The oldest nuclear plants are now reaching their design lifetimes of 50 years and beyond. Nearly 30 of them are being or have been decommissioned. It seems like an orderly process, doesn’t it? They are shut down, stripped of fuel and parts, cleaned up, hopefully removed and maybe the ground is left as clean as before the plant was built. Keep dreaming!
A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News lays it all out. On the first page (See article) , we learn that the process of closing a plant was never included in the original design. There is no regulation controlling it. There is nowhere to put the fuel, so it is left lying around in ad hoc pools or tanks. There are lots of radioactive shells and cladding and tanks and pipes and other metal parts. (That is a whole scandal in itself as those may be cavalierly introduced into the regular scrap metal recycling streams with no warning.) Even the decommissioning process itself can take sixty years. Sixty years! While the original owner runs out of money, declares bankruptcy and cuts the workmen loose after five or ten years, leaving a radioactive hellhole for the public to pay for cleaning up. One might almost suspect that this was the original plan for financing the cleanup. On the second page we learn that there is no effective oversight by elected officials but the owners of the plants are left to their own devices. One city councilman from Del Mar California, near the now-shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant, is quoted as saying he wants the fuel removed quickly. He might just as well want angels to come down and fly around in the council chambers. The plant owners are beholden to no one, not even their shareholders.
How is this possible? How can it be that a huge piece of equipment that threatens the very survival of millions of neighbors if not the health of all mankind, is designed with no thought of what will happen after a short lifetime? If there were ever a crushing need for the methods of Zero Waste, here it is. Design for the reuse of every part or don’t make, build or sell the product. That applies to a kitchen utensil but in spades to a huge power plant. The quest for easy profits is so compelling that all thought of rational design are routinely thrown to the winds. “When the time comes, that will be someone else’s responsibility. It will all be thrown into some dump” is how the low-grade thinking goes. As a rule, insane though it may be, at least the dumps exist. But here, the expected dump is non-existent.
Instead of the former plant vanishing, leaving the original soil for use in growing food, the decommissioned power plants will cover vast fields forever with concrete formations and rubble and radioactive threats. Believe it or not, this is the BEST that can be expected. The worst is much, much worse as Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated. Even if the best case is achieved, the concentration of radioactive fuel in a tank or pool is susceptible to creating a radioactive disaster of gigantic magnitude if one airplane drops one big bomb into the pool. The best outcome from such a bomb would be a worldwide and local plume of radioactive dust. Another possibility is that the fuels could be compressed enough to begin a runaway chain reaction which we experience as a nuclear explosion. With hundreds of these targets around the world, how long can every single one be protected from attack?
There is no better example of the crushing need for a Zero Waste approach to all of society’s designs. Without a plan for the reuse of spent fuels, these plants should have been prohibited. The towering resistance to any proposed dump that has gone on for forty years and cost many billions of dollars should be a lesson for a wilfully blind society. THIS APPROACH IS NEVER GOING TO WORK. TRYING TO THROW AWAY YOUR PROBLEMS IS A DUMB IDEA. When you dig yourself into a hole, stop digging. But this insane society, steeped as it is in the throw-away ethic, can never, never abandon the dream of irresponsibly throwing out anything it doesn’t want to study or think about, even when that is shown to be insane.
What should have been done? What if the lack of a spent fuels plan had been the blockage preventing all construction of nuclear plants? It is quite clear that a research program to characterize the fuels would have been launched. Scientists would have figured out ways to separate all the components into reusable fractions or atoms. This might have taken twenty years but that twenty years might have eliminated the need to find a place on earth that can be contaminated.
As it stands, what will be the outcome of the conceptual insanity that the elites have mired us in. My guess, seems inescapable. A brutal dictator of some small country will be found who has no compunction at placing his citizens in mortal danger. If one such can’t be found, a few billion dollars will create one. Then a large portion of ground will be designated for nuclear storage, the dictator will smoothly slip some portion of fifty billion dollars into his Swiss bank account and the problem will be solved. Japan, France, Russia and the US among others will start shipping their radioactive excesses to this new country and the American public will go back to sleep again because the problem is no longer in their face, no longer visible on the way to work. The plant owners will go on to bigger and more destructive depredations, the politicians will claim a victory and the citizens in that far away country will get prepared to die like flies as the radiation escapes. All will be well again.
What would be a much better solution to his problem. We must stop saying “find a place to throw it!”, stop saying “we must find a long term repository”, stop spending billions of dollars to force someone, anyone, to “take” the nuclear wastes we want to get rid of and spend a tiny fraction of that money to research ways to beneficially reuse all of the atoms, all the radionuclides that make up the NOW unwanted collection of radioactives. There are already many uses for many of the radionuclides but we need to find uses for essentially all of them. Despite the lack of any progressive impulse among the wasters, this kind of research is proceeding slowly, by fits and starts. New uses for actinides (as most of the radioactive atoms are called) are slowly being developed. Look at this paper from CandE News and keep an eye on the uses they mention. ActinideUsage.