Wednesday, November 11, 2009

There's No Such A Thing as Nuclear Waste

One of the larger concerns surrounding nuclear power is the management of the byproducts of fission, popularly known as "waste". As matters stand at the moment, the Yucca Mountain repository is on hold, and further development of nuclear power could be curtailed until a "solution" is found.

Only in a society accustomed to plentiful resources would these materials be considered "waste". France and other chronically resource-short nations recycle fuel, and only a relative abundance of fissionable uranium here in the U.S. makes it possible for us to take such a cavalier attitude toward the 56,000 tons of material residing in containment pools at reactor sites all over the country. Aside from the considerable amount of uranium left behind that can be recycled into fresh nuclear fuel, fission byproducts contain dozens of isotopes that are valuable in many other applications, and include some of the "rare minerals" that we now depend upon China for and that are indispensable in the manufacture of electronic devices, as well as in many other industrial processes.

Kirk Sorensen at Energy From Thorium  writes of the large variety of isotopes produced by fission, and the characteristics and uses for these materials, some of which are rare minerals of the sort that China is now restricting access to. This chart, from the blog, describes them:

As China restricts its exports of these minerals and as the demand for nuclear fuel increases steeply, we will desperately need the fission leftovers and the materials they contain. 30 conventional Generation III reactors are currently in the planning stages here in the U.S., and dozens more are being planned around the world. At current rates of consumption, our estimated supplies of fissionable uranium are sufficient to supply us for only 100 years, which means, of course, that if consumption ramps up steeply, it could become extremely scarce and expensive within a couple of decades. If we want to have regular, cheap, on-demand electricity decades from now, we will have to make use of every material that can provide it, including the most controversial element, plutonium, certain isotopes of which can be blended with uranium to fuel reactors. 

The Unites States is not only fallen far behind the curve technologically, but has a stunning disregard for proper resource management, mainly because we have not experienced genuine scarcity of necessities and essential resources within the lifetimes of most people alive now, and essential resources are still very cheap here relative to their prices other nations. At this time, it is still cheaper to mine uranium than it is to recycle spent fuel, but this state won't last forever, and could end very quickly and just might in another decade or less, as rapidly developing nations containing a billion or more people command more and more of the world's remaining resources, especially fissionable minerals, as well as oil and coal.


consultant said...

In a nation that elevates someone of George Bush's or Sarah Palin's caliber to the highest offices in the land, a nation like that is just not serious enough to tackle the problem you pose.

We're smart enough, but we are no longer a serious nation.

I saw the movie Idiocracy the other day. That's exactly where a little more than a third of our country is right now.

The scary thing is, most of our 'leaders' are listening to that third.

For the forseeable future we are screwed.

War is next. At least history would suggest that.

consultant said...

Forgot to add:

By war, I mean real war. WW III. Invasions, mass mobilization, rationing, etc.

Nuclear options will be on the table, but as in tactical nuclear exchanges.

Stupid is as stupid does.

The North Coast said...

I not convinced we're smart enough anymore. We've become so complacent and slack and dependent, we can't coordinate the simplest things.

Ever read the Cyril Cornbluth story, "The Marching Morons" in which there were fewer and fewer able people left to cope with all the gritty necessities of running a civilization made up of an ever-dumber population?

That's what it must feel like to be an engineer, M.D., or scientist now, where you are trying to accomplish something essential and are swimming against a tide of mind-numbing complacency and denial.

FGFM said...

Crackpot alert. Whoop, whoop!

consultant said...

"Whoop, whoop!"

They say that throughout the Idiocracy movie.