Are Nuclear Plants A Gun to Our Heads?


Circa 1976, an editorial cartoon from Bill Mauldin. File this under "everything old is new again"?

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Judging by the fact that more than 60 years later there is still no long term nuclear waste storage and we are planning on expanding nuclear power once again, I would answer YES! Ontario Power Generation (Canada) actually has the nerve to brag about all of the technologically savvy plans they have for long term storage, which are only now in the ``feasibility`` study stage. They have been generating waste for over 30 years and have plans to expand nuclear power generation significantly (25%, I think) in the very near future.
I find it really fascinating (and frightening) how the NO CARBON craze has been leading to a resurgence of nuclear power as an ``environmentally friendly`` option over the past couple decades.
I am really interested in what other people think...

Technologies for storing radioactive waste safely have been available for at least 20 years. The problem is that the irrational fear ( and indeed it is irrational) of nuclear power and "not in my backyard" has kept any progress being made on actually employing the technology i.e. approving an actual site for its storage.

I'm thinking that most of the dangerous isotopes in the waste have half-lives on the order of a couple of decades, and that the 'terrifying' stuff that will last for millennia generally isn't that radioactive.

The stuff that is both dangerous and will last a long time are exactly the things we _don't_ want to hide away. The very properties that make them a problem to store until they decay, also make them useful and worth recovering.

By Rick Pikul (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Dear Rick,

Nuclear physics: you're doin' it wrong.


Of course a lot has changed with both our social and scientific understanding of nuclear energy; new types of reactors, new concepts of handling waste, but unfortunately corporate responsibility and greed have remained unchanged, or if possible, grown even worse.
One aspect typically overlooked but has never the less become something of an emerging area for practical research has been fusion, especially on the alternatives to the tokomak design of ITER.
In the mean time it is important to keep our vision on the future while not squandering the present.

thanks for setting me straight bobh. When will Native Americans stop opposing the storage of nuclear waste on their sacred land and realize that the U.S. government just wants what's best for them?

Judging by the fact that more than 60 years later there is still no long term nuclear waste storage and we are planning on expanding nuclear power once again, I would answer NO! Because they are extremly dangerous powers. They may be useful for the end of the world.

we need the uch power supply for the next days. so the nuclear or another method used to meet our needs. But oil must be not used any more after that time.


The point of your post was about the lack of technological solutions. My response was that you are wrong, it is not a technological issue.

NIMBY means that somebody finds a reason why they don't want it in their backyard. Yes a small part of the Shoshone lived in Nevada (most in Montana and Idaho I believe) and yes some may claim Yucca as a sacred site (given the nature of the Native American belief system all of nature was sacred). The fact is that the non-native population of Nevada provides the political force for delaying progress. Do you really believe that most of them care about Yucca's status with the Shoshone.

I was responding to your characterization of people who oppose the location of nuclear waste storage facilities in their backyard as "irrational". I am familiar with the NIMBY phenomenon. First, I think the idea that scientists are "rational" and concerned citizens are "irrational" is a tired cliche. In the context of nuclear technology (all aspects of it), it turns out that the concerns of different citizens groups (Native and non-native) were quite "rational" and legitimate. In this context, I think it is perfectly reasonable for people to oppose the storage of nuclear waste in their communities. I imagine the non-native people of Nevada are also tired of being the nations nuclear dumping ground. They have been located in the heart of the U.S.s nuclear weapons complex since the 1940s. Do they care about the Shoshone? I dont know.
Second, part of the technological solution to storing nuclear waste - both long and short-term solutions - have focused on locating the waste either on Native American lands (which have often already been the sites of intensive uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing) or economically depressed regions, where the federal government has made little effort to improve the economy beyond creating a new nuclear waste industry. I am thinking here about the location of WIPP (and I admit, I don't know the complete history of Carlsbad, NM or WIPP). You could also add to that the location of many/most nuclear power reactors in the country. While the rationale might be that these are barren spaces where few people reside (hence, limiting the risks of nuclear technology), I dont think its a coincidence that these locations happen to be where Native peoples and other poor communities reside. In 1987 the DOE created an office for the nuclear waste negotiator and Native communities were exclusively targeted for storing high level waste. They were offered lucrative research grants to explore the possibility of storing nuclear waste in removable containers on their reserves. I dont think you can argue that any of this is divorced from the technological issue of waste storage.

I'm trying to picture terrorists attacking a wind farm.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Jun 2008 #permalink

We wouldn't have any nuclear storage issues if it wasn't for Jimmy Carter. Breeder reactors in use in Frace are much more efficient, and are able to use most of the fuel. Now THAT's cool!

I'm interested to know why people think that nuclear waste storage is such an issue, while they conveniently ignore problems which exists for every other mode of electricity generation.

eeyun -- I'd recommend Gabrielle Hecht's outstanding The Radiance of France as a good source to understand the cultural, political, technical, and nationalistic differences between France and the US which help explain their nuclear success. Another source that I use in class, much shorter, is this summary from Frontline. it does a good job of showing the particularities of French nationalism and why that matters for their nuclear industry. Taken together, I think the sources do a good job of helping explain 'why people think that nuclear waste storage is such an issue.' Ben

Lisa, it isn't a coincidence that Native American lands or depressed areas are often proposed for nuclear waste storage, but the reason isn't that the modern U.S. Govt. is out to get them. It's just that the lands Native Americans were grudgingly given back in the 1800's tended to be the worst (aka. worst for farming, no valuable minerals) and depressed areas also often have the same lack of resources. But those characteristics are exactly the ones needed for effective long term nuclear storage. Poor farming lands have very low water tables, geologically appropriate areas of like Yucca mountain aren't full of oil or iron. In any case, it has always been my opinion that storing our waste in a single place where leakage could be a problem in several thousand years is much better than storing our waste in many places where leakage is either occurring now or certain to occur within decades. So what if it isn't perfect? It is still better. And as someone who lives very near Oak Ridge, where plenty of nuclear processing has been done and with much less in the way of safeguards than Yucca mountain is proposed to have, I say NIMBY fears are overblown.

But Adam, you've just helped explain another reason why not to go nuclear. Lisa's point, as I took it (and the 30-year-old cartoon), was to ask how to avoid the production of nuclear waste. Your response was to say, let's produce nuclear waste. Now, where can we put it?

First - you missed one precious resource that has been located on indigenous lands (in Canada, the United States, Africa, Australia and elsewhere) - URANIUM! I agree that it isn't a coincidence that the U.S. government seeks to locate its nuclear waste on Native lands. But, if you want me to go all conspiracy theory here, I will. (Please note: I am not an historian of the 19th century and before, so there will be some gross oversimplifications here.) Native Americans have been slowly pushed off of their lands since Europeans landed on what is now the Eastern U.S. coast. The rationale each time they were resettled somewhere else was that the new location was safely away from white settler societies. And, yes, these did not tend to be areas where farming flourished - or where what were considered to be precious resources at the time were located. These lands were reserved for whites. This continued to happen until white settler societies moved all the way to the West coast. When the nuclear age dawned during WWII, uranium was discovered on Native lands and it was mined - often with Native men as the work force, who later suffered many occupationally related health problems. Add the weapons testing program to that - more health problems, more destruction of the environment...
Now, the U.S. government has discovered a new use for these Native lands and they have tried to entice different groups with big money to locate nuclear waste on their reserves.
The overall message here: Native Americans are expendable. The Modern U.S. Government has not acted all that differently than governments in the past. And, why should NIMBY folk care that their lands are ideal for storing nuclear waste? They didn't create it and they certainly won't receive many rewards for doing it...except for the jobs, I KNOW.