The Latest Nuclear Disaster

September 29, 2009 | 1 Comment

The U.S. is facing a nuclear disaster well underway and threatening to get much worse.  It’s personnel leaving the field, and it’s a horrifying nightmare.  Skills for oversight and regulatory issues, safety and new develpoments are disappearing.

Christopher Kouts, is acting director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management at the Department of Energy.  The program had cut its staff by 2,000 people over the last 18 months and has 700 people remaining, some of whom are now looking for more secure jobs. While his office is continuing to seek a license for the Yucca Mountain Repository from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he says the office may not have enough staff members to answer all the commission’s questions.  That leaves unclear whether the mountain’s suitability as a waste repository will ever be determined.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which holds public meetings about three times a year, on Sept. 23, 2009 thus focused on alternative strategies like building a new class of reactors that could accept the “spent” fuel from existing reactors, deriving some energy from the wastes and breaking down the most difficult, long-lived materials into elements that are easier to handle.

Back in the early 1980s, the U.S. government agreed using signed contracts with all the nuclear utilities, to have the Energy Department begin taking the waste in 1998.  The utilities (ratepayers) were to pay a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour made in their nuclear reactors for the storage expenses.  The nuclear waste fund now amounts to about $22 billion, and some nuclear companies want that money diverted to research on new technologies for processing waste.

About half, about $10.4 billion has been spent at Yucca Mountain, a ridge of volcanic rock, in Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, the main focus of a federal program that has that has gone through the money seeking a repository for nuclear waste without a pellet yet there.

Nevada opposition to the Yucca repository has been fierce. President Obama spoke out against the project during his campaign. In February, the president released a proposed budget cutting off most of the money for Yucca Mountain and promised to appoint a commission to look into alternatives, which too has been delayed.

Thus we have a smoldering nuclear disaster in progress, and the people in the government are leaving.  That might not seem so bad, but no reasonable person can expect that governmental oversight and regulation is going to go away no matter which way the nuclear industry goes.  Coming up short of staff with the technical know how will just exacerbate the public problem with the time to recover likely in short supply.

A quick refresher – all the energy humanity has and will be using for a while yet comes from solar fusion saved by biology and geology into oil, gas and coal, or used currently from solar driven wind, thermal and photovoltaic cells, geothermal fission heat from deep in the earth and man’s only source of actual energy production, the fission nuclear industry.  Everything else is in the fuel arena – with the energy within originating from one of the above sources.

To escape the oxidation of ancient carbon and hydrogen compounds for whatever reason, the nuclear fission industry is the only alternative with existing technology at scale for now.

The industry isn’t waiting around either.  At the Technical Review meeting Ernest J. Moniz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former deputy secretary of energy pointed out the basic premise of reuse is open to question.  The professor says most of the thinking on reusing the fuel dated from decades ago, when uranium was thought to be scarce. But now he says, “roughly speaking, we’ve got uranium coming out of our ears, for a long, long time.”  Many will argue that, as much of the world with cash to spend is eager to get nuclear electrical generation.

Yet in spite of the Professor’s cold water throw, three major nuclear companies presented strategies at the meeting for sorting out the components of nuclear waste: burying some, recovering others for use as fuel and putting some in reactors to be transformed into materials that are easier to handle.  The physics of uranium technology to date offer that some 95% of the energy remains after the “spent” fuel is sent to waste storage.  All that nuclear “waste” is an incredible resource; about twenty times the power already used still exists in those pools at each reactor station.

Of course, the meeting’s information isn’t on the web site yet, so we don’t know (at this writing) what the industry presentations offered.  But it’s certain that the industry and much of the informed populace realize that until or unless fusion or some other breakthrough comes along all that fuel has considerable value.

By no means can the uranium fuel supply issue be ignored.  One can fairly expect even if a breakthrough comes in there will still be a lot of nasty fuel pellets to deal with.  More are coming and the current offerings to other countries are going to add to the world’s stockpile. In any case, the loss of the experience, even if one has a negative perspective on regulators and bureaucrats, will be sorely missed.

It’s a classic case of a crises built out of politics, and the worst politics at that.  Not only is the Obama administration not preparing its own proposals and selling them, they rely on congressional staffers and the Congress and Senate to originate bills.  It is no wonder at all that bills arrive 1000s of pages long with Pandora’s boxes of additions for special interests and earmarks by the hundreds and billions of unrelated dollars involved.

Meanwhile, serious problems that offer incredible opportunities go unseen and unanswered with delays and the existing public resources left to rot.  This is another administration focused on the polled political public pulse rather on leadership.  Losing resources, the money already spent, and the potential energy releases and technological development is a terrible indictment for a newbie president.  Having a fission reactor with a very high efficiency rating that leaves much better waste behind would sell madly in today’s world – and Obama is nowhere to be seen on the topic.


1 Comment so far

  1. Matt on September 29, 2009 6:43 AM

    Half the world’s population is still using wood or dung for heat and cooking. Their only hope for an improved standard of living is nuclear power.

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