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The race is on to develop new strategies for storing nuclear waste (ensia.com)
58 points by alex_young 82 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments

Our nuclear reactors are essentially the beta product. There are alternative reactor designs that create much less waste like LFTR (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reacto...) and others like TWR that cab consume our existing spent fuel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_wave_reactor).

There are a lot of reasons we predominantly use solid fuel light water reactors, most of them being the decades of sunk costs + commitment inertia that was created by the government investment in the technology... because it was good for the military (submarines, maybe bombs).


There are some companies trying to address this like Flibe Energy, who is working on LFTR designs (https://flibe-energy.com/) and Terrapower with TWR (http://terrapower.com), of which Bill Gates is Chairman of the board.

Nuclear could be great. We need massive investment in these alternative technologies.

Molten salt designs have somewhat unsolved waste and proliferation issues, but you are correct in general.

Isn't there also a corrosion issue, that hot salt tends to corrode normal stainless steel? The usual Achilles heel of these things is welding issues.

It seems research is ongoing: http://www.electrochemsci.org/papers/vol13/130504891.pdf

You think hot salt is bad? Now let's add 1/3 of the periodic table to the salt.. But yeah, people are working on it. The Americans had something in the 60ies (hastalloy), the Chinese are working on it today. In the short term, many o the MSR startups are planning to replace the reactor vessel every few years to get around corrosion issues, as well as the graphite moderator going bad.

Nuclear power is almost always brought up as a low carbon alternative to fossil fuels to power our civilization. Some even quote how cheap nuclear power is compared to fossil fuel based power. But, those advocating for nuclear power almost always discount the cost involved in dealing with this radioactive trash. To put it in another way, by switching on nuclear power, instead of handing out next generation a warmed/messed up planet with dangerous levels of green house gases, we would be giving them a pile of dangerous radioactive waste several miles under the ground. Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

Even if not supplying all of our energy from Wind and solar, it is crime of our irresponsible generation to not invest in solar panels in sunny places like Florida, Texas, Middle East, southern India, Southeast Asia etc. Use the safe option first, and wait for nuclear option to mature until we get a better grip on what to do with its dangerous trash.

Florida even actively prevents businesses from engaging in roof top solar panels. If that is not a facepalm moment of stupidity, I don’t know what is.

They talk about 'great stockpiles' then quote a figure of 22,000 m3 of high-level waste. 22,000 m3 of material is a tiny volume. Speaking from a bulk material moving perspective, that is maybe 12 hours work with a big excavator.

Speaking as a mining engineer, in an active mine site you'd need to take special precautions to make sure a 22,000 m3 stockpile didn't get lost. If you don't put it in a designated spot, you're not going to be able to find it again. We aren't talking a big pile of dirt here.

At volumes that small, if someone irresponsibly dumped it in the middle of the Sahara with a thick layer of rubble over the top it would be unlikely to be found and cause anyone any measurable harm.

Literally the only reason anyone cares is because the volumes are so small we could reasonably achieve 0 net impact. You try achieving that with lead mining, coal mining, rare earth mining for renewables, etc, etc. The volumes of material involved would overwhelm any attempt. So people don't bother talking about it. Only for nuclear fuel does it start to matter. We already churn out larger volumes of nastier substances as part of our industrial supply chain.

postscript the other good reason to talk about it the volumes are so small that if it doesn't get attention the aforementioned oops-we-lost-it problem will crop up. I mean, wow. 22 kcm of material. Going to need special markings just to distinguish it from a roll in the turf.

22 piles 10x10x10 meter size would perfectly fit into decommissioned nuclear plant. These building are build to survive earthquakes, thunderstorms and small plane crashes for hundred years. It’s insane they are not used for storing the waste. Germans are dismantling them wasting huge fortune: https://m.dw.com/en/germanys-atomic-phaseout-how-to-dismantl... It’s crazy mismanagement of resources: initially expensive and extremely durable structure is build, used, then dismantled wasting millions and then another extremely durable and insanely expensive structure is build to store the waste. Sounds craze to me.

I used to play in the woods as child, there were 200 years old military structures. Nobody were maintaining them, rain, snow did their job, but they were intact. I don’t understand how we can’t reuse nuclear power plant buildings as storage for the next 200 years.

For comparison, the Giant Mine has 213,000 tons of water-soluble arsenic dust unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a mine shaft, which is enough to kill all human life ten times over. Oh, and it's also off the coast of Yellowknife Bay. If that disaster in the making can be handled by just a billion dollars of remediation than we can also handle a small warehouse's worth of deadly bricks.

Hell, we could probably just toss them in with the arsenic. It's not like it will make things worse.

Sure 22 000m3 isn't that big, but the rate could increase sharply (currently new 34 000m3 of high and intermediate waste produced per year according to the article). The question is : should we invest and build 10 times more nuclear reactors for future energy needs ?

Build 10 times more reactors in the world, multiply per 50 years of operation and now you have 17 000 000 cube meters of high level waste.

Renewable energies introduced long-term thinking about impacts. The nuclear waste story only tells us we cannot scale the current nuclear technology, but we can still moderately use this tech for the next century to transition to more renewable methods.

