Skip to main content

In part 1 of this series, I talked about Buffalo Bill Cody.

In part 2, I talked about meeting a person who wanted to talk all about naked pictures of my sister-in-law.

In part 3 I talked about Brazilian fish.

This is part 4 about cesium, and I think it's time to move on to something else, like technetium for instance, so let's cut to the chase.  I am going to finish up cesium.  I'll return to being amusing in future entries.  If you want to see me trying to be amusing, look at the other entries.   If you want to know about the constituent of so called "nuclear waste," that is cesium, I invite you to read on.   Mostly the discussion is technical, but I'll throw in a little space science fiction about aliens finding us, if you need things like that to be interested.

In part 1, besides Buffalo Bill Cody, I discussed a technical issue, the Bateman equations, and the existence of radioequilbrium.    By appeal to this equation I suggested, in general terms to a first approximation, how much cesium-137 - probably one of the most problematic of all constituents of spent nuclear fuel - could accumulate before it began to decay as fast as it is being formed.  In this calculation I assumed that every last drop of energy now used on the planet was obtained by nuclear fission.   Here is the amount I estimated:  About 8,500 metric tons, a quantity that would take centuries, if not millenia, to accumulate.   The first year more than 200 MT would accumulate, and each year after that, less and less and less would accumulate, until the amount of [i]new[/i] cesium-137 that accumulated, world wide, would fit in a coffee cup, and, if the world went on longer using nuclear energy, the gut of a fly.

Right now, at least until we have new types of reactors that are only the subject of pilot plants and R&D, it is only immediately possible to use nuclear energy to phase out coal, and not to drive your car or bus.   This is I am arguing that this is precisely what must be done to make the world safe for future generations.  

The world produced - and this is a disgrace - about 120 exajoules of primary energy by burning coal last year.   If the world produced 120 exajoules of primary energy via nuclear means - displacing coal - adding the 120 exajoules to the nearly 30 exajoules produced by nuclear now (150 exajoules) the maximum amount of cesium-137 that could accumulate would be just under 3,050 MT.   It would take about 200 years to approach this amount, at which point less than a ton of additional cesium-137 would be accumulating per year.

The situation with cesium-135 is very different, since cesium-135 has a long half-life compared with cesium-137, but the supply of cesium-135 could be controlled fairly easily by the power level of the reactors producing it, as I also explained in part 1.  For those with a technical bent, the terms for nuclear decay in the Bateman equations do not dominate the maximum but - because of the nuclear precursor, xenon-135, the terms for neutron flux do.

When cesium is separated from a spent nuclear fuel, it will contain, a mixture of three isotopes, cesium-137, cesium-135 and cesium-133.      The last is not radioactive, but it increases the (small) bulk of cesium isotopes.   Over time, as the cesium stands, fraction of cesium-137 remaining will decline, eventually falling to almost zero.   After a few hundred years all that will be left is cesium-133 and cesium-135.

Types of reactors that are not being built yet on a commercial scale, molten salt reactors, might potentially allow for the separation of the various cesium isotopes in some cases, by exploiting the ability to remove xenon while on line, but that's too technical and speculative right now to be seriously discussed here.

I will discuss the subject of nuclear transmutation in connection with other elements in so called "nuclear waste," but - at least purely for its own sake - nuclear transmutation of cesium-135 into a shorter lived isotope is not really, for the time being, a feasible option.   It probably wouldn't work very well.

So what is the NNadir answer to the question, "what do we do with the waste?" so far as cesium is concerned?

The glib NNadir answer is "find a use for it."   I have both in the main body and the comments sections of the previous three parts of this series discussed some possible uses for radiocesium.   I said that the radiation from cesium-137 could be used to break-up difficult stable molecules in PCB's that contaminate Hudson River striped bass.   I talked about medical therapy machines.   I talked about something called "neutron transparency" I talked all about futuristic ion propulsion engines propelling Cesium-135 powered spaceships across the sky.

Blah.  Blah.  Blah.

OK now it's time to do the science fiction promised.   When I was a young man, several nuclear powered spacecraft were launched that were designed to fly past the planets Jupiter, Saturn and beyond.   One of these spacecraft visited Uranus, then Neptune.   I love things like that.   For me, cranky old atheist that I am, this is the true purpose of humanity, to see further and further and further, to see, just to see.

Here is the great dark spot of Neptune.

Here is one of Neptune's rings.

NASA spent a lot of money recording the Rolling Stones and drawing naked pictures of a man and a woman, and digitalizing the frequency of pulsars and sending them out of the solar system.  (NASA also made some plagues that were less "smutty," sending phonograph records, literally gold records, on the Voyager craft.)  The idea was for space aliens to find these naked pictures and to learn about how we looked naked and how to locate the place they could learn more about Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards and those other guys who are even older and deader than NNadir.    

I can't get no satisfaction.  No satisfaction.   No satisfaction.

