Monday, June 4, 2012

Post # 65: Hot Stuff

The quarterly technology update in the June 2nd edition of The Economist magazine has an unusually insightful (and technical) article on the challenges of dealing with "nuclear waste" – primarily used nuclear fuel.

I do have a quibble or two with a couple of technical details in the article.  For instance, it implies all separated plutonium can be used for nuclear weapons.  That said, I believe the article is balanced overall, and contains some punchy summaries of the current state of affairs related to used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste:

"Nuclear waste: Researchers are devising new ways to deal with the byproducts of nuclear power.  But it is not just a technological problem."


"There are essentially three approaches: bide your time and wait for technology to improve; bury the waste somewhere secure; or reprocess it into new fuel, greatly reducing the a mount of waste left over."

The central issue with used nuclear fuel is, of course, whether it is a "waste" or a "resource".

The answer to this question is a function of technology, economics, science, and sociocultural perspectives:
  • Technically, the answer to the question relates to the value of the residual contents in the used nuclear fuel and the challenge of extracting and using them.
  • Economically, the answer relates to the cost of recovering any useful residual content of the used nuclear fuel and the relative cost of disposing of the once-used nuclear fuel vs. disposing of the residual wastes created from recovering the useful contents of the used nuclear fuel and reusing them. 
  • Scientifically, the concerns are those associated with understanding our ability to isolate various forms of radioactive waste from the biosphere for sufficient periods of time to ensure they pose no threat to mankind or the environment.
  • Socially, the issues span the spectrum from the fear of all things nuclear, to concerns about "big government", to Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) mentality, to inter-generational social equity, etc.
Where one sits in time and the march of technological progress and social thought obviously impacts the answer to the waste vs. resource question.

The President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC Website here) recently presented a number of common sense steps for dealing with the nuclear waste issue in their final report.  A key recommendation of the Commission was that the U.S. should learn from the Yucca Mountain experience and move to a more consensus-based, incentive-driven siting approach for future nuclear waste repositories.

I hope someone is listening to them.  We all have a stake in the outcome.

Just thinking,


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