> Build 10 times more reactors in the world, multiply per 50 years of operation and now you have 17 000 000 cube meters of high level waste.

So now you have 17 000 10x10x10m cubes to stuff somewhere. Still very little, and completely manageable. And that's assuming we'd build up old-school nuclear reactors. If you allow for using the new reactor designs, a lot of that would be reused as fuel.

"But energy from the sun man!"

At this point most of the arguments about nuclear power are philosophical in nature. They watched the Simpsons with the three eyed fish and evil Mr. Burns and took that as fact. It's the future, it's the way things will ultimately have to go, and future generations will be mad at modern day environmentalists holding up progress in the way that they are currently. Solar and wind is nice but it does not provide consistent enough generation for our purposes. Nuclear power is a drop in replacement for things that are much worse. Solar and wind require a new grid and new devices across the board to even get started. You want to wait a few decades for everyone to replace all of their appliances, heating and cooling mechanisms and for society to shift to this new model or do you want to make progress today?

One of the leading politicians of this generation once said "It's more important to be morally right than factually correct". Anti-nuclear folks really took that to heart.

“completely manageable”

If nuclear waste was inert, sure.

You are a mining engineer. Perhaps you know about the Asse mine in Germany. Radioactive waste has been stored there. However the storage suffers from water inflow and is in danger of collapsing. What is your opinion about this?

I don't know anything about it and have no opinion.

Another thing that often gets neglected is that nuclear power plants do not create that much radioactive waste. A lot of it is comparable to concentrating existing sources used to create enriched fuel. And areas where that fuel is mined from has (somewhat) higher radioactivity levels, just spread over wide areas.

I suspect that a technically decent solution would be mixing up waste to very low concentrations over a large area (putting it where the source came from, or dumping it at the deep sea beds). However, it would be politically unpalatable ("our water will be radioactive, etc.). My 2c.

To put things in perspective, a 10x10x10 meters cube is 1000 cubic meters. 22 of those cubes is what we’re talking about. It’s tiny.

And we could also significantly reduce this number by using breeder reactors that make much better use of the materials

> we would be giving them a pile of dangerous radioactive waste several miles under the ground. Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

Seriously, we are pondering if a completely inert mass of nuclear waste sitting a mile inside the crust where it can harm nothing and from where there is no incentive to dug it up, is a better option than 6 orders of magnitude more CO2 dumped in the atomoshpere, bringing the climate to Jurasic levels, wiping off a large part of the biological diversity of Earth and threatening our very existence on the planet?

Nuclear power is not without it's problems. It's capital intensive, it's politically risky therefore expensive, it can, when managed badly, lead to (typically, tolerable) contamination and harm to people.

Of those problems, the handling of waste is the easiest to solve: just put them somewhere where they can't harm anyone.

Well, there actually are good incentives to dig it up (or to not bury it in the first place) as current reactors are horrendously inefficient, leaving 95%+ of usable energy in the fuel, that more modern reactors should be able to use.

Not to mention potentially usable metals & isotopes due to all the transmutations going on in the fuel.

> Nuclear power is not without it's problems. It's capital intensive, it's politically risky therefore expensive, it can, when managed badly, lead to (typically, tolerable) contamination and harm to people.

When managed badly it can make an area the size of Europe uninhabitable, as Chernobyl might have done. You shouldn't discount that!

> When managed badly it can make an area the size of Europe uninhabitable

Citation needed

> as Chernobyl might have done

No. If you take all the waste in Chernobyl as well as all the fuel, and dissiminate all around Europe equally, it will sightly increase the natural radioactivity, and in some place this increas would be laughably negligeable (Wales, Brittany, probably others).

Also, you should be aware than risk =/= danger, so even if your argument were true, it would not be receivable in any non-political debate.

Plus the pressurized water reactors reduce the risk so much than even the Tsunami the provocked Fukushima would probably just paralize the reactors sightly.

But the FUD spread by anti-nuclear activists, uniformed people and media killed more than all the nuclear incident in the last 60 years. And i'm not counting the social exclusion cost or even the abortions caused by all the bull.

In the HBO show Chernobyl one of the engineers talks about an area the size of Europe being rendered uninhabitable if things went wrong. That's a real quote taken from a book about people's reminiscences of the disaster and some Soviet engineer probably did say that at some point. But he was either exaggerating for effect or wrong.

The creators knowingly misrepresented the disaster, to have a more exciting show. Do you remember what the book is called?

Voices from Chernobyl. Personally I thought the series was rather well done all things considered and gave a good account of the human and technical factors that went into the disaster. A lot of people were compressed into a few composite characters but that's the reality of making television. I feel like I can blame the show a bit for exaggerating the danger of a steam explosion because of cherry-picking quotes. But I don't really see anything else worth complaining about.

>To put it in another way, by switching on nuclear power, instead of handing out next generation a warmed/messed up planet with dangerous levels of green house gases, we would be giving them a pile of dangerous radioactive waste several miles under the ground. Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

Next-gen molten salt plants have much better usage of the nuclear material. Current light water reactors only use about 2% of the possible energy from the material.

One consequence of this better efficiency is the waste is only dangerous for hundreds, instead of tens of thousands, of years.