What do I think about the probability of space aliens finding and being offended by Brian Jones and naked pictures of earthlings?   I think it's essentially zero.   On some level the whole exercise was silly, but I do understand the emotions that caused us to send the naked pictures anyway.   It was our first time away from home.   You can't help but to have unreasonable expectations about a thing like your first time away from home.

If I were looking for space aliens, I might not look only look for broadcasts of the ancient epidsodes of "Hoody Doody" and old commercials with sexy girls in convertibles singing about how "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."    Instead, I might look for a beam of Cesium-135 contaminated by Barium-135, a cosmic ray.

A shark is shaped like a submarine not because submarine designers of submarines are fond of sharks, but because the shape shared by submarines and sharks represents the mathematically most energetically efficient way of traveling under water.   Submarine designers like to minimize the energy requirements of under water travel.   So do sharks.   Sharks evolved as they did because of this.   Submarines were designed to look like submarines, because of this.

The most energy efficient way of travelling in space is to take an atom of cesium-135 and to accelerate it to near the speed of light in an accelerator attached to a spacecraft.   It doesn't get any better than that.   That's the ideal solution if you live in this solar system.   That's the idea solution if you live 800 zillion light years from here.

More or less, with some exceptions, if you found a lots of beams of cesium-135 mixed with barium-135, you could tell some things about the space aliens who may have created it.   If you knew the laws of relativity - and who goes travelling in space without knowing that? - and all time dilation in high velocity objects you could tell when they shot off this bunch of space exhaust.   You would simply measure the ratio of Cs-135 to Ba-135 and back calculate.   You might also tell whence they sent it by careful examination of the direction.  Of course, you wouldn't have naked pictures, but all the same, you could learn a lot, more than you could learn by listening to Bill Wyman's bass.   Bill Wyman's bass, no offense, would say a lot less than a beam of cesium.

"Look," you say, "You're being ridiculous.   I know something about ion propulsion engines.   Nobody is even contemplating making one with cesium-135.   It ain't happening.   The one's that exist use xenon, not cesium, especially not radioactive cesium.   Are we hearing this complete line of wishful thinking from the same beast who shits all over renewable energy because he only values what is available right now?"

In part 2 of this series, I indicated that I had a ridiculous idea about a cesium cooled reactor that was, well, ridiculous.   Maybe the whole idea about ion propulsion engines is the same.   Maybe not.  In any case, we're not talking about grand space fleets featuring grand space admirals fighting grand space wars.   If we used nuclear energy to phase out coal, in the best case we might only accumulate a hundred metric tons of cesium-135 in a year on the whole planet.   This could propel one heavy spacecraft to Mars or beyond over a period of years, maybe, but not one containing Captain Kirk and all his girlfriends and the life support systems and piles of contraceptives.  

In fact the vast majority of what is in so called "nuclear waste" is unchanged uranium, the same uranium that has spent more than 4 billion years on this planet, waiting to decay.   Only a fraction, typically less than 5%, of what is is in spent nuclear fuel is fission products.   Of those fission products, on a relatively small percent is cesium.   Of that cesium, only some of it is highly radioactive, and some of it is long lived.

Our decisions about "what to do" with consituents of spent fuel will depend on how much we have.   If we only have a little, our options will be esoteric.  If we have a lot, we can do lots of things, different things, in fact.     At least one of my ideas - which might be silly or might not be silly - an idea which I will not now discuss in any detail, requires lots of radiocesium.

But let's get real.   The only "use" for radioactive cesium right now is in calibration devices and medical treatment as a few more esoteric things.  In the comments section of Part 3, I indicated that all of this use could be addressed by a few kilos, which leaves metric ton quantities to sit around and do nothing.  As noted in early entries, even this "use" has not been without serious setbacks, like the death of that little girl in Brazil.  

I believe this situation will change, especially as we get more of radiocesium with which to play, but I cannot prove it.   Let me tell you right here.   Cesium is the most problematic fission product there is in my view.   It's difficult stuff to handle.  

A young future nuclear engineer wrote in here to tell me something I already knew, that the main use of radiocesium today is to keep people - some of whom may have bad intentions - away from spent nuclear fuel.   This is a good thing, such as it is, but it is not what I would intend for the long term.   I think people do in fact, need to get at the other stuff in that spent nuclear fuel.

So again, what is the NNadir plan for cesium in spent nuclear fuel?   I believe the best course of action would be to isolate the cesium, remove all of the elements in it about which I will talk in future entries.    Then what?  

Well how about being patient?   How about adopting a "hold on it to it, catalog it, watch it, keep it where it is readily accessible until we have thought long, hard, and deeply about it."  Suppose we want energy efficient ion propulsion engines powered by cesium-135?   What then?    Suppose that any of other ideas that people like me (and I have lots more) pan out?   What then?  

