Friday, January 22, 2016

Waste 'n' Time

Uh, oh. I'm afraid I've kind of painted myself into a corner here by minimizing the "problem" of nuclear wastes. If I give it short shrift, it will appear that I'm avoiding the subject. On the other hand, while the matter of nuclear wastes is somewhat afield from our general topic, there is a connection that might be of interest.

The only danger even attributed to nuclear wastes is that of causing cancer in future generations that are too stupid not to bit into a glassified chunk of power-plant waste. As we shall see, there is a threshold below which - even for those future glass munchers - there is no fear of increased cancer risk. But even if there weren't such a threshold, there are a number of issues regarding nuclear wastes that have been ignored in the media's misreporting of the subject that you should know about.

  • More than 95% of the long half-life "waste" in nuclear fuel is not waste at all, but uranium and plutonium that may be reprocessed into fresh fuel assemblies. Most other industrialized nations do just this, as our government promised the utilities, but the Carter administration reneged on the agreement. (More about this later.)
  • Among the "wastes" that anti-nuclear activists are eager to bury are valuable medical radionuclides that are produced at high cost in specialty reactors. As in the case of the reprocessable fuel, the baby is being thrown out with the bath water.
  • The most sensible way to eliminate the unusable wastes from reprocessed fuel (which about to about 1% of their volume) is to dilute it a few millionfold and pour it down the drain, or to dump it into ocean abysses where there is no biological activity. Man's puny efforts at creating radionuclide wastes are dwarfed by the enormous amounts existing in nature. There are, for example, 36 billion curies of rubidium 87 and 380 billion curies of potassium 40 in the oceans, almost all of which will still be there when the few million curies of man's wastes have long since decayed to undetectable amounts. 

Why then, you may ask, are there hundreds or thousands of government- (read "taxpayer-") supported scientists busy writing reports on Yucca Mountain? I suggest there may be three reasons: (1) they don't know - or, more than likely, don't care - that low-level radiation is not harmful; (2) it beats having to get a real job; or (3) grants to study the mating habits of the Zambian sweat bee have already been taken.