The Prospect of Nuclear Energy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Dismantling) the Bomb

After discussing converting nuclear waste into energy with my pal Dan, he explained a Doctor Who theory (apparently never written "Dr. Who") that claims turning nuclear waste into fuel risks an explosion that will create a hole rupturing the space/time continuum and ultimately negate all of existence. This conversation was taking place because President Obama announced intentions to expand funding for nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). The nuclear option, a solution that environmentalists and lefties historically have had an aversion towards (though there are important exceptions like James Lovelock), is an almost zero emission source of energy. Aside from the im/explosion of the universe, some of the common concerns cited during nuclear energy discussions are: an inability to cope with large amounts of nuclear waste and a policy deadlock preventing us from reaching a viable nuclear waste solution; the length of time required to build nuclear power plants; some power plants singularly murder one billion fish per year; the annual production of enough high-level waste to create 34,000 Nagasaki-sized nuclear weapons, not to mention the production of other nuclear weapons technology such as depleted uranium; the risk of a nuclear power plant accident killing thousands, if not millions; the proliferation of radioactive weapons and targeting of nuclear power plants by non-state actors; the possibility of a spill during the hundreds of trips made annually to transport spent nuclear fuel to locations for disposal or for storage; and systemic nuclear racism. I'm hoping the following text will outline several solutions to these issues, and approaches that can be adopted to more safely store or eliminate nuclear waste, while simultaneously reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. In this post I will compare nuclear energy production to current fossil fuel production, and I'll save most comparisons between nuclear energy to other alternative energies for future posts. 

Since the discussion we're seeing is why nuclear energy is preferable fossil fuel energy, let's do a quick rundown on fossil fuel's similarities to nuclear fuels. Retrieving fossil fuels requires similarly destructive mining and extraction methods as uranium and other rare earth metals. In 2008, we witnessed a coal ash spill that NPR dubbed the Exxon Valdez of coal ash (also called fly ash). Coal ash covering an area of 100 acres at a depth of 65 feet spilled out across Tennessee when the Tennessee Valley Authority (the agency designated to maintain the coal ash) had allowed more than double the amount of coal ash to accumulate in a pond built to contain 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash. The 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash produced in half a century came from just a few coal-fired power plants - a number that becomes more disconcerting when you consider evidence indicating coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Even though the research that determined coal ash is highly radioactive is from a 1978 report and coal ash is known to contain a variety of poisonous chemicals, there are no federal requirements for preventing the coal ash from leeching into groundwater. When states attempt to regulate the storage of coal ash, corporations responsible for storing the coal ash are notorious for derailing legislative initiatives for requiring liners in coal ash ponds. Similar to the Exxon Valdez spill, most of the coal ash from the TVA spill has yet to be cleaned up. The coal ash that has been cleaned up was transported to poor and black communities. This is a familiar narrative in several poor and minority groups across the globe, and we'll discuss it more in-depth further down.

The nuclear waste produced in the US is currently stored at 131 separate sites in 39 states. Nuclear energy byproducts are generally classified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Committee as low- and high-level nuclear waste, waste incidental to reprocessing, and uranium mill tailings. Low-level waste (LLW) is defined as an item that has become contaminated with radioactive elements or is radioactive from exposure to radioactive elements. Currently, there are three locations in the US where LLW is disposed of. High-level waste (HLW) is classified as the byproduct of nuclear reactions, such as spent reactor fuel or the byproducts of reprocessing spent fuel; however, the US banned nuclear waste reprocessing under the Carter administration believing the international community would model the policy to reduce proliferation. The current total amount of HLW in the US covers the area of a football field that is 7 yards deep, and most HLW is stored on-site at the nuclear power plant where it was created. However, this PDF (download) indicates that most of the sites are running short on storage space to accommodate the nuclear waste. The US plans for storing HLW at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada have recently been scrapped, even though the US will need something similar to accommodate current waste and new waste from power plants expected to be licensed within the next four yearsThe criteria for waste incidental to reprocessing (WIR) includes waste that does not require indefinite interment and waste where high level radionuclides have been removed to the maximum practical extent. WIR is typically stored on-site as well. Uranium mill tailings are sandy materials that are the byproducts of processing ore to extract uranium and thorium. The dust-like material is more dangerous when inhaled. Some of the wastes from mill tailings have been cleaned up, but there are currently 226 million metric tons of mill tailings at around 50 locations across the country.