Cesium capsules from the 1970s and earlier exist and are well characterized.   Linked below is a report from the National Academy of Sciences that talks about the status of cesium capsules.   NNadir ideas about the use of cesium do not have pan out for cesium to prove useful in the near or long term future.   There are many tens of thousands of nuclear professionals working all over the world, many who are much, much, much smarter than I am.

There are 2,000 stainless steel cesium capsules at Hanford, Washington, containing, all together, 67 million curies of radioactive cesium, about 35,000 curies each.   One canister leaked, the other 1999 didn't.   Each puts out about 190 watts, something considerably less than a floodlight at an "No Nukes" Sting concert.   The idea that some people have is to dispose of them.   How about we don't?   These capsules are more than 30 years old.   They are information about time and radiation and it's long term effect on stainless steel.    I suggest we hold on to them.   They are important.   The are valuable.   They have been irradiated for more than a half-life of cesium-137.   There is so much to learn from them, I cannot begin to guess.

Here is the number of deaths associated with the 2,000 stainless steel cannisters at Hanford:   Zero.   (Still, in spite of killing zero people, they are yet described by some, as the "most lethal" single source of radiation in the earth.   That description is most curious, since generally the condition of being lethal is associated with dead bodies.)

2,000 Cesium Canisters.

Suppose I am wrong, suppose there is no way to effectively to use radiocesium?

The equilibrium cesium concentration at 150 exajoules per year of nuclear energy (the coal phase out number) represents about 260 billion curies of radioactivity.   This is about 50% of the potassium-40 now found in the ocean, and is roughly equivalent to the radioactivity found in the ocean about 1.2 billion years ago, if one only restricts oneself to the radioactivity of potassium, assumes constant salinity, and ignores all of the other radioactive substances there, like those in U-235's decay chain, and that associated with rubidium.   (The latter factors, in fact, make the radioactivity even higher, not lower.)

(Someone asked me to provide links for the radioactivity of the ocean.   Here are some from which the calculation may be accomplished:  

The Volume of the Ocean.   Chemical Composition of Seawater, Including Potassium.   The other relevant data, decay constant, isotopic composition, etc, can be found in the Table of Nuclides.  If need be, I can walk us through the calculations involved, but only if requested.  An interesting discussion of potassium in seawater was conducted by readers in the comments section of part 3.)

It is, however, not likely that radiocesium need ever find itself into the ocean at all.   I have alluded in a few places in this series to the oldest rocks on earth, the rocks of the Canadian Shield (also of Greenland) that are many billions of years old.  These pegamatites contain the mineral pollucite, which is a cesium mineral.   These rocks have taken everything the earth can dish out and have remained unchanged for billions of years.   People like to pretend, when making anti-nuclear arguments, that if any single incidence of failure implies the failure of all the systems.  This is nonsense.  

What if in two hundred, three hundred, one thousand years, someone for some reason wants to dump cesium?

It has been shown in many places in the scientific literature that the migration of cesium in geochemical systems is not straight-forward.   For instance, even though cesium-137 from chernobyl has a half-life of 30 years, the half-life for bioavailability is much lower, about 2 years.   This is because the cesium forms complexes certain constituents of soils that are very stable, making it unavailable for uptake by plants as a potassium mimetic.

"But, but, but, but...NNadir!" you say, the cesium in the Canadian shield is not radioactive!"

Some of what I say here may strike you as original, but I assure you it is not.   Very few of my ideas are new.  Mostly they are derivative.   The properties of cesium based pollucites have already garnered the attention of researchers and synthetic cesium-137 based pollucite synthesized.   Frankly the researchers expected problems, but found none.  

Transmutation Effects in Synthetic Cesium-137 pollucite.

Note that the idea here - and I'm fairly sure it will never become necessary, is not the same idea as Yucca Mountain or similar places proposed around the world.   In those places the foolish idea is being proposed of disposing of everything in spent fuel, and not just the small fraction represented by cesium.   This is not a good idea and I oppose Yucca Mountain.   In my view something like Yucca Mountain may be worth considering a few hundred years from now if better options don't present themselves.   But I'm fairly certain that better ideas will present themselves, since even a fool like me can imagine a large number of them.   In any case, in the worst case, cesium might be the only thing we need to contain, and that's not a big problem.

This Study from the National Academy of Engineering suggests something of this idea and indicates that the volume requirements for geologicial disposal - if ever needed - would be vastly smaller than currently evisioned.

Suppose one made a synthetic pollucite containing Cs-137 that failed after sixty years?   What then?   Would it all end up the ocean?   In your breakfast cereal?   In your flesh right next to the coal wastes you already contain?   No, not at all.    The cesium would need to be transported somehow from the area outside of the failed pollucite.   Effectively there is only one way for this to happen, which is to be transported, at least until it can form a blowable dust, through the intermediate of a water solution, water that percolates through the pollucite.   If cesium by magic made it out of pollucite, it would still need to migrate, probably across tens, maybe hundreds, of kilometers.   As it did so, it would become more diffuse and most importantly, it would, unlike coal wastes, continue to decay.   The most likely state of affairs is that by the time it got to a place where it might make trouble, it would have mostly disappeared.