The long term consequences of nuclear waste are clearly less bad than the short term consequences of burning fossil fuels, which are estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of people world wide per year. That's entirely aside from climate change...

People are just typically ill-informed and incapable of making rational decisions about relative risk.

(BTW nuclear will also be one of the cheapest energy sources going forward, and is the only reliable 24/7 source of carbon-free energy.)

> To put it in another way, by switching on nuclear power, instead of handing out next generation a warmed/messed up planet with dangerous levels of green house gases, we would be giving them a pile of dangerous radioactive waste several miles under the ground. Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

You probably didn't intend it this way, but this reads as a powerful argument for switching to nuclear, at least if you realize how much "a warmed/messed up planet" we're talking about, vs. how extremely small a "pile of dangerous radioactive waste".

> Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

In science it's better to have a known problem (radioactive waste), than hundreds of thousands of unknown problems (global warming).

> Florida even actively prevents businesses from engaging in roof top solar panels

Roof top solar panel is one of the worst way to generate energy, you just add the inefficiency of low scale on top of the inefficiencies of solar panels. Just about everything is better than that.

And then additionally, you can build all the solar and wind energy you want, you still need a constant energy to support it anyway.

Not even in science alone; climate-wise having 22km3 of solid material is much preferable over the 30 gigatonnes (!) of CO2 emissions that are just vented into the air nowadays. (and that's just co2, the source [1] I found with a second of googling mentions 60 gigatonnes total)

[1] https://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/trends-in-global-co2-and-...

Actually, that is 0.000022 km3 of solid material.

The fly ash from coal is radioactive. But we just blast stuff that in to the atmosphere for all of us to breath. I would rather deal with some irradiated slags.

Once upon a time someone posted the amount of nuclear waste generated in a person's lifetime assuming 1st world electricity usage. It was like a golfball or apple or something like that. I ran the numbers for volume and multiplied by 7 billion people it came out to be like 1-3 of the worlds largest container ships worth of waste.

That's basically nothing. We can find a place for that.

Edit: I invite anyone who doesn't think that's basically nothing to run numbers for the waste products of other energy sources.

> discount the cost involved in dealing with this radioactive trash

That is 100% wrong. In fact in the US for example the money to handle radioactive waste was collected almost from the beginning.

The Government HAS a huge fund, that is owned by nuclear power utilites, this fund can be used by the government to solve the problem.

Unfortunatly, anti-nuclear people have made any progress on nuclear waste managment impossible, but this is not, and never has been about money.

> we would be giving them a pile of dangerous radioactive waste several miles under the ground. Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

That is also nonsense. In no way of estimation, radioactive waste is close to as dangerous as climate change. Handling of radioactive waste is not that difficult and in the future it, once nuclear power is more standard, those things can be used as nuclear fuel again. You are not handing down useless stuff, but a well controlled resource.

> Use the safe option first, and wait for nuclear option to mature until we get a better grip on what to do with its dangerous trash.

Nuclear waste has not been a technical issue for decades. Its a purley political problem.

First of all, the amount of nuclear waste is wastly over-estimated. The danger from civilian nuclear waste is wastle over-estimated as well.

And more importantly, if we actually had a large nuclear industry, this 'waste' would actually be quite useful and most of it should never be disposed in a permanent way.

> instead of handing out next generation a warmed/messed up planet with dangerous levels of green house gases, we would be giving them a pile of dangerous radioactive waste several miles under the ground

Without actual numbers this just sounds like FUD. How much nuclear waste is produced? How much volume is it? Why is it so bad that we keep it under ground? How does that compare to costs of other power sources?

So far it looks like nuclear is by far cheapest and cleanest least deadly source of power and only irrational phobias are in the way of adopting it in planetary scale and developing even better reactors and more efficient waste management procedures.

> Not sure whether it can be argued if it is really a better alternative.

I suppose that when you watch your children die from climate change, then you will know.

Wouldn't the parents die first?

… or radioactivity.

That's not how it works. The waste has to be dealt with, but its not immediately harmful to the general population. Its a problem that has to be addressed in the long term, but climate change is a problem that has to be addressed in the short term. And by the short term I mean the past.

In other words, radioactive waste isn't a "your children" problem, it's several generations removed if a solution hasn't been found by then. Climate change is indeed a "your children" problem, if you're old enough to die in the next couple of decades. Otherwise it's a You problem.

So basically, let's just offload the nuclear waste problem to future generations. That's exactly the same line of thinking that caused climate change.

I'm not denying it's offloading a problem, but it's not the same scale of problem and the resolution needed is on a far longer time scale as well.

You simply can't compare a worldwide, global, catastrophic change in climate, causing millions to die, species to go instinct, and trillions of dollars in damages to... this. What exactly is your reasoning in making them equal?

Out of all the problems we're offloading to future generation, this is by far one of the smallest. It's a tiny amount of tightly controlled substance that can be reprocessed further to reduce both its volume and half-life - we know how, just this stupid FUD doesn't let us build the actual reactors to do that.

You can safely store radioactive waste but there's no method of storage for the CO2 we put in the air, that's the big difference.

can you name any? btw. putting it somewhere and forgetting about it is definitiv not an option.

