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There Is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste (wsj.com)
162 points by ivankirigin on April 30, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 117 comments

Guy doesn't know what he is talking about. First, the French only recycle the waste once. After it goes through the second time, they don't recycle it again. They are building their own version of Yucca mountain to deal with it after that.

Second, in 2003 a very detailed analysis of nuclear power options by a group of MIT Scientists found that recycling is more expensive than the once-through process. See http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/

I am not opposed to nuclear power, but as usual, we see crap on the WSJ editorial page.

The only reason it's more expensive is because the disposal of nuclear waste is artificially cheap.

If corporations had to pay for the cost of building phenomenally expensive disposal sites such as Yucca Mountain, recycling would suddenly become vastly more economical.

Another issue is the very low price of uranium; reprocessing solutions weren't considered in the past because uranium was so incredibly cheap that it made no sense to attempt to reprocess spent fuel. One of the primary reasons recycling has become an issue again is that the price of uranium has risen enormously in recent years.

According to The Curve of Binding Energy, nuclear power was going to be subsidized by the sale of plutonium to the AEC. At about a megabuck per kilogram of plu, the sale of plu would pay for the cost of constructing and operating a nuclear power plant, and that lead to the AEC's Chairman claiming that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter" because it would be a by-product of the nuclear fuel cycle. At the end of 2005, there were 1700 tons of privately owned plutonium in the US (the US military has about 100 tons of plu: about 2/3 are in actual weapons).



If his claim is true, then it wasn't tree-huggers who killed off the nuclear power industry, nor Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, it was cold economics.

The nuclear power corporations have been paying for Yucca Mountain, actually. They've paid $30 billion so far and got nothing for it.

An argument for reprocessing that might have better success is to argue for energy security: any country that can store enough uranium to last for a decade is pretty safe from fluctuations in uranium costs.

a group of MIT Scientists found that recycling is more expensive than the once-through process

Note that this recommendation is qualified in the paper: "over the next half century". After that time, they imply that uranium may be scarce/expensive enough that we will need an alternate approach.

They also estimate that the plants we build will have lifespans of 40 years and that we will need a new Yucca Mountain-size waste storage facility every 3-4 years.

It's a little troubling that our nuclear solutions to the energy problem won't last out the century, while the sites that we create for them will be polluted for thousands of years.

Nuclear power is a solved engineering problem. France has been doing it for years. Here in the US the problem is so called 'green' activists who don't (or won't) understand the basic laws of physics.

Although I agree that modern nuclear reactors are extremely safe, I'd hardly say that the problem is 'solved'. They still don't use the fuel efficiently comparatively to what could be done with eg. breeder reactors, and the solution to the waste problem is still 'bury them'. Separating the nuclear waste by isotopes is a very complex and costly process, and even once it's done it doesn't necessarily follow that what is obtained can be used as fuel or for medicine. It depends on the reactor you use, or the kind of medical imaging you need to do.

Research is still ongoing in nuclear (fission) technology.

It's important to look at nuclear waste in the context of alternative energy generation processes. The solution to waste from coal plants is "pump that shit in the air and water", which is far worse than nuclear.

"[a] coal power plant's radiation output [into the environment] is over 3 times greater" than that of a "nuclear power plant with the same electrical output".

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_power_station#Radioactive_...

Unless there's some kind of accident.

That's where a professional and well-trained workforce is important, with indepenent and very strong regulations. I'm a former US Navy submarine officer, and the US Navy has been operating nuclear reactors in some of the harshest environments imaginable for 40+ years without any accidents whatsoever.

It works because Navy sailors are incredibly well-trained and well-drilled. But also because there is a virtually independent bureaucracy in the US Navy that can literally "take away your keys" to run the plant. (And I do mean literally.) Regular inspections that scare the st out of everyone because of their intensity and thoroughness.

But it works, and with no accidents.

Except that 40 years is nothing. Things can change - look at the former Sowjet Union. Maybe a US president comes to power that withdraws funding from the Navy, and things will start to deteriorate (just making that up, but with really long time frames, all bets are off).

Edit: yahooing for "us navy reactor accidents" comes up with quite a few hits, and allegations that mostly the Navy is very secretive about it.

Edit2: Even with the best trained staff, the staff is essentially just running an algorithm. Training the staff makes sure they run the algorithm correctly, but it does not protect against bugs in the algorithm. If you are a software developer, you don't believe in bug free algorithms (above a certain complexity).

The technology is really simple. As we occasionally described it: "Hot rock -> make steam -> make boat go." The complexity really comes in the metalurgical issues, in my opinion.

40 years is a substantial period of time. And yes, you CAN find Google results for reactor accidents, but you can also find results about how NASA faked the moon landings. The government has strict definitions about what constitutes a nuclear accident and required to report them. But there are currently nearly 100 active nuclear reactors, and have been for 40+ years. 4000 reactor-years of experience in arguably the harshest conditions possible DOES mean something.

