (Don't get me wrong -- nuclear power plants are by far the best we've currently got in terms of environmental impact, reliability, and production capacity. It's not the best, but it's the least of the other evils at the moment.) A better solution would be to provide this energy from an environmentally clean source, such as fusion energy []. (It's nice to see two nuclear physics articles in a day!)

    Of course, providing funding for disposal solutions such as Yucca and transmutation technologies is expensive and a political hot potato. (It also requires members of Congress to be a bit more forward-sighted, instead of just looking ahead to the next election cycle. Just think: ITER is on the order of $10B [a drop in the bucket to Congress], and has been scrounging for funds from all across the world for more than 20 years -- when it has the potential to unlock safe, envirionmentally clean energy that's powered from constituents of seawater.)

  • 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!

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.