Put it in a sealed container and drop it in an abandoned mine, or even a pool. Keep an armed detail protecting it from getting stolen. There, done.

If you're talking about storing the waste long-term, on the order of "more than any country existed on the planet", then this is a problem only because the irrational fear of nuclear doesn't let us build reactors that could further reprocess the fuel.

(And if civilization collapsed now, then all you have to do is to burn the paper maps on which the storage location is marked, and nobody will find the waste before it decays to background radiation levels. If we fuck up civilization now, then the few remaining survivors will be stuck for a couple thousand years with medieval-era technology on a thoroughly broken planet. It's extremely unlikely someone would stumble upon the ruins radioactive waste storage plant. The planet is very large, the amount of nuclear waste is ridiculously tiny.)

> Put it in a sealed container and drop it in an abandoned mine, or even a pool. Keep an armed detail protecting it from getting stolen. There, done.

Indeed. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asse_II_mine

Typical straw man argument. No one is arguing to put it somewhere and forget about it. Monitoring will of course be a big part of any of these strategies. The small volume of material has to be located somewhere safe for a few dozen years until reprocessing tech catches up. That is a manageable issue, assuming we get out of our own way and invest in the required R&D. It only takes the will and the commitment to get it done. The return is carbon free energy at a massive scale. That is transformative.

Why isn’t it an option? There are plenty of places where it’s implausible for any future civilisation to reach without knowing what radiation is any why such waste is best left undisturbed.

oh great. the methodology which might not work because of copper erosion. also kbs-3 is not in use. it might be next year, but nothing is proven yet, especially since it already had some critism.

in 100 years we will see if it was a good idea. and basically thats the problem of waste disposal.

You can use part of it as fuel, it's just does not economically make sense to do so right now. And what's wrong with storing it exactly?

You mean the many times of radioactive material that’s aerosolized by coal burning?


The article briefly mentions fast reactors, but I think dismisses them a little too quickly. Waste from fast reactors would be short-lived.

Most of our waste is uranium, mainly U238 plus a little leftover U235. This is barely radioactive.

There's also a fair amount of plutonium and other transuranics, made when uranium and heavier atoms absorb a neutron without fissioning. This is the really long-lived waste that needs to be stored for thousands of years.

About one percent of our waste is fission products, the smaller atoms left after breaking apart uranium and plutonium. This is highly radioactive, but only for a couple centuries.

Fast reactors can fission the transuranics, and both isotopes of uranium. Their waste is almost entirely fission products. Encase them in glass, bury them, and in three centuries it'll be back to the radioactivity of the original uranium ore.

This discussion always drives me crazy.

What would you rather have inherited from the Victoria Era:

1) complete ecological disaster in the form of a 5-degree average temperature increase and 10 metre sea level increase; causing widespread food insecurity, human displacement, and mass extinctions due to habitat loss

2) a modicum of nasty nuclear waste, some of which can be refined for interesting isotopes

Also, we already leave a ludicrous amount of nasty industrial waste in the form of mining tailings, plastics fill our oceans, we constantly create electronic devices that can't be properly recycled and contain hazardous materials. Nuclear waste isn't even close to the top of the list of hazardous waste problems.

If nuclear power is one of the solutions to climate change, THE existential threat to human survival, then hamstringing ourselves because of handwringing about waste is just setting us up to continue to delay doing anything about this impending threat.

It bugs me to no end that green party is by majority opposed to nuclear power while it is, in my opinion, one of the best clean energy sources that works everywhere, without being subject to alternating weather or natural resources.

The process of storing nuclear waste is almost trivial and from what i've gathered from the current progress of nuclear reactors, one day most if not all of that waste could be used as fuel, leaving almost nothing left. Yet the same fear-mongering tactics as those used by populists are utilized to change public opinion to hinder its use. The modern nuclear plant is extremely safe and if built in stable geographical area (without earthquakes or tsunamis), it's fail-safe. The only reason something like tsernobyl happened was the massive managerial misjudgements and obsolete technology that would not happen in any properly run modern nuclear plant.

It's just... dumb. Instead of thinking rationally people are driven by irrational fear while there exists so many worse things, that might cause your early demise yet people do nothing about them. The probability of getting hit by car must be exponentially higher than dying by nuclear disaster yet i dont see people advocating traffic safety with same fervor.

Well, from the 1950s we inherited a thin spread of radioisotopes contaminating the entire atmosphere: https://qz.com/1163140/us-nuclear-tests-killed-american-civi...

The problem of nuclear waste management is fundamentally one of public trust. People spent much of the 20th century going from "X is ubiquitous and perfectly safe" to "actually X has been poisoning you and the biosphere for decades". Cigarettes, leaded petrol, CFCs, pesticides, coal power, bisphenol A, and so on. People who object to the "perfectly safe" waste plans do so because they believe you are lying about the safety.

(Personally I believe it's now too late for nuclear, it simply takes too long to build individual reactors, and a big bang plan would involve building thousands of them in parallel. Not to mention that the #8 and #10 global CO2 emitting countries are fundamentalist Islamic petro-states which aren't trusted with nuclear material.)

