The Toxic Waste Version of Shrinky Dinks
At this nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in northern Japan, more than 10 gallons of water containing plutonium and other radioactive material leaked inside the compound on March 12. The plant's operator announced that no radioactivity was released into the atmosphere.
One of the dominant themes in the comments yesterday was the safety of nuclear energy. Today's nuclear plant designs are much safer than in the past, notes Debater Ben. Point well taken. But for many debaters, the plants are not the problem -- it's what to do with the highly radioactive waste they produce. Where should it go for disposal? Can we reduce the waste's volume? How about its toxicity?
Patrick Moore says reprocessing reduces radioactivity, but he doesn't say by how much. Reprocessing separates the unused uranium and plutonium from the waste left behind. So it extracts the useful bits to reuse for electricity or whatever else, but we're still left with some seriously toxic waste.
No problem, writes Debater Chris Ford. When reprocessed, Chris Ford says, the waste quite literally shrinks, losing 95 percent of its volume. "Nuclear waste is amazingly compact," so it wouldn't take too large an area to hold all the waste generated over many years of providing electricity.
Possible uses of spent fuel (nuclear waste that has not had the uranium and plutonium extracted from it) are outlined here by Australia's Uranium Information Centre. But even that very pro-nuclear organization -- it's funded by uranium mining companies -- classifies the leftovers from reprocessing as "unequivocally waste" having "no conceivable future use."
Reprocessing also raises proliferation concerns, as the materials extracted can be used to make nuclear weapons, and there's a bunch of this stuff in storage around the world. Some opponents of nuclear energy say reprocessing releases substantial amounts of radiation, and cancer risks are higher around these reprocessing plants.
The United States currently does not reprocess spent fuel -- at least, not commercially. But it still produces a fair bit of spent fuel that needs a home. A very, very, very secure home, where nothing will be able to get in or out for at least a thousand or so years.
Some of you believe increasing reliance on nuclear energy is inevitable. But how do you address the toxic waste problem?
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