The wastes resulting from the nuclear reactions aren't the only environmental concerns about nuclear energy. There are also the environmental effects of mining uranium to be considered. The US searches and mines for uranium at several thousand sites across the country, though the US imports 3/4ths of its uranium (mostly from Canada and Australia). The heavy mining and transportation involved in obtaining uranium is a carbon intensive endeavor, but still produces far fewer GHGs than fossil fuel power plants. Despite the fact that mined uranium is about as radioactive as granite, it is far more dangerous than granite when inhaled or ingested. The US has recognized its desire for nuclear weapons as part and parcel of this sickness as evidenced by legislation providing compensation for mineworkers who are currently suffering or have suffered from the effects of uranium inhalation. This does not account for health effects suffered by the general public. For instance, Texas is one of several state governments that frequently grants permits allowing higher amounts of mining wastes in its water supplies. Neighboring New Mexico recently reported that over half of their 250+ abandoned uranium mines have no record of any attempt at clean up or restoration - the major effects of this are realized especially by the Navajo and other Native Peoples.

An important and heavily mined area in the US, the Navajo reservation spans approximately 24,000 miles in a checkerboard pattern across three states, and privately owned land dots the Navajo reservation. In 2005, the Navajo banned all uranium mining to mitigate the effects from the over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines sprinkled throughout the reservation. In response, mining corporations have functionally circumvented the mining ban by mining on the border of the Navajo lands. Additionally, nuclear waste storage sites have consistently been built on Native American lands. The problem with this is that nuclear waste is perpetually leaking out of the system used for storage and containment. These aspects of nuclear racism are common practice in several countries. In Australia, the majority of uranium mines are on Aboriginal lands. Aborigines have also experienced a doubling of cancer rates because of uranium mining, and new laws have codified Aboriginal labor exploitation. In other places there has been resistance to the dumping. The pirates that recently appeared off the coast of Africa were seeking reparations because European and Asian corporations are regularly dumping toxic and nuclear waste on Somalia. These reflect the policies of a government that makes policy decisions that can literally devalue life. Similar issues could be avoided in the future by finding a way to reduce/reuse/recycle nuclear waste (something that has not yet caused the implosion of the earth, sun, or universe).

To produce new nuclear fuel, uranium needs to be enriched to obtain a more fissile material that is usable in a power plant. Once the uranium makes it to the plant and becomes energy, it generates a lot of heat. To prevent an explosion or a meltdown the power plant needs to be cooled far below the temperature where the reaction occurs. Cooling the plant is a process that can require more than 3 billion gallons of water per day for one US nuclear power plant (by comparison, US coal-fired power plants can require more than 2.2 billion gallons of water per day for cooling). Though this may seem like an astronomical use of water, 98% of the water is returned to its source, and only 3.3% of US freshwater is consumed by power generation. Of course, once the water is returned there are serious implications for the biosphere. For instance, the Indian Point nuclear power plant 24 miles north of New York City kills as many as 1.2 billion fish annually, but would only require a $100 million retrofit to reduce the impact by 95-98%. The controlling interests in Indian Point have lobbied for the $100 million retrofit instead of the $1.5 billion solution New York state proposed, which would require the construction of three cooling towers the size of Yankees Stadium in the Hudson River. These powerful interests also argue construction of the cooling towers would not be completed until 2020, and there would be an increase in damage to the environment from the blasting required to install the cooling towers. Another unfortunate turn of events is, under a recent Supreme Court ruling, the EPA can use cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the severity of environmental damage is outweighed by economic benefits under the Clean Water Act. Similar to other agencies in the Obama administration claiming a desire to reverse Bush-era policies, the EPA claimed it would better enforce provisions under the Clean Water Act. In another act proving that the Obama administration is the Bush administration 2.0, the EPA has taken into consideration only 1.8% of the killed fish as having an economic impact - far less than the actual value of destroyed aquatic life. The EPA has claimed that it has difficulty assessing the total impact of lost wildlife because the Hudson River is already a Superfund site contaminated with PCBs, a chemical that causes cancer in animals and has been banned since 1977. The EPA's logic also seems to allow valuing sea life only if it has direct economic value, ignoring fundamental science that the bottom of the food chain must be gigantic to support a few organisms at the top of the food chain. The EPA adopted this stance even after research was published that the oceans contain only 10% of the large fish population that they did in 1950. The Indian Point power plant is only one of 65 nuclear power plants currently operating in the US, so it is easy to imagine the amount of environmental damage inflicted when safety regulations are not properly enforced.