There is also a complicated motte-and-bailey distinction between high-level waste (spent fuel itself, etc.) and low-level. High-level waste can often be reprocessed and is comparatively small volume. The low-level waste is everything that's deemed too dangerous to landfill, and there's a lot more of it. From used rubber gloves to the entire volume of decomissioned reactors.

On the history of greens against nuclear reactors, mostly dating from the weapons issue: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17774347 ; excellent rant on the public trust issue: https://blog.danieldavies.com/2006/05/nukes-and-nukemen-blai... (rather prescient about Hinkley Point C, which is still not built thirteen years later)

> There is also a complicated motte-and-bailey distinction between high-level waste (spent fuel itself, etc.) and low-level. High-level waste can often be reprocessed and is comparatively small volume. The low-level waste is everything that's deemed too dangerous to landfill, and there's a lot more of it. From used rubber gloves to the entire volume of decomissioned reactors.

There is already a huge amount of material underground that is too dangerous for landfill. Too dangerous for landfill is a very low standard.

I don't remember the exact volume, but I've been involved with an operation that probably excavated then entombed a volume of material that was of comparable volume to the nuclear industry's low-level waste. That material was not safe enough to go into landfill, we had to take special precautions with it.

Humanity already deals with 10s if not 100s of millions of cubic meters of material that is not safe for landfill. Annually. So far so good.

Fallout from nuclear bomb testing has nothing to do with waste from nuclear power plants - why would you confuse the two?

One of the few things that Greenpeace and the US military agree on is that civilian and military nuclear programs are very difficult to tell apart from the outside. That's why everyone watches Iran so closely.

Opposition to nuclear weapons fed back through nuclear testing into opposing the construction of the reactors themselves, because without the reactors there is no weapons programme.

The fact that nuclear reactors are used in one step of the long process of manufacturing some nuclear bomb components does not give anyone license to confuse nuclear bomb test fallout with nuclear reactor waste.

nuclear power might be impractical for a hotter earth http://en.rfi.fr/france/20190726-frances-nuclear-electricity...

That's true during the hotter months, but that's a benefit of why renewable energy comes from different sources. When it's not very sunny, it may be windy, the tide might be changing, the rivers are still flowing, the ground is still warm.

The same applies to nuclear, or when there's a shortage of oil or coal. You can't run one generator at full output, so you can increase the output of another.

why not just stick to clean energy sources

Base load

To get our bachelor's degree in Nuclear Engineering at NCSU a bunch of us looked at a continuous pyroprocess involving molten salt, molten cadmnium, EM pumps, and electroplating. The idea is to plate out the Uranium -- and only the uranium, satisfying nonproliferation concerns -- and precipitate out the minor actinides and plutonium together for HLW long term storage, or a different further recycling process.

This would close the loop and recycle uranium while still keeping the weapons grade plutonium out of people's hands. It doesn't transmute so it wouldn't solve the waste problem. It only solves the Uranium recycling problem.

The US Government is far more concerned about non-proliferation than it is about waste. Hence the lack of political will in fixing the long-known uranium recycling problem with methods like UREX/PUREX, which is not proliferation-resistant.

Was really fun, the tech looked promising, the maintenance looks awful, and the political will isn't there.

Edit to add: once we are able to recycle the Uranium, the theory is that the rest of the HLW can be used in a different kind of reactor (not a light water one) that would burn the waste as fuel, fully dealing with the waste problem. So there's multiple degrees with which we could recycle spent nuclear fuel.

It is not just the political will that is lacking. The is no economic reason to do it. The maintenance can not be done by humans and if -- after a lot of investment -- you are able to develop robots that can do it, you get a better ROI by becoming worlds leading robotics company and replace Kuka, ABB and Co.

Was this the same pyroprocess Argonne had developed? Seems very promising, what a shame IFR was killed though.

The best option for dealing with nuclear 'waste' is to use the use up the energy contained within it.

Moltex Energy is one such proposal to do just that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju59gcdmdvI

This might be a stupid suggestion/question, but maybe it'll become cheap enough to just toss the spent fuel rods into space?

This option is brought up alot and while cost is probably one consideration I think that the main problem is for when (not if) one of the launches has a rapid unscheduled disassembly as they call it, and basically become becomes a large dirty bomb.

Also, what happens to the stuff we toss into space? People still seem to make the same mistake our ancestors did regarding tossing stuff into the ocean.

To be more precise: achieving a velocity high enough to e.g. detonate on the surface of the sun (in particular carrying tons of nuclear waste) won't be cheap for a long time. [1]

Stuff we "toss out there" would probably just keep floating in an uncontrolled (in the long run) earth bound orbit and might come back at some point.

[1] https://youtu.be/uNS6VKNXY6s

Trying to toss radioactive waste into the Sun would be a ridiculous waste of fuel. To do that, you have to cancel out Earth's orbital velocty; that's 30 km/s of ∆v (or execute some very clever gravity assists).

What you'd want to do is to shoot it out into an orbit around the Sun that's slightly lower or higher than Earth's. The chance of it somehow returning to Earth is so low that the Sun will go out before it happens.

