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It’s all about “conservation and renewables,” Al Gore testified yesterday. Nuclear power need not apply. It would be too expensive!
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AS IT HAPPENED, I interviewed Professor Macfarlane a year ago for my book, Terrestrial Energy. She has edited her own book on Yucca Mountain, Uncertainty Underground, and seemed rather sensible on the issue of waste storage. “Geological repositories are the ultimate solution but there’s no need to rush into one right now,” she said at the time. “Dry cask storage [the lead-lined containers that utilities are now using for on-site storage] is safe on the order of 50 to 100 years.” Now she is being quoted as Al Gore’s principal source of alarm.
So like any contemporary electronic reporter, I called Macfarlane even as I watching the hearings wind up streaming on C-Span. She told me she was indeed the source of Gore’s information — she talked with him a couple of weeks ago. Surprisingly, however, she hasn’t written anything on the issue. Her information comes from other people’s papers. She couldn’t name any references off the cuff but promised to send some (although nothing has arrived yet).
In any case, Macfarlane said the reason reprocessing increases the problem is that lots of chemicals are added in separating the various radioactive isotopes in a spent fuel rod. This ends up adding to its volume. She admitted that once the fuel is reprocessed, 95 percent of a material is natural uranium, the same stuff that comes out of the ground, except that the fissionable isotope now constitutes 1 percent instead of 0.7 percent. “You could just dump it back into the ground if you wanted, but GNEP [President Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership] has defined it as ‘low-level waste,’” she explained. “It’s a matter of definition, but you can call it low-level waste.”
So it isn’t high-level waste — the really radioactive stuff — that’s increased. It’s the low-level waste — material at the level of contaminated hospital gowns that is usually deposited in landfills.
Yucca Mountain now consists of a five-mile-long underground railway tunnel dug into the side of the ridge. In order to accommodate the 40,000 tons of unreprocessed fuel rods headed its way, another sixty miles of side tunnels and storage vaults will have to be carved into the mountain. All this will be to store the same high-level waste that the French keep under a floor the size of a basketball gymnasium. Does that suggest that reprocessing might make some sense?
“Volume doesn’t matter,” said Macfarlane. “It’s the heat generated by the waste that’s the problem. Even though you’ve concentrated it down to 5 percent of the volume, the high-level waste is still generating the same amount of heat.”
But heat is energy! Instead of burying it, why not put that energy to use? James Lovelock, Britain’s outstanding environmentalist, has asked that his portion of nuclear waste be sealed in a lead container and buried in his backyard. “I’d use it to heat my home,” he says.
“It would still be highly radioactive and you’d have proliferation problems,” said Macfarlane. “Plus reprocessing is very expensive.”
Given this prevailing lackadaisical attitude toward nuclear technology, is it any wonder that all the new nuclear facilities in America are being built by Areva, the French giant, while the American industry is essentially moribund?
As the hearings wrapped up, committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) still couldn’t get over Gore’s vision of a Solar America. “So if we just took that hundred mile square and used it for solar collectors, we could completely free ourselves from fossil fuels,” he asked at the end. (Point of order, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Gore is talking about electricity. More than half our fossil fuels go into transportation.)
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