I understand your point that things could change. But if we need to reduce emissions NOW, with technology available at scale NOW, nuclear is a very good option.

  If you are a software developer, you don't believe in bug free algorithms (above a certain complexity).
Please allow me to introduce you to Mr. Donald Knuth (pronounced Kah-nuth). He would like to have a word with you.

I don't think that example proves anything - although I like Knuth.

I'd heard some years ago that the Navy's nuclear operations officers and their nuclear safety officers are not allowed to even talk to each other, just to prevent any chumminess from creeping into the relationship. Is that still true?


"Nuclear submarine leaked radioactive waste into British waters, secret report reveals

By Matthew Hickley Last updated at 12:24 AM on 28th April 2009

The Royal Navy's main nuclear submarine base has repeatedly leaked radioactive waste into the sea, previously secret documents show.

Radioactive coolant and contaminated water were accidentally dumped into the sea at Faslane, near Glasgow, at least three times in recent years.

And an internal Navy report described a 'recurrent theme' of failures to follow safety rules.

The nuclear watchdog said problems were so serious it would have considered shutting the base down had it been a civilian operation - but it has no such legal powers over military sites...."


It's NOT safe. There are accidents on a regular basis. They just make any/all the information about these accidents classified state secrets.

Unfortunately you're incorrect.

Accidents are very strictly defined, and none have happened in the history of the US Navy.

There are incidents where reactor water is released into the sea. These are rare, and the radioactivity released is almost minimal. Please recognize that there are different types of radioactivity depending on the elements involved. The highly radioactive particles remain part of the fuel itself. The average volume of water in a reactor contains particles that have quite a short half-life and are typically not widely dangerous.

Finally, I was speaking of the US Navy which does operate differently than the UK Navy.

That's incorrect.

"Accidents are very strictly defined, and none have happened in the history of the US Navy..."

...according to what isn't classified as a state secret. We have no idea whether or not the US Gov't has classified 0, 1, or many nuclear accidents the US Navy is responsible for.

My clip about the Hanford reactor above stated there were 8 occasions at Hanford in which releases of radiation were classified and made a state secret.

You cannot prove the safety record of the US Navy running nuclear reactors is clean, especially considering the limited info available about the losses of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpian. I can document repeated incidences by US military and it's close allies in which nuclear accidents happened and then those accidents were classified as state secrets.

That is not a certainty. According to the NRC report on 3-mile Island (which I think is the worst in US history) the release was about 1 millirem. For comparison a x-ray is 6 millirem and normal background radiation is 100-125.

Western reactor designs are not like Chernobyl. They are designed to fail 'safe' and have over-designed containment vessels to prevent accidents from leaking into the community.

The reactor at Three Mile Island only had a containment vessel because it was on the flight path in/out of a nearby airport. Otherwise federal regulators were going to let it be built without a containment vessel.

The containment vessel at Three Mile Island was designed to survive a direct hit by a loaded 707 - because those flew over the reactor. They were NOT over-designed.

This is absolute ignorant non-sense.

Edit: I designed the Feedwater Control System for the Lungmen Nuclear power stations going up in Taiwan.

Edit2: Reply to jibiki below; Yes, no containment was the absurd comment. I don't know the details but I can guess the builders strengthened the containment building to appease the eviros - it was probably completely unnecessary and only raised the costs. The enviros and the lefties have gotten away with such "stories" for years but now thanks to the internet, the truth shall set us free! See Clay Shirky on Thinking the Unthinkable.

It seems to be a popular story.

From: http://www.democracynow.org/2009/3/27/three_mile_island_30th...

"I want to mention that the reactor containment at Three Mile Island was actually thicker than most others, because citizen action, prior to the construction of the plant, demanded a thicker containment, because the Three Mile Island Unit 2 is right in the flight path of the Harrisburg Airport."--Harvey Wasserman

(Of course, nobody was ever planning to build it without a containment... I hope?)

> the enviros and the lefties

Please don't lump us all together like that; this enviro-leftie is very pro-nuclear. Following political ideology blindly has never been limited to any particular viewpoint.

just because an exception exists doesn't mean that it was an unreasonable statement.

A single exception, no. But environmentalism takes a lot of forms: Greenpeace hippies, Sierra Club hunters and naturalists, and humanists interested in long-term sustainability (which is where I fall). Though there's still a strong residual echo of the (understandable) knee-jerk reaction to nuclear from the 70s, there are now many environmentalists who support nuclear as a lesser evil compared to coal.

Apologies for having an easily-struck nerve, re: implied "All X are Y" statements. :)

Again, you need to put nuclear in context of alternative energy generation mechanisms. People talk a lot about TMI, but not the integrated & far larger accidents from coal.

