The Problem of Nuclear Waste

Marilyn is Wrong Copyright © 1997-1998 Herb Weiner. All rights reserved.

Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine, published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" for "Highest IQ."

In her Parade Magazine column of June 22, 1997, Marilyn neglected to consider recycling when discussing the alternatives for dealing with nuclear waste.

A Professional Engineer Rebuts Marilyn's Answer

Richard L. Brunnenmeyer, P.E. <> writes that a worthwhile discussion of this subject requires a lot of background in engineering, health physics, construction techniques, politics, economics and perhaps religion or philosophy. The best forum is not "Ask Marilyn." Nevertheless, here are some points to consider:

Some Clarifications

Richard L. Brunnenmeyer, P.E. <> offers some clarifications to his previous answer:

A reader from Australia recently wrote seeking clarification of the following points with respect to nuclear waste:

Enriched uranium is the fuel in a typical nuclear power reactor . The uranium is in a ceramic oxide form, shaped into small pellets which are, in turn, contained in structures called fuel elements. "Enriched" means that the fissile isotope, U-235, comprises about 3% of the total uranium - the remainder being U-238. During operation, U-235 is consumed producing energy. At the same time, a significant amount of the U-238 is converted to plutonium which is similar to U-235 in its ability to produce energy. Radioactive "fission products" are also generated.

Note that plutonium is not "waste" -- it is a potential source of power generation. It is also the vital component in nuclear weapons although the plutonium discharged from power reactors is not really well suited for this purpose

After about three years of power production, the U-235 has been largely consumed leaving behind plutonium along with the highly radioactive fission products and structural components which constitute "nuclear waste."

Recycling involves disassembling the fuel element, dissolving the spent fuel pellets, and separating the remaining uranium, plutonium and fission products into separate streams through chemical processes. The uranium and plutonium can be re-used in new fuel elements and the radioactive wastes are in a concentrated form which can be treated and disposed. Deep geological burial is the preferred method.

All of the technology described above is proven and is currently being employed in the United Kingdom and France. Whether it is economically viable depends on a number of factors, including:

Today, nuclear recycling isn't economically feasible in the USA. But, what happens when the oil eventually runs out? There are no other resources that could produce energy on the scale required in today's global economy.

By definition, hysteria has no valid rationale. The current US moratorium on nuclear fuel recycling was adopted in 1977 in the hopes that non USA nations would also forego this approach leading to a reduction in potential nuclear weapons proliferation among non nuclear nations. That did not happen.

With recycling, the nuclear waste amount would be about the same in terms of radioactivity - the principal valid measurement standard. However, waste would be much more concentrated in volume and more readily handled.

This is a very serious problem. It should be given commensurate consideration.

Herb Responds

I question whether the opposition to nuclear recycling is entirely "hysteria." Some opponents understand that no human activity is entirely error free, and fear that a single error or accident could have devastating effects. Some opponents may be opposed not just to recycling, but to all use of nuclear power, and to any technology that makes nuclear power more appealing.

I invite opponents of nuclear recycling to respond with objective information that I can add to this web page. Please, no opinions, just the facts. last updated June 30, 1998 by