Thus, after a few centuries, we find that we don't want cesium, we could take some of the old, cooler mixtures (essentially decayed only to Cs-133/Cs-135 mixes) and make pollucite.   The risks of doing this are almost vanishiningly small.

The fact is that cesium can be managed, even in the less than certain case that it doesn't prove to be an important resource.

Of course, when people oppose nuclear power, they want you to think very differently than I do.   They want you to imagine that all of any released radionuclides are going to make a beeline right for your flesh and magically be concentrated there.   They want you to run with your imagination.  

Well, if you must imagine things, how about climate change?

In fact though, at least in the case of cesium, there are few, if any, concentration mechanisms, at least not like the concentration mechanism that exists for just one of the coal wastes, mercury.  I am speaking of course, of the horrible situation in fish throughout the world.    

By comparison, unless rendered into an aerosol form (such as at Chernobyl) cesium tends to move relatively slowly in the environment, much slower in fact than people expected.  

The situation quickly degenerates to absurdity, as follows:   First the pollucite has to leak, then it has to be leached then it has to travel long distances, and then you has to find itself into living systems, and then you have to eat it or drink it, and then you have to wait around to get some kind of cancer.    Somehow, nevertheless, you manage to convince yourself that all of these improbable events somehow are the same as a certainty.

It the meantime, let me assure you, without any appeal to probabilistic events, you are breathing coal waste - some of it quite carcinogenic - right now.

I invite those with access to the scientific literature to access a recent article in the literature on the subject of cesium, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2006, 40, 4500-4505.    This is about cesium at the Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons site.   (Note that I oppose all nuclear weapons.)   The site is considered contaminated.    Refer to figure 3 and the units.  If you are really, really diligent, I invite you to consider if a kilogram of a contaminated plant is experiencing more decays than you are as a result of the natural potassium in your body.

I am sounding very cavalier, and actually I don't mean to be so.   Radiocesium has risks, real risks.   However these risks can only be viewed as extreme in isolation.    To be make wise choices we have to compare these risks to the risks of not making radiocesium, which is precisely coterminous with the risk of burning coal.   I submit that the risk of burning coal is much larger, by many orders of magnitude.

When I planned this series, I had collected a load of scientific papers.  I wanted to talk about biological half-life, behavior in illitic clays and many other things.   But there is not time.   I am going to move on and talk about other elements, strontium, technetium, neptunium, plutonium, etc, etc.   Keep in the back of your mind should you bother to read another article by me, however, that I regard cesium as the most problematic of all so called "nuclear wastes," and I actually don't think it's all that bad.

Originally posted to NNadir on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 02:06 PM PST.


How do you feel about the Great Dark Spot of Neptune?

4%2 votes
4%2 votes
6%3 votes
26%13 votes
0%0 votes
6%3 votes
8%4 votes
4%2 votes
4%2 votes
6%3 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
8%4 votes
22%11 votes

| 49 votes | Vote | Results

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

    •  Love the series! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Good work!

      -4.25, -4.87 "If the truth were self-evident, there would be no need for eloquence." -- Cicero

      by HeyMikey on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 02:42:44 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Question: why "so called" nuclear waste? (0+ / 0-)

      I thought that the term nuclear waste, and what it referred to was fairly well agreed upon. I have certainly seen and heard it referred to as such by many nuclear physicists, with no real or metaphorical quotation marks.

      •  Channelling NNadir (0+ / 0-)

        My guess is that NN uses the quote marks because he thinks "nuclear waste" should be used for various purposes, and something that has a use is not waste.

      •  Answer: why "so called" nuclear waste? (0+ / 0-)

        I thought that the term nuclear waste, and what it referred to was fairly well agreed upon. I have certainly seen and heard it referred to as such by many nuclear physicists, with no real or metaphorical quotation marks.

        Well, obviously, it's written that way because it is "so called" by many nuclear physicists, among others who happen to like the term for one reason or another.

        What a silly question!

        One man's waste is another man's treasure.

        •  So, "A success that hasn't happened yet" (0+ / 0-)

          despite decades of scientific effort by actual nuclear physicists and others, and despite tens or hundreds of billions of dollars.

          For some reason, actual nuclear physicists seem to think it wise to call the stuff nuclear waste, and isolate and dispose of it.

          Even my Dad, a military nuclear physicist, in his most rabid "nukes will save the world" days back in the 60's (guilt over "finding new and better ways to blow people up" with nuclear bombs) never said stuff that irresponsible or unprovenly unscientific.

          Yeah, let's stop disposing of dioxin, too! Let's keep it readily available so we can use it!

          Any nuclear physicists in the crowd here at DK? This diary seems less hard science and more pure speculation from an (admittedly) biased view.

