Friday, August 03, 2012

Nuclear Waste More Precious than Gold

Often mistaken for nuclear waste, the spent fuel that's left in a power reactor after the production of electricity is valuable and plentiful. But in our blindness to the enormous energy potential of uranium and plutonium in the 70,000 tons of spent fuel that the Department of Energy says is stored at nuclear power plants in the United States -- 1,500 tons in Tennessee alone -- we are missing an opportunity to recycle nuclear materials into clean energy.

While the cost to produce nuclear-generated electricity, on average, is less than power from a natural gas or coal plant, it might be even cheaper if the reactor fuel were made from a combination of uranium and plutonium. Such is the case in a number of European and Asian countries that extract nuclear materials from spent fuel and chemically reprocess them to produce a so-called mixed-oxide fuel known as "MOX." The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration says that about 30 power reactors in countries like France, Belgium and Great Britain now make use of MOX to generate electricity. _Power-Eng
We currently use less than 4% of the energy in nuclear fuel, and put the rest into storage of various types. This is extremely wasteful use of uranium, but even so nuclear fuel is cheap when compared to coal, natural gas, and oil. Imagine how much more economical nuclear power would be if we extracted 98% of the energy in the fuel, instead of wasting most of it?
After a hiatus of nearly four decades, it's now possible to foresee the day when spent-fuel processing is revived in the United States. But for the time being, MOX for use in TVA power reactors will come from another source -- surplus weapons-grade plutonium from the U.S. stockpile. A facility to blend oxides of plutonium and uranium is being built at DOE's Savannah River site in South Carolina. Once plutonium is turned into MOX, it is no longer useful in making weapons.

Construction of the MOX facility was launched after the United States and Russia signed a landmark disarmament agreement to eliminate 34 metric tons of excess plutonium on each side. Although that's a fraction of the weapons plutonium that either country has in its stockpile, the agreement provides for the elimination of additional quantities in the future.

As more nuclear weapons material is destroyed, and money from its sale is used to strengthen nuclear security, there is less risk that plutonium in Russia's stockpile might be stolen and used by rogue government or terrorist groups to make bombs. And it will help reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation, making the world a safer place.

The fact that spent fuel at U.S. nuclear plants isn't being recycled is shortsighted. If it were reprocessed into MOX, utilities could use the nuclear-generated electricity it would provide to replace aging coal plants and to meet growing demand for power. _Power-Eng

The Obama administration's pet nuclear obstructionist -- NRC chief Jaczko -- has successfully blocked almost all development of nuclear energy during Obama's tenure thus far. As a result, the US will be stuck with fossil fuels for a lot longer than would have otherwise been necessary.
Energy is the lever that multiplies the output of human personal effort to give us our unprecedented productivity and prosperity. Energy builds economies. Whatever its shortcomings, the bonanza of fossil fuels we inherited has given us our present living standards.

...I have been scrutinising alternative energy developments for nearly half a century. It is 35 years since my first letter to The Age attacked the myth that solar, wind and tidal energy are somehow ‘free’. I was involved for 20 years in managing R&D related to the resources industry. Taking ideas and innovative technologies to commercial success is tough. The financial discipline of the private investor is an essential ingredient, so I am especially wary when governments get involved in picking winners. _EnergyCollective
The above is excerpted from a piece written by resource expert Dr. Tom Biegler. Like Al Fin, Dr. Biegler is a sceptic of the intermittent unreliables such as big wind and big solar. And like most intelligent analysts of energy, he wonders how much more resources governments will waste on the futile pursuit of intermittent unreliable forms of energy.

The way forward is clear: In the short to intermediate term, we will have to enthusiastically develop the abundant stores of conventional and unconventional forms of hydrocarbon energy. In the late intermediate and long terms, we must develop advanced nuclear fission technologies capable of extracting almost all the energy contained in uranium, thorium, and bred plutonium.

As an added bonus, nuclear process heat from high temperature gas cooled reactors will economically unlock vast unconventional hydrocarbon resources which may otherwise have been too expensive to develop. This huge extra resource will aid the balance between chemical energy, electrical energy, and heat energy, and should pay dividends for tens of thousands of years.

Sometime in those tens of thousands of years, humans should be able to invent an affordable, safe, clean, workable form of nuclear fusion.

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