NUCLEAR WASTE: NOT A PROBLEM
Published at thenewamerican.com (click on the link to go to original full story).
by Ed Hiserodit
How ironic that the nuclear wastes of concern to the letter-to-the-editor writer have become the most serious problem with nuclear power generation. Six decades ago the birth of nuclear power was praised for lowering the volume of waste products by a factor of 10,000,000. As Petr Beckmann pointed out in his classic The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear, the nuclear wastes for an individual for a year is about the size of an aspirin tablet — a minuscule price to pay for inexpensive, reliable, safe electrical power. Yet when nuclear power is mentioned as a clean alternative today, the problem of wastes invariably arises.
The coal-fired plant also produces 30 pounds of sulfur dioxide per second (said to cause acid rain, amongst other problems) and as much nitrous oxide as 200,000 automobiles. Each year some 60,000 fellow citizens die early deaths from exposure to byproducts of coal combustion, according to studies by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Divisions of Atmospheric Sciences and of Biomedical and Environmental Sciences. Note that unlike wastes from nuclear power plants, all products of coal combustion are either sent into the atmosphere or into landfills where they remain toxic forever.
We have addressed the 3 percent of spent fuel that can be considered extremely dangerous high-level waste, because of the intensity at which it releases its radiation. But we have also seen from the preceding table that the rapid decay of its components lessens its danger to relatively short periods of time. About 97 percent of spent fuel is not waste at all, but valuable uranium and plutonium that can and should be recycled for use as fuel. It seems odd that we are enjoined by “environmentalists” to recycle paper — a truly renewable resource — but be forbidden by government decree to recycle radioactive fuel that is many times more expensive than gold. After chemically removing the high-level wastes, the recoverable isotopes in spent fuels and their half lives are:
710 million years
4.5 billion years
24.4 thousand years†
6.6 thousand years†
Note that except for plutonium-240 and -241, these recyclable isotopes have very long half-lives and they emit their radiation slowly — so slowly, in fact, that they can safely be handled with bare hands.
So why doesn’t the United States, like other countries possessing nuclear power, reprocess its fuel, removing the high-level radionuclides and reusing the uranium and plutonium isotopes? It is owing to the perceived — rather misperceived — dangers of the plutonium in the “spent fuel.”
A canister of waste that produces 30,000 watts of heat energy when removed (after one year) from a power plant cooling pond would have dropped to about 3,000 watts in 10 years, to 300 watts in 100 years, and to a barely detectable 3 watts in 1,000 years. We can see then that the radioactivity of the waste canister has decreased to 1/10,000th its initial value and is not likely to require the services of armed guards 24/7 for 100,000 years, as the more vocal anti-nuclear activists would have one believe.
The underlying cause of the nuclear-waste “problem” is an exaggerated fear of radiation. We have been conditioned for many years to accept the premise that even the slightest bit of radiation is dangerous — a premise that is not borne out by any experimental evidence.
It is certainly true that high doses of radiation can sicken or kill, and lower but still very substantial exposures can increase one’s propensity for developing cancer. But contrary to “common knowledge,” examination of the data shows that low levels of ionizing radiation often have a beneficial effect on human health known as hormesis — a fact that many scientists are striving to make public with little help from an uninformed and generally anti-nuclear news media. There is a very close parallel between ultra-violet (non-ionizing) radiation from exposure to sunshine and nuclear (ionizing) radiation. While extreme exposure to sunlight can lead to sunstroke and death, and lesser amounts cause sunburn and increase chances of skin cancer, moderate sunshine stimulates our bodies to create vitamin D that is necessary for good health.
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