Monday, June 23, 2008

Here's the truth about nuclear waste: part 1

I have been blogging here lately about green conservatism, and how we need to get away from the high polluting coal industry for our energy, and endorse the more environmentally friendly industry of nuclear power.

I discussed this with a friend of mine, and she brought my attention to one key point: What about all the nuclear waste? Isn't that just as bad if not worse than global warming. "I mean," she said, "I certainly wouldn't want that stuff in my back yard."

Well, I said, not according to many environmentalists who have historically been anti-nuclear and pro-global warming. They now contend that nuclear waste is far better than global warming.

They put it this way. Coal releases CO2 that we have no control of, and nuclear waste is in a box, and we can control exactly where we put it. And the plan right now by the U.S. government is to store these boxes of nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada.

That in mind, I set out to learn more about nuclear waste. And, coincidentally, I walked into the library, and set right on the top shelf of the new book section, was this book: "Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy," by Gwyneth Cravens.

It looked like the kind of book that might be over my head and interest level in technical jargon, but I picked it up and checked it out regardless. Perhaps, wrapped up somewhere among this 373 page book, lie the answer to our questions about nuclear waste.

One of the biggest things the anti-nuclear crowd protested against was not so much the idea of storing nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain, but the safety of getting it there. She wrote this:

"In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences indeed concluded after study that the risk from transport of nuclear waste was minimal. To date, no radiological related injuries or deaths have been reported as a result of nuclear waste transportation accidents, and no releases from accidents involving shipments of high-level nuclear waste have occurred."

In fact, she writes that this transport equipment is "rammed into concrete barriers, T-boned by speeding locomotives, dropped from high altitudes onto long steel spikes, plunged into churning rivers, submerged for extended periods, burned with jet fuel for ninety minutes, and otherwise roughly handled. They've held up. Infant car seats are much more loosely regulated... Even if a cask were somehow breached, the damage would probably be minimal."

For over 40 years, she writes, nuclear material has been shipped by trucks and trains, and there has not been one incident, while trucks carrying hazardous chemicals are involved in accidents from time to time causing fatalities and illnesses. They are not nearly put under the same scrutiny as the nuclear industry, even while the nuclear industry has been far safer.

While steel melts at 1,600 degrees, the uranium fuel's protective covering is tested at temperatures as high as 3,600 degrees. So even if a truck were to catch fire as a result of an accident, the material still will not leak.

And, she adds, since "Global position satellites" are continuously monitoring the nuclear waste shipments, it is nearly impossible for a terrorist organization to plan to use such a shipment as part of its plans. And even if they did manage to get to the spent fuel inside the containers, "they'd die from radiation poisoning before they could do anything with the stuff."

Once the material gets to the Yucca Mountain, she writes that you could simply dump the stuff on the ground, put up some warning signs to keep out, and the stuff would pose no problem for anyone.

The only difficulty would be with the future. She quotes scientist Rip Anderson:

"A tiny proportion of it would be dangerous for many thousands of years, so it has to be put away deep inside rock. But even if it were left out here in the desert, you and I would never get exposed. Nobody living in Las Vegas would ever get exposed. The risk is that future generations might ignore the warning markers. So the anxiety about disposal of nuclear waste is not about the immediate effects. It's about what happens after American society is gone."

And still, of all the waste from nuclear facilities, only a small fraction is hazardous enough to need to be stored long term in remote isolation, in an area such as the Yucca Mountain.

In fact, 90% of waste has such a low level of radioactivity it is handled without special equipment and is incinerated and taken to the dump just like household trash. This would include soil, concrete, paper towels, rags, tools, coveralls, etc.

Of the remaining 10%, only a small portion is deemed high level waste which would contain about 95% of all the radioactivity emitted from the nuclear facility.

Here is a neat fact to ponder: One nuclear fuel pellet weighing 0.0007 pounds can generate the same amount of electricity as 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil, or 157 gallons of regular gas.

Despite all this, Nevada is polluted with CO2 released from coal and oil waste, while nuclear power plants would emit zero CO2. The biggest concern of Nevada's politicians and voters is not about coal and oil, but about how bad they do not want nuclear power plants, and do not want the government storing nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain.

While there has been a big deal made about radiation leaking from the mountain, scientists estimate that the amount released per year would be equivalent to that of a chest x-ray or 15 millirem above natural background radiation.

So that's the biggest fear, and the main reason for all the nuclear delirium, while the average person is exposed to up to 8,000 millirem per year just by being around normal electrical equipment in their houses.

Despite that, " the United States will spend an estimated $60 billion to comply with a regulation about low-dose radiation exposure based on an unproven assumption. That's a lot of money that could be spent on more useful things, such as feeding the poor.

Here's another neat fact: "a coal fired plant releases more radiation than a nuclear plant and also emits deadly toxic waste that kills thousands of Americans a month, (yet) in its fifty-year history American nuclear power has not caused a single death."

Listen, in the world we live in, we need to have energy. The process of making energy produces waste. The debate right now, should we choose to accept it, is whether we continue on the road using fossil fuels and gamble that pollutants produced by this energy source does not cause global warming.

Yes, we could regulate industries to death in an attempt to prevent this global warming (whether it be a hoax or true), or we could resort to a more reliable alternative, and the best alternative available to us right now is nuclear power and deal with nuclear waste.

It is with this question in mind that I started writing my posts about green conservatism. And why I delved into the task of researching for the truth about nuclear waste, because as we know by now, what we read about in the media is not always the whole story.

And that's why I set myself on this mission to learn the truth about nuclear waste. So far in my journey, I have found that the nuclear waste option is far safer for our planet and humans than the emission of all that CO2.

Still, if I find information that states that coal energy is safer than nuclear power, I will report it here on this blog. So far what I have found has upheld my theory that much of what we know about nuclear waste is a fallacy.

To be continued...


Anthony Palmer said...

Nuclear energy is worth considering, but Gov. Gibbons, and Sens. Ensign and Reid will not let it happen. The "states rights" argument could come into play here as well.

Voters everywhere will have to get real about energy. You can't get something for nothing. So that means we are all going to have to make some tough choices about this.

Freadom said...

Absolutely, which is why I think it's so important to be having this discussion.

Nikki said...

Its great to get info on this as McCain is now pushing it...I am ignorant when it comes to this kind of stuff so this was a great and informative read for me! thanks! :)N

DB said...

Good post as always. Being from Nevada, what this will all come down to is the States Rights issue as Anthony pointed out. A litmus test in Nevada politics is your stance on Yucca Mountain (mostly a Southern Nevada concern). State Democrats and Republicans are against this together and remember, Nevada is one of the biggest advocates of States rights (gambling, prostitution, etc). Until you win the Nevada voters, this plan will never happen. No matter who is elected President. If forced, the State would appeal any decision indefinitely or make big deals out of the smallest issues which will prolong the already lengthy project and ocst it billions of dollars in the meantime.

One of the main concerns is less about safety, but more about money. I think the only way that Nevadans will go for this is if they get a cut for storing everyone else's waste. Alaskans get their oil cut, why not give Nevadans a waste cut? That proposal will win the voters. Otherwise they see no reason to take up a risk, no matter how small, from other states who refuse to store their own waste.

Freadom said...

You guys hit the nail on the head. It is a state right. I think forcing anything on the states would be a bad idea. What I wanted to do with this post is share what I learned by reading this ONE book. I just want people to make an educated decision based on fact.

I think what the Fed CAN do, however, is give the states the opportunity to consider this. It sounds like a good idea based on what I read in this book. Then again, this is just ONE book. I'm sure there's lot's more information out there for us to put on the table.