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Nuclear Power

Reactions: The problem of nuclear waste

November 9, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 37


Letters to the editor

Nuclear waste

A provocative editorial in every sense of the word (Sept. 18, 2023, page 2). Yes, we do have a looming disaster of our impact on the global climate, one that will remain well beyond our remaining lifetimes today. Yes, urgent action is required. However, I would like to suggest that conventional nuclear power is not the solution, or even close to it. There are several reasons. I shall stick with one, not the elephant in the room but the mastodon in the room: nuclear waste.

Mitch Jacoby mentions permanent repositories. In their current form these are major environmental disasters waiting to happen. Why? The main reason is that even with the vitrification technologies of today, it is near impossible to understand the chemistry, the materials science, and the physics of these matrices in 100 years, 1,000 years, or 1 million years in the future. Evidence from Hanford and continuing efforts of its cleanup tell us much of what to expect to happen in these so-called permanent repositories.

If we do go this route, they will need to remain permanently accessible for the continued reprocessing for several hundreds of thousands of years—potentially longer periods. Imagine what the person-hour rate would be in 500,000 years. Imagine how people will look back on the generation that created this waste. Of course, this assumes we do not develop technologies to deal with this waste in the future, which we well might; however, the waste still needs to be accessible. It is of course possible that this waste would undergo subduction into the mantle. A proper life-cycle analysis (ISO 144040), including the continuous waste reprocessing cycles for several thousands of years, would show it to be a very expensive energy source, indeed.

Paul Jonsen
Harrogate, England

Nowhere in “Can Small Modular Reactors Save Nuclear Energy?” was there a mention of how the waste from these reactors will be disposed of (Sept. 11, 2023, page 30). Maybe we should figure out what to do with the mountains of nuclear waste already created over the last 7 decades of nuclear power generation before we start generating more.

Jim Schulte
Cicero, Illinois



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