Still, the whole concept is wasteful and dangerous anyway. For one, as others mentioned, a launch failure would mean large-scale contamination on the planet. Two, you can safely store this waste on Earth for many orders of magnitude less money and work.

> People still seem to make the same mistake our ancestors did regarding tossing stuff into the ocean.

“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” Throwing something out into orbit around the Sun isn't going to be a problem, like, ever.

Lunar orbit seems much more worth investigating than solar orbit

I would try to toss if at all right into the Sun.

This makes me think of this video of a 1984 demonstration of a freight train deliberately crashing directly into a container of nuclear material


It seems to be a diesel locomotive pulling passenger carriages (almost certainly ones that were obsolete at the time).

It's still a pretty impressive way to show how strong they are...

A much better idea would be to package it appropriately, and drop it on the subducting side of the mid-Pacific subduction zone.

Approximately 1/10,000 as much energy would be involved, and it would be 100% safe.

Is it possible to build such appropriate packaging, given the forces it will be put under before it completely 'goes under'? Also, wouldn't there be a risk of radioactive volcanoes if it doesn't disperse sufficiently (genuine question; not a geologist)

Pretty sure the inside of the earth's radioactive anyway. Our material's a drop in the bucket.

I've heard, for example, that geothermal energy generates nuclear waste (because digging so low digs up radioactive material anyway)

Not a stupid question. It’s a pretty common suggestion.

The challenge is that fuel rods are quite heavy and the $$$ costs to launch a kilogram on a path beyond earths orbit are incredibly high, let alone the carbon costs. Launching into space is just not a net positive.

That and safety/containment in the event of a mishap.

I should add also that generally it's not the super high activity waste like the fuel rods or the low activity waste million years half-life stuff that makes things problematic but rather the heaps of intermediate activity waste that's active enough to require special equipment and procedures, too irregular to easily streamline, too long lived to just wait out and too voluminous to just stick it in a very secure container container somewhere. For that, a deep geological repository is mihc safer, simpler and cheaper.

Not to mention, if you want to make sure that the waste won't be left just orbiting in the solar system or irradiating Venus or something then you need to either bring its orbit down into the surface of the sun or accelerate it to the point that it escapes from the solar system entirely. Fun fact, it actually takes less energy to escape solar orbit entirely than it takes to reach the sun.

Spent fuel rods aren't the big waste problem. The tons and tons of lightly irradiated materials are (equipment, construction waste, suits etc)

Where in space though - a low orbit will decay and further away just means dramatically increased costs.

Far better to just have it in a hole in the ground somewhere geologically inactive.

Edit: I'd far rather it be buried than whirling around above my head!

It just depends how much you're willing to spend. You could put it in the sun or on a solar system escaping trajectory if you wanted to. Gravitational slingshots can be used to do so with a lower delta-v than naively required.

With reusable spacecraft, the cost could conceivably approach that of the propellants required, making such disposal permanent and cost effective.

That said, we're still not sure we want to get rid of high level nuclear waste; it's potentially a valuable source of fuel if some reactor technologies are developed.

Getting to the sun actually requires more energy than leaving the solar system:


Indeed, although you wouldn't just use 30km/s of delta-v to cancel the Earth's orbit, or 12.3km/s to escape the solar system. The Ulysses probe for instance used a gravitational assist around Jupiter to not only counter Earth's 30km/s orbit, but establish a counter-rotational orbit around the sun.

My understanding is the ideal target would depend on the time you wished to launch, and the orbital phase of planets useful for gravity assists.

Well, if you are going to do that, why not dump it in Jupiter?

[NB Not that I would be in favour of that, but seems easier than the other options].

Perhaps store them on the dark side of the moon.

And put our first manned moon-base nearby. What should we call it? Alpha?

It is not a technical problem. Tossing the fuel into space is just as much a politcal problem as tossing it into an old mine. Technically we have solutions, the problem is politics.

I feel like the solution is literally staring us in the face and we're not seeing it:


100% safe storage for literally all of our waste, forever. Why are we not doing that? I can only assume that it's because the spent waste is still "valuable" so it's worth keeping around in case someone figures out more and more efficient ways of processing it to recover useful material from it. Putting it 5km in the ground makes is completely unrecoverable by anyone.

  Why are we not doing that?
I've seen towns oppose having a trash incinerator in their town, even if the county needs it; and villages oppose having wind turbines built nearby, even if the country needs it. And of course local politicians will get on board with local campaigns, they want to be re-elected.

I suspect siting a nuclear waste disposal site would have the same effect, but moreso.

> can only assume that it's because the spent waste is still "valuable" so it's worth keeping around in case someone figures out more and more efficient ways of processing it to recover useful material from it. Putting it 5km in the ground makes is completely unrecoverable by anyone.

You can turn the waste into energy indeed, there's a few plants doing that and there's been prototype plants before. The issue is that it does not make sense economically yet since radioactive materials are so cheap.

That's not quite the same - it's more like a mine than a borehole. The whole idea of a borehole is that stuff sealed 5km under the surface isn't coming back in any way, and is nearly impossible to recover unless you drill another borehole in the same place. There is no known geological process that would bring it back up naturally. The site you quoted is pretty deep(500m) but it's not "stable and permanent for millennia" kind of deep.

