Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine, published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" for "Highest IQ."
In her Parade Magazine column of June 22, 1997, Marilyn neglected to consider recycling when discussing the alternatives for dealing with nuclear waste.
And, why do it? Creating a deep underground storage/disposal site is easily and cheaply done by conventional mining and tunneling methods. This is what is proposed for the Nevada Yucca Mountain site which is only twenty miles, or so, from the weapons test area. Also, Yucca Mountain is dry and above the water table. Most, or all, of the nuclear test caverns are below the water table and now flooded.
My personal preference would be for the USA to recognize that recycling and disposal of nuclear waste is an easily manageable problem from a both a technical and economic standpoint utilizing a combination of technologies including deep-disposal in underground geologic formations. All that is lacking is the political leadership and the will to accomplish this. There are few technical and/or economic obstacles.
A reader from Australia recently wrote seeking clarification of the following points with respect to nuclear waste:
Enriched uranium is the fuel in a typical nuclear power reactor . The uranium is in a ceramic oxide form, shaped into small pellets which are, in turn, contained in structures called fuel elements. "Enriched" means that the fissile isotope, U-235, comprises about 3% of the total uranium - the remainder being U-238. During operation, U-235 is consumed producing energy. At the same time, a significant amount of the U-238 is converted to plutonium which is similar to U-235 in its ability to produce energy. Radioactive "fission products" are also generated.
Note that plutonium is not "waste" -- it is a potential source of power generation. It is also the vital component in nuclear weapons although the plutonium discharged from power reactors is not really well suited for this purpose
After about three years of power production, the U-235 has been largely consumed leaving behind plutonium along with the highly radioactive fission products and structural components which constitute "nuclear waste."
Recycling involves disassembling the fuel element, dissolving the spent fuel pellets, and separating the remaining uranium, plutonium and fission products into separate streams through chemical processes. The uranium and plutonium can be re-used in new fuel elements and the radioactive wastes are in a concentrated form which can be treated and disposed. Deep geological burial is the preferred method.
All of the technology described above is proven and is currently being employed in the United Kingdom and France. Whether it is economically viable depends on a number of factors, including:
Today, nuclear recycling isn't economically feasible in the USA. But, what happens when the oil eventually runs out? There are no other resources that could produce energy on the scale required in today's global economy.
By definition, hysteria has no valid rationale. The current US moratorium on nuclear fuel recycling was adopted in 1977 in the hopes that non USA nations would also forego this approach leading to a reduction in potential nuclear weapons proliferation among non nuclear nations. That did not happen.
With recycling, the nuclear waste amount would be about the same in terms of radioactivity - the principal valid measurement standard. However, waste would be much more concentrated in volume and more readily handled.
This is a very serious problem. It should be given commensurate consideration.
I invite opponents of nuclear recycling to respond with objective information that I can add to this web page. Please, no opinions, just the facts.