Coal's the one with the bad record there too. An average of 1000 coal miners die each year from accidents in China alone.

That is a bit of a strawman argumentation, though. The parole is usually not "use coal plants instead of nuclear plants", it is essentially to get rid of nuclear plants. Instead of building more coal plants, saving energy is an alternative (for example).

> Instead of building more coal plants, saving energy is an alternative

Let's cut the power to your house first.

I don't have a house - silly argument. I don't use a lot of energy personally. Also you can just use more energy efficient things. I did not want to interfere with your lifestyle.

I'm surprised that we haven't seen the urban legend about Carter outlawing breeder reactors only for Saint Ronnie to overturn it.

Reprocessing of spent fuel was banned by PL 95-242 as reprocessing fuel is a nuclear weapon proliferation risk. Separating U from Pl is a simple chemical reaction, and if you want to maximize production of Pl-239 (even numbered isotopes of plutonium suck for weapon use), then you want to use a graphite reactor and continuously push fuel through them (which is what the first generation of nuclear reactors did - at Hanford and similar places).





We've got about 1700 tons of plutonium in private ownership in the US. That is far more than enough to make tens of thousands of Nagasaki sized nukes.

If you want to know more about the politics and chemistry of nuclear fuel reprocessing, I recommend you read McPhee's book The Curve of Binding Energy.


It's too bad that Indian Point was built before that engineering problem was solved.

"The discovery of water flowing across the floor of a building at the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant in Buchanan, N.Y., traced to a leak in a buried pipe, is stirring concern about the plant’s underground pipes and those of other aging reactors across the country."


France has solved nothing. The nuclear waste problem is unsolved in France as it is everywhere else.

Please back up your statement.

Nonsense. Let me introduce you to the town I was born in. Richland WA.

"...A huge volume of water from the Columbia River was required to dissipate the heat produced by Hanford's nuclear reactors. From 1944 to 1971, pump systems drew cooling water from the river and, after treating this water for use by the reactors, returned it to the river. Before being released back into the river, the used water was held in large tanks known as retention basins for up to six hours. Longer-lived isotopes were not affected by this retention, and several terabecquerels entered the river every day. By 1957, the eight plutonium production reactors at Hanford dumped a daily average of 50,000 curies (1,900 TBq) of radioactive material into the Columbia.[46] These releases were kept secret by the federal government.[4] Radiation was later measured downstream as far west as the Washington and Oregon coasts.[47]

The plutonium separation process also resulted in the release of radioactive isotopes into the air, which were carried by the wind throughout southeastern Washington and into parts of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and British Columbia.[4] Downwinders were exposed to radionuclides, particularly iodine-131, with the heaviest releases during the period from 1945 to 1951. These radionuclides filtered into the food chain via contaminated fields where dairy cows grazed; hazardous fallout was ingested by communities who consumed the radioactive food and drank the milk. Most of these airborne releases were a part of Hanford's routine operations, while a few of the larger releases occurred in isolated incidents. In 1949, an intentional release known as the "Green Run" released 8,000 curies of iodine-131 over two days.[48] Another source of contaminated food came from Columbia River fish, an impact felt disproportionately by Native American communities who depended on the river for their customary diets....While major releases of radioactive material ended with the reactor shutdown in the 1970s, parts of the Hanford Site remain heavily contaminated. Many of the most dangerous wastes are contained, but there are concerns about contaminated groundwater headed toward the Columbia River. There are also continued concerns about workers' health and safety.[53]

The most significant challenge at Hanford is stabilizing the 53 million U.S. gallons (204,000 m3) of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. About a third of these tanks have leaked waste into the soil and groundwater.[54] As of 2008[update], most of the liquid waste has been transferred to more secure double-shelled tanks; however, 2.8 million U.S. gallons (10,600 m3) of liquid waste, together with 27 million U.S. gallons (100,000 m3) of salt cake and sludge, remains in the single-shelled tanks.[5] That waste was originally scheduled to be removed by 2018. The revised deadline is 2040.[53] Nearby aquifers contain an estimated 270 billion U.S. gallons (1 billion m3) of contaminated groundwater as a result of the leaks.[55] As of 2008[update], 1 million U.S. gallons (4,000 m3) of highly radioactive waste is traveling through the groundwater toward the Columbia River. This waste is expected to reach the river in 12 to 50 years if cleanup does not proceed on schedule.[5] The site also includes 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste...."


The only part of nuclear power that is "solved" is the part where politicians figured out there is less uproar if they classify accidents as state secrets until decades have passed and and the victims are dying of weird cancers.

Hanford was a site for production of materials for nuclear weapons, not a power plant. You're arguing against nuclear weapons, not against nuclear power.

