One of the technologies we highlight in our annual future technology issue is nuclear power. The good thing about nuclear power is that it can be a clean, safe way of generating electricity. The bad thing is that much of the innovation in this field is likely to happen outside the U. S. We’ll only read about advances in nuclear energy in the newspaper or on tablet computers manufactured in the Far East. We won’t participate in the nuclear renaissance or help advance it.
There are a variety of reasons for this deplorable situation. Part of the problem is a regulatory environment that effectively thwarts any kind of nuclear construction. Another obstacle stems from decisions made in the 1970s that have proven to be based on false premises. I am referring to the decision back then that the U. S. would not reprocess nuclear waste. The thought was that just leaving plutonium, the material needed to make nuclear bombs, in spent fuel rods would limit the proliferation of nuclear arms around the world.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Since then, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran all have instituted nuclear programs. Iraq had one as well until Israeli jets bombed its Osiraq reactor in 1981. And though Israel has not admitted as much, military experts believe it has a nuclear arsenal. Even South Africa had a small stash of nuclear weapons until Nelson Mandela had them dismantled in 1996.
Meanwhile, though the U. S. stopped reprocessing nuclear waste, Canada, England, France, Japan, and Russia did not. Consequently, the U. S. has effectively off-shored nuclear-fuel recycling, yet another technology invented in the U. S. that has migrated elsewhere. One result: the U. S. must now import from Canada about 90% of the isotopes it needs for nuclear medicine.
Another result is that the U. S. has a nuclear-waste storage problem that would largely disappear if it reentered the nuclear-reprocessing business. That’s because most of the material in spent fuel rods can be reprocessed into other kinds of nuclear fuel, with much-less waste material left over.
It is instructive to examine the nuclear-waste situation in France, where about 80% of electrical power comes from nuclear sources. The French mix the plutonium they extract from spent rods with scrap left over from uranium enrichment. The resulting fuel is called MOX, or mixed-oxide fuel, and provides almost as much power as enriched uranium.
Little pure waste material remains after the French recycling process. France has 59 nuclear reactors and stores all the high-level wastes from 30 years’ worth of their operation in one room located in La Hague region of Normandy.
In contrast, the U.S. has accumulated about 56,000 tons of used fuel over the past 40 years. Estimates are that this waste contains enough energy to power every U. S. household for 12 years.
I am tempted to offer U. S. nuclear regulators a deal: I will take some of that waste material off their hands and deposit it in a concrete pit in my backyard. I figure I can heat my house from the warmth given off by the disintegrating isotopes. That’s better than letting the stuff sit in a cavern somewhere doing nobody any good.
— Leland Teschler, Editor
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