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Nuclear Power

Reactions: Nuclear power, green chemistry, Albert Eschenmoser, laboratory safety teams, and considering mentoring in tenure decisions

January 5, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 1


Letters to the editor

More on nuclear power

Cover for the Sept. 11, 2023, issue. It shows a round-bottom flask held over a stylized atom that features a red-and-blue nucleus with electron rings around it.
Credit: C&EN

The writer of a letter to the editor in the Nov. 6/13, 2023, edition, titled “Nuclear Waste,” has some serious misconceptions about disposal of such waste (page 3). If these were corrected, he would hopefully have a more positive view of nuclear energy.

I wonder how the writer arrived at the (mis)conception that appears to be his primary concern—that is, that wastes in “permanent repositories” will “need to remain permanently accessible for the continued reprocessing for several hundreds of thousands of years.” I have never heard of such a concept in the 60 years or so that I have followed nuclear waste disposal discussions.

Another point of confusion is how experiences at Hanford can “tell us much of what to expect to happen in these so-called permanent repositories.” There is no permanent repository at Hanford, so I don’t see how Hanford experiences can tell us what to expect to happen in one.

John L. Swanson
Richland, Washington

I must reply to some recent letters describing perceived problems with spent nuclear fuel. These problems are substantially political, not technical.

Spent fuel can be chemically resolved into its components, which are much easier to handle than intact fuel. We would use modern chemical separations, not chemical separations from the 1950s. A great deal more chemistry is known now. The Hanford tank waste is only a few parts per million fuel. Most of it is sodium nitrate, nitrite, carbonate, and hydroxide. It was made early in the Cold War and bears no resemblance to spent fuel, and we do not need to make more of it.

Most of the radiotoxicity of spent fuel is caused by the transuranic elements, all of which can be burned up in a reactor and converted to much safer fission products. The transuranics will either fission directly or neutron activate into something that will fission. The transuranic elements do not need to go into a repository at all. This is not a fuel-breeding process; the amount of transuranics in commercial spent fuel is far short of enough to refuel a reactor.

In 30- or 40-year-old fuel (much of the US inventory), nearly all the remaining radioactivity after transuranic removal is caused by the fission products strontium-90 and cesium-137, which have half-lives of about 30 years. A 30-year half-life does not require a geologic repository. The volume of fission product strontium and cesium is small. Radiologically very hot, but not bulky. Fifteen half-lives, 450 years, will decay these to nothing. A passively cooled surface repository can safely handle these.

The remaining radioactive fission products can be converted into extremely unreactive, insoluble compounds such as ZrO2, SnO2, and a technetium-ruthenium alloy (not glass). Because of their long half-lives, they are not dangerously radioactive and are easy to handle. I have personally handled technetium-99 (211,000-year half-life) on a 10 g scale many times in ordinary glassware in a fume hood, with lab coat and gloves, with negligible radiation exposure to my hands and practically zero whole-body exposure. In contrast, a gram of strontium-90 (29-year half-life) requires a hot cell. Direct handling is impossible.

Space does not permit a complete description of viable processes for chemically resolving fuel into its components. All the radionuclides must be included; none can be ignored, and I have not mentioned most of them in this letter. But their behavior and chemistry are known.

Chuck Soderquist
Benton City, Washington

I want to congratulate you on the recent article on small-scale nuclear reactors (Sept. 11, 2023, page 30). It looks like some people are doing some excellent science and engineering. One takeaway from the article is that unfortunately the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been led by people adamantly opposed to nuclear energy. As a society, what’s the use in doing excellent science and engineering when the application of such can be stopped by a bureaucratic automatic “not approved”? Fortunately, it appears that there are some countries in eastern Europe who are more open minded about meeting our energy needs.

Alex Schuettenberg
Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Prioritizing green chemistry

I was so encouraged to see the C&EN with the cover story titled “Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Goes Large” (Nov. 20, 2023, page 24). And that followed the 10 Start-Ups to Watch issue. As I reviewed that issue, I noted that most of the start-ups focused in some way on the cutting of waste or emissions, alternative production methodology, or reclamation. If you check out the 2023 Earthshot Prize Awards ceremony, which occurred recently, you can see that for so many of the award winners or finalists, a new chemistry was needed to rise to this distinction. It is so great to see C&EN bring everyone’s attention to some of the important cutting-edge chemistry needed if we are to achieve the changes needed to bring a sustainable future for all of us.

Thank you, editors and staff at C&EN, for making this a priority and continuing to bring new endeavors and success stories on greener chemistry to your audience!

Donna Peterson
Roseville, Minnesota

Remembering Albert Eschenmoser

The obituary of professor Albert Eschenmoser in C&EN (July 24, 2023, page 7) brought to mind the unforgettable memory of my close encounter with the great organic chemist. On a business trip to Munich in 2002, I attended the stage play Oxygen by Roald Hoffmann and Carl Djerassi in a nearby theater. There I found myself seated to the left of Eschenmoser. I mentioned to him that at the national American Chemical Society meeting I had attended his amazing plenary lecture on his synthesis of artificial nucleic acids as the building blocks of life, to which he responded, “The question is why?”

Om P. Goel
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Optimizing laboratory safety teams

It is very encouraging to read that the American Chemical Society adopted the system of RAMP( recognize hazards, assess risks, minimize risk, prepare for emergencies) and its connectivity to laboratory safety teams (LSTs) (C&EN, Nov. 20, 2023, page 33). In addition to the goal of empowering students to have a voice in their own safety, the LST system will greatly benefit from institutionalizing accountability and lab ownership within the safety culture of the chemistry department. A best-in-class safety program needs to hold all stakeholders in the research lab—from students to professors—accountable with disciplinary consequences in order for the student-driven safety programs to effectively prevent accidents. Furthermore, student empowerment must be accompanied by the understanding that every lab has an “owner” who is responsible for all aspects of lab safety and that experiments are conducted responsibly to ensure the health and well-being of everyone in the lab and the building in which the lab is situated.

Ara A. Jeknavorian
Chelmsford, Massachusetts

Consider mentoring in tenure decisions

One topic never mentioned in the article on Kristie Koski was how many graduate students have successfully completed their PhD with Koski, either at Brown University or at the University of California, Davis (C&EN, Oct. 30, 2023, page 17). Her website doesn’t mention the names of current or former graduate students or postdoctoral scholars. Her mentoring skills should be a major factor in considering tenure.

I am baffled by her own description of herself on her website, which reads in part, “Professor Koski is an adrenaline junky known for epic adventures: climbing big walls, surfing 30 foot waves, destroying expensive kayaks, and driving her over-powered muscle car way too fast.” No mention of her love of teaching and mentoring new scientists.

An interview with current graduate students might help give a better perspective on professor Koski and whether she is ready for tenure.

Many scientists who get awards and grants do not make good professors.

Roseann Csencsits
Pleasanton, California

Editor’s note: The University of California, Davis, has since granted Kristie Koski tenure (see page 14).


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