Nuclear Electrical Power Generation – Why The Fuss? (Part 9)

Posted on Fri 08/07/2009 by



Put the word ‘nuclear’ in front of that word waste, and all rational debate immediately goes out the window.

I have argued in all the earlier posts that nuclear power for the generation of electricity should be kept on the table as a viable way to proceed into the future if we are to start to remove coal fired power from the list of options.

I have patiently built a reasonable case.

I have showed every step on the way.

I have shown that these plants can produce a constant supply of electrical power that can fill the need for Base Load Power, that 65 to 70% of all electrical power currently being generated that is required absolutely, 24 hours of every day, seven days of every week, and 365 days of every year.

I have shown that these plants can supply nearly every watt of their total nameplate capacity as a constant and unvarying output, and in fact nothing, no other plant of any variety can even approach this output, currently running at a U.S. average of nearly 92%. The nuclear plants can run almost flat out all the time. The 250 to 400 ton turbine/generator complex can revolve at its designed maximum of 3600 RPM, (and that’s 60 revolutions each second) for between 50 and 75 years, only winding back for scheduled maintenance.

I have shown that contrary to the belief they are enormously expensive, they are in fact the single most economical way to produce electrical power that there currently is ….. in the whole World. The electricity that they produce and is sold to the grid is the cheapest of all power produced, and that effectively lowers the bill to all consumers.

I have shown that, again despite the false belief that they are enormously expensive at the construction end, they are in fact cheaper than any form of renewable power plant, in fact seven to eight times cheaper that either solar or wind for an equivalent, either in dollar terms or in power supplied terms.

I have shown that even over the full lifespan of a nuclear plant, with every consideration taken into account, and even quoting the worst case costings for a nuclear plant, they are still five to six times cheaper than any other equivalent power delivery source from the renewable sector. In fact, they are even cheaper than coal fired power plants, even considering the plentiful supply of coal, and the relatively cheap price for the steaming coal they use.

I can show all this and effectively end all debate.

Then one small voice comes in and says ….. “What about the nuclear waste?”

That statement is usually accompanied by ….. “and it stays highly radioactive for a gazillion years and kills every living thing that comes within a million miles of it.”

That’s where the debate ends.

Place the word ‘nuclear’ in front of the word ‘waste’ and all rational debate just flies straight out the window.

So then, what of the waste?

The uranium exists in the ground. It is dug up and the uranium separated from the ‘dirt’. That Uranium is already in a partially enriched state, in other words, it is already partially radioactive. In fact it is at a level of enrichment of 0.7%.

That uranium goes then through five stages of processing for development into the tiny pellets that go into the fuel rods. It is only enriched to a level of 3%, and read that again. 3%.

The rods are then fitted into assemblies, and that assembly of rods goes into the reactor. Used correctly, those rods can last between 3 and 4 years. During that period of time, that level of enrichment drops, as the reaction takes place. At the end of the fuel rods life span, it can no longer be used for a reaction, because what was there once has now been exhausted by the process.

Those exhausted rods are removed from the pile and then placed aside, while still in the reactor. Their level of enrichment has sunk to a level just on 1%. Those exhausted rods are left inside the reactor for a further two years, typically, and at the end of that time, their level of enrichment is back to around 0.6%, less that the original uranium was while still in the ground.

Some of the newer Nuclear power plants have been designed so the spent fuel rods can be stored indefinitely in water at the site of the plant, most notably the Generation 3 Westinghouse AP1000, a Pressurised Water Reactor.

Those exhausted rods from existing plants are then removed for storage.

There are currently 121 storage facilities around the U.S.

Since 1987, there has been a concerted effort to have a single storage facility for all nuclear waste, from every source, and this has been proposed for Yucca Mountain in the long dead supervolcano caldera in Southern Nevada.

This has long been on the table as the ‘end plan’ and work is well under way for its use for this storage facility. Already, more than $9 Billion has been spent on the facility, and it has become one of the most studied geological areas on the Planet.

Part of the stringent conditions imposed was that the surrounding area be limited to a maximum radiation dose of 350 millirems per year for one million years. The average dose calculated for the period is worked out to be, and wait for it, 0.24 millirems per year for the first ten thousand years, and from then, it will rise slowly to 0.98 millirems a year, out to one million years, way way under the 350 millirems per year total. Admitted that may sound like gobbledygook, so as a comparison, on a single flight from Las Vegas to Washington DC, as a passenger, you are subject to a dose of 3 millirems, just from cosmic radiation alone, 12 times as much radiation during that one flight than you would be subject to if you sat down at Yucca Mountain for a whole year.

This facility, and yes, you guessed it, is subject to political interference, and yes, you also guessed correctly, interference by the current Administration.

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, said upon election to that position that he would continue to work to have the project abandoned, and in fact is on record as having said, ‘Yucca Mountain is dead. It’ll never happen.’

Upon his election President Obama’s Administration said that ‘Yucca Mountain was no longer viewed as an option for storage of nuclear waste.’ President Obama’s Energy Czar Secretary Steven Chu has also said, ‘Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table.’

These three are the highest profile people in the Country speaking out against the project. The trouble is that what they say in public actually conflicts with U.S. law. A government Act makes Yucca the national repository, and that act will have to be repealed for them to get their way.

Despite such concerted negativity from the upper echelons of the Administration, in July just gone, the House of Representatives voted to continue funding for the Yucca Mountain Project from the FY2010 budget, and even with a huge Democrat numbers, that funding was continued by a vote of 388 to 30. Not even close. This goes to show that the vast majority of Americans still want the project to proceed.

The waste from nuclear power plants can be stored, and stored quite safely, keeping in mind it has less radioactivity than existing uranium in the ground, at less that 0.7% enrichment.

In other Countries, the waste is even less of a problem because some of those Countries have reprocessing facilities where the waste goes through further processes to be re-enriched back to the 3% required for use as nuclear fuel for those nuclear power plants.

So, even though scaremongers would like you have believe that we will all glow in the dark just by being around these plants, and also the waste, the contrary ….. again, proves to be the case.

In the next Post, I’ll mention how accidents at Nuclear power plants have also been blown out of all proportion.