Issue Date: June 30, 2008
Facing The Consequences
Hyperbolic discounting is our tendency to downplay the consequences of the future for the benefits of today. We do it every day when we procrastinate studying for finals, run up our credit card bills, or eat that extra piece of pie knowing perfectly well that we will regret it later.
Psychologically, I suppose it makes sense. We might not be around tomorrow for that pie. Today might be our last chance to eat it. But is this how we really want to treat our offspring? How would we feel if we were treated this way by our ancestors?
Dan Hirsch gets it right when he says, “Fifty years of energy for 500,000 years of waste” is unethical (C&EN, May 5, page 15). If the lifetime of nuclear waste is included in the analysis of its harm to the environment and to future generations (as in global warming potential calculations), I wonder which is more destructive: a ton of CO2 released to the atmosphere or a ton of leaking, toxic radioactive nuclear waste that will be around for hundreds of thousands of years.
I am not advocating the increase of atmospheric CO2, but I do believe that even if 1/100th of 1% of the cost required to store and regulate nuclear waste for the next 500,000 years were spent today on developing solar and wind and other renewable energy sources, we would have a worthwhile solution within our lifetimes.
Unfortunately, this requires time and money now. It is far too easy to downplay the consequences of the future for the benefits of today when we are not the ones facing those consequences.
The article “The Forever Waste” presents mostly biased opinions of well-known antinuclear advocates. The views of pronuclear professionals are absent.
As used by antinuclear advocates, the term “waste” implies that it contains large quantities of U-238 and transuranics. This is a misnomer, since U-238 is a valuable nuclear fuel that is removed in future reprocessing operations and transmuted into fissionable Pu-239 in fast breeder reactors. The waste won’t be dumped because it allows the world to extend the epoch of nuclear power from 50 to about 5,000 years by consuming nature’s U-238 (99.3%) and its directly fissionable U-235 (0.7%). It also lowers the quantity of nonfissionable radioactive “spent” fuel by a factor of 50 to 100 below that envisioned by antinuclear advocates. Instead of decades, it would take centuries to fill the Yucca Mountain repository.
The comment that demonstration of fast reactor technology has been unsuccessful is patently untrue. Several experimental fast reactors have been run successfully in France, Russia, Japan, and the U.S. However, they must await the construction of advanced nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities (FRFs). Such facilities have been criticized by opponents of nuclear power because, they argue, separated plutonium in FRFs might get into the hands of terrorists and threaten world security. This is as absurd as deciding to stop building 707 jets because suicidal terrorists might use them to knock down skyscrapers.
All 10 countries that possess nuclear weapons maintain strict security at their weapons-grade plutonium-processing facilities to prevent theft or unauthorized diversions. Besides the fact that FRFs can be operated securely against terrorist interventions, burnt nuclear fuel transported to an FRF cannot be used for a weapon because it is full of neutron poisons (the reason it is being reprocessed).
To make a nuclear weapon out of stolen spent fuel, terrorists first must build a $2 billion isotope separation facility to scoop out 98% pure Pu-239. Processed uranium and plutonium in transit from an FRF to a fuel element fabricator can also be constituted such that sufficient neutron poisons are left intermixed. Only a rogue sovereign nation can deliberately allow transfer of pure nuclear-weapons-grade material to terrorists.
Unless nuclear power is expanded, the world will suffer a disastrous economic collapse when oil begins to run out in 2030. People in the U.S. who are hindering its expansion will be seen as neo-Luddites by later generations. The U.S. was once the leader, but today’s builders of new nuclear power plants are French, Japanese, Russian, Indian, South Korean, and Chinese. After the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, fear-mongering antinuclear groups succeeded to halt all further construction of nuclear power plants, putting most U.S. reactor manufacturers with highly specialized skills out of business.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to calculate that terawatts of “mother” energy are needed in the form of electricity or heat for large-scale production of portable synfuels (hydrogen and ammonia) and biofuels (alcohols) to replace oil, for battery-recharging large fleets of plug-in electric vehicles, and for sustaining heavy industry. Without coal, only uranium can affordably provide such power levels globally for more than 1,500 years.
Countries that believe solar or wind energy is sufficient and reject nuclear energy will find themselves at the mercy of countries that do not.
Jeff W. Eerkens
Editor’s Note: Gilbert is correct, of course, it should have been 2-propanol. C&EN’s own style guide has an extended section on chemical nomenclature, with a part devoted to the names of alcohols. It concludes, “Some commonly used names of alcohols confuse the two systems, are always incorrect, and should never be used in C&EN. Examples include isopropanol, isobutanol,” Sigh.
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