Enforcement and inspection are particularly poignant topics when discussing meltdowns and explosions. When meltdowns and explosions do happen, they have typically been well contained and health issues are often exaggerated. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl has given nuclear power a bad rap - this is not to say it is an undeserved reputation because these tragedies certainly contaminated the environment and killed people. But pointing to accidents that occurred over 20 years ago as the reason to reject nuclear energy in the present seems like unfounded paranoia. For instance, the Chernobyl reactors (RBMK reactors) were of a flawed design. Even with this flawed design it produced energy for 30 years without a meltdown, and Chernobyl's explosion happened only after engineers with no knowledge of reactor physics violated several safety measures in an ill-conceived experiment. The Chernobyl explosion required the evacuation of 135,000 human inhabitants. Since the exodus, all but one of the animal species that had been run off or destroyed by the human activity has returned. This does not, however, indicate there are higher overall concentrations of animal populations or that there are no mutations in the animals that survive near Chernobyl. The long-term effects on humans measured in 2000 by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation determined that there was very little increase in cancer risks by those outside of a .5 KM radius of the reactor, directly contradicting claims often made by the media. RBMK reactors have since been retrofitted to prevent similar catastrophes from occurring. Most RBMK reactors have been shut down due to their age, and only 15 RBMKs are in operation world-wide. The Three Mile Island meltdown was caused similarly by design deficiencies, personnel error, and component failures. This meltdown was the main cause for halting nuclear power plant construction in the US. The same type of pressurized water reactors at Three Mile Island are still used at over 230 locations and several hundred more are used in naval propulsion systems without meltdowns or explosions. Currently, the US pressurized water reactors are experiencing degradation in operation from radioactive bombardment, and upkeep of nuclear power plants can cost hundreds of millions of dollars per decade.

If there have been only a few significant nuclear energy disasters, why is it we believe nuclear energy is such a terrible and destructive thing? Much of it has to do with how the media reports single-system failures in a network of fail-safes that has incredible depth to prevent nuclear catastrophes. However, there have only been a few significant nuclear accidents that occurred during 12,700 reactor-years of civil operation. Aside from the process itself, another concern for the nuclear energy industry is the possible targeting of nuclear power plants (like Al-Qaeda reportedly planned to do). This is a fear fueled by media outlets reporting that guards are sleeping at nuclear power plants in the US. However, sleeping guards wouldn't do much to protect against crashing a plane into a power plant, as Al-Qaeda wanted to do. Moreover, in the post-9/11 world, the nuclear energy industry has the highest security standards of any American industry, and the Obama administration recently vowed to increase those standards by providing more funding to secure and maintain nuclear materials. At US nuclear power plants there are several physical security measures taken, a response protocol to limit penetration of physical barriers, and measures to prevent cyber attacks on electronic systems. Further systems of protection are not disclosed to ensure the depth of security measures, and nuclear waste and weapons storage facilities have the same protections. A more likely source of a nuclear attack would be from a radiological bomb snuck in through one of the 15 million cargo containers shipped across the globe every year. Unfortunately, an attack similar to this is considered inevitable by many policy makers and analysts. Nuclear material has been made internationally available after several incidents like the collapse of nuclear powers or the selling of nuclear technologies by private corporations. For instance, Scomi group was a corporation that sold nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Additionally, governments are in a constant search for radioactive material that has been lost - after the Soviet Union collapsed, there were thousands of abandoned items that could be used in radiological bombs, not to mention tactical nuclear weapons have been lost. This doesn't even include the amount of nuclear material the US fails to keep track of. The risk of non-state actors obtaining actual nuclear weapons is low, but the detonation of a radioactive bomb is an oft-discussed scenario. Scientists often refer to radioactive bombs as "Weapons of Mass Disruption" because of long-term contamination and a relatively low amount of deaths (most deaths would come from the explosion itself). Furthermore, there a large number of targets that would cause greater instantaneous damage. These targets include chemical plants, oil pipelines and refineries, and other types of power plants. Considering the number of safety precautions taken at nuclear facilities, it is more likely other industries would be targeted because of the higher risk of success and body count.

With all of these concerns in mind, there are a few solutions that could be adopted. One of the ways to convert weapons-grade materials into fuel is by processing it into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel - the US began construction on a MOX reprocessing plant in 2007 at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The Obama administration subsequently cancelled construction of the Savannah River Site MOX reprocessing plant in 2009. MOX fuel made at most MOX reprocessing plants are comprised of 8% plutonium and 92% uranium. This simultaneously prevents the plutonium from being used in a nuclear weapon or even a dirty bomb, and consumes depleted uranium stocks. One of the downsides to MOX is that, if it is not used in a breeder reactor (technology that is currently unavailable commercially), spent MOX fuel needs to cool for 150 years before it can be put into safe storage. It can also be reprocessed in a way that allows you to remove plutonium from it. France, a country where nuclear energy supplies over 70% of domestic energy, requires only one reprocessing plant (La Hague) to fuel all its other MOX-capable plants. La Hague is one of the facilities the Savannah River Site was modeled after. Concerns about reprocessing include the high expense of clean-up costs and fears of proliferation because reprocessing separates plutonium from other materials. The fears of proliferation have never been realized from La Hague, and environmental damage is minimal compared to other nuclear power plants. As previously mentioned, nuclear weapons are far more likely to come from failed states or unsavory salespersons rather than being stolen from a highly protected nuclear facility. Making the nuclear energy literally useless for all but the weakest of radioactive reduces the likelihood of it being weaponized by all but the most advanced nuclear powers.

