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(Much) More On Nuclear Power

June 20, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 25

■ June 6, page 5: The bill to ban nontherapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in farm animals is H.R. 965 in the 112th Congress.

I ’d like to make several points with respect to Rudy Baum’s response to the naysayers on nuclear power (C&EN, May 9, pages 5 and 6). First, nuclear waste is not an “intractable” or “unsolved” problem. Using the thorium fuel cycle, no long-lived waste is produced. The fission products are hot for a few decades, and then can just be thrown away. We can build depositories that last 100 years and keep track of their contents. See the Thorium Energy Alliance for more information.

Second, clean-burning natural gas is potentially loaded with radon. I reckon “fracked” gas will have more radon. This is completely whitewashed by the fossil-fuel industry.

We need Gen IV power from thorium, which burns clean, emits no CO2, is easy to find in Idaho, and creates minimal waste. There is plenty for chemists to contribute to this effort!

Keep in mind, the current death toll in Japan is earthquake/tsunami = ~50,000, radiation = 0, and yet all we hear about is the “crippled” nuclear plants and the “disaster” based on fear of radiation. Such fear is overblown. Radiation levels were much higher in the past, as all the shorter-lived isotopes have already decayed and deposited their radioactivity in life forms, as they evolved to cope with it. We should be afraid of climate extinction, not nuclear power.

By A. J. Shaka
Irvine, Calif

Sometimes I disagree with Baum’s editorial comments. On the issue of nuclear power necessity, however, I strongly agree. My views on “recycling” of spent nuclear fuel are more optimistic than some of the other writers.

Recycling of everything from paper and pop cans to battleships is supported by almost everyone. How have we missed the boat on nuclear fuel recycling?

My view of the key points is that recycling accomplishes the following: reclaims valuable fuel for future energy production; reduces the volume of waste stored at plant sites; reportedly will produce only fuel-grade plutonium (not pure enough for weapons grade); reduces the volume of waste needing long-term storage to about 20% of the original; reduces the radioactive half-life of this 20% to about 100 years in contrast to thousands of years for some of the elements in exhausted fuel; is well-developed technology; is utilized by every known nation (except perhaps Finland) using nuclear power (the U.K., Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, and India); was halted in the U.S. in the 1970s but could be restarted; currently appears economically competitive with long-term storage; is not economically competitive with landfilling or dumping into the ocean, for many current items, but is still preferred by society; and has decreasing costs while costs for long-term storage are increasing.

Data concerning recycling of exhausted nuclear fuel can easily be found. One Internet source is

By Eugene R. Moore
Midland, Mich

Right on Rudy! It is a rare occasion that I can agree with and support you. Nuclear power is a safe use of world resources.

Safety has been shown by decades of use without deaths in nuclear power plants around the world. Three Mile Island and Fukushima are media-generated problems; no one was killed by radiation in these accidents. This is the 25th anniversary (April 26, 1986) of the explosion in the acknowledged poorly designed power plant at Chernobyl, where 31 workers died from excess radiation. In that 25 years about half-a-million people have been killed in auto accidents in the U.S. Safety is a mirage.

Nuclear waste can be lifesaving if one ignores the myth that “all radiation is harmful” and accepts thousands of scientific reports showing that small and large doses of ionizing radiation elicit opposite results; this is radiation hormesis. Evidence indicates that ionizing radiation is an essential agent for life; that the optimum level of ionizing radiation is 50 times ambient levels (for example, cancer would become a rare disease); and that appropriate radiation supplementation (from radioactive waste) would provide abundant health.

By Thomas D. Luckey
Lawrence, Kan

Why is the storage of spent nuclear fuel considered to be a problem? Storage on-site works well. This material is valuable and should not be disposed of. About 96% of the nuclear energy remains in the spent fuel. New types of reactors now being developed can make use of this 96%.

The fission products are also valuable. One example is the element rhodium. Its current price is $2,000 per oz; the price has been as high as $12,000 per oz. One ton of spent fuel contains 400 g (13 oz), which makes the “waste” worth $25,000 a ton just for its rhodium content. Initially, there are small amounts of radioactive isotopes in the rhodium, but these are short-lived and are gone in 30 years. A substantial amount of the spent fuel is now more than 30 years old.

The reason that no one is eager to process this rich “ore” is that the quantities are so small. In the entire U.S., the total production of spent fuel is 42 tons per week, only enough to fill one large truck. Spent reactor fuel is a small but valuable resource, not a problem.

By Edwin Norbeck
Iowa City

While I appreciate that an editor’s duty includes publishing opinions contrary to those in editorials, it should also be the editor’s duty to prevent peculiar opinions from being spread around in what is otherwise a technical publication.

For example, although it is a fact that discharged fuel will be radioactive for thousands of years, it is also a fact that the two main isotopes of uranium in that fuel have half-lives of millions and billions of years, respectively, and each has a long string of even more radioactively dangerous decay products. Discharged nuclear fuel will be radioactive for many trillions of years until it all decays into stable lead isotopes, as will all the uranium and thorium ore in Earth’s crust that hasn’t been mined yet. But the uranium ore not yet mined is associated with the decay products that have accumulated over the past 4 billion years or so, and in several hundred years the discharged nuclear fuel will have decayed to the point that it will no longer be greatly more dangerous than pure uranium in transient equilibrium with 4 billion years of decay products.

While it is a fact that present fuel reprocessing plants are expensive and tend to pollute their surroundings with leaked fission products, it is also a fact that only about 3% of the potentially available fission energy in that fuel has been extracted. Trying to dispose of that fuel such that it will be hidden from humanity for thousands of years is not likely to be successful, since in a few hundred years our descendants will be looking for it as a source of energy—and they will have much greater technical capabilities for processing it than we have. It might be best to put it in steel and concrete canisters, such as those now used at nuclear power plants to store aged discharged fuel, and simply park it out in the Nevada desert to keep company with the debris from several hundred past weapons tests.

The heart of your editorial was that fission energy sources aren’t going to go away, and that should be abundantly obvious to your readership. The potential energy density of uranium and thorium is hundreds of millions of times that of fossil fuels, whereas solar, wind, and agricultural energy sources are diffuse and inadequate to our needs by orders of magnitude. The 22nd century is much more likely to see thorium cycle power plants than fusion plants in widespread use, and it would be hysterical not to expect such a development.

By Jacques Read
Ocean City, Md

The U.S. did several underground nuclear bomb tests in the desert country of Washington and Nevada in the 1950s. What is at the bottom of the hole where the bomb was detonated? Is there a fused rock bubble or broken pile of rubble? It seems a fused rock bubble would be an ideal disposal spot for the nuclear waste. The waste in this case would not be retrievable. The nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was built so that the nuclear waste could be stored for retrieval in case a profitable use was discovered.

By Edward C. Murray
Valley Forge, Pa.


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