Why can't we just use the waste to heat homes? Is there a magic ratio of isolation that allows enough heat but not enough radiation to use at home?

This doesn't solve any part of the waste management problem; it only frustrates safety for a small benefit. High-level nuclear waste generates heat, but is not kept hot; it's stored in cool pools. Allowing it to reach a high temperature and using it for district heating is not sensible.

reuse the energy, create mini nuclear power plant/reactor that can be sent into space to mine bitcoin.


That's an ironic username.

So much wrong with this.

Nuclear is clearly the most 'low-carbon' energy that exists, and every systematic analysis has shown it as such.

I'm not gone address your bad economics.

> peak uranium

Peak uranium is nonsense. Just like peak coal and peak oil. We have unlimited amount of nuclear materials, not even U-235 is close to any peak. We have unlimited U-238 and Thorium that we could use as well.

Nuclear is much less carbon intensive than fossil fuels but loses to wind and PV, no?

Edit: I misread the graph, the ranges basically overlap, wind might be slightly ahead, solar behind but probably too close to call based on the numbers in that report)


It depends a bit, practically speaking carbon is irrelevant for all three.

Both of your points are factually wrong.

Make diamond batteries

Make RTGs out of it! https://xkcd.com/2115/

Even with all of these issues nuclear is the least deadly energy source! More people fall off roofs putting it solar panels then have been effected by nuclear disasters.


Most RTGs use 238Pu

Unlike the other three isotopes discussed in this section, 238Pu must be specifically synthesized and is not abundant as a nuclear waste product.

At present only Russia has maintained consistent 238Pu production[dubious – discuss], while in the US, no more than 50 g (1.8 oz) were produced in total between 2013 and 2018.[15] The US agencies involved desire to begin the production of the material at a rate of 300 to 400 grams (11 to 14 oz) per year. If this plan is funded, the goal would be to set up automation and scale-up processes in order to produce an average of 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) per year by 2025.

The USSR manufactured a number of RTGs using Sr-90. Sr-90 is roughly as energetic as Pu-238, but requires more shielding. It has the advantage that it doesn't need to be manufactured, because it is one of the more abundant fission products.

I feel like support for nuclear energy is the acceptable face of climate denial these days.

It's like states rights and racism. Who can be against states rights? That's totally noble sounding. Yet quite a few people who took up that banner were actually trying to achieve racist ends, and when forced to choose between states rights and racism, would choose racism, exposing them to anyone paying attention.

Similarly, it's a weird that nuclear (which is possibly the most state supported energy source) gets so much support from libertarians[1], rather than decentralised wind and solar with carbon taxes to internalize externalities.

Of course if you genuinely believe in states rights, or nuclear power, you now need some kind of introductory proviso to seperate yourself from the people stealing your topic as cover for their own ends.

My litmus test is: do you strongly believe in nuclear only because you think renewables are useless? If so, where did you get this information from? Second hand fossil fuel propaganda probably.

[1] this gets meta for libertarians as I'd say the same thing has occured there. Corporate fascists like a lot of the libertarian ideals and push them hard, while ignoring/fighting the logically coherent principles that don't suit them. Climate change denial being an obvious one were paychecks override principle, when the libertarian idea of carbon fees is probably the single best way to solve the problem.

What's there about climate denial in support for nuclear energy? Everyone I've seen who push for nuclear, myself included, do so because of climate change.

Supporting decentralized wind and solar is good too, but it's really ridiculous how the discourse turned into nuclear vs wind and solar, where it should be about nuclear and wind and solar vs fossil fuels. We're sitting on a magical fuel of incredible energy density and zero carbon footprint, suitable for use in base-load power generation - and we're not doing anything with it, because it's too magical for people's taste.

As pointed out in one of my other comments, it's not zero carbon, it's slightly more carbon intensive than wind or solar (actually I misread that graph, they're basically tied but all ahead of fossil fuels), both of which are getting better on that scale as they expand.

So it's more expensive and it therefore does less to solve the problem. And every discussion about it devolves into "aren't those silly hippies stupid unlike us rational types, we'd have solved climate change already if the damn hippies hadn't been so irrational" which seems like a great way to hijack people's emotions to drive them towards bad decisions, and basically echos climate change denial strategy.

If your argument for nuclear sound like something a Fox host would say then that's a bad sign, right?

That's why I associate it with climate denial.

One obvious benefit of nuclear over wind & solar is that it provides a baseload that doesn't require an as-yet unavailable mass storage solution. This is a common concern on HN, so I'm simply regurgitating what people far more knowledgable than I frequently point out.

- ed

Actually, is storage included in the CO2 calculation when it comes to wind and solar?

If we want to evolve a non-hydrocarbon based energy economy, we need to shift industry and transport to electric too - how much wind and solar would THAT require?

"Baseload" is an amazing rebranding of nuclear's biggest weakness.

It's so expensive that it only makes sense if you run it full out, which means it's terrible for anything but your minimum load.

I'm going to rebrand solar as really good for "peak load" and totally ignore the bits it's less good at. Then when I have a conversation with a nuclear fan I can just say "peak load" and walk away in triumph.