An option that would allow the (almost) complete consumption MOX fuel are fast breeding reactors (FBRs). FBRs produce nuclear fuel (typically plutonium) while generating energy. There has been research in several areas to cool FBRs, but FBRs have failed in virtually every country (France, Germany, US, Japan, UK, Russia, and India) that has tried to build one. Cooling them is the biggest issue, and countries have experimented with gases and liquid metals to cool the reactors. Unfortunately, gas-cooled fast breeding reactors have never made it out of the developmental phase. Liquid metal fast breeding reactors (LMFBRs) have existed in several countries, but have been typically shut down after several years of failure. France has had the most success, but both of their LMFBRs (Phenix and Superphenix) were shut down by 2009. The Japanese FBR was shut down because of liquid sodium likes to explode when it comes into contact with just about anything (including oxygen). The clean-up costs at LMFBRs include removing the coolants that typically leech radiation from the reaction itself, though they can be processed to rid them of their radioactivity. The FBR is still an interesting design that should be pursued because its byproducts are less radioactive than other reactors. FBRs would also generate their own fuel, which would require less mining.

The most realistic solution to the majority of the problems listed above is a new type of nuclear reactor. There is a lot of research going on right now on different types of nuclear reactors, but the reactors I am most interested in are thorium-fueled reactors. The reasons being is that thorium is four times more abundant than uranium, and it causes far less environmental damage from start to finish. Furthermore, it does not produce byproducts that can be weaponized, and it can consume HLW stocks and old nuclear weapons for fuel. In fact, governments shunned thorium because it contains no fissile material to be weaponized, though the first commercial nuclear reactor in the US was run on thorium and uranium. It also literally incinerates weapons grade plutonium, and has been offered as a way to reduce nuclear weapons stocks and simultaneously produce energy. It is a cheaper alternative to MOX, and there is also a thorium reactor design (called Accelerator Driven Systems) that does not require uranium or plutonium once we're done incinerating those weapons stockpiles (Ha!). The ADS reactors would reduce the risk of a meltodwn and proliferation to zero. A shift to thorium could also power the US for 1,000 years while radically decreasing environmental damage - ADS reactors can also consume HLW for energy. Additionally, by many estimates, the systems to prevent meltdowns represent 75% of the operating cost of nuclear power plants. This would make power plants infinitely more affordable, while assuaging fears of meltdown and proliferation. Thorium reactors would also substantially reduce the amount of mining on Native American lands, and the stockpiles of nuclear waste we have gathered. By 2020, the US could retrofit all of its uranium reactors to use thorium and build an additional 50 thorium reactors (hah, that link says some unrealistic things, but you get the point). Another reason thorium is a more realistic option is because it is being researched by several countries. As India has 25% of the world's thorium, they are heavily researching thorium-based reactors to reduce their reliance on other nations for energy resources. India intends to export a new thorium power plant model that produces 300MW, and is currently pursuing a thorium fast breeder reactor. The plans for those 300MW power plants include creating reactors with a 30-year lifespan that are permanently sealed and can be buried after their fuel supply is exhausted. The Indian FBR is expected to be fully operational by 2011.

The ideas I am proposing are not intended to be the sole source of shifting away from fossil fuels, but one of the many alternatives that need to be used collaboratively, rather than competitively, to reduce global emissions. Further, there are literally hundreds of nuclear power plant reactor models that can be researched, but these are the solutions that would be the most actionable and cost-effective. The thorium reactor are probably the best hope we've got for solving the issue of nuclear waste, nuclear racism, meltdowns, explosions, and proliferation. Unfortunately, the US has currently only provided thorium research with $250 million (clearly a tiny amount when one of the current US nuclear power plants would require at least that much per decade of maintenance). If the US fails in its attempts at a viable commercial thorium reactor, there is still hope (at least for me) that another country we have nuclear agreements with, such as India, will make discoveries and pass the technology on. Anyway, hope you enjoy reading, and I hope to get another post up faster than this one. Future posts will be exploring the advantages and disadvantages of other types of green energy (solar, wind, wave, etc.), and proposals to improve them.