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Nuclear Waste: A Valuable Source of Energy

By Al Fin | Wed, 03 October 2012 22:10 | 3

Next week in Toronto, nuclear scientists and government functionaries from around the world will gather to talk about different ways to bury nuclear waste deep underground, inaccessible to ordinary human activity.

But a retired Canadian professor of biophysics is trying to bring thinking on ordinary nuclear waste into the 21st century. Nuclear "waste" is not dangerous garbage, UT professor emeritus Peter Ottensmeyer asserts. Instead, it is a valuable source of vast and useful energy -- 134 times the amount of energy that was derived from nuclear fuel before it officially became "waste."

The U238 that makes up most of the uranium [in nuclear fuel] is not split, and not used, although the reaction does cause it to morph into heavier elements, including plutonium. The process leaves a residue of highly radioactive materials that emit harmful radiation for 400,000 years.

Keeping this waste safe is the problem that now confronts the nuclear industry.

Ottensmeyer argues that this waste fuel needn’t be treated as waste.

The heavier atoms it contains can indeed be split by the fast-moving neutrons.

But they have to be kept moving fast by using a different coolant or moderator in the reactor.

Sodium or a mixture of the heavy metals lead and bismuth work admirably, he says. The denser moderator keeps the neutrons bouncing around at high speeds, instead of slowing down, as neutrons in water-moderated reactors do.

Harnessing those fast neutrons, and using them to split the bigger, heavier products of nuclear reactors – such as the plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons – makes sense, he argues.

In fact, there’s potential to get 134 times more energy from what is now simply discarded as used fuel. He estimates the value of the potential electricity to be in the trillions of dollars.

Moreover, he says, some of the atoms that are split are transformed into valuable platinum group metals.

There’s also a big payoff in decreasing the radioactivity of the spent fuel, once the fast reactor has run its course. Fuel from the fast neutron reactor decays to the level of natural uranium in less than 300 years, says Ottensmeyer.

It also provides a peaceful use for the plutonium now used in nuclear weapons.

GE and Hitachi are currently developing a sodium-moderated fast neutron reactor, the Prism. They’re pitching it to the U.K. as a method of using its excess plutonium. _The Star

Many people who call themselves "environmentalists" appear to be clueless regarding the vast potential of nuclear power to provide abundant, affordable, safe, and clean energy on a large scale. Many of these so-called "environmentalists" are even attempting to shut down all forms of nuclear power altogether. Oddly enough, many of these people are also in favour of a massive implementation of big wind and big solar power -- the exorbitantly expensive intermittent unreliables -- deadly hazards to finely balanced power grids.

Whether in government or outside of government, these anti-nuclear / pro-intermittent unreliables are clearly faux environmentalists, and foes of the Earth's natural environment. Their policies will lead to massive global poverty with its concomitant subsistence-level destruction of the environment through deforestation, over-fishing, and the inevitable toxic waste that comes from the more primitive technologies of collapsing societies and civilisations.

By. Al Fin

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  • Mel Tisdale on October 06 2012 said:
    "Whether in government or outside of government, these anti-nuclear / pro-intermittent unreliables are clearly faux environmentalists, and foes of the Earth's natural environment." Well said, sir!

    If only the Greens would just shut up for a few years, we might, just might, be able to save the planet.
  • George Arnold on October 23 2012 said:
    Trivializing the unknown challenges and risks of safeguarding high-level nuclear waste for even 300 years is irresponsible even by the low standards of industry puffery. Going back to the 1950s in the real world, no-one has been able to develop and test a liquid-metal reactor that can operate safely. Search on 'Simi Valley nuclear accident' for starters.
    The bottom line is that nuclear power is neither clean, green, nor environmentally responsible. There is no energy production without enriched fuel, and there is no enrichment without the consumption of large quantities of coal-fired electricity. And, since a reactor's fuel rods become 'waste' after the release of such a small portion of the energy in the enriched fuel (1/134th part, according to author Al Fin) it's questionable that nuclear power can safely produce net positive energy in any configuration. It's the definition of a losing proposition. We can do better with the renewable sources Al Fin hates (BTW, Al, not all of them are intermittent.)
  • SA Kiteman on November 08 2012 said:
    Molten Salt Fast Reactors are another option to molten metal fast reactors, and the coolant is typically much more stabile from a chemical standpoint. Wrap a molten thoriated salt blanket around it and you can breed U233, a great fuel for LFTRs.

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