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Rick Edmund

Rick Edmund

Rick Edmund is a United Methodist church pastor in Maryland. He resides on Smith Island, which has been impacted by rising sea-level and in 2007 testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment about climate change and the Chesapeake Bay. ALL POSTS

Nuclear energy in Obama's budget

Q: Are Obama's proposed $36 billion loan guarantees for nuclear plants a smart option?

Nuclear energy is like a cousin whom you'd like to be around, but they have one nasty habit that turns you off. If only we could figure out a way to get rid of the radioactive waste from power plants! The Obama administration has declared Yucca Mountain, the only seriously considered permanent waste storage site, "not a workable option". Since President George W. Bush signed into law that this site was to be used as a nuclear waste repository, Congress needs to override that declaration, and current Energy Secretary Steven Chu says we need to search for better solutions to store nuclear waste. It doesn't seem like this long considered storage site was a great choice in the first place. Yucca Mountain's geological formations that make it a good candidate to contain stored nuclear wastes came about from large volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The waste, albeit sealed in special canisters, need to be safe for 10,000 years, roughly the time since the last ice age. Now the whole selection process, which has gone on for decades, needs to begin anew.

Currently Suzy Welch has a popular book out about decision making, "10-10-10" which urges the reader to consider the consequences of their choices in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years, in order to help with selecting the best option. The units are not fixed but the idea is to look at the immediate, after a while, and long term consequences. Nuclear power in the immediate time period has many negative factors. Two of these are that no plants have been licensed since the Three Mile Island partial meltdown, and they are very expensive to start-up. The mid-term picture is the brightest, when the plants have been built and are producing clean energy. Spent fuel rods are stored on-site in cooling pools until they are transported to a permanent storage site. The long term consequences are not good for those hundreds and even thousands of years from now who must deal with the still radioactive material, low and high level, that is the result of nuclear energy production through fission.

Perhaps we will figure out how to produce energy through nuclear fusion which so much cleaner, but in the immediate future, if we want to reduce the pollutants being churned out into the atmosphere, nuclear power needs to be a prominent player in our energy production. However we need to carefully consider and plan for the consequences in the short, mid term, and long term if we are to be good stewards of the world that God has granted us to take care of for future generations.

By Rick Edmund  |  February 12, 2010; 1:25 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

"Until technology can make use of spent fuel rods and other waste from the nuclear industry, then it belongs in Yucca"

The technology to burn up all the fuel in the rods has existed since 1960. You just don't know about it yet.

Nuclear critics should check out what Obama can possibly mean by the next generation of safer, cleaner, cheaper, more efficient nuclear reactors before they make up their minds all things nuclear are bad.

Nuclear critics will have to come up with some new arguments. The old arguments no longer apply when you can burn the waste as fuel.

Posted by: fabco | February 22, 2010 11:02 AM
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Our Federal Government. How wonderful. The taxpayers pay for a multi-billion storage facility for nuclear waste, and upon completion it is dubbed an "unworkable solution". Until technology can make use of spent fuel rods and other waste from the nuclear industry, then it belongs in Yucca instead of water tanks all over the nation. If not, then use Yucca to store spent politicians. They are just as toxic.

Posted by: bobbo2 | February 20, 2010 7:30 AM
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The only "waste" in nuclear waste, is the waste of potential fuel that didn't get properly converted to make energy in our antique model T reactors.

The only safe place for nuclear waste, is in a reactor core producing energy, not wasting away doing nobody any good inside Yucca Mountain.

Nuclear may still have issues that remain, but stacked up against alternatives like the "clean coal" carbon sequestration ideas being sold as snake oil to save the status quo, nuclear comes out way on top.

Even if underground sequestration of co2 was failsafe without any possibility of eventual leaking or finding it's way back into the atmosphere, there would still remain the problems caused by the astounding 136 million tons of toxic coal ash produced annually. Coal ash contains arsenic, beryllium, chromium, lead, and mercury. Poisons that eventually are finding their way into our environment. Often leached into groundwater from it's storage in coal ash "surface impoundments." Impoundments which are in fact are no more or less than big holes in the ground that remain open to rainfall from above and water seepage from below.

Then there are all the other unseen, unregulated radioactive elements released into the air from burning coal that nobody even thinks about.

Releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. The population gets 100 times more radiation from a coal plant than from a nuclear plant. So in 2004 by burning 4.6 billions tons of coal, we released 5980 tons of uranium into the air and 14720 tons of Thorium. This is like 80 truck size dirty nuclear bombs releasing 1 ton of radioactive material every day, or a Chernobyl or two every week.

Posted by: fabco | February 15, 2010 10:07 AM
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The Yucca Mtn. decision was based upon Harry Reid's precarious political position in his state. One politician's political future is holding up the implementation of a green energy resource. Did I mention that we have spent billions of dollars on Yucca? Explain to me why this isn't more publicized. Hopefully development will restart when Reid loses his next election.

Posted by: maus92 | February 14, 2010 11:32 PM
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The Integral Fast Reactor, or Sodium Fast Reactor is indeed also a breeder that burns up 99% of it's fuel exactly like the Liquid Flouride Thorium reactor.

