The Toxic Waste Version of Shrinky Dinks

AP Photo/Kyodo News, Yumi Ozaki
AP Photo/Kyodo News, Yumi Ozaki

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?

By Emily Messner |  April 18, 2006; 4:52 PM ET  | Category:  Misc.
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I would suggest considering alternative energy producing arrangements that help the environment as well as provide us with energy.

There is a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, being generated at farms and more to come when the permafrost melts, so we could collect as it is released and prevent further global warming and provide a source of energy for farms and communities on the melting tundra.

Also how about genetically engineering yeast to produce hydrogen so you can brew beer and produce hydrogen at the same time.
Just a thought.

There is also that recent experiment that shows that you can create gravity using a spinning superconductor ring just like Faraday used electricity to create magnetism.

Then there are those guys a Sandia who create temperatures higher than that found in the sun, but aren't quite sure how. They worry me a bit.

So there are alternatives, but in the short run, IMHO the money should be spent on improving efficiency, reducing demand and being friendly to our very hurt and damaged environment.

We could grow a lot more plants in our barren concrete living and working environ, on all our buildings and roof tops, to grow food and extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and reduce global warming.

I wonder what hurricane season is going to be like this year?

Posted by: Richard Katz | April 18, 2006 07:45 PM

A much more interesting problem than how do we deal with nuclear waste is how do we deal with waste? Generally, liquid waste is a more difficult problem than solid waste, and gaseous waste is even more difficult. Not only do fossil fuels require 100,000 - 1 million times as much fuel (seen in the much higher numbers of coal miners dying and greater damage to the Earth, and the greater dangers and expense in shipping natural gas, compared to uranium), but fossil fuels produce 100,000 - 1 million times as much waste. mostly gases.

Increased cancers around reprocessing plants? It is doubtful that there is much of a health risk to workers and the public in reprocessing (excepting the Japanese accident), but the health effects of not using nuclear power -- with or without reprocessing -- are well known. Coal pollution kills tens of thousands in the US, and many more worldwide, every year from heart and respiratory diseases, including cancer.

(A side comment to say that it looks like we need all of the solutions on the table, rapidly and radically increased efficiency, a shift to non-carbon energy supplies, living with less, and some not yet found, to get to the kinds of greenhouse gas cuts people in policy say are necessary, 65 - 85% or even more in the next few decades, even as population will increase by 40% and per capita consumption continues to rise.)

How safe would Yucca Mountain be?

From National Academies Press, written by the National Research Council Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges (2001) (

Principal Findings and Conclusions

• Today's growing inventory of HLW (high level waste) requires attention by national decision-makers.
• The feasible options are monitored storage on or near the earth's surface and geological disposition.
• Geological disposal remains the only long-term solution available.
• Today the biggest challenges to waste disposal are societal (perceived problems rather than actual problems).
• Whether, when, and how to move toward geological disposal are societal problems for each country.
• A stepwise process is appropriate for decision making under technological and social uncertainty.
• Successful decision making is open, transparent, and broadly participatory.
• International cooperation can help achieve national solutions.

Principal recommendations

1. National organizations with responsibility for the management of HLW, together with the scientific and engineering communities (including social scientists), should provide the leadership and support for solving the problems posed by HLW.

2. National HLW programs should expand their efforts beyond technical project development and implement processes that involve the public in decisions to assure safety and security.

3. For both scientific and societal reasons, national programs should proceed in a phased and stepwise manner, supported by dialogue and analysis.

4. National programs should increase international cooperation by sharing information, coordinating policies, supporting international organizations, developing a consensus on international standards, and seeking other ways to assure that all countries achieve safe disposition of their nuclear waste.

5. National programs should take an integrated, comprehensive, and risk-based systems view to assure safety and security for storage facilities and repositories, both in the implementation of the waste management program and in its regulatory oversight.

