Separation technology can stem nuclear waste threat


Nuclear pundits use far-reaching extrapolations on coal and oil data to create a mirage in the public’s mind of a power source that makes a safe, clean and cheap contribution to the environment and America’s needs.

Actually, it is dangerous, polluting, and exorbitantly expensive because of the deadly waste created during the production of nuclear energy. It is a waste that science and engineering cannot destroy or permanently control.

There are two kinds of nuclear waste: defense waste (from nuclear weapons development) and spent nuclear fuel (from producing nuclear energy at commercial plants).


IN CONGRESSIONAL testimony, David Huizenga, senior Department of Energy advisor for environmental management, reported that U.S. defense waste includes 88 million gallons of the world’s most dangerous radioactive wastes; thousands of tons of federal spent nuclear fuel; more than 10,000 containers of excess plutonium and uranium; more than 5,000 contaminated facilities; millions of cubic meters of contaminated soil; and billions of gallons of contaminated groundwater.

There also are more than 75,000 tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel, spread across 31 states, which grows by 2,000 tons annually. According to a 2012 Oak Ridge National Laboratory study, spent nuclear fuel has no economic or national security value and can be permanently stored where there is no prospect of retrieval. Like defense waste, it is also waste.


THE DANGER OF nuclear waste is not only that we have no place to permanently store it, there is no technology that can destroy it. It can be processed or reprocessed, but those treatments only change its form. It does not go away.

According to Edwin Lyman, senior scientist of the Union of Concerned Scientists, reprocessing is the worst possible alternative to deep geological disposal because it greatly increases the cost and dangers by increasing the total volume of nuclear waste sevenfold. Reprocessing also would produce copious quantities of concentrated nuclear weapon-usable materials – primarily plutonium. “One large reprocessing plant can produce about 1,000 bombs’ worth of plutonium each year.” (The Wall Street Journal, April 15)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports hundreds of malfunctions, reactor wall fractures, human errors and shutdowns at our aging nuclear power plants each year, involving radioactive releases or near misses. San Onofre, on the California coast, is one example.


ITS REACTORS HAVE been shut down since January 2012 because of a radioactive gas release when new generators were installed and the thousands of feet of aging piping and tubes could not withstand the pressure from the new generators. If decommissioned, San Onofre will leave behind thousands of tons of nuclear waste, like all the other closed nuclear plants. Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant reminded us of the potential disaster that could occur in the event of a spent nuclear fuel cooling pool failure.

Scientists argue that the constant interaction of subsurface elements cause continuous change, and no engineered environments can be created to permanently and safely contain nuclear waste. Corroding containers also are a problem.

Turning it into fairy dust is the only safe option. At the 1998 NATO Advanced Institute a series of research reports indicated progress in this direction. Chemical separation technology (called partitioning and transmutation, or P/T) would destroy much of the waste’s energy. The remainder would be lower in volume, radioactivity and half-life. A court recently ruled that the NRC might not issue licenses, or renew the license of the 60 old reactors, until the government offers a disposal method.

P/T appears to offer the most sensible solution. However, even if P/T proves able to destroy nuclear waste, reactor vessels in closed plants normally remain extremely radiologic. For example, one decommissioned facility at Savannah River Site had a reactor vessel that measured some 430,000 curies and was grouted in place to protect workers.

There are 6,650 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste stored in South Carolina and Georgia. Only one state, Illinois, has more. Is it safe from unanticipated disasters? In the words of Rutgers University statistician Lee Clark, “Things that have never happened before happen all the time.”


(The writer chairs the Nuclear Materials Committee of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Site-Specific Advisory Board for Savannah River Site. She contributes this article as a private citizen.)


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