          There has been some use of very refined isotopes, such as Yttrium-90 in cancer treatment, taken from nuclear waste at Hanford.  This sort of news then devolves into garbage like: Nuclear waste is better for you than a cure for cancer. Interestingly we may be looking for the wrong sequelae to radiation exposure. Heart problems appear to  increase after such exposure, in many studies. So measures of cancer alone may be just the tip of the iceberg. You can see some of the non-cancer effects here in a summary of the 2004 research on radiation exposure in Japan, which has, as you know, a unique group of nuclear attack survivors which are being followed.

          I'll stick with the term nuclear waste, in use since the stuff was first made.

          •  So am I to assume ... (0+ / 0-)

            that you are a nuclear physicist? I certainly hope not, since it would give a bad name to nuclear physicists everywhere.

            Am I the only one who picks up on the non sequitur here? Your arguments just get sillier and sillier. For example, here we are given a reference to an article about the chemical extraction of yttrium-90 that somehow leads to "garbage" about studies of cancer rate in British radiologists and nuclear shipyard workers. Huh? Did I miss something?

            Forget "hard science," I suggest that you try to focus on simple logic. And if your science is so sound, how about some references to these "many studies" that you talk about. In fact, I would really love for you to produce a "hard science" study that demonstrates heart problems due to radiation on the order of background radiation. Nobody here is arguing that large doses of radiation are not bad for you.

            Studies on the Japanese atomic-bomb survivors have provided many very useful data on the effects of exposure to large amounts of radiation, but unless you can demonstrate that commercial nuclear plants produce exposure to radiation on the order of magnitude of the Japanese bombings (or, for that matter, on the order of the 543 test nuclear warheads exploded in the atmosphere), then your comments are irrelevant to much of the discussion here, except on a very academic level or on a very childish "radiation scary, nuclear bad" level.

            So, returning to what nuclear physicists think about what comes out of reactors, I would like to point out that many nuclear physicists (and more importantly) nuclear engineers -- who actually have the training to be able to develop processes to handle the stuff -- in France think that this "nuclear waste" is best processed and turned into new stuff to burn up in their reactors. This is not "a success that hasn't happened yet"; it's happening today. I don't think that they would agree with you on your terminology.

            In fact, personally, the only waste I can associate with this diary entry is the waste of time reading some of the comments.

            •  Thank you bryfry (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              A useful thing to do is to look at the average lifespan of the inhabitants of Hiroshima these days, some 60 years after the bomb.  It's on the city website.  It's the same as the rest of Japan, which has the longest average life span of developed countries (and hence considerably longer than ours in the US).

              •  Good point (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                Speaking of longevity, what I find funny is that, if nuclear accidents were all that they were cracked up to be (at least according to antinuclear propaganda), then President Carter should be long dead by now. To his credit, he was not afraid to tour "ground zero" during the Three Mile Island accident.

                •  Worse yet Carter served on the Seawolf (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:


                  Chosen by Admiral Hyman Rickover for the nuclear submarine program, he was assigned to Schenectady, N.Y., where he took graduate work at Union College in reactor technology and nuclear physics, and served as senior officer of the pre-commissioning crew of the Seawolf, the second nuclear submarine.

                  Obviously he should glow in the dark.

          •  I prefer used fuel (0+ / 0-)

            Much in the same context of "used car".

            A little elbow grease and spit polish and it is as good as new!

            •  Actually, a couple of years ago... (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              NNadir, GrySovCob

              I tried to come up with an analogy to explain reactor fuel to the average Joe. The best that I could come up with is motor oil. You put oil in your car, but it gets gunked up with dirt, water, chemicals, or metals from the engine, so it is no longer usable and needs to be replaced. But the used oil can be filtered and refined into purer oil to be used again.

              Nuclear fuel in today's plants is much the same way. When it comes out of the reactor, most of the fuel (i.e., the fissionable uranium) is still there. It is no longer usable in its present form, however, because of all of the additional stuff (fission products, etc.) that have been formed, which are detrimental to the neutron economy. In terms of my analogy, it has been "gunked up" by impurities. By reprocessing and separating the "dirt" from the usable stuff, the fuel can be used again and again, until all of the usable fissionable material has been used up.

              Of course, this is not a perfect analogy. A large portion of used motor oil that is collected for recycling is turned into fuel that is burned in furnaces, turbines, power plants, etc. So, while both the used nuclear fuel and the used oil eventually get "burned up," it's not quite the same thing and doesn't fit the analogy well.

    •  Sorry I missed the tip/rec window (0+ / 0-)

      So have a 4, even if there is no place to put it except Yucca Mt.

      "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

      by Plan9 on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 01:19:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  How to dispose of bad cesium. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    OK, I understand your point that sooner or later somebody is bound to come up with some really, really useful purpose to which the "bad" variety of cesium can be put, and that we should just hold onto it until that happens.

    But if we decide we really, really want to get rid of the bad cesium, we could just hold onto it until the space elevator is ready, then we send it up the elevator and slingshot it into the sun.