In addition, according to the wikipedia article you cite, the B Reactor at Hanford was the first industrial-scale plutonium production reactor ever built. Do you think it is relevant to discussion of the safety of modern nuclear facilities to point out flaws in reactors that, for the most part(the N Reactor is the only one that operated later than 1971 at the site), have been decommissioned for about forty years, especially given that one of them was the first of its kind ever built on that scale? Those reactors were built forty-five to sixty-five years ago.

Hanford was reprocessing nuclear materials, what the author of the article was advocating in his article.

The horrible mess at Hanford is EXACTLY the kind of mess when you operate reprocessing reactors.

Much of the mess at Hanford resulted from storage of waste products, not from the reprocessing process itself. Much of that waste may have been able to be reprocessed again, decreasing the amount of negative effect on the surrounding area. The article seemed to me to clearly be advocating something more akin to the combination of the breeder reactor at Marcoule and the reprocessing facilities at La Hague in France(which releases less than 1% of the natural background radiation).

And you're going to tell us that there is no need to store materials that are going to be reprocessed because they will always exit initial processing in exactly the amount needed for the next reprocessing step "recipe." There will also never be a break down of equipment leading to a back-up of one or more of these waste products before they go in. France also has what US right wingers are calling "socialist" environmental regulators. Inspectors that actually inspect the systems they are supposed to regulate, and "communist" ideas like fines for corporation that try to circumvent safety rules.

There's no such thing as Mr Ekiru suggests in real world USA. Hanford is precisely the model that's appropriate for the US nuclear industry. That's what happens when the same corporations who built the Big Dig also build nuclear reactors the same way the Big Dig was built. Like crud.

From the article:

> Uranium-238 is 1% of the earth's crust.

This is off by 4 orders of magnitude:

> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_elements_in_Earth'...

I thought that sounded fishy, but I didn’t go to check it out. Thanks for the reference.

Anti-nuclear activists want nuclear power to be dangerous, in the same way that religious conservatives like STDs such as HIV - because they provide a grounding in reality for some of their pathological whining and blind hatreds.

I'm religious and conservative (Don't know if I'm a "religious conservative", though- depends on your definition, I guess) and I most certainly do NOT like STD's! I am not worried about contracting one myself, but I don't want any one else to either. I don't do those sorts of things (pre/extra marital sex) but I have friends who do, and I don't want them to get an STD.

You are a rational human being. Your type is quiet and doesn't make the headlines. The "religious conservatives" who do make the headlines are not like you.


Unfortunately we live in a world on the web where people who are religious, atheists, conservative, liberal, or whatever are put into little boxes and made fun of. This is what passes for wisdom anymore (instead of rational, clear discussion about beliefs and issues)

Anymore? When has discussion of beliefs and important issues ever been clear or rational?

When you had moderators (AKA editors) who deleted the stupid stuff.

They only deleted the stupid stuff they didn't share.

The "religious conservatives" who do make the headlines are not like you.

I think you'll find that both the current Pope and the last Pope are, by any conceivable definition, "religious conservatives who make the headlines". You'll find if you read their writings on the topic for five seconds that they're pretty much in the same place as the grandparent.

Are you sure you're not seeing confirmation bias? As in, "It would disagree with my worldview greatly if I thought religious conservatives were basically decent people. Accordingly, I only remember the ones who aren't"? (I won't discount the possibility of confirmation bias in the media, granted. Phelps on AIDS makes for a much punchier quote than John Paul II on AIDS.)

The people isn't exactly like your average or typical Catholic.

And if I recall correctly, the last pope moved to the right under the influence of the current pope.

The current pope, with his apparent pseudo embrace of the nouveau anti-evolutionists, is significantly further to the right then most of the Vatican establishment, which has considered the creation stories to be an allegory for many, many years now.

When we get a new pope who knows what he'll be like.

I think the keywords are "who do make the headlines". It does seem to be the extreme in every segment that makes headlines. Personally, rather than calling them 'religious conservatives' (There isn't very much conservative about them) I prefer calling them religious zealots (fanatic, extremist, whatever).

Way to commit the fallacy of composition.

I don't think that's what the original poster means. I think (s?)he means that the loud group of people with idealistic beliefs seek out examples of people, that the average person can relate to, to serve as examples of their ideals i.e. Joe Teenager contracting HIV from his immoral behavior.

I'm sure all these people are nice when you meet them, as most people tend to be, and would never wish anyone personally to contract a disease, but they love malleable statistics and impressionable stories to support their positions.

Your argument is ridiculous. I know of no religious conservatives or anyone else for that matter who like STDs. You should research a little more before spewing your own blind hatred since many religious conservatives donate their time and money to eliminate those same diseases as well as poverty, hunger, and others laudable goals. Obviously one can go on and on about the various good things that religious conservatives do. My point was that it is disingenuous to portray all religious conservatives as a group that enjoys the pain and suffering of fellow human beings in order to further their goals.

