Not all plant waste is ‘nuclear’

March 14, 2013 

There is a serious flaw in the ongoing debate about the storage/disposal of “nuclear waste” from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Radioactive byproducts fall into two categories, which differ greatly in level of hazard. Labeling all of it as “nuclear waste” is confusing and inaccurate.

Waste is the sort of trash produced by any large-scale power plant, whether it uses nuclear fission, gas or coal. This waste is pipes, broken tools, worn out equipment, dirty uniforms, etc. Such junk from a nuke plant can be somewhat radioactive. This stuff is relatively easy to store until it cools off, in a matter of a few years or decades. In any case, the hazards associated are not severe.

The real problem is the spent fuel rods. The United States is the only nuclear power generating country that considers these rods “waste.” These rods, once removed from the reactor, are very hot, very dangerous and will remain so for eons — if they are not recycled. Ninety-five percent of the nuclear fuel remains unburned in spent rods, but is unusable due to contamination by the products of fission.

When spent fuel rods are recycled, the nuclear fuel goes back into the reactor and what is left is some mildly radioactive compounds that decay relatively quickly and plutonium, which is truly nasty stuff. But the resulting volume of plutonium is very low and much more easily stored than the bulky, heavy fuel rods. Plutonium can also be burned in specialized reactors. This is what the rest of the world does with its spent fuel rods.

Recycling nuclear fuel also greatly reduces the amount of uranium that must be mined, refined and transported, a process that also produces waste.

It’s amazing that we recycle cans, bottles, grass clippings, plastic, and even The Tribune, but we attempt to store, at great expense and considerable danger, the stuff that most needs recycling the most.

Paso Robles resident Ed Cobleigh retired from the aerospace industry. He has a master’s degree in engineering from USC.

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