Safety and security assessment experts must communicate their belief that their calculated results, although imperfect, provide sufficiently reliable input for decision makers. As long as one can be accurate in assuring that the levels of radioactive release are low, precise estimates are not needed. Even with some orders of magnitude of residual uncertainty, the calculated release may be clearly within defined safety goals or limits. All parties involved in the decision-making process should have a consistent and accurate perception of what model-based analysis can and cannot do, so they do not make erroneous decisions based on incorrect or biased expectations.

The biggest problem with nuclear waste is that the public is devoting too much time to worrying about it, and too little time worrying about fossil fuel waste.

Re geological disposition, there is new thinking favoring reprocessing the fuel, mixing in a contaminant to preclude any weapons making.

Posted by: Karen Street | April 18, 2006 11:26 PM

Ms. Messner, "shrinky dink" is actually quite elequant of you. Something that gets smaller but denser while retaining it's essential characteristics and nature. A pity in the general public it will be associated more with George Costanza, cold water, and Seinfeld than toxic waste that gets smaller all on it's own vs. stable for eternity toxic waste like PCBs, or lead-acid, NI-CAD batteries...

But it does work as a nuke waste metaphor...a glob of spent nuclear fuel does get smaller as a hazard with every passing moment in time.

I would say that society does manage to recycle other toxic waste. Waste that is toxic for all eternity. Evironweenie hysteria about their rectal plucking "facts" like plutonium being the most deadly substance known to man is laughable to anyone knowing the lethality of botulin, VX, dimethyl mercury and other truly top of the pyramid toxic substances. Plutonium? Nasty stuff. But super deadly? Pure crap. Back in the day - Soviet disregard for worker safety led hundreds of Russians to be exposed, then expecting to die from have carried grams of the stuff in their bodies after sloppy Soviet nuke work. A few did indeed die, but in nowhere near the numbers expected.

The fear mongering is counterproductive. Yes, a single microspeck of asbestos could cause a fatal cancer, same with selenium or benzene molecules in gasoline that could stay hazardous for hundreds of billions of why are we concerned so much about self-neutralizing rad waste that is less radioactive in 10,000 years time than the ore it was mined from??

Your attribution of reprocessing nuke waste leftovers as having "no working value" according to the superb Australian Working Paper #9:

on policy - is not quite true, though I would recommend the Aussie paper to any layperson as making the nuke power end product issues crystal clear in just a few pages of issues and facts policy discussion.

Certain actinides like Techicium-99 and transuranics have enormous value, and discussions continue about the value of easy chemical separation of bioactive radioactive compounds like strontium 90 for burnup in fast flux reactors and taking the most prevalent isotopes like CS-137 out of the spent fuel in reprocessing and using it in fixed substances humans will not encounter like calcium binding it to artificial reefs in concrete. 200 years and it's gone, and we know that the practice is fine for the fishies because richest reef life on the planet is now at Bikini Atoll and Einwetok - where fishing has been banned for 60 years because of all the A-Bomb and H-bomb tests there....

Now, a minor spill inside a contained area in Japan is no big deal. It stays in a contained area and is cleaned up. On the other hand, back in 1998, Japanese workers in Tokai accidentally caused a criticality and 3 workers got nailed. But 5,000 to 8,000 workers a year die mining, using and processing coal. And nuke workers as a measure of injuries and fatalities are far safer in their jobs than truck drivers or construction workers - and far, far safer than farmers, fishermen, or miners.

From mankinds earliest origins, learning what is toxic and avoiding and co-opting toxic things is deep in human evolution. And we weed the stupid and ill-adapted that think picking up vipers despite Mom's warnings, eating pretty mushrooms, or stepping in front of cars at crosswalks is OK. On the other hand, our evolution has meant dealing with killers like fire, cassava root, castrol oil plants, automobiles, electricity, the merciless deadly ocean that killed 1 out of 5 sailors daring to venture on it until man mastered transoceanic journeys.

Along the way, man has always been opposed by the fearful and ignorant arguing the risk of putting boats out past the horizon, of using electricity, of "deadly heavier than air flight" was all too much to bear.

A renewable energy generating resource that has virtually no waste volume or CO2 generation? But that can kill as easily as fire, electricity, or navigating seas if we are not profoundly respectful and knowledgable about it? I think we can handle it, ignorant fear mongers aside...

