Positive Energy

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Waste Not, Want Not

A major information source made the following claim this month (2005 Jan):

"Here's one nut the nuclear industry can't crack: disposal."

Well, I saw red:

There is no waste produced by this generation of nuclear reactors. The fuel that has passed through a CANDU reactor is stored at the reactor site. All of it. It is not waste. In fact, it could be reused as fuel again and again, to produce a lot more energy. It is an extremely valuable store of energy building up for future use.

The used-once fuel that has passed through a CANDU reactor is not toxic after its initial cooling period. With a minor amount of shielding it is not harmful at all, ever. In fact, it could be described as beneficial.

The above statements are true. The interesting question is why do most people believe otherwise.

Nuclear power was introduced during the cold war for propaganda purposes. The intent was to portray the US as more scientific and sophisticated than the USSR, and more interested in the well being of the human population. The discovery of atomic power as a weapon and as a fuel for submarines and ships did not exactly suit this propaganda need. However, the fact that the US could create cheap energy for people and business while the USSR could not was a public relations bonanza. Hence, the political and military interests in the US advanced the notion of peaceful uses of nuclear power, and invented domestic electricity generation using military technology. This created a link between domestic and military use that lingers to this day. The coal and oil industry wanted no part of this new technology. It seriously threatened their profits. So they began an immense public relations and lobbying effort to stifle this new rival. The naive engineers and physicists in the nuclear industry were no match in this ruthless game. They were totally destroyed in the newspapers and in the halls of Congress. The nuclear industry was allowed to grow enough to achieve its propaganda purposes, but no further. The negative reputation that it acquired from the coal and oil lobbying was sufficient to keep it in check.

In the mean time Russia was seriously losing points because the US had peaceful nuclear power and they did not. So they fought back. They spent a LOT of money funding anti-nuclear movements and supporting environmentalists in the West. These facts became known when the Russian archives were opened in the 1990s. At the same time they rushed ahead with their own reactor program, again taking the short cut of basing the design on military technologies. Their reactors were crude, unsafe, and inefficient. The inevitable finally happened at Chernobyl in 1986. That sort of woke the Russians up and their reactors all have containment structures now. They are even starting to be efficient in their designs, but it has been a slow and painful evolution. The secretive nature of the Russian society is just not as conducive to a safety culture as is the open nature of the US society.

There was a third strange little participant in this game - Canada. Canadian physicists took an independent approach and invented a different type of reactor, one that did not depend on the nuclear fuel enrichment. The rather "low tech" CANDU reactor was innovative, extremely safe with a "defence in depth" design, economical, and provided no encouragement for military weapons. CANDU reactors operate without enrichment technology, and enrichment is what is needed to make weapons. The CANDU was a fantastic invention, comparable in its brilliance to the Avro Arrow and RADARSAT. Of course it had enemies - the oil and coal industry, the burgeoning US nuclear power industry, the Russians. The fact that it still exists in the face of all this opposition is rather amazing.

In this context the coal and oil lobby was fighting frantically to suppress this nuclear fission rival. They fully understood that it really could replace them. They did everything possible to associate domestic power reactors with weapons, and constantly pumped out stories about explosions and disasters. However, their most successful public relations victory was the invention of nuclear waste. Somehow they managed to establish the concept that fuel that has been used once is waste. Then they managed to get legislation passed stating that this waste had to be buried. This created a public relations and technical problem for the nuclear industry that has tied them up for years. Fuel that has been used once is not waste. It can be used over and over again, to deliver power for thousands of years. Burying used once fuel denies the nuclear industry of most of its value. However, even though it was hobbled with this constraint it struggled on to achieve a cost level that is competitive with coal.

So there is no waste produced by this generation of nuclear reactors. The used once fuel can be reused, over and over again. The used once fuel is a fabulous source of energy. It is extremely valuable.

A more detailed explanation of the value of used once fuel can be seen at:

Spent Fuel is too valuable to be Nuclear Waste

However, all this public relations posturing did not have as much influence as did price. The carbon industry hijacked the US Navy and achieved world wide protection of their shipping lanes for free. The oil producing organizations joined in a "race to the bottom", each spilling out as much oil as possible at the cheapest possible price. The resulting glut made oil really cheap for a couple of decades, and no other energy sources could compete in terms of costs. These players have exhausted their supplies now, so things are changing.

The two contestants left standing in the ring are coal and nuclear. Coal was winning hands down for a while. No one cared if coal mines killed ten thousand miners each year. Everyone hit the roof if a nuclear worker stubbed his toe. Coal was king.

Then "GLOBAL WARMING" clouded the scene. Killing miners is OK, but killing me is not on. People started to ask questions about coal.

So the battle is ongoing - do you want really cheap dirty energy, or inexpensive clean energy? Do you want old technology or new? Are you concerned about global warming, or do you think it is a hoax?

In my mind the answers to these questions are really obvious, but I am having a devil of a time getting others to understand.

OK - we are stuck with storing this used once fuel at the moment. So how bad is that? The people opposed to its use want to label it as dangerous and "toxic" to make the prospect of storing it less palatable. Are they right? I think not. The amount of radiation emitted by this used once fuel is very low. The radiation persists for a long time, but at a very weak level. The people who view it as toxic assume that weak radiation streaming out for a long time will eventually cause lots of harm. This assumption is not supported by scientific observations. What has been observed in the lab is that below a certain threshold radiation does not cause any damage. Our cells have evolved in the radioactive environment that exists everywhere on Earth, and our immune system knows how to deal with radioactivity. Furthermore, the observed evidence indicates that raising the general background radiation levels would make us healthier. The stimulation of our immune system from a small increase in radiation leads to an extra amount of repair work being done by the immune system. We get healthier as a consequence. These lab results have been supported by field observations of populations living in naturally high background radiation zones. These conclusions are also supported by the various radon health spas and radium hot springs that continue to flourish. So we would be more accurate if we referred to used nuclear fuel as "beneficial" instead of "toxic". That is what the data indicates.

So it seems to me that this "disposal" nut has been cracked, eaten, digested, and put into its final resting place. It is a baseless argument designed to worry people rather than inform them. It is being debunked as more accurate information becomes widely available. It is not a concern.