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Nuclear Waste Disposal
Can we make part of the problem
into part of the solution?

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

For years, we have been creating and conducting thinktanks using various methods for creative problem-solving. On some occasions we have been able to run several thinktanks at the same time in parallel on the same issue or problem, each using different methods—perhaps the only place on Earth where this has been done, and very instructive about those methods.

Occasionally we focus on a different solution to one of the great "impossible" problems of this country or of the world. This present article, excerpted from the periodic Winsights column running on this website, shows how to dispose of our overflowing nuclear wastes...

Can we make part of the problem
into part of the solution?

Can the most nightmarish part of our environmental and global pollution problem actually provide a major part of the solution?

Let's look at power sources:

o There's only so much hydroelectric potential to go around.

o Conventional, fossil-fuel-burning power stations—
  • pollute air and water;
  • worsen our accumulating world greenhouse CO2 effect;
  • if oil-fired, worsen our trade deficits and national dependency.
o Solar power—after many decades, we've never yet managed to master the art or science of making it economical on a large scale. Hopes for space-based solar power have slipped another generation further back with the successive retreats of plans for the U.S. Space Station.

o Geothermal power—it pollutes air and water.

o Ocean waves and tidal inlets—after many decades we've never managed to make them into an economical power source.

o Temperature differences within different layers of part of the ocean—after more than a decade we've not yet managed to make it economically feasible as a power source. Perhaps the same principle could become feasible with the sharper temperature differences found in groundwater in desert regions. (Aluminum and bauxite companies, and municipal power companies in the southwest, please note!)

o Controlled fusion power—it seems more out of reach now than when we first invented nuclear reactors, and "cold fusion" has gone into the books as an historic example of myth and hysteria in science.

o Conservation of power, as relatively a power source, has begun to bump into its limits. Thermal insulation of buildings has run into radon. We don't seem to be able to push Detroit into much higher fuel efficiencies. Social resistance to further measures is climbing unless we radically adjust incentives. Only the computer revolution has significantly reduced power demand, and how much further can that aspect go?

o Nuclear reactors are not only directly dangerous, a la 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl, but their greatest problem is the continued accumulation of radioactive wastes, already far more than we've figured out how to handle and potentially the most lethal threat to all life on Earth. To build additional conventional nuclear reactors would be one of the most irresponsible decisions in the annals of history! (Though many more such continue to get constructed around the world, in such ideally stable and morally dependable states as North Korea and Iran, and elsewhere....)
So what is left?—Those very same radioactive wastes already produced!

The end product of radioactivity is heat—enough heat, when brought together, to melt and pump sodium as a thermal conductor, or oil or steam if less than that, to drive turbines or other power-generating devices.

Can there be much doubt that, as a working power source, a given set of radioactive "waste" would receive much more careful handling than it does now as "waste"? Still dangerous, but the assembly of radioactive wastes into "secondary," thermal reactors has to be counted as a major safety improvement over today's situation.

Every unit of power generated from radioactive "waste" is that much less greenhouse effect, that much less air and water pollution, that much less fossil fuel used up, that much less foreign trade deficit and dependency resulting from more conventional power generation.

Unlike conventional nuclear reactors, such "secondary" reactors from radioactive "waste" will not generate more such waste. In fact, there will be less such waste, because:
o It moves stuff from essentially uncontrolled "dumps" into much more carefully handled power plants; and

o Its power can begin to replace conventional nuclear power, thus reducing the rate at which further such wastes are being created! Power-starved industries can again prosper and expand.

o Internationally, there would be no longer any excuse to accommodate North Korea, Iran, and dozens of other countries in the building of their waste-producing reactors—we could make a major export industry out of helping them consume their wastes into power instead, no more worries about creating bomb materials!
Design and building of these "secondary reactors" will also be a useful conversion of some of the technical resources of our dwindling defence industry, and a good spur to our economy, perhaps coming at a time most needed in our economic cycle whose long-running upside by now has to be aging and vulnerable!

In the 1940s and '50s we made the basic national decision, echoed elsewhere, to build regular nuclear power plants and to treat their non-power output as waste, rather than as part of a thermal, secondary power retrieval system. Whatever the economics were then as regards such secondary retrieval, those economics have certainly changed since, and the whole issue certainly bears rethinking.

When we originally made that basic national decision, we were in the throes of a technological fantasy about limitless clean nuclear power. Fusion power was just around the corner, we had not yet come to appreciate how hard it is to keep up safety standards in large-scale enterprises and over long periods of time, and we'd certainly not anticipated or come to appreciate the extent of the problem that we are now posed vis-a-vis horrendously accumulating, dangerous, nowhere safely disposable radioactive wastes. Each of these factors by itself fully justifies we rethink that decision of not converting radioactive wastes into secondary thermal retrieval power reactors. Taken together, it's quite remarkable that no one is exploring the issue.
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