February 10th, 2003


Nuclear Waste Disposal
Making the Problem into a Solution

Win Wenger, Ph.D.

For years, we have been creating and conducting thinktanks using various methods for creative problem-solving. On some occasions we have been able to run several thinktanks at the same time in parallel on the same issue or problem, each using different methods—perhaps the only place on Earth where this has been done, and very instructive about those methods.

Occasionally we focus on a different solution to one of the great “impossible” problems of this country or of the world. This present article, excerpted from the periodic Winsights column running on this website, shows how to dispose of our overflowing nuclear wastes…

Can we make part of the problem into part of the solution?

Can the most nightmarish part of our environmental and global pollution problem actually provide a major part of the solution?

Let’s look at power sources:

o There’s only so much hydroelectric potential to go around.

o Conventional, fossil-fuel-burning power stations—
  • pollute air and water;
  • worsen our accumulating world greenhouse CO2 effect;
  • if oil-fired, worsen our trade deficits and national dependency.
o Solar power—after many decades, we’ve never yet managed to master the art or science of making it economical on a large scale. Hopes for space-based solar power have slipped another generation further back with the successive retreats of plans for the U.S. Space Station.

o Geothermal power—it pollutes air and water.

o Ocean waves and tidal inlets—after many decades we’ve never managed to make them into an economical power source.

o Temperature differences within different layers of part of the ocean—after more than a decade we’ve not yet managed to make it economically feasible as a power source. Perhaps the same principle could become feasible with the sharper temperature differences found in groundwater in desert regions. (Aluminum and bauxite companies, and municipal power companies in the southwest, please note!)

o Controlled fusion power—it seems more out of reach now than when we first invented nuclear reactors, and “cold fusion” has gone into the books as an historic example of myth and hysteria in science.

o Conservation of power, as relatively a power source, has begun to bump into its limits. Thermal insulation of buildings has run into radon. We don’t seem to be able to push Detroit into much higher fuel efficiencies. Social resistance to further measures is climbing unless we radically adjust incentives. Only the computer revolution has significantly reduced power demand, and how much further can that aspect go?

o Nuclear reactors are not only directly dangerous, a la 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl, but their greatest problem is the continued accumulation of radioactive wastes, already far more than we’ve figured out how to handle and potentially the most lethal threat to all life on Earth. To build additional conventional nuclear reactors would be one of the most irresponsible decisions in the annals of history! (Though many more such continue to get constructed around the world, in such ideally stable and morally dependable states as North Korea and Iran, and elsewhere….)

So what is left?—Those very same radioactive wastes already produced!

The end product of radioactivity is heat—enough heat, when brought together, to melt and pump sodium as a thermal conductor, or oil or steam if less than that, to drive turbines or other power-generating devices.

Can there be much doubt that, as a working power source, a given set of radioactive “waste” would receive much more careful handling than it does now as “waste”? Still dangerous, but the assembly of radioactive wastes into “secondary,” thermal reactors has to be counted as a major safety improvement over today’s situation.

Every unit of power generated from radioactive “waste” is that much less greenhouse effect, that much less air and water pollution, that much less fossil fuel used up, that much less foreign trade deficit and dependency resulting from more conventional power generation.

Unlike conventional nuclear reactors, such “secondary” reactors from radioactive “waste” will not generate more such waste. In fact, there will be less such waste, because:

o It moves stuff from essentially uncontrolled “dumps” into much more carefully handled power plants; and

o Its power can begin to replace conventional nuclear power, thus reducing the rate at which further such wastes are being created! Power-starved industries can again prosper and expand.

o Internationally, there would be no longer any excuse to accommodate North Korea, Iran, and dozens of other countries in the building of their waste-producing reactors—we could make a major export industry out of helping them consume their wastes into power instead, no more worries about creating bomb materials!

Design and building of these “secondary reactors” will also be a useful conversion of some of the technical resources of our dwindling defence industry, and a good spur to our economy, perhaps coming at a time most needed in our economic cycle whose long-running upside by now has to be aging and vulnerable!

In the 1940s and ’50s we made the basic national decision, echoed elsewhere, to build regular nuclear power plants and to treat their non-power output as waste, rather than as part of a thermal, secondary power retrieval system. Whatever the economics were then as regards such secondary retrieval, those economics have certainly changed since, and the whole issue certainly bears rethinking.

When we originally made that basic national decision, we were in the throes of a technological fantasy about limitless clean nuclear power. Fusion power was just around the corner, we had not yet come to appreciate how hard it is to keep up safety standards in large-scale enterprises and over long periods of time, and we’d certainly not anticipated or come to appreciate the extent of the problem that we are now posed vis-a-vis horrendously accumulating, dangerous, nowhere safely disposable radioactive wastes. Each of these factors by itself fully justifies we rethink that decision of not converting radioactive wastes into secondary thermal retrieval power reactors. Taken together, it’s quite remarkable that no one is exploring the issue.

It looks like the main reason this recourse has lain neglected so long is that it is such an easy, low-cost way both to generate power and to handle the wastes. It’s not “cutting-edge.” The romantic frontiers of technology have long gone far beyond it so no one is looking there to make an exciting career or to cut exciting research grant proposals. It’s about as exciting as burning garbage for power—which in fact it is! But what it could do for our power needs colliding with our environmental needs colliding with our political needs colliding with the needs of people living near where those teeming-over wastes are being stored—Now that does look pretty exciting…. And whatever the economics were then; and whatever the economics may be now, there is a very simple, direct and easy way to change those economics for the better:

Exempt from all taxes, for a decade, income from commercial exploitation of a long list of substances hitherto known as dangerous and toxic wastes (including radioactive wastes).

Tax such income at half rates for the decade following and at normal rates thereafter. To take advantage of the tax break, all sorts of uses will come out of the woodwork to use up such “wastes.” Any foregone tax revenues during that interval would be many, many times made up for by what we would otherwise have to spend in protecting and restoring our livingspace from those dangerous wastes, and our absolute societal and global costs saved would be many times more even than that!

(Our apologies to all “flat-taxers!” But would you flat-taxers prefer to see the government continue to be the main means by which these various desperate methods are addressed?—Or would you rather see taking care of this situation the private sector, which private sector has hitherto found it uneconomic to address it on its own? Those are your only two options unless you’d rather let those desperately dangerous wastes continue to build!…)

Until World War II, a major part of the history of the industrial revolution was a matter of each generation’s finding commercial uses for the waste by-products and overlooked resources of the previous generation. Since then we appear to have let matters in this regard get away from us. The proposedtax incentive would bring us back in line with this historical precedent and, further, would be very much in line with current social efforts to reclaim and recycle specific wastes such as plastic and aluminum.

Conclusion

We should immediately proceed to study the feasibility and simple design of secondary thermal recovery power plants using some of our radioactive wastes. The wastes we are so anxious (and unable) to control now should be made available to commerce under appropriately controlled and well-understood conditions. We should also begin immediately to determine how best to define and apply the proposed tax incentive to encourage the commercial using-up of all sorts of toxic and dangerous substances with which we’ve let our world become overrun.
o Step One: Please discuss this proposal with at least one other person whom you respect.

o Step Two: If this idea survives your Step One, please get in touch with us at Project Renaissance or to the Forum at the Beyond Human website.

o Step Two-and-a-Half: Any proposed new solution to any major problem is, by definition, controversial. If this one stirs any interest at all, we expect to see flak on it. Flak there will be. Some of it may be justified.

If you have criticism of this solution, please send it to me together with permission for me to publish it in a future Winsights column and/or website. Such criticism, if it’s good, I very well might so publish and thank you!


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