    I know we could rocket it into the sun now, but people are too worried about the rocket blowing up in Earth's atmosphere to let that happen.

    -4.25, -4.87 "If the truth were self-evident, there would be no need for eloquence." -- Cicero

    by HeyMikey on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 02:49:36 PM PST

  •  Thank you (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Sometimes a little knowledge is a good thing.

    trying to thing of something new - watch here for results

    by norahc on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 04:01:53 PM PST

  •  I Will Totally Fix That Laser Printer Someday (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Well how about being patient?   How about adopting a "hold on it to it, catalog it, watch it, keep it where it is readily accessible until we have thought long, hard, and deeply about it."

    Ah, yes. The "Ray's Attic" philosophy of storage.

    •  Exactly. (0+ / 0-)

      I note that the volume and mass of laser printers far exceeds the volume and mass of radiocesium though.

      The volume of radiocesium would easily fit into a small warehouse.   The volume of waste laser printers would fill many square kilometers of landfill.   I would bet that discarded computer printers, point source pollutants all of them, already measure many hundreds of thousands of metric tons, if not more.

      The subject of landfills and electronic waste should suggest something about the landfills required for spent solar cells in the future, no?

      •  Yes. (0+ / 0-)

        That conveniently slips solar advocates' minds from time to time doesn't it?

        •  As a budding nuke engineer, don't bash solar... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          ...too much, though.

          Solar energy can do something that nuclear power, at least for the time being, cannot do well, which is to provide peak power for variable loads.  (Certain types of high temperature reactors may address this drawback in the future, though.)

          I don't think the world is anywhere near working the "bugs" out of solar energy, but it's definitely making progress.   If these bugs are worked out, solar energy will provide a perfect synergy for nuclear.   This is even more true for solar than for wind, since the availability of solar follows demand closely.   The highest energy demand ususally occurs on hot sunny days.

          Solar energy may present a point source pollution problem, in the long term, but that problem is not likely to be as serious as other point source pollution problems associated with fossil fuels, like motor oil and gasoline for instance.   We don't know about the lifetime of solar cells.   They may operate well after sixty years.   If so, they will be a big help.

          I make fun of solar energy, but my purpose is somewhat rhetorical.

      •  Solar panels require toxic waste dumps (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        And the lifetime of a panel is about 25 years.

        If solar power is ever scaled up to the level we hear about often on Kos, exposure to toxic gases at PVC fabrication plants will become a costly issue.  Brookhaven assembled 150 or so studies on this. And to dispose of all the waste will require very large toxic waste dumps.  And some of that PVC waste will never decay.

        BTW all the long-lived high-level waste from spent nuclear fuel (from one trip through a reactor) could fit in a Home Depot.  If it were recycled, the residual waste would be negligible.

        The great thing about reprocessing as it is done in Europe is that the plutonium is taken out of the spent fuel and mixed in with oxides to make new fuel and put back into the reactors.  Then the plutonium is very problematic to use as bomb material.

        "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

        by Plan9 on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 01:32:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I think you're on to something (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          BTW all the long-lived high-level waste from spent nuclear fuel (from one trip through a reactor) could fit in a Home Depot.  If it were recycled, the residual waste would be negligible.

          But just think, if you covered the top of that Home Depot with solar panels, then you would have enough electricity to power a few light bulbs ... during the day ... when the weather is good ... and the sun is shining.

          But I bet the subsidies would be good, particularly if this Home Depot was located in California.

          •  Furthermore.... (0+ / 0-)

   could harness the heat in the Home Depot generated by the nuclear waste to keep orphan condors chicks warm.  I am applying for a patent and a CA subsidy ASAP and am happy to include your name on the applications.

            "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

            by Plan9 on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 02:02:12 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  The external cost of solar is, in fact, somewhat (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          obscured by the tiny energy production it manages.

          I think that if solar every produces 5 exajoules - its external cost will become more apparent.   But it's still not going to be comparable to a fossil fuel.

          However, almost everything I read suggests that these costs are relatively low in comparison to natural gas.

          Solar does not compete with nuclear, and will not do so until reactors capable of producing thermochemical hydrogen - or a similar chemical storage system such as electrochemically produced methanol or DME - becomes available.   My guess is that these things are a long way off, at least a decade and a half before the first commercial cases come on line.

          The current reactor technology is sluggish at meeting demand load changes, unless used - somewhat wastefully - as "spinning reserve."

          To my mind the external cost of solar energy is not the problem, but rather the internal cost.   To use it one must be a landowner and have ready access to cash that one wish's to invest in electricity.   Further to recover this investment one has to plan to live in one's home for an extended period.

          I have no objection to anyone wealthy enough to purchase a solar cell doing so.   I think the case is well made that they will recover the greenhouse investment made in them in a reasonable amount of time.