> know of no religious conservatives or anyone else for that matter who like STDs

Then you willfully ignorant, at best:


I stand by my argument. Whether or not they openly claim to like STDs, religious conservatives and, say, HIV are natural friends. To the extent that the fundamentalist religions actually believe in their stated goals of discouraging promiscuous and homosexual conduct, the popular fear of HIV et al helps to make sexual mores more Victorian than they otherwise would be.

If and when we exterminate all STDs (a pocket-sized instant tester costing <$100 would do just that, and may be around the corner) and develop perfect unobtrusive birth control (say, immunocontraceptives currently being tested), sexual taboos will eventually go the way of the taboo on working on Sundays. And religions which attempt to restrict sexual conduct will be viewed as revolting anachronisms.

Way to take an unrepresentative part to mean the whole. Stop generalizing. That google search proves nothing except that there are a bunch of vocal idiots on the internet. It's not like that's something foreign.

Don't make up silly hypothetical "if" statements. Let us look at reality: contraceptives are supported by most religious people. To say that religion is against contraception is to look at outmoded views from again, an unrepresentative part of an entire religion. And religions which attempt to restrict sexual conduct are already viewed by many as revolting anachronisms -- so you're just using a hypothetical statement to make an incorrect generalization to support the viewpoint you hold.

You're wrong.

> an unrepresentative part

The fundamentalists are the particular religious people whose beliefs and actions are most relevant to me, as a nonbeliever. The masses who "live and let live" are politically irrelevant. The crazies are fully representative of those religious people whose stances actually affect my life.

> Contraceptives are supported by most religious people

So, which church is distributing condoms to Africans? Oh, that's right, none of them.

"So, which church is distributing condoms to Africans? Oh, that's right, none of them."

I don't think most religious people go on missions in Africa... in fact it's probably the fundamentalist minority that would do that kind of thing.

That was precisely my point. It is the fundamentalists of every religion who work hardest to insert their religion into the lives of nonbelievers.

Your post(s) could have been made entirely accurate with the judicious application of the word "some". It was probably already implicit in your mind, but not necessarily in the mind of the reader.

If it is irrational to fear a nuclear catastrophe, then why are the nuclear companies indemnified against exactly such a catastrophe by the Price-Anderson act? The industry has repeatedly lobbied for this act, so it seems that they are also afraid.

Various reports have been produced by the NRC which attempt to "prove" that the chance of a catastrophe is low (1 in a million or what have you). The methodology of these studies is somewhat laughable: a catalogue of all possible failures is created, and a probability is estimated for each one; then the probabilities are multiplied by the consequences of the failure. So, there might be an estimate that a tornado will hit a plant every 100 years; given that a tornado hits a plant, there is a 1 in 10 chance that the containment will fail; and so on. Anyone who has worked in software knows that it is absurd to try to catalogue all failure modes of a complex system.

Additionally, these reports have been marred by corruption. The Reactor Safety Study, produced in 1975, was eventually repudiated by the NRC in 1979. It was enormously misleading, summarizing the risks of nuclear power in terms of "early fatalities," whereas the cumulative fatalities from radiation exposure are far more serious. It is based on these sorts of flawed, self-serving studies that the nuclear industry brags about how "safe" its practices are.

Overall, I find the tone of the nuclear debate very disappointing. Nuclear supporters seem to pretend that anti-nuclear activists are just irrational, with no arguments worth worrying about. There is not even an acknowledgment that there are still hard problems to solve with nuclear, or that mistakes were made in the past.

Coal power plants steadily spew radioactive ash into the atmosphere. This is an empirically verifiable fact. And I have yet to see an anti-nuke activist give a rat's ass about dead coal miners - of whom there is a never-ending, steady flow.

You lose.

Come on guys, don't get personal. You're both right; nuclear power is the best technology, but the nuclear industry is corrupt in something like the way the defense industry is.

I think you're reading more into my argument than is there. For example, I did not say and do not believe that nuclear is worse than the alternatives - it's certainly better than coal in almost every way. I just don't like it when people pretend that there are no reasonable criticisms of nuclear power.

> Anti-nuclear activists want nuclear power to be dangerous (...)

That really doesn't make any sense. They are opposed to nuclear power because they don't perceive it to be safe (which they learned from disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), if it was perceived to be safe then they wouldn't be opposed to it. It's not like they hate the power it would give or the jobs i wold create, there is no other agenda for them to oppose it on (unless you're talking about astroturfing campaigns by alternatives, in which case I misunderstood you).

Extreme religious conservatives are another story (and I add 'extreme' because someone can be religious, conservative, and perfectly sane).

