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Infinite Carbon-Free Energy Is Closer Than Ever

Infinite Carbon-Free Energy Is Closer Than Ever

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Are Diamonds The Answer To Our Nuclear Waste Problem?

Nuclear energy is often touted as an answer to climate change for its potential as an efficient means of energy production in a decarbonized energy industry of the future. We already have nuclear energy infrastructure around the world, it releases no greenhouse gases, and it’s a potent means of energy generation, but nuclear is still a hard sell in much of the world.  This is in part due to high profile nuclear disasters, such as Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl, which loom large in the public consciousness. It’s also due to the fact that spent nuclear fuel, while it doesn’t contribute any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, is nevertheless a huge hazard to public health and safety, as it stays radioactive for many, many more generations than will benefit from the energy it produces. While most types of nuclear waste have a half-life of mere tens of thousands of years, Chlorine-36 stays radioactive for 300,000 years and neptunium-237 boasts a half-life of a whopping 2 million years. 

“The typical nuclear power plant creates about 2,300 tons of waste annually,” reports Big Think. “99 reactors are currently employed in the United States. That's a lot of waste per year. The US is currently stockpiling 75,000 tons of nuclear waste. It is carefully stored and maintained. However, just like anything else it is vulnerable to natural disasters, human error, even terrorism.”

As Oilprice reported earlier this year, this isn’t just a public safety issue, it’s also a public spending issue. “All this radioactivity amounts to a huge amount of maintenance to ensure that our radioactive waste is being properly managed throughout its extraordinarily long shelf life and isn’t endangering anyone. And, it almost goes without saying, all this maintenance comes at a cost.” In the United States, the crushing cost of nuclear waste maintenance is weighing heavily on taxpayers. In 2019 the cost clocked in at a staggering $7.5 billion, a number that only continues to grow. 

Related: Why Oil Is Critical To U.S. Survival

The United States is not the only country struggling with a nuclear waste problem--not by a long shot. According to Engineering & Technology, nuclear waste is a pressing issue in Europe and especially in the UK. “Under European law, all countries that create radioactive waste are obliged to find their own disposal solutions – shipping nuclear waste is not generally permitted except in some legacy agreements. However, when the first countries charged into nuclear energy generation (or nuclear weapons research), disposal of the radioactive waste was not a major consideration. For several of those countries, like the UK, that is now around 70 years ago, and the waste has been ‘stored’ rather than disposed of. It remains a problem.”

Plenty of research and design spending has gone toward figuring out what to do with nuclear waste. The UK has opted to bury their problems down deep and maintain a stiff upper lip through the development of geological disposal facilities (GDF), “a waste disposal method that involves burying nuclear waste deep, deep underground in a cocoon of backfill, most commonly comprised of bentonite-based cement.” Meanwhile, taking a slightly more sci-fi approach, Nobel prize winner Gérard Mourou has suggested blasting nuclear waste with lasers to render it benign. 

And, believe it or not, there exists an even more fantastical potential solution to dealing with nuclear waste. Researchers from the UK’s University of Bristol “have invented a method to encapsulate nuclear waste within diamonds, which as a battery, can provide a clean energy supply lasting in some cases, thousands of years,” says Big Think. Diamonds are about to be a lot more than just a girl’s best friend. 