          In an ideal world, the nuclear industry would press ahead mostly at displacing coal by growing to about 5 times it's current size.   In this time, we would do well to press ahead with R&D into reversible (Olah) methanol/DME fuel cells, and thermochemical hydrogen cycles.   If in 20 years these things can come to fruition, a useful and not speculative discussion of external costs can be held.

          In the meantime, I'll personally be grateful for whatever solar can offer.

          In someway solar is preferable to wind since it is more predictable and is available mostly at periods of high energy load, mid-day on hot sunny days in summer.

          I wish that all the solar advocates had more to crow about - that it really was getting "affordable."

  •  What is the most dangerous stuff on Earth? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wonmug, mbkennel, NNadir

    How about methane gas hydrates in oceans?

    The Inuit word for "small hill," incidentally, is "pingo." A. E. Porsild borrowed the word to describe a particular formation of earth-covered ice mounds that dot the Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes. In memory of his contributions, a pingo on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula in Northern Canada was named after him.

    Porsild Pingo is near the shores of the Beaufort Sea. In the 1960s, researchers studying the submarine geology of the Beaufort Sea started using the term "pingo-like features" to describe mounds that had emerged from the sea floor that looked similar to the pingos on land.

    The aboveground pingos are thought to have formed primarily through "expansion associated with ground ice formation," say researchers. But the pingo-like features on the sea bottom may be quite different. New research presented this month, in Geophysical Research Letters of the American Geophysical Union, suggests that the pingo-like features on the Beaufort Sea shelf are the result of decomposing methane gas hydrates. [...]

    A methane gas hydrate is a solid substance composed of water and methane that is formed under conditions of low temperature and high pressure. In the Beaufort Sea, gas hydrate deposits are believed to have been created from the submersion of thick Arctic permafrost. But as warmer waters have "transgressed" upon regions of the long-submerged permafrost, the hydrate structures may, essentially, be melting. And as the gas pushes upward, pingo-like features are forming on the seabed.

    Why should we care? Some geologists see gas hydrates as a source of energy, if ways can be found to safely mine them. But methane is also an especially virulent greenhouse gas. If warmer temperatures lead to the rapid unlocking of submarine methane hydrates, the pace of climate change could be considerably accelerated.

    It's not at all clear that such an acceleration is occurring yet. The marine transgression referred to by the pingo-fascinated researchers has been occurring on a time scale that dates back to the last Ice Age, well before humans started influencing the climate. But as the researchers note, "because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, the fate of decomposing gas hydrate is of considerable interest in global warming scenarios."

    So boil the oceans, release methane gas, boil even faster. Contemplating that prospect will mute just about anyone's rollicking.

  •  An example process patent. (0+ / 0-)

    This invention relates to a process for the degradation of chlorinated hydrocarbons and more particularly to the gamma-ray induced degradation of polychlorinated biphenyls using spent nuclear reactor fuel...

    ... The process of the invention is advantageous in that it does not require repackaging, addition of chemicals, or general PCB exposure of personnel to accomplish destruction of the PCB contamination. Destruction of the PCBs occurs in a closed system which is easily sampled for verification of process completion. The process requires no off-gas monitoring and releases no gaseous effluent as compared to incineration processes. Contaminated objects or oils can be re-irradiated to the extent necessary to lower the PCB content to the desired level. Therefore, irradiation times and applied dose levels can be tailored to the specific need for each level of PCB contamination and type of contaminated object or container.

    The irradiation can be accomplished using isotopic gamma ray sources such as Cesium-137, Cobalt-60, or spent fuel from nuclear power reactors. In the latter case, a dry tube which extends into the spent fuel storage pool can be constructed to allow irradiation of the desired objects. Normally, the spent fuel would be arranged around the irradiation tube to optimize the dose rate applied...

    US Patent 5799257

  •  best diarist at DKos (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    hands down.

    •  I've never read any diaries by... (0+ / 0-)

      "hands down."

      Is he/she better than NNadir??


    •  Not to be a buzz kill (0+ / 0-)

      but NNadir is my current least liked diarist.

      I deplore the jokey, "hey nukes are fun, fuzzy and friendly" packaging for a serious scientific subject. I also deplore how what appears to be irresponsible, scientifically unsupported personal speculation is slipped into the actual science.

      But hey, that's just me. Enjoy.

      •  You are not discussing "science." (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        dead letter office

        If you have a scientific point to make - and I see no evidence that you have such a point - make it.   If on the other hand, you have no such point, I would suggest you stop sulking.

        Under the circumstances for you to presume to lecture about what is and what is not "supported," science, is at best, a dubious enterprise.  

        My knowledge of science, or lack thereof, speaks for itself.

        I do recognize that many people dislike me and what I have to say, and how I say it. I often give such people latitude to express themselves as such in my polls.   (As of this writing, four people have voted to have me abducted by space aliens.)  

        All that said, I am not seeking popularity but something quite different:  Rationality.

        •  Agreed (0+ / 0-)

          The best part is

          I also deplore how what appears to be irresponsible, scientifically unsupported personal speculation is slipped into the actual science.