> It's not like they hate the power it would give

Please read the writings of the prominent environmentalists. Many of them want humans to hurry up and go extinct. Not necessarily in so many words, but anyone who advocates a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is in fact calling for the murder of the billions of people who are alive only due to agriculture, of a kind which depends on modern energy sources.

You are applying extreme positions held by a minority to broad groups of people who don't hold those positions. To imply that being an environmentalist means advocating a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyle is absurd.

Honestly it's starting to sound a bit hypocritical given your original statement.

I'm not simply talking about openly declared human-extinction advocates. The death by starvation of billions is a logical consequence of perfectly mainstream environmentalist platforms - pushing for the elimination of nuclear power, factory farming, pesticides, genetically-engineered crops, and other technologies which make our historically-unprecedented abundance of food and other necessities possible.

I simply don't care about anyone's stated goals. What I care about is the logically inevitable results of the changes they are pursuing.

Chernobyl was a criminally unsafe design coupled with a criminally unprepared crew in charge of the reactor. TMI was only an obsolete design (in use because it's hideously expensive to certify a new one) with a sadistic user interface for the operators that prevented them from finding out what was happening.

Many anti-nuclear activists perceive nuclear as unsafe, but a lot of others want it to be unsafe because it makes them important. If nuclear was perceived as safe, they would have less money and volunteers to play with.

From what I understand, Three Mile Island wasn't a disaster, but a huge success. The safety systems worked as they should and prevented an actual disaster.

According to Bob Cringely (http://www.cringely.com/2009/03/three-mile-island-memories/), who was part of the presidential commission that studied the situation, TMI was actually a disaster for the failure systems, but was saved by a super-high-quality containment system.

There were plenty of people opposed to nuclear power before TMI and Chernobyl happened.

I agree that extreamly radioactive substances tend to be valueable, but there is a lot of low grade waste that's not worth reprocessing. It's not cost effective to do anything with reactor walls after you decomission a reactor.

Granted these things tend to become less dangerous over time, but dumping that stuff into a large geologicaly stable hole in the ground seems like a great option.

Another effective way to deal with the low grade waste is to pulverize it and spread the dust in the wilderness. Or mix it with concrete and build a school with it.

A concrete example: In terms of radiation dose, a depleted uranium cutting board is equivalent to granite countertops.

Most low level radioactive waste is just not that dangerous. Dilution is as effective as storage.

Imagine the public uproar there would be if a school were built with anything that sounds like "nuclear waste".

Also, AFAIK depleted uranium comes from the enrichment process, not from the actual reactor.

Amusingly, every American school I've ever been inside was built of cinderblock - a type of brick made from the fairly radioactive ashes from the exhaust of coal power plants. Don't take my word for it, ask a kid to take a Geiger counter to school one day. (I wonder if that is an expellable offense in our times?)

There was a recent thread about amateur rockets: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=583550 The technology is becoming more accessible and cheaper.

Why not just pack the most dangerous nuclear waste onto a rocket and blast it out of the atmosphere and out of any orbit, perhaps into the sun?? The risk is something happening to the rocket on the way up. It sounds absurd but there's a lot more radioactive things in space, and costs for such a procedure seem to be lowering.

Rockets DO fail. Scattering dangerous radioactive waste over a large area doens't seem too bright.

It should be noted that the force with which the contents of an exploding rocket hit the ground is not infinite, and objects have been built to withstand it. In particular, the casing of the plutonium bricks used in the radiothermal generators which powered certain space probes had this property.

You could also have a parachute at top that would open in case the engine and fuel exploded, so long as the waste casing could withstand the forces. Also, launching on a remote island could be beneficial, but it'd increase the cost. Also, there could be smaller more frequent rockets than larger ones.

Rockets DO fail. Scattering dangerous radioactive waste over a large area doesn't seem too bright.

Rockets DO fail. Scattering dangerous radioactive waste over a large area doesn't seem too bright.

Rockets DO fail. Scattering dangerous radioactive waste over a large area doesn't seem too bright.

That's what they said about dumping garbage in the ocean.

The main issue with garbage is volume/surface area. Fishing nets are huge.

The volume of low level nuclear waste is so low as to be negligable.

I have already heard that it's in fact good that drugs have so many negative effects, because otherwise almost everyone would use them. But author of the idea wasn't able to explain why would it matter, if there were no negative effects. Because drugs are bad anyway, mmmkay? Sadly, this way of thinking isn't that uncommon :/ (and not limited to religious conservatives)

Tell us all how anti-nuclear activists caused Chernobyl. Ohhh... they didn't.

"Nuclear submarine leaked radioactive waste into British waters, secret report reveals

The Royal Navy's main nuclear submarine base has repeatedly leaked radioactive waste into the sea, previously secret documents show.

Radioactive coolant and contaminated water were accidentally dumped into the sea at Faslane, near Glasgow, at least three times in recent years.

And an internal Navy report described a 'recurrent theme' of failures to follow safety rules.