Occasionally ideologues step in to tell us that solar eclipses will kill us all, tomatos are poison, and apples cause cancer.

Perhaps part of our "test on Earth" is our ability to

Posted by: Chris Ford | April 19, 2006 12:05 AM

fallicious reasoning...

Posted by: I love proponents of | April 19, 2006 12:32 AM

Use the waste to build the wall.

Posted by: On the plantation | April 19, 2006 07:02 AM

Brilliant idea. That way, whatever illegals make it over the wall will be easy to spot in the dark.

Posted by: | April 19, 2006 09:54 AM

From today's UK Guardian:

"Independent scientists and economists know that nuclear energy is the most expensive electricity source available, counting the cost of building, running and decommissioning the power stations. But an economic analysis alone cannot calculate the costs of damage done to our genes, the very foundation of life."

Posted by: Twilly | April 19, 2006 11:28 AM

The discussions above certainly show all sides of the picture. We have thoughtful reviews of the nuclear waste stream vs. other energy waste streams, and then we have general comments like "damage to our genes". Persective is needed, particularly with respect to radiation.

It is fear of radiation in any amount in any form that drives much of the public debate. There is a lack of understanding of radiation - I suspect a great many people don't realize they are being exposed to radiation every second of every day - fron cosmic rays, from radon, from the potassium within their own bodies.

It is the amount of radiation, it's location relative to the human body (internal or external), and in some cases the type (alpha, beta, gamma) that matter. Radiation is rather like alcohol - a little won't hurt, long-term heavy exposure can have health effects, and a massive exposure can kill you.

It is also important to understand when we talk about how much radiation we are being exposed to that the amount shown to potentially cause long-term damage (let's conservatively say 10 Rem externally all at once) is orders of magnitude higher than what most of the discussions are about. [Not Chernobyl though - that was a mess.]

I've tried to provide an overview of radiation within my novel "Rad Decision", available at no cost at See Episode 9. Disclosure: I have worked in the nuclear industry for over twenty years.

Posted by: James Aach | April 19, 2006 01:53 PM

Posted by: James Aach | April 19, 2006 01:54 PM

James Aach wrote:

"It is fear of radiation in any amount in any form that drives much of the public debate."

Probably a generaly true statement. For those of us who know something a bit the subject at the practical level (and as an atomic veteran I do include myself in that minority), the fear I would have would not be about high general levels of radiation. What always scared the bejesus out of me was the absorption of dangerous isotopes into the body even in quantities that might be measured in hundreds of molecules. Potassium and xenon isotopes (relatively short lived) like to screw with the thyroid; cesium and strontium (long half lives) go for the bones. Nano amounts of the wrong elements are deadly over time. Keeping the nuclear process clean at that level is the major engineering challenge in my opinion.

Posted by: On the plantation | April 19, 2006 04:24 PM

Well, one thing that is very important is a great head of hair. Let's not forget that radiation causes hair to fall out. Think of all that waste just sitting around. Now think about walking among crowds of bald people. Let's not reach that point. For a great head of hair, the is the place to go. Just don't bring the radiation or toxic waste with you. ;0)

Posted by: Mark Styles | April 19, 2006 05:30 PM

Mark Styles wrote:

". . . one thing that is very important is a great head of hair."


Not commonly understood, is that the the gene for male retention of hair on the scalp (or lack thereof) is passed down through the mother. Ball caps and sunscreen lotion get the prize for this masking this conditon. Those affected are not damaged in their internal brain functions, and don't think that much about what onlookers believe. It doesn't seem to affect hair growth in other parts of the body.

BTW, I suspect that male genes for great hair growth also support wide male butts. Selective female deciders picking their choice male contributors are to be so advised which sorting out their potential matches.

Posted by: On the plantation | April 19, 2006 07:10 PM

I think these various issues are well worth discussing: reactor safety, proliferation potential, waste disposal.

