I have read some interesting discussions recently, pros and cons of nuclear energy. I leaned “pro” all my working life, but after retiring and thinking it through, I am not sure anymore. I am going to introduce an aspect that I have not seen in other discussions. I speak from the position of a trained radiation worker with more than 30 years of experience. I am writing about “nuclear waste,” a sanitized term the industry uses to refer to radioactive poisons and toxins.
This material is generated along with and coexists with nuclear energy. However, after its use, the energy dissipates, but the byproduct never goes away. I say “never” because its half-life is 44,000 years and is possibly dangerous to life in the environment after this period.
These toxins occur as a result of erosion within the operating system. Microscopic bits flake off and pass through the reactor core many times, gaining more radioactivity each time. Over years of operation, the plant becomes too radioactive to operate and must be shut down for decontamination and demineralization. This is accomplished by filtering the affluent, the liquid, which carries heat from the reactor core to the steam generator (fresh-water boiler).
The particulate matter is captured in micron filters, then incinerated to reduce it to its least common denominator. The resultant ash is then combined with silica under extreme heat and pressure to form glass beads, which are stored in 55-gallon, stainless steel drums and buried in the earth at the Savannah River Plant at Barnwell, S.C.
The agency built another facility at Yucca Flat Test Range in Nevada to process this material, with the intent of storing it in 1,000-foot shafts, bored under the nearby mountains. When the legislators in Carson City heard about it, they said, “No way! Not in our backyard, not in our state. We do not want it.”
No other state wants it, either. So, we are back to South Carolina, who is receiving the world’s used fuel rods through the port of Charleston.
In order to reduce the load at the Barnwell facility, the industry has mandated that all operating plants in the U.S. must retain and store at their facilities a certain percentage of their used fuel rods, whenever they refuel, adding to their buildup of stored nuclear waste.
This brings us back to the question: What do we do about nuclear waste? How much is enough? How much is too much? The world’s first nuclear reactor to go online for energy production was on the U.S. submarine Nautilus on Jan. 17, 1955. She and her reactor have been placed on the scrap heap, but the toxins created are still on hold.
Bobby R. Stone