The nuclear watchdog said problems were so serious it would have considered shutting the base down had it been a civilian operation - but it has no such legal powers over military sites...."


THIS is why the anti-nuclear movement is as strong as it is. They know the military and the nuclear industry HIDES serious accidents, Sometimes the military makes the accidents state secrets, and the radioactive material is left right where it spilled. This British Sub base has trashed the surrounding countryside and the people live near the base will be starting to drop dead from weird cancers any day now.

Not to mention all of the former Soviet Navy bases are trashed by subs leaking radioactive waste.

Sorry, but that conspiracy theory does not add up. If they would not honestly believe the stuff was dangerous, they would have no reason to be against it.

Comments like this should not be condoned on HN...

Some anti-nuclear activists do. Have you only ever seen whiny and blind activism?

I've always wonder why we needed to get rid of nuclear waste. If it's radioactive enough to harm you, then obviously there's some kind of energy there. We just need to find out how to extract and use it (which is what the article is about).

We know how to extract and use it.



The only problem is political.

> The only problem is political.

And economic? Perhaps low-grade waste is the bigger issue?

Low-grade waste is problematic, but it's really no worse than lots of chemical and industrial waste that we produce and deal with every day. It's completely within the scope of current technology to dispose of it, since most low-level waste doesn't have particularly long decay times.

And it's definitely not worse than coal, which is our primary source of electricity in the United States. Merely mining it kills three to four dozen people in the US directly every year, on average, since the 90s (and it was dramatically higher in the past). I don't think I need to mention to HN that the production of nuclear power has killed zero people in that period. The waste produced by the burning of coal dwarfs the waste that is generated per kWh...it's literally several orders of magnitude larger. And the shortened lives of people breathing coal pollution certainly adds up to dramatically larger impact than that of nuclear waste.

Yes, coal pollution is "safer" the nuclear waste in equal amounts, but neither is clean, and nuclear waste (low-grade or otherwise) can be contained safely, while coal simply produces too much to store or convert to non-dangerous forms.

I talked to a Greenpeace activist a few weeks ago to try to understand how Greenpeace can still be anti-nuclear energy with all that we know about the costs of the alternatives. Obviously, an on-the-street activist isn't necessarily representative of all of Greenpeace, but she did have a pamphlet about nuclear energy that she was very familiar with. In short, there is no recognition in their materials that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are dramatically different (and so, "no nukes!" applied equally to weapons and energy in her mind, and she simply couldn't imagine that one could exist without the other). There was also a deep-seated denial about coal and the realistic options for moving off of coal. Her response was, "We shouldn't compromise on clean energy, it's too important. We need clean sources of energy, like solar and wind, to replace coal and nuclear power." Obviously, there's no reasoning with this sort of mentality.

I think the quote you're looking for is this:

"You can't reason a man out of a position he did not arrive at through reason."

...the production of nuclear power has killed zero people in that period.

This particular assertion seems unlikely to me. People die while mining coal, but they don't die while mining uranium?

While I was in my senior year in college (1999) at Brown, there was a fatal accident at a fuel reprocessing facility in Japan. It was a criticality accident; some solution of Ur was put in a bucket or something when it needed to be in a nice, skinny cylinder to stay sub-critical. Three workers died, and they all saw the "blue flash" from Cerenkov radiation in their optic fluid. I only happen to know this because I was taking a class on radiation and health at the time, and the professor found it topical; I got the impression that things like this happen with some regularity.

Fuel reprocessing plants are much less heavily scrutinized than the power plants themselves, since they are less likely to cause massive damage to the surrounding populace. I don't have the numbers to hand, but my impression is that if you're looking for serious worker safety issues in nuclear energy, you should look to the reprocessing plants.

I can't find any modern numbers of deaths from uranium mining (though plenty of information about old mines, and a legacy of cancer risk increase around those mines, so there probably is a pretty good debate to be had about that legacy and how to legislatively insure the danger is removed in the future), so it seems to either be "none", or "very few".

I imagine some mining related deaths would probably happen if we completely convert to nuclear. But, the amount of uranium required is dramatically less, so far fewer humans would be needed for mining it. The sheer volume of coal required is a big part of the problem, and the processing of coal produces other opportunities for people to get hurt or killed. Uranium processing could also be dangerous...but again, the volume needed is much lower.

It's just a numbers game, really, when it comes to direct and indirect deaths and injuries, and we'd all love for there to be a completely safe, completely clean, completely free source of energy...but that's not an option. We have to choose amongst the candidates we have available. Nuclear wins in pretty much every category over coal. And, since solar and wind power are not yet feasible for a majority of the US, moving to nuclear is the best option in many cases. I'm not saying nuclear is perfect, but nuclear is certainly dramatically better than coal.

