Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nuclear Power Waste Problem Gets More Financing

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

Once again, America turns to nuclear energy, seeking some way of having infinite energy. Just like in personal life, endless consumption of anything ends up destroying everything in its path. Even if there were no limits possible, we would have to have them in order to preserve our own lives, for no universe is infinite.

From the NYT:
last month, Congress voted $50 million for the Energy Department to explore a new kind of reprocessing, one that would reuse a much larger fraction of the waste.

The idea is extremely ambitious. It would require perfecting not only a new method of reprocessing, but also a new class of reactors to burn the salvaged material. Still, proponents said it would have two great advantages: It would mean that Yucca Mountain would be big enough to accommodate the waste that could not be recycled. And it would make Yucca easier to open, because the material still to be buried would generate less heat in the centuries to come.

"Reprocessing, or processing spent fuel before it's put in the repository, is a very good way to buy time," said Roger W. Gale, a former Energy Department official who is now an electricity consultant. "It's a fail-safe in case we continue to have problems with Yucca Mountain."
There are several things here. One is, if we try to have maximum nuclear energy, this means building a huge number of plants over and over again since they degrade in less than 50 years and once you build one, unbuilding it becomes horrifically expensive both in the wallet and in nature. The waste doesn't degrade safely for many thousands of years.

Any open-ended system that grinds out eon-spanning waste products isn't a good system on a singular planet. Namely, we have only one earth.
The heat is not a problem in the first few decades, when a repository could be left open for ventilation. The harder time is the next 1,500 years, when heat would be given off by longer-lived radioactive materials, mostly a category called actinides, and also the isotopes that are created as those actinides go through radioactive decay.
You just know we will dump everything in one spot, over and over. And this will build up and since this is an unstable system that grows hotter, not cooler, internally, if we add more and more we will make something that resides deep inside the nearest star to us: a star core.

These things are dangerous, you know. What if it works with the earth's mantle and heats up and causes a rupture in the earth's crust, it being much heavier than mere rocks and soil? Since we know our earth isn't stable, putting this stuff nearly anywhere is asking for trouble. There are so many variables to consider, it just isn't a good option. The main one is, people, being gluttons, will want maximum power no matter what the consequences, just like today. And the NIMBY mentality will be fully operational, too. So whereever this stuff gets stuck away and always, it will be on Indian reservations, you just know it will, will have to bear the entire load generated.
The salvaged materials include uranium 235, the isotope used in bombs, which splits easily, and uranium 238, which makes up more than 99 percent of uranium in nature but is harder to split.

One use of uranium 238 in a reactor is as a "fertile" material that can absorb stray neutrons and become plutonium 239, which can be used in reactors and bombs.

But existing reactors split the uranium using "thermal" neutrons. The new ones would use "fast" neutrons, which travel thousands of times as fast.
I don't think humans are psychologically or emotionally capable of handling something this dangerous. Our track record, frankly, stinks.

The sane thing to do is pretty much what the same thing dealing with our budget problems, our red ink, our trade deficit. Raise prices on the flood of goods pouring into this country. Use the tariff to fund a fast moving solar energy individual home array system for everyone. The solar panels will be manufactured here in America so there will be lots of jobs available, making and installing these systems.

We don't want huge solar arrays far away from homes for several reasons. One: as electricity is transmitted from place to place, it loses power. For example, you can't run a narrow gage wire a long distance. There will be little feed at the terminus. The wire running up my mountain to the house is a cable as big as the ones running down the streets. We loose energy all over the place with the present grid system. Also, disruptions can spread across half a continent when there is no localized energy.

Solar arrays on roofs won't blow up and render the surrounding county unihabitable. Nor is it a useful terrorist target. Being diffuse, it means attacks on one part of the system won't cascade the entire system into crashing. So this makes sense on many levels.

Except for the tendency to be an energy glutton.

There is no satiating this desire. Most of us are only two generations away from primative energy use. Us upperclass people who have had electricity since 1900 are, in my case, a whole THREE generations away from primative energy use! That isn't very many, is it? The present set-up is temporary. Figuring out how to fix it is urgent and it doesn't involve many deals with the devil. There are sane ways of doing things!
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