The difference, is two fold. First, the IFR still uses the Uranium fuel cycle, which leads to weapons grade plutonium. The Thorium cycle does not. Second, Sodium is highly explosive if exposed to a single drop of water or even humidity. Since this is a water planet, A Thorium design is not subject to this potential safety issue.

The Thorium fuel cycle has inherent passive safety features, the Sodium design does not possess. Hence, I think it was the right decision to cancel the sodium fast reactor, because the public will be more accepting of the Thorium design. That is if they ever hear about it.

Thorium also takes 1/300th the amount of mining and co2 emitting processing, that is required for Uranium.

Good point about fusion. Breeder reactors reactors already use a combination of both fusion and fission, and produce about the same lower quanity waste stream that the pure fusion Tritium cycle will. The difference is that after 40years of research, we still have no working pure fusion reactor, while the Thorium reactor was demonstrated successfully in 1950.

Posted by: fabco | February 14, 2010 10:01 AM
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"Perhaps we will figure out how to produce energy through nuclear fusion which so much cleaner,...."

This is a popular misconception about nuclear fusion. First, these plants will rely upon deuterium and tritium as the fuel. Deuterium is "heavy water" and can be easily obtained. But what about tritium? It is radioactive with a 12 year half-life. It is more well known as the key element in a hydrogen bomb. Finally, IT MUST BE PRODUCED THROUGH A NUCLEAR REACTION!

Any nuclear fusion power plant will also have to use the high energy neutrons given off from the fusion reaction to interact with a lithium-based tritium breeder blanket that then can extract the tritium from the blanket material to be eventually injected back into the fusion plasma. These high energy neutrons will also make the fusion reactor to become so highly radioactive, humans will only be able to perform any needed maintenance remotely else they would be killed by the intense radiation.

By going to nuclear fusion, we would basically become a "tritium" not a hydrogen-based economy. And the radioactive material from the decommissioned fusion plant would be deadly for a couple hundred of years (meaning the old fusion reactor becomes a solid radioactive waste site for several generations....)

So, even fusion will have trade-offs that the politicians will have to make decisions about.

Posted by: ARickoverNuke | February 13, 2010 5:36 PM
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The decision to not store waste in Nevada is strictly political. The country is paying a very high price for the dysfunctional ways of the Washington bureaucrats and people are disgusted with both parties. The only change that occurred post election is the cast of characters. The decision making process remains the same. The self interest of the party in power trumps the well being of the country and its citizens. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Posted by: gvelanis | February 13, 2010 3:02 PM
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Note, the sodium fast reactor, a variant of the above LFMST is the possible solution and as stated, burns all fuel except 1%. The 1% left also has a half life measured in hundreds of years, not thousands. Note that there was government grant money going to this under Bush, which Obama promptly pulled the plug on, showing the typical knee jerk Dem reaction to anything with nuclear in it.

Posted by: fwillyhess | February 13, 2010 2:46 PM
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There was a plan, all worked out, to store nuclear wastes in Yucca Mountain. The wastes would be combined with inert materials which could not decay or decompose, and could be harmlessly stacked together from now until the end of time.

Then, reacting to political demagoguery from Majority Leader Reid, Obama killed the Yucca Mountain storage facility, at least for his term in office.

Why is it that we can never get the proper mix of public policy? If we have a president like Bush who favors off-shore petroluem drilling and nuclear waste disposal, then we get way too much military spending via programs like the F-22. If we have a president who wants to raise taxes on the wealthy, then this same president doesn't want to cut discretionary and entitlement spending. We can never seem to get this stuff right.

Posted by: stillaliberal | February 13, 2010 12:42 PM
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Waste is not the only problem with Nuclear Power. There is the fuel, enriched Uranium, which is necessary to fuel these plants. That Uranium has to be mined, a very dirty GHG producing process. Then it is transported (more GHG's) to the one and only uranium enrichment plant in Kentucky. This is a coal fired plant, hence, tons more GHG released from this operation. Then it has to be transported to each individual plant with more GHG's released. The fact the US has only this one facility means that we currently have to import 50% of the enriched Uranium we need, mostly from Russia. In an era where we are attempting to ween our way off of middle east oil, do we really want to tie our electric grid future to the Russians? And what about the proliferation of more "yellow cake" enriched Uranium in a world full of crazy Jihadists? Not a good idea. If Nuclear Power is such a good idea, than Wall St. would be all over it instead of the US government having to subsidize it to the unsustainable degree it is currently.

Posted by: DJOrganic | February 13, 2010 11:17 AM
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We do know how to dispose of it: use most of it as fuel in breeder reactors, then bury what's left in casks for a hundred years, at which time it's no more dangerous than the original ore.

The nuclear waste problem is literally millions of times smaller than the fossil fuel waste problem. We make and release billions of tons of CO2 every year. All of the high-level nuclear power plant waste ever created would fit on one football field.

Posted by: raschumacher | February 13, 2010 10:28 AM
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There is another way to get rid of nuclear waste by burning it in a newer type of reactor.

The reactor design we have today, is an antique model T. Newer designs like the Liquid Fluoride Molten Salt Thorium Reactor, or Berkley's Pebble Bed design can burn up all the fuel, not just 1% leaving the rest as dangerous waste.

More information can be found here:
And here: see the archives

Posted by: fabco | February 13, 2010 10:26 AM
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