“The radiation is locked safely away inside the gemstone. All the while, it generates a small, steady stream of electricity. Nickel–63, an unstable isotope, was used in this first experiment. It created a battery with a half-life of a century.” This method would not only safely dispose of nuclear waste, but it would also create a new form of clean energy production with “no emissions, no moving parts, no maintenance, and zero concerns about safety” in a win-win of nearly unthinkable proportions.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on May 07 2020 said:
    I am always amused at how much people worry about nuclear waste, when a single thermonuclear bomb detonated over a very large city, like New York can kill 8 million people within a few seconds. And the US and Russia have over two thousand such weapons, sitting atop missiles, ready to launch at a few minutes notice. Civilization was nearly destroyed 3 times with such weapons. Yet people get all bent out of shape about nuclear waste, which can easily be stored inside some tunnels drilled into a few granite mountains. The cost to monitor and guard such facilities forever would be trivial, compared to the amount of money spent on cosmetics each month.
    The revenue which any major entertainment company, like Netflix, earns in a year could cover the cost of storing and guarding all nuclear waste for a century.
    If you want to worry about 'nuclear' anything, you had better start by worrying about nuclear weapons, because more and more countries are building them. Sooner or later, that means they will get used somewhere. Good luck keeping that situation under control, once it starts.
    How many nuclear accident do you thing it would take to equal the millions which COVID-19 will eventually kill? Do you see China shutting down their wet food markets? Nope. Yet people worry about nuclear waste, when it is absolutely certain that the Chinese wet markets will eventually cause another deadly pandemic. That is how viruses work. You cannot change biology. Eat enough bats & other wild animals, and someone will get one of the hundreds of deadly viruses they carry. That is guaranteed fact.
    Smart phones have killed far more people than all the nuclear accidents have.
    Compared to funding the police, fire departments. schools, armies, hospitals, road maintenance, electric grid, and scores of other things, the cost to guard nuclear waste forever is trivial. One super rich billionaire, of which we now have hundreds, could personally pay for it. A hundred of the richest taxpayers in the USA could cover the cost, using only the tax savings recently given them by the Administration and the irresponsible Congress.
    Unfortunately, excessive government regulation has made nuclear energy too expensive to compete against other sources of power like natural gas, wind, and solar. Future generations will pay a terrible price for that, in climate change, and fertilizer shortages after the gas used to make fertilizer runs out.
  • Famlin Pankaj on May 08 2020 said:
    If 1 nuclear plant produces 2,300 tons, then the worlds 400 reactors will produce 920,000 tons of waste.
    That is nothing compared to 33 billon tons of CO2 generated each year by the fossil fuels. Unlike CO2, the
    nuclear waste is stored safely and there are already methods to reuse it. Please read about the BN600, BN800
    and BN1200 fast reactors being built in Russia. Nuclear is still safer than fossil fuels.

    As electric transport increases, the need to build new reactors will also increase.
  • James Hopf on May 09 2020 said:
    This article talks about waste fears being a reason for lack of public support for nuclear, and then goes on to stoke those fears by making several gross mischaracterizations.

    The article talks about a huge volume of waste, when the volume is actually vanishingly small (almost a million times smaller than the waste volume from fossil generation, on a per kW-hr basis).

    It suggests that nuclear wastes pose a uniquely long term hazard, when the truth is that nuclear waste isotopes decay away exponentially while many of the elements in non-nuclear waste streams (e.g., fossil) remain toxic forever. Also, the isotopes with extremely long half-lives are barely radioactive and therefore are a negligible hazard.

    Finally, and worst of all, we have the absurd statement that nuclear waste is a "huge hazard to public health and safety." Orwellian! Over the decades nuclear has been around, pollution from fossil power generation (i.e., toxic wastes released directly into the environment) have caused on the order of 10 million deaths, in addition to global warming, while nuclear power wastes have caused *none*! Unlike other wastes, nuclear power wastes have been fully contained (isolated from the environment) and have never caused any harm. And nuclear is the only industry that is required to have a viable plan for the wastes to remain contained for as long as they remain hazardous. And that challenge has been met, from a technical perspective (e.g., Yucca Mountain, which meets all the technical requirements). The cost will be a fraction of a cent per kW-hr.

    Nuclear waste has always been a purely political problem. It has never been a technological problem. This research (containing isotopes in diamonds) is a technical solution looking for a problem. These scientists suggest that, with this technology, there will be no concerns about safety. It is already the case that there are no valid technical concerns about safety. It's all about lack of perspective and knowledge on the part of the public. Anyone who is concerned about safety now (with on site storage or Yucca) will be just as concerned about safety with these diamond batteries. If you think the public will accept this, you're tone deaf. Then there is all the isotope separation that will be required, and the associated huge costs and environmental "hazards" associated with the reprocessing site. And finally, the fact that containing a few select isotopes in diamonds will not address the overall problem.

    This appears to be yet another shameless hyping of the (actually negligible) hazards associated with nuclear waste, in order to justify (largely pointless) research grants. Making it out to be a technical problem when it's not. Hopelessly hyping the benefits of a technological solution, when it is a political and perception problem, not a technical one.

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