          This is from someone who attaches to every message a hyperlink to a loose collection of miscellaneous articles, floating randomly out in internet-space and served up by Google. Now, that's a rigorous selection process. I guess Google now counts as scientific support and "actual science." I'm glad we cleared that up.

          Sorry, but that irony was too good to pass up.

  •  Poll (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dannyinla, jfm

    My choice

    How much would we have to pay space aliens to haul NNadir away? Whatever it costs, it's worth it.

     But a snarky one at that {;>)

    I think that the "waste" issue is not the biggest problem with nuclear energy. I agree with you that the concept of "waste" is flawed. "Waste" is just something that we haven't found a use for, or something that is put where it shouldn't be (like mercury or CO2 in the atmosphere), or valuable things that are mixed together to make something of less value (like feces [fertilizer] and clean water).

    The risk of a run-away meltdown, and the proliferation of dangerous materials that might fall into the "wrong" hands, are much greater problems. An "intrinsically safe" reactor design (pebble beds?) and a strong international registry of nuclear materials might be possible.

    Great series of diaries. I love to hate your arguments.

    "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

    by offgrid on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 09:59:07 PM PST

    •  Of all the risks of nuclear energy the only one I (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LIsoundview, offgrid, jfm

      take seriously is the potential for weapons diversion, particularly from enrichment facilities, but also from CANDU type reactors, by states seeking nuclear weapons.

      I believe there are excellent strategies for minimizing this risk as well, although such risk can never be zero.

      But I do not think that any risk associated with nuclear energy, nor all of them combined, is comparable to the risk of not using nuclear energy to address climate change.

      •  As difficult as it is (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        for me to may be right

        "Like the mirror told me this morning, it's all done with people" - Wavy Gravy

        by offgrid on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 04:19:49 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  All-out nuclear war could scarcely touch (0+ / 0-)

        what we are doing to the planet and all its species, including us, by increasing the combustion of fossil fuels year after year.

        Nuclear power has more than proven itself over the past 50 years as the safest and cleanest large-scale way to generate electricity from a small footprint while producing a tiny volume of waste, most of which can be recycled.  The arguments against it by soi-disant environmentalists puzzle me.  And the grounds that they cite remind me of the grounds people 40 years ago cited for reasons why African-Americans should not attend white schools.  There were "scientific" studies "proving" that the brains of black people were just of inferior quality.

        People had been reared with or adopted a particular prejudice and then passionately campaigned to support it using pseudoscience.  Greenpeace et al are doing the same thing.

        "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

        by Plan9 on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 01:43:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I wouldn't go so far as to say "all out" war. (0+ / 0-)

          The world's inventory of nuclear weapons needs to be reduced, preferably to zero.

          The existent stockpile is sufficient to kill everything and everyone and it is absurd that such a stockpile has been built.   It should be a high priority for the entire human race to disassemble such arsenals as exist, and to shun the creation of new ones.

          The only real way to dismantle this stockpile is to fission/denature the weapons grade fissionable cores.

          Happily there can be a financial incentive for doing this if nuclear power is commercial practice.   Russia made a lot of money in the last decade mixing down weapons uranium for reactor use since the 1990's.

          The probability that a weapons stockpile could be or would be assembled because of the increased use of nuclear power is low but not zero.   Nothing can uninvent nuclear weapons.   In fact, the best way to minimize the risk of nuclear war is to use nuclear power.

          State sanctioned diversion is a risk however.   It is not as much of a risk as burning coal, but it still exists.   India and Pakistan demonstrate this risk.   They need to engage in nuclear disarmament and so, in fact, do we.

          •  Agree with you 100% (0+ / 0-)

            Turning these weapons into electricity should be a top priority goal of the UN.

            I think that if civilization survives past 2100--by no means a slam-dunk--and nuclear power replaces fossil fuels, then there will be increased energy prosperity worldwide.  That leads to education, better health, longer lives, etc.--and then people have something to lose. If poverty and its attendant desperation are reduced, then perhaps atomic bombs as they now exist will become an historical artifact. Energy wars will become a thing of the past.

            Admittedly this is idealistic.

            On the other hand, the USSR fell without a single shot being fired. And all nuclear nations have refrained from using nuclear weapons since 1945.  Kind of a miracle, I think.

            "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

            by Plan9 on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 06:30:56 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Not so much a miracle (0+ / 0-)

              On the other hand, the USSR fell without a single shot being fired. And all nuclear nations have refrained from using nuclear weapons since 1945.  Kind of a miracle, I think.

              For all the faults of nuclear weapons, you have to admit that in a bipolar arrangement of global powers they ultimately saved the lives of most people on the planet.  If they had not been developed there would have definitely been another all out war between the US and the USSR.

              •  I am not convinced that the nuclear weapons (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                prevented a war or saved lives.

                His conclusions may be controversial, but Stalin biographer Edvard Radzinsky argues that Stalin intended to