The waste that doesn't go away

photo of an Advanced Test Reactor core, Idaho National Laboratory

This is not intended as a political post, but I'm sure it will be taken as such by some, because so much discussion about nuclear power seems to be wrapped up in political dogma.

Watching the horrors of the multiple tragedies in Japan has left me with a deep feeling that sometimes we really can be arrogant about our technology.

The power of the tsunami that wiped out so many towns just boggles my mind. Every new video of those few minutes that I see on tv or the web stuns me. Cars pushed along. Buildings torn loose, floating like rafts. Ships whipped around like toys. And the debris, all the debris, piling on itself. Tonight I saw footage of a village where its huge tsunami walls, intended to protect them, were ripped right out of the sea floor and toppled over. Entire towns missing. People gone by the thousands.

This wasn't the strongest earthquake ever. It's not even the strongest in the past century. Who knows what kind of temblors have rocked the surface over the millennia? 9.0 is shockingly powerful, but maybe not so much when you look at the long-term picture.

As I write this, there's a lot of uncertainty about the status of the reactors and spent fuel rod pools at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The plant workers who are on site trying to contain the situation are amazing to me. Heroes. What kind of conditions are they facing inside? I think back on the men who fought to contain Chernobyl, dying horrific deaths. Is this similar? Given what they say on the press coverage, I think perhaps it's more controlled. But who knows?

In the past couple of days, I've heard, read and seen a lot of optimistic spin on nuclear power from various people, including nuclear engineers. I have no reason to doubt their knowledge or integrity. But I also notice something that none of them talks about.

The nuclear waste.

This is serious stuff. From Wikipedia:

Spent nuclear fuel is initially very highly radioactive and so must be handled with great care and forethought. However, it becomes significantly less radioactive over the course of thousands of years of time. After 40 years, the radiation flux is 99.9% lower than it was the moment the spent fuel was removed from operation, although the spent fuel is still dangerously radioactive at that time. After 10,000 years of radioactive decay, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency standards, the spent nuclear fuel will no longer pose a threat to public health and safety. [Emphasis added.]

Think on that a moment. This is material that is toxic for a hundred centuries, and we're storing it in buildings designed to last 25 years. What buildings do we know of that have lasted even 100 years? Even the Sphinx isn't 10 thousand years old.

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last summer was immense. One well managed to destroy such a vast region. Just capping it turned out to be a huge technological challenge. Billions of dollars lost by local businesses. Mass deaths of wildlife.

But as bad as an oil spill is, nature has a way of recovering from it. In 100 years, will the Gulf still exhibit the devastating effects of that spill? My guess is probably not.

By comparison, all of the high-level radioactive fuel that has ever been used in any nuclear plant will be deadly toxic 100 years from now. And 1000 years from now. It's not something that cleans up easily. In fact, for all intents and purposes, we can't make it go away. It is dirty, about as dirty as things get. It requires special handling. You need to keep it cool. You need to keep it contained. You need to keep it out of the air, the soil, the water. And you need to do it for 10 thousand years.

That's a problem. We don't build things to last that long. We never have. How do you do it? Of course, as a civilization, we would never do it. Too expensive. Too not-my-problem. Too … politically loaded.

And when I see one of the most technologically advanced countries — a country that has seen its share of earthquakes and tsunami and takes them very seriously — knocked back onto its ass by a big-but-not-the-biggest earthquake and a tsunami that is big but not bigger than tsunami in evidence in the geological record, I wonder if there's not just a bit of hubris to be claiming that a technology that uses a fuel that is deadly for a timespan longer than our recorded history is not only safe but "clean."

Photo by Argonne National Laboratory, Creative Commons