I have heard -- but don't have a source to cite -- that there are very few uranium mines currently in operation, because there was too much ore mined back in the 70s and 80s. The mining companies (principally in Canada and Australia) vastly overestimated demand; when TMI happened and the US stopped building new plants, suddenly there was enough on-hand for years.

Apparently there are whole ghost towns in Canada that just closed up shop as a result.

So it wouldn't surprise me if there hadn't been any U mining deaths recently, even though the mining is on average potentially more hazardous than coal. Keep in mind though, that even if Uranium was spectacularly more difficult and dangerous to mine, the volume of it that needs to be mined is so much smaller than coal, that it would still be a better option in terms of safety overall. (You'd just have to pay those miners a ton in return for the risk!)

One of my civil engineering professors worked as a consultant on Yucca Mountain and the Swedish nuclear waste repository. I had the chance to talk to him about Yucca Mountain, and he was very critical of their approach. Yucca's design is intended to prevent contact between groundwater and the waste, and ensure the waste is always accessible. While it sounds like a good idea, it's hard to guarantee in practice and made the design very difficult to engineer.

The Swedish design is simpler - they simply bury the waste and backfill the chambers. Waste is always in contact with groundwater, but the site was chosen so that diffusion through the rock is slow enough that it will decay to stable elements long before leaving the site.

That sounds implausible on the face of it. Its safer to let the waste contact the groundwater than to try not to...?

No, but it is extremely difficult to guarantee that you can hermetically seal nuclear waste from groundwater indefinitely, which is the standard Yucca Mountain has been held to. They've poured billions of dollars into engineering Yucca, but they'll never be able to eliminate the possibility of failure.

The author seems to forget that separating U235 from U238, plutonium, and a slew of various highly radioactive and hazardous materials isn't exactly something you do in your shed with a couple of beakers. Especially if you want medical-grade concentrations of exotic isotopes... Saying that plutonium can be reused as fuel is also an assumption on the reactor technology used.

Imagine even just transporting the spent fuel to another plant. You can't permanently cast it in concrete and glass if you want to recycle it.

Many isotopes for nuclear medicine are also produced in accelerators, not by recycling.

Coal plants put out more radioactive waste directly into the atmosphere than nuclear plants generate.


tell everyone you know, tell them again and again until it sinks in. everyone needs to know this. environmental groups need to be supporting nuclear plants. coal plants put out radioactive waste directly into the environment. the problem of storing it is trivial by comparison.

I'll stick my neck out and start the "this is not hacker news!" thread. Just look at the discussion - "green activists", "religious conservatives", etc... looks more like reddit than hacker news, which is what happens when we stray from our "core competencies", to turn a phrase.

It is silly to have a discussion about whether each submission falls within the guidelines. This submission has received more votes than any other today (80 at present) and has not been rejected by the moderators. What else do you want?

In the end, this story is congruent with the community guidelines but your comment is not.

Please don't submit comments complaining that a submission is inappropriate for the site. If you think something is spam or egregiously offtopic, you can flag it by going to its page and clicking on the "flag" link. (Not all users will see this; there is a karma threshold.) If you flag something, please don't also comment that you did.


It's close, but it is. If some facts in this article are true they're technically interesting. Also the change in policy is real and has implications which do interest hackers.

The discussion is a bit reddit-like, but it can't be helped. The article itself was interesting enough.

I wonder if they could start reprocessing some of the waste that has already been stored at Yucca mountain.

If this op/ed - it's not an article - is correct, then theoretically, sure. Practically, good luck getting people comfortable with the idea of taking it out.

The interesting issue is that if we make it easier to reprocess spent fuel, then DPK and Iran and others might be able to get rid of their "civilian power" smokescreen and focus on just that part. Then, we're back where we started.

I'm not sure developing and deploying the technology domestically makes it easier for other countries to use it.

Also, we're rapidly approaching an age when WMD will be accessible to very small groups. Our strategy should be to treat this like a reality today, and act accordingly.

Terrorism is certainly no reason to fuck up our entire domestic energy policy.

>Terrorism is certainly no reason to fuck up our entire domestic energy policy.

Nor is terrorism a reason to fuck up the Constitution, but the prior Administration had no qualms doing that.

Interesting, but in the same sense you could say "there is no such thing as waste", because in theory everything could be recycled somehow (and if we have no use for it now, we might find some in the future - just as the article states about some of the radioactive waste). Yet getting rid of waste dumps and just keeping the garbage around at home seems infeasible for now.

It is also not clear from the article how expensive recycling the radioactive waste would be.

hello my name is kayleigh, i like to eat pie. that is my opion on nuclear mining

Japan recycles their nuclear waste, should be done in the USA too. Hopefully Obama will be able to get new plants built, we're going to need them when all the cheap Chinese cars start coming in in a few years (it's already happening around my area, and they are cheap).

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