Let It Glow

Tom Easton

Once upon a time, nuclear power was pitched as promising electricity too cheap to meter. It didn’t work out that way, for the power plants turned out to be absurdly expensive.

There were several reasons for this. One was the perception that nuclear power was dangerous, largely (at first) because after World War II “nuclear” meant “bombs.” The Cold War didn’t help, for we all then lived in fear of nuclear Armageddon. As a result, every nuclear power plant had a new set of safety measures, making each plant a one-off engineering challenge. Cost-saving standardization of design played no part.

Another reason for expense was years-long construction delays caused by redesigns and by public protests against putting the plants in anyone’s back yard. This put off being able to start paying back loans and raised interest costs.

Safety measures worked well when needed, at least until 2011. Three Mile Island, often cited as a horrific example of what can go wrong, released very little radioactive material to the environment.  The Chernobyl disaster occurred when safety measures were ignored.  In both cases, human error was more to blame than the technology itself.  In 2011, however, a tsunami triggered by an undersea earthquake overwhelmed safety measures, destroyed several reactors, and spread contamination over large parts of Japan.[1]

And then there’s the nuclear waste problem, whose icon is every reactor’s “swimming pool”[2] full of spent fuel rods and glowing blue with Cerenkov radiation. Where do you put 100,000 tons of intensely radioactive, toxic material (military and civilian, as of 2015) where it has no chance of getting into the environment and making people sick? The question became especially critical after a few notable slip-ups (including a Soviet waste dump that exploded and contaminated 20,000 square miles of land[3]). The answer approved by the U.S. government was underground storage, but that has proved so politically controversial than the only approved site, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has been closed. Reactor waste now sits in giant storage casks, mostly on site.[4]

It is no surprise that many people argue vehemently that nuclear power has no place in the modern world. It is just too dangerous.[5]  As a result many countries are shuttering their nuclear power plants. Yet at the same time, there are calls for a nuclear revival or renaissance or resurgence. Advocates of nuclear power argue that the problems with nuclear power define their own solutions–standardized designs and expedited permitting are often mentioned. So are innovative reactor designs.  “Fail-safe” reactors are designed to shut down without destroying themselves and releasing radioactive material. Small modular reactors[6] are suited to places that don’t need huge, expensive reactors, such as developing countries,[7] as well as to applications with relatively modest power requirements, such as desalination. Among their advantages are size, price, and standardization—they can be built in factories, in quantity, and shipped to sites anywhere in the world.

There are also benefits to be had. Nuclear advocates stress that nuclear power has zero carbon emissions (unlike coal and natural gas-based power), which can help us reduce the human contribution to global warming and—if we build the necessary thousands of reactors—save the world. If we choose to rely for the bulk of our energy needs on renewable sources (such as wind and solar), nuclear can provide essential “base-load” power for when renewables aren’t up to the job

Richard Rhodes, “Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution,” Yale Environment 360, July 19, 2018,[8] argues that nuclear is safer than most energy sources and is needed if the world hopes to radically decrease its carbon emissions. Laura S. H. Holgate and Sagatom Saha, “America Must Lead on Nuclear Energy to Maintain National Security,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 2018, argue that economic, environmental, and technological factors are converging to make commercial nuclear power a sensible electricity source for countries looking to decarbonize their economies without sacrificing growth. To ensure stronger nuclear nonproliferation and security safeguards, the United States must once more embrace the commercial nuclear market.[9]

But there is still the nuclear waste problem. Where do you put thousands of tons of intensely radioactive, toxic material where it has no chance of getting into the environment and making people sick?

Deep borehole disposal is an idea that dates back to the 1950s. In its latest version,[10] it means drilling a hole five kilometers deep, installing a liner, dropping canisters of waste into the bottom two kilometers, and sealing everything up with concrete and clay plugs. You need to drill in solid rock without many cracks and without anything like oil or gas that someone in the future might wish to drill for. Fortunately, there is a lot of that kind of rock all over the world. And you need a lot—the U.S. alone would need about a thousand boreholes, costing $40 million each.

You go that deep, and there is very little chance that the waste will come back to haunt you. It seems to be the safest waste-disposal solution anyone has yet come up with. And, unlike back in the 1950s, we have the drilling technology to make it work. Nevertheless, the public is leery of this technique. Government efforts to find a site for a demonstration project—drill, drop non-waste down the hole, and seal it up—had to be cancelled in 2017 because the Department of Energy “had trouble finding a location for a borehole demonstration project. Communities feared that the test drilling site might later be used for nuclear waste disposal.”[11] The DOE is still looking for suitable demo sites.

There are two genuine drawbacks. Once you’ve dropped the nuclear waste down the borehole, it would be extraordinarily difficult to get it back if you decided that you needed to extract components for crucial uses, and current U.S. law requires that the waste be retrievable. Here the solution is obvious—change the law. The second drawback—and it applies to any method of nuclear waste disposal–is perceptual. The public’s first thought, on hearing that someone wants to put nuclear waste anywhere near, is “OHMIGAWD!!! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!” Or, with apologies to Tom Lehrer and the Cold War, “We will all glow together when we go.”

Coal, oil, and natural gas are more likely to kill you, thanks to global warming. We dump fossil-fuel waste into the air, where it traps solar heat, increases the strength and frequency of big storms, droughts, and heat waves, and melts polar ice caps. When it gets bad enough, perhaps people will yell “OHMIGAWD!!!” about fossil fuels.

Will they learn? Will they decide nuclear’s not so bad after all? Its problems can be solved. The waste can be put where it’s out of reach, and where we’re out of range of its nasty effects.

We just have to look at the real risks. Take our fear and let it go. Dump the waste down a deep, deep hole, and let it glow.


[1] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-accident.aspx

[2] Don’t you dare dive in!

[3] The Kyshtym disaster– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyshtym_disaster.

[4] https://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/dry-cask-storage.html

[5] E.g., Chris Williams, “The Case against Nuclear Power,” International Socialist Review, May 2011.

[6] https://www.energy.gov/ne/nuclear-reactor-technologies/small-modular-nuclear-reactors

[7] Jessica Lovering and Kenton De Kirby, “Why the United States Should Partner with Africa to Deploy Advanced Reactors,” Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2019.

[8] https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-nuclear-power-must-be-part-of-the-energy-solution-environmentalists-climate

[9] See also Timothy A. Frazier, “The Role of Policy in Reviving and Expanding the United States’ Global Nuclear Leadership,” Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, March 2017.

[10] https://prod-ng.sandia.gov/techlib-noauth/access-control.cgi/2009/094401.pdf

[11][11] https://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/hanford/article152258757.html

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