Editorial: A new era for nuclear? Solve waste issue first

Today marks the 75th anniversary of a discovery that forever altered the course of the world, for better and worse.

On this day in 1938, while performing experiments in Berlin, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered nuclear fission by splitting the nuclei of uranium into lighter elements.

The discovery not only led to the development of nuclear bombs, but also to the development of nuclear energy as a source of power.

Today, the United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30 percent of the worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. Its 104 nuclear reactors produced 821 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2011, over 19 percent of the country’s total electrical outlook.

Recent developments in the fossil fuels arena have cast nuclear energy development in the shadows of late.

The U.S. Energy Department predicts U.S. crude oil production to rise by 800,000 barrels per day through 2016 to reach 9.5 million barrels per day. That’s just shy of the 1970 record of 9.6 million.

Natural gas production is also predicted to grow steadily through 2040.

As a result of increased production and lower use, the agency predicts a decline of energy imports from 30 percent in 2005 to just 4 percent by 2040.

The renaissance of fossil fuels in the U.S. may overshadow nuclear power efforts, but it hasn’t snuffed them out by any means.

But the future of nuclear power may no longer be in massive — and massively expensive — reactors like PGE’s former Trojan power plant.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded an Oregon company a grant to help it design and obtain federal approval for small-scale modular nuclear units that can be built in a factory and shipped to installation sites.

The move is part of President Barack Obama’s plan to develop power sources that do not contribute to climate change.

The goal is a safe, reliable and low-carbon nuclear energy source.

Small, modular reactors are intended to be more affordable, safer and faster to build than conventional plants. Instead of pumps to move coolant, they would use gravity for a more reliable design, according to Michael McGough, the NuScale Power LLC chief commercial officer. NuScale is the recipient of the grants.

This new development could result in growth of the nuclear power industry worldwide, particularly if it can be shown the risk from rare, yet catastrophic failures like those at Chernobyl, Threemile Island and Fukushima is greatly reduced.

Single 45-megawatt modules could be shipped to end locations on special trucks. The small reactors are predicted to cost roughly $3.7 million per megawatt installed compared to $10 million per megawat for conventional plants.

While the prospect of small-scale nuclear reactors sounds exciting, it fails to factor in one growing elephant in the room: the lack of a permanent geological storage site for nuclear waste.

The U.S. government has abdicated on its promise to have a repository by 1998 and nuclear waste now continues to stack up in temporary storage.

It’s not a huge amount physically, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Stacked end to end, it would cover an area the size of a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards. But that’s not the issue. The issue is the potential — as anyone who lives within a 300-mile radius of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation ought to know — for spent fuel to leach its toxins into the surrounding groundwater.

President Obama may be enthusiastic about the potential of nuclear energy, but he and his successors need to get serious about solving the permanent storage problem.

Yucca Mountain, a geologically stable site in Nevada, was meant for this purpose, but Nevadans successfully fought off the plan.

The need for permanent storage hasn’t gone away. And if more reactors come online, that just means the problem will grow deeper faster.

This problem needs to be resolved before new developments make this technology more popular and accessible.


ntravers9 3 years, 2 months ago

I am excited by continued developments in the field of nuclear energy. The safty and access to energy afforded is exciting. But there seems to be a major lack of research into safe processing and storage of wastes. Does anyone know of resources related to such research? I would like to look into it more. Nicholas - looking for jobs - Travers


David 3 years, 2 months ago

I am grateful to see the positive aspects of Nuclear power presented here. The average cost of Nuclear power is 2.4 cents per kwh across the USA. This is below coal and only very very slightly above the cost of current prices for Natural Gas - where pipelines exist.

Also, Waste is not an Elphant it is a mouse. In terms of size, the amount of "waste" would fit in a single football field stacked only a few feet high. In terms of effect - the more long lived a radioactive element is the less dangerous it is. The longest lived elements - those still present after 100 years can be held in your hand. Finally, there are many good solutions to this "waste." The best is to use it for fuel in breeder reactors. These reactors of many types can turn these elements into useful heat - competing directly with Natural Gas, Oil and Coal. If you want to throw away the fuel, the best option is WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project) in New Mexico. There the waste can be stored safely and cheaply in a community that is begging to receive it. There are many many other technical solutions to the "waste" problem. This is NOT an Elephant technically. It is only an Elephant because comparative risks are not communicated to the public.

Nuclear power is NOT the same as Nuclear weapons. The fuel put into a reactor - even if highly enriched to 20% cannot explode like a bomb. It is physically impossible. The Plutonium from power reactors cannot be used in a bomb unless you spend huge amounts of money to get rid of the parts or types of Plutonium that would destroy the weapon. No nation has decided to do this because it is easier to simply make the weapon's grade Plutonium directly.

These scary stories persist. Could it be because using heat from Nuclear power combined with carbon and hydrogen you can make liquid fuels and even natural gas? It is well known chemistry.


AceHoffman 3 years, 2 months ago

People these days say the waste problem is about 65 years old, so based on this article, it took them 10 years to even realize it was a problem. Now imagine if they had decided not to proceed until the waste problem was solved. Where would we be? We wouldn't have 100 -- not 104 anymore, we lost four reactors permanently this year -- generating deadly waste we don't know what to do with! At the closed reactor sites, we wouldn't have deadly nuclear waste all piled up with nowhere to go. Instead we have chosen ~75 of the worst possible locations for nuclear waste -- near population centers, along coastlines, etc. -- not for their worthiness as a waste dump location, but for their proximity to large cities in need of massive amounts of power. Instead of planning to build SMRs, which will create -- and then leave -- billions of lethal doses of radiation every day they operate, including radioactive noble gases they cannot capture, we should freeze Fukushima, freeze the nuclear industry, and get on with clean, renewable energy, which nearly everyone knew we should have used all along, but the military wanted reactors, and the suits wanted the fortunes those reactors would bring, and rich people want to buy their own small modular reactors, and politicians listened to the eggheads talk about the advantages with dreamy unrealistic eyes (claiming nukes would produce energy "too cheap to meter"), and everyone ignored the waste, and here we are. Let's stop ignoring the Achilles' Heal of the nuclear industry!


KendallMiller 3 years, 2 months ago

It's sad to see that the editors of a newspaper that should know better are so ill-informed. You fail to note that 150,000 people happily and healthily live right next to the Hanford Reservation. There's more people suffering from pesticide exposure in the orchards in your community than those that have been affected by wastes from nuclear power. Your attempt at inflammatory rhetoric is exhibited by your choice to group wastes from historic nuclear weapons production with those from power generation. They aren't the same thing. Other countries recycle power generation wastes into more nuclear fuel rather than bury them. The process reduces the volume of the waste stream by a factor of 10 and results in a final waste product that has a much reduced radioactive half-life. We are poisoning the air with CO2 from fossil fuels. How bad does it have to get before we do something rational?


Sign in to comment


Information from the Chronicle and our advertisers (Want to add your business to this to this feed?)