Last week I didn’t get to do a site visit because I was taking care of my very sick husband. The man never gets sick, so when he ran a fever for two straight days we headed over to the doctor. He was diagnosed with bronchitis and missed an entire week of work. It was pretty rough.
Interestingly the day we visited the doc was the same day the multiple reports came out about the poor air quality in Europe, and subsequent respiratory disease and premature deaths caused by the pollution. I look at these sorts of statistics all the time, but it somehow felt more personal and upsetting considering the circumstances.
Here’s the thing: energy is really good and has lots of benefits, but all energy sources are resource intensive and produce waste. Understanding the risks and benefits of all energy sources is the best way to determine the optimal energy mix moving forward. I’ll save the spiel on the rare earth metals that have to be mined to create solar PVs and the huge amount of concrete it takes to build a single wind turbine for another post…because it’s fossil fuels really take the cake in terms of waste.
The big issue with fossil fuel waste is that it is released into the environment, and that is where it stays. Heavy metals like arsenic and mercury from fossil plants never decay away. We all know that the large-scale release of carbon dioxide has also created some major environmental challenges like ocean acidification and climate change.
Despite the promise of abundant, carbon-free nuclear energy, a lot of people feel nervous about the challenge of safely containing and storing nuclear waste. However, it’s actually not an insurmountable challenge. Especially considering that the waste is relatively small and contained to begin with (unlike fossil waste), and rapidly becoming less radioactive over time. It has even proven quite useful! So, without further ado, here are five things to do with our nuclear waste. Some of them might surprise you:
5) Use it for space travel! Did you know the Mars Rover is powered by a Plutonium heat source? Well now you do! All of the cool new information we are gathering from our neighboring planet is possible because of nuclear waste! Something you might notice throughout this list, is that “waste” may not be the best word for it after all…
4) Use it to save lives! Yes, you read that correctly. We have been using nuclear materials to diagnose and cure diseases for more than 100 years. X-rays, CT scans and Radiation treatment for cancer all use nuclear materials. Many of the materials used in these processes are byproducts (“waste”) of nuclear fission. Additionally sterilization, the use of radiation to clean medical instruments, has revolutionized modern medicine, making it exponentially safer and more effective.
3) Use it to make food safer and more abundant. This is one of the coolest things I learned at the IAEA a few weeks ago- nuclear technologies (including some that use byproducts of fission- ie: waste) are central to responding to world hunger. From controlling insect populations that are destroying crops to irradiating food so it has a longer shelf life and reduces potential for food poisoning, nuclear technologies have many uses in modern agriculture. As we cope with a changing climate, these technologies will become increasingly important in responding to agricultural challenges.
2) Reprocess it and reuse it! Currently the U.S. is in the process of fulfilling an important nonproliferation agreement with Russia to reduce our respective stockpiles of nuclear weapons. We are building a Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. This facility will allow us to turn weapons and waste into new fuel to power our 104 nuclear reactors. Additionally, as we move forward with advanced nuclear reactor technologies (aka Generation IV), many designs can use nuclear “waste” directly as fuel.
1) Put it back where we found it. In the U.S. we currently cannot license any new technologies until we have a plan for a permanent geological (underground) waste repository, so even though new technologies stand to greatly reduce to the amount of nuclear waste by reusing it, we still need a repository for both legal and technical reasons (some waste cannot be reused). The good news is we already have a permanent nuclear waste repository! No, not Yucca Mountain- The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Google it. So let’s plan to use the repository that we already have for commercial waste (by all means, email your representatives) so we can get on with doing all of the other excellent things listed above.
To more directly answer the question at that inspired this post, the best way to protect future generations from waste are 1) reduce the amount of fossil fuel waste we are putting out into our environment- that is the stuff that’s really difficult to manage (and it’s making us sick), and 2) be sure to understand the risks and benefits of nuclear waste and continue to responsibly use it as a resource. This is a challenge that we are well on our way to solving. At this point most of the work that needs to be done is in the realm of education, policy- people stuff- rather than technical stuff.
While the hubs was recovering last week we watched about a-bazillion episodes of the show Heros. I know we are about 5 years late to the party, but I kept thinking of the parallels of nuclear technologies and the struggles of the super-heros in the show. Basically, we have nuclear materials. They are naturally occurring all over our planet and there is no way to make them go away, or un-know what we know about them. So, we can and should use these materials and technologies for the greater good, and that is actually what we have been doing for quite some time. Pat on the back to all the folks solving these problems and moving towards solutions to our “waste” problem. You are the real life heroes, saving our air and our lungs in more ways than one! Keep up the great work.