U.S. used nuclear fuel: the elephant is a mouse, is the solution to America’s power generation problems

Listening to American politicians talk about energy security and clean energy is sometimes like listening to Captain Queeg testifying at the court martial: at first it sounds congruous, coherent, and believable, but upon the easiest cross examination it rapidly collapses under its own contradiction and irrelevancies. This is especially true with those politicians who fancy themselves to be friendly to the environment. In one breath they thunder on about the evils of man-made CO2. In the next, they promote—depending on the audience of the day—CO2-intensive things like domestic oil drilling, “clean coal,” and “clean natural gas.”

The analogy with Queeg is apt. Queeg, you realize as you get to the end of the story, is a character whose sheer humanness ought to arouse compassion instead of contempt. He is a man burned out by years of hard service and responsibility. His one main flaw is that he is too proud to outright ask his subordinates and advisers for help: so when he does ask for it he does so obliquely. This allows the true villains, his subordinates and advisers, to use him as a scapegoat for their own failings.

Political champions of the environment are being similarly misled and abused by their advisers inside and outside of government. Take a sample of any ten people who could be described as professionally engaged in advocating this or that policy related to energy and/or the environment. Nine out of those ten will advocate the same thing: more “renewable energy,” more biofuels, more conservation. When the politicians go to implement these non-solutions, they realize that Americans, like all people everywhere, need real, not made-up, energy. Therefore it’s back to oil, gas, and coal, and the billions—yes, billions with a “b”—of tons of CO2 emissions every year. In case anyone forgot, the quantum-leap reduction of CO2 was why the environmental advisers advised the uptake of “renewable energy,” biofuels, and conservation in the first place.

Hence the Queeg-like performance of ostensibly pro-environment and otherwise intelligent politicians when they are questioned with a modicum of sharpness on their environmental policies.

The truly amazing thing is, there is an energy solution, a proven one, that can—and does—provide huge amounts of reliable, real energy (as opposed to the made-up phantom energy produced in the fantasies of the advocates of renewables, biofuels, and conservation), using materials that America already possesses in relatively huge amounts. This is of course nuclear energy, and in particular the vast amounts of energy that reside in used nuclear fuel.

Nuclear fission makes one-fifth of America’s electricity today. That works out to over 700 billion kilowatt-hours per year. Not a single gram of CO2 comes with those 700 billion kWh. Nuclear is also among the very cheapest sources of electricity in the U.S.

Why isn’t nuclear on the lips of those politicians who make a big deal out of being friendly to the environment?

Because those same nine out of ten advisers allegedly also friendly to the environment have been professionally engaged, over decades, in giving bad advice to politicians. They are all anti-nuclear, and for reasons that can only be described as cockamamie.

These purveyors of bad advice often refer to used nuclear fuel as an elephant in the room, i.e. a huge problem that no one—except them—wants to talk about.

There are 65,000 tons of used nuclear fuel sitting at various reactor sites across the U.S. Is this a huge amount? No, it is actually tiny. It’s not a mountain, it’s a molehill; not an elephant, but a mouse. It represents the “waste” product of five decades of continuous electric power generation. Consider that the U.S. emits 6.8 billion metric tons of CO2 each and every year. Do the arithmetic, and you see that that GHG output works out to nearly 779,000 metric tons per hour. Not a single gram of those 779,000 tons per hour comes out of a nuclear power plant.

America’s GHG output per hour is more than eleven times as great as the “waste” product of five decades of continuous electric power generation from the country’s nuclear plants. Most of those 779,000 tons of GHGs per hour come from the oil, gas, and coal that is being used because renewables, biofuels, and conservation are simply not able to deliver the goods.

How has the utterly minuscule nuclear “waste” issue been spun into “the elephant in the room”? By making it extremely difficult to store the stuff anywhere other than on the site where it was produced. Anyone who has followed the torture that is Yucca Mountain knows that permanent central storage of used nuclear fuel is one of the most persistent political red herrings in American energy policy.

Those minuscule 65,000 tons of used nuclear fuel could and should be recycled. They could power America’s entire nuclear fleet for years at current output levels. The French company Areva has been applying one particular recycling option for years in its home country.

But recycling is opposed by the same self-styled environmentalists whose bad advice is boiling down to 779,000 tons of GHGs per hour in America.

They are the Lieutenant Keefer in this story—the environmental Judas. They have been misleading and abusing the politicians’ Queeg, for years. It is time they received their well-deserved drink in the face.

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7 years ago

Someone should send Ed Markey a pair of ball bearings, a quart of strawberries, and a copy of this article.

7 years ago

The difference between 779,000 tph and 65,000 tons total needs to be boiled down to a bar graph.

7 years ago

Remember the xkcd comic on log scales? http://xkcd.com/1162/ That, roughly in reverse is what you are talking about here. The relative difference is comparable to a grain of sand compared to an earth destroying 5 km diameter asteroid.

7 years ago

The relative difference is comparable to a grain of sand compared to an earth destroying 5 km diameter asteroid —

No fair scaling in three dimensions unless you take the cube root and apply it just once to each dimension. 5000000 ~~ 171*171*171.

7 years ago

Steve – Great article. I take just a little issue with the following statement:

“They are all anti-nuclear, and for reasons that can only be described as cockamamie.”

You are simply not being creative enough. There are other words that can be used to describe the reasons for being anti-nuclear. How about greedy, deceitful, anti-American, ignorant, absurd, or elitist?

I am sure that your readers can add even more to that list. As you know, however, I believe that the most important of those words is “greedy”; being anti-nuclear means being pro fossil fuel. The people interested in maintaining our hydrocarbon addiction have a LOT more money and a huge amount of political clout. Doing their bidding leads to a comfortable and well-resourced existence.

7 years ago
Reply to  Rod Adams

I agree Rod. I would add to the list reasons for being anti-nuclear. How about “short sighted” and without a concern for the future. An example where profit motive over-rides the human factor. Like a machine programmed to reach it’s mission. Shows the absurdity of the idea that corporations are people. Sure nasty people.

James Greenidge
7 years ago

Maybe the layman would get perspective knowing that 65,000 tons of nuclear “waste” is way less than the weight of an aircraft carrier — or one oil tanker or a week’s worth of urban municipal garbage barges.

Re: “There are other words that can be used to describe the reasons for being anti-nuclear. How about greedy, deceitful, anti-American, ignorant, absurd, or elitist?”

How about being royally hypocritical in their power-plant concerns for health and safety in routine operations or accidents?

James Greenidge
Queens NY

7 years ago

Current recycling is messy and expensive. Might be better to keep stressing the very small amount of waste and the safety of dry cask storage. Just keep storing it where it is. Eventually we will burn it all in breeders. It will be slow getting them started up, but if it takes 50 years, so what? Or, if we end up with molten salt reactors / thorium, etc. and don’t build uranium breeders then we can just throw it in boreholes, as one proposed solution. A hole in the ground is not exactly high tech.

7 years ago
Reply to  SteveK9

AECL claims that the Enhanced CANDU 6 can operate as a breeder reactor in at least 2 modes.  If you could get to 5% burnup with thorium, the spent-fuel issue would be no worse than with LWRs.  The irradiated thorium fuel would be full of uranium, suitable for either LFTR or a fast-spectrum reactor (which could also burn LWR transuranics).