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The Eternal Problem

Nuclear Waste Confidence

by RUSSELL D. HOFFMAN

At a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission webinar/hearing on “Waste Confidence,” or what to do about the growing mountain of radioactive used reactor cores, people on both sides actually agreed on SOMETHING.  I didn’t like the term “Waste Confidence” and the pro-nuker didn’t like it either.

Other than that, there was little to agree on.  The pro-nuker preferred to call it “spent fuel confidence.”  I, on the other hand, didn’t like the word “confidence” since there’s nothing that warrants ANY confidence in this discussion, whatsoever.  ”Waste Failure” would be more appropriate.  Or “Waste Impasse” might be even better.  Or better yet:  ”The Intractable, Unsolvable, Filthy, Disgusting Mess We’ve Made” but I guess that would just be too accurate to a group where a “rapid disassembly” is the term for a core explosion that spews radioactive crud for miles around.

But one way or another, it’s obvious that “Waste Confidence” is a misnomer from start to finish.

The NRC officials stressed that in their 30 years, they have not overseen a major accident at a nuclear facility, during transport, or at a waste storage facility such as a spent fuel pool or dry cask storage farm.

Of course, TEPCO and the Japanese nuclear regulators made the same claim of confidence and historic precedent.  Then Fukushima happened.

The NRC’s confidence is wholly out of proportion to their “success” thus far:  There HAVE been accidents, there HAVE been releases, and most importantly, there have been CLOSE CALLS where only good luck (aka the Grace of God) saved us.  A fire nearly took out Browns Ferry, and TMI did NOT become a Fukushima or Chernobyl, but could have.  And Davis-Besse in 2002 was fractions of fractions of an inch from a catastrophic hole in the reactor pressure vessel head.  San Onofre’s Unit 2 pressure vessel head (and many others around the nation) was replaced during the last outage as a direct result of increased inspections following the Davis-Besse incident.  SanO’s Unit 3 was due for a head replacement when it blew a tube in one of its new steam generators.

Japan had been lucky many times before, as small accidents did not become global catastrophes:  Monju, 1995, Tokai, 1997 & 1999, Mihama, 2004, and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, 2007 to name a few.  But as every smart gambler knows (that’s everyone who doesn’t gamble with their lives), luck runs out sooner or later.  On March 11th, 2011, luck ran out for Japan.

Nuclear waste storage is a huge unsolved problem in every nuclear country.  Although France, Japan and several other countries reprocess spent fuel, they have had numerous incidents at thier facilities and numerous releases of radiological materials into the environment.  In addition to being dirty, reprocessing is energy-intensive and expensive.   For these and other reasons, such as proliferation issues, we do not reprocess spent fuel in America, and don’t expect to.

Instead, we just hold onto it.  What else can we do?  There’s nowhere to put it because all the options we’ve explored as a country haven’t worked out: Dumping the waste at sea was banned decades ago, rocketing it into outer space is not only prohibitively expensive, but even the most modern rockets have an alarming failure rate — and that is unlikely to improve, not just because the debris field in near earth orbit is getting more and more crowded, but because fraudulent electronics parts have been turning up everywhere — including in military and aerospace applications.

We looked into placing the waste deep in the earth, but the earth is too unpredictable.  Yucca Mountain is often called a political failure, but actually:  There are earthquakes there!  And not to mention water seepage from above, a vast and precious water table underneath, and insect/vermin infestation issues too. And it was on sacred Indian land.  Is there one square foot of land on this earth which is NOT sacred to us all?

We’ve considered “vitrifying” the waste but the main problem there has been cracking of the once-solid vitrified materials, cause by gas molecules created by the decay of the radioactive isotopes.

Transmutation, another proposed solution, has never been proven successful on a large-scale basis and  most transmutation schemes require an additional nuclear reactor to produce the neutron flux needed to transmute the unstable fission products to ones with very short half-lives.  And can it be done cleanly? And thoroughly?  It’s not even on the table as a research project at the NRC.