But I am disappointed that the biggest issue is not yet on the screen: security. At a number of stages in teh nuclear fueld cycle, there is a great and almost undebatable need for security.

These include at a minimum enrichment plants, fuel transportation, reactors, spent fuel storage, and high level waste transportation and disposal.

There are several independent but quite important reasons for this need for security:

1. Prevention of diversion of weapons usable materials to rogue nations or subnational groups, either to build secret arsenals, or to expand existing arsenals to levels beyind what is known and monitored.

2. Prevention of the diversion of material that is environmentally dangerous to people with bad intentions. This includes the "dirty bomb" being employed against populations, but also a number of environmental blackmail scenarios: "give us what we want or we will permanently pollute Lake Erie."

3. Prevention of disruption of energy supply in a highly centralized system, particularly where, as in an attack on a reactor, there could at teh same time be major environmental consequences.

Even then, unless security is very very good indeed, we have to worry about the "bluff" scenario. If someone claims to have a dirty bomb in Manhattan, how confident do you have to be to call this bluff?

A strong commitment to nuclear power requires that a very large number of people guard a very large number of activities and installations ALL THE TIME.

These jobs are expensive to pay for. And they are not terribly nice jobs, as research has shown. For example, we hope that the great majority of these people would never have to confront a real and serious security issue in the 30 or 40 years of a career. How do you keep them interested, excited, or productive when almost nothing ever happens?

And of course, the vulnerability of the system, and the terrible consequences of a serious incident -- bad people with nuclear weapons, threats of 'dirty bombs,' ecological threats, big blackouts -- means that we will have to have additional and very intrusive security legislation, expanded surveillance of the citizen, new or expanded security agencies.

Ultimately, it is quite honest to question whether an industrialized society with a heavy commitment to the nuclear fuel cycle:

1. Can afford the necessary security costs.

2. Can achieve the needed level of security while maintaining an open society and civil liberties.

3. Ultimately, can a full on commitment to nuclear power be consistent with democratic norms?

Let us look at these concerns along with the others, please.

Posted by: Luke Danielson | April 19, 2006 08:20 PM

I don't think it's so much that the public fears radiation -- we get on jet planes without even thinking of it -- as that governments that tax fossil fuels, and see a dollar's worth of uranium as a twenty-dollar loss, or more, are very easily persuaded that the public is irrational on the particular issue of radiation that is connected to fossil fuel tax revenue cancellation. If no irrational members of the public turn up, I suspect they plant some.

To me reprocessing doesn't seem worth doing. It does NOT reduce spent fuel's radioactivity, and volume reduction, if accomplished, is not very helpful. Dumps for spent fuel, or its reprocessed remains, are heat-limited, not volume-limited.

The need for long-term isolation seems to be adequately met by deep burial or deep ocean dumping. Much greater quantities of natural radioactivity overlie such burial sites, and are not so conscientiously packaged, so the supposed worry about the man-made radioactivity escaping surely cannot be genuine.

Posted by: G.R.L. Cowan | April 19, 2006 08:33 PM

Great article.

Posted by: New | April 19, 2006 09:45 PM

I've read recently that through most of the stages of the production of nuclear energy (from mining through to eventual waste disposal), there is considerable production of greenhouse gases anyway. Which would seem to reduce some of the above pro-nuclear energy arguments.
Also the supply of uranium ore is not endless and will get progressively more expensive to provide.

Posted by: SpryCorpse | April 19, 2006 10:34 PM

National Geographic April 2006 shows how much CO2 each form of electricity generation produces per kilowatt hour. Nuclear is the lowest producer - even wind produces more, and hydr is coimparable to fossil fuels. Producing a wind turbine costs a lot of energy, in materials like steel and concrete. They don't produce much energy. and it takes years to pay back the initial energy investment.

Posted by: nuke-alwin | April 21, 2006 03:44 AM

wow u stink

Posted by: -.- | April 26, 2006 02:26 PM

How about we just launch it and send it to the Romulins, like we did with Tribbles and the Klingons?

Posted by: Gino Styles | April 29, 2006 05:04 AM

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