A problem here is that you seem to be viewing the equation as zero sum - as Temporal above and a glance at my comment history might suggest, many nucular proponents on HN are cognizant of potential drawbacks yet keen on the distribution of the industry alongside wind and solar and other renewables.

Legacy III generation's nuclear's a worst case scenario, but still worthwhile as a transition to full electric, never mind the developments in IV, V, travelling wave or fusion beyond.

Frankly, the idea of using fission to somewhat stupidly boil water to drive turbines seems a bit daft to me, but dafter still is the fear of pushing it forward into better technologies.

- ed

We're going to need a LOT of electrical energy in future. It's got to come from somewhere.

Well, to a degree it is zero sum.

I think the answer is a portfolio (an almost infinitely complex one mediated by markets with externalities internalized via carbon fees ideally) but each part of that portfolio will exclude other tech that fills the same niche. One type of insulation will be slightly better than another for a certain purpose

And I have no real philosophical objection to nuclear.

I just despair at people who use nuclear support as a shield for climate change denial. A passive aggressive "well, we tried to save civilization but you weren't grateful for the way we did it so we're just going to let humanity die to spite you. But you can't blame us for still voting for climate change deniers even now because you don't like nuclear which is a perfect solution with no drawbacks whatsoever. Ha, in your face hippie".

Which is where I came in, saying people vocally supporting nuclear often don't seem to care about nuclear at all. Its just a rhetorical club to give them the illusion of the moral high ground.

You and I must live in a different universes; in the one I inhabit, people pushing for nuclear are the opposite of climate deniers.

I thought you might have a point when you said pro-nuclear discourse is like climate denial - to quote, "seems like a great way to hijack people's emotions to drive them towards bad decisions, and basically echos climate change denial strategy". But here, you seem to actually believe that pro-nuclear is positively correlated with climate change denialism, which is an absurd proposition in the universe I come from.

In the US, nuclear support is correlated with voting Republican, so yes I do think that.

I cannot relate to the pro-nuclear position you are describing so maybe this is a cultural/country specific thing. For me at least, being pro-nuclear is part of a position of being pro everything-that-isn't-fossil-fuel, and pro 0-fossil-energy ASAP.

On a practical level UK nuclear plants are steadily dying of old age and there are no immediate signs of maintaining the level of nuclear output let alone growing it. One of the major nuclear replacement programmes is increasingly looking like it's going to falter[0], and one of the new builds is perpetually beset with problems[1].

In recent months the UK has managed long streaks of 0 coal being burned, and the already massive level of nuclear output is part of that. As I write there is 0GW coal production, 5.6GW nuclear, 17.8GW Gas, 0.9GW wind[2].

By all means let's grow the wind output but let's grow the nuclear output at the same time.

[0] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-46836647 [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinkley_Point_C_nuclear_power_... [2] https://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk/

Well this is a case in point, the Conservative UK government seem to love the idea of a nuclear plant, but they also effectively banned onshore wind.

So what's their reason for liking nuclear? Doesn't seem to be climate related as they're not really that big on that. More likely kickbacks from the industry.

Climate denialists are completely acceptable and don't disguise themselves, one of them is the POTUS. The last thing the oil and shale industry needs are an expansion of nuclear capacity, directly threatening their booming gas electric generator business.

The nuclear shills are owned by the nuclear industry itself, which is strongly pushing for renewed subsidies and government support for an activity that, due to irrational fear of the public, cannot currently compete. The renewable industry has it's own shills, often disguised as climate scientists, often very concerned about the carbon footprint of reactor building while conveniently forgetting the same factors for the much less dense and more material intensive renewable generators.

Basically, we cannot pretend that any political decision which affects industries worth billions of dollars be free from corporate PR and outright disinformation. There is no David vs Goliath here, everyone is shilling.

Another good case in point. We seem to agree that Trump is on the wrong side of this issue. Yet one of his moves was to extend support for nuclear and coal. Maybe the nuclear was there just to make the handouts to the coal industry seem less obscenely fatalistic, but some Republican state senators recently rolled back investments in basically every green power idea, including efficiency while extending support for nuclear.

Nuclear seems to have some dodgy friends.

Fake solutions for an imagined problem. The unused uranium from a reactor fits neatly into a few parking stalls. Security, transport, and storage of this valuable resource are already solved. Let’s put this material to use!

Nuclear waste is not really waste. WE should not dispose of it at all. It is literally ZERO problem to keep nuclear waste around easly accessable with no danger for the next couple 100 years.

By then we should really have the technology to consume most of that waste. The tiny rest of it can be stored, we know that this is geologically possilbe and facilities have already been built in Finland.

This is really not a technology problem, but rather a political problem where any progress towards a solution is systematically stopped. So that the 'you can't manage the waste' argument can be used against the nuclear industry.

The US even has a huge pile of money already collected to handle disposle and for decades US sientiests have found the best place to put that stuff. Guess what, its not where the governmnet currently wants to store it. But they can't move it to another place because of politics, and they can't actually store in the place they have selected because politics has greated essentially impossible properties that they need to insure.

This is a political problem, not a technical or financial one.

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