What we can do with the used reactor cores is to let them be.  Of course, that introduces a wide variety of other problems, all of which we now have:  Finding locations, hardening the sites against potential terrorism threats, and hoping that nothing goes wrong due to metal fatigue, overheating, criticality events, airplanes crashing into the facility,  earthquakes, tsunamis, and more.

It’s been said that the dry casks survived the earthquakes and tsunami at Fukushima, therefore we should be using more dry casks.  It’s true they survived, and they survived in North Anna recently when an earthquake moved them several inches on their beds, but none tipped over.

However it’s NOT true that dry casks can survive anything mother nature (and human nature) can throw at them!   They could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s why we need to limit how many of them there are.  But the only way to do that is, of course, to shut down the reactors.  That way, the fuel can be allowed to cool enough to move it from the spent fuel pools to the dry casks.  If the reactors are operating, there will always be fuel in the pools and in the reactor.  The “hot” fuel is extremely dangerous; the longer it is out of the reactor, the safer it becomes.  In the first day the thermal output of spent fuel drops to less than half a percent of what it was when the fuel was in the reactor, and within a week it’s half of that.  But it has a long, long way to go before it is safe.

And even if they do everything perfectly for the next 100,000 years — a long shot bet, indeed — they will not be a quarter of the way towards “solving” the problem of what to actually DO with the waste.  Letting it sit is a recipe for letting something bad happen to it.

The only reasonable and logical solution is to stop making more.  But this “Waste Confidence” decision isn’t based on reason or logic.   It’s based on keeping the reactors OPERATING for the next hundred years — some reactors will be nearly 150 years old by then!  But that’s the plan:  The NRC assumes that the storage casks will be properly manufactured and loaded.  The NRC assumes that they will be properly guarded.  The NRC assumes that Homeland Security will prevent all significant acts of terrorism against the facilities, and the security guards at the site with their pea-shooters will prevent the rest.  The NRC assumes that the deadly fuel rods within the casks were not damaged during their 5 years in the reactor, or the 5 to 25 years in the spent fuel pool, or during transfer into the casks.

The NRC further assumes that approximately three “interim storage facilities” will open across the country during the next century to “temporarily” hold the waste until a “permanent geologic repository” is established — something just like Yucca Mountain, but feasible.   The NRC assumes that transporting the fuel to these facilities will always be done safely — well over 100,000 trips will be required around the country just for the existing fuel, with an average trip distance of close to 1000 miles (more if less than three interim facilities are established).  90% of the American population will be within 50 miles of a transportation route — and 50 miles might still be too close, if something goes wrong during the transport of the fuel.

The most insidious evil in this “Waste Confidence” process is that the NRC assumes that what they need to do is create regulations that allow the reactors to continue to operate.  It does not occur to them what is obvious to so many others:  There IS no solution to the waste problem, because ionizing radiation destroys any container you put it in.  It escapes with tenacious capability and remains hazardous for many eons.  It renders anything near it radioactive and poisonous as well.  It kills in microscopic quantities.  It maims and sickens whom it does not kill.  And we have no safe place to store it.  And there are clean alternatives for electricity generation.  So why not just stop making more of this waste altogether?  The NRC, most of all, should be able to see that that’s the only solution to the waste confidence problem:  Limit the size of the problem.

If we stopped now, then at most we would need ONE interim storage facility where three were planned by the end of the century.  If we stopped now, then in 88 years, in 2100, the youngest fuel would be 88 years old and far safer if an airplane hits it, if a terrorist launches a missile at it, or if it simply degrades and falls apart.  Fresh, hot fuel is so dicey, and for what?  To keep the fat cat shareholders who own the reactors rich?  Certainly not to keep the lights on — that could be more easily accomplished through safe, green alternatives!

So why are we burdening our future generations with an ever-growing, unsolvable problem?

Russell D. Hoffman lives in Carlsbad, California. He is an educational software developer and bladder cancer survivor, as well as a collector of military and nuclear historical documents and books. He is the author and programmer of the award-winning Animated Periodic Table of the Elements. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com