by David Safier
I'm not an expert on nuclear waste reprocessing, nor to I play one on BfA. But I've spoken with some experts and done a reasonable amount of research on the web. I know enough to read Atomic Al Melvin's recent op ed, Arizona could benefit from nuclear recycling, with a healthy dose of skepticism and concern.
Before I go into the op ed, a bit of background. Melvin has said in the past he wants 6 new nuclear power plants in Arizona. That's right, he wants to put 6 nuclear plants, which demand plentiful supplies of water for cooling and safety (remember what happened when the cooling system cracked at Fukushima?), in water-starved Arizona. Melvin never met a Nuke he didn't like.
Now, to the op ed. Melvin cites the wonders of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M. The nuclear waste is stored in a salt basin, and it brings in nothing but money and jobs, he says. That, for Melvin, is the model for the nuclear waste dump and reprocessing facility he wants here.
It didn't take long to dig up information on the WIPP site. The studies of the Carlsbad site began in 1973, and the actual site of the storage had to be moved a number of times because the conditions weren't absolutely perfect. But they are using it now -- not, by the way, to reprocess nuclear waste, but just to store "transuranic waste." Here's what that means.
Transuranic waste consists primarily of protective clothing, tools, glassware, equipment, soils, and sludges that have been contaminated with trace amounts of manmade radioactive elements, such as plutonium.
They're storing the lowest of the low level radioactive waste at Carlsbad -- not the kind of waste which would be generated by Melvin's proposed nuke reprocessing plant -- and even that is causing considerable worry about the present and the future. The future, by the way, is the 10,000 years it takes for the materials to cool down. To put 10,000 years in context, the first pyramids were built in Egypt less than 5,000 years ago. Scientists are trying to figure out how to mark this site in a way that humans will stay away from it for twice the pyramids-to-present time span.
Oh, and all those jobs Melvin talks about? First, many of them are the result of Obama's stimulus which, Melvin loves to remind us, has never created a single job. And articles from 2011 say anywhere from dozens to hundreds of jobs will be lost if more money can't be found.
Melvin also refers to the French-government-run Areva nuclear reprocessing operation. When you read about it, though, you realize, it produces a phenomenal amount of waste: four to seven times the amount of the original nuclear material-- in some cases, considerably more than that. Some quotes after the jump.
[T]he French company AREVA, which reprocesses French spent nuclear fuel, claims that reprocessing "reduces the volume of waste by a factor of at least four."[i] This statement is contradicted by recent data from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which show that reprocessing greatly increases the total volume of radioactive waste, compared to direct disposal of spent fuel.
In addition to high-level waste, reprocessing generates other types of radioactive waste that require secure disposal. These wastes are more dilute than high-level waste (and hence have greater volume). Although most of the waste falls into the low-level waste category, reprocessing increases the volume by a factor of six to seven relative to the once-through cycle. The United States has three NRC-licensed, commercially operated low-level waste disposal sites that currently accept waste. Reprocessing increases the volume of "greater-than-class-C" low-level waste by a factor of 160. DOE is responsible for disposing of this waste, which contains long-lived radioactive isotopes and cannot be placed in a regular low-level waste site, but as yet has no policy on how to do so.
Melvin wants us to jump on the nuke waste reprocessing bandwagon before someone else beats us to it. I say, if anyone wants the 10,000 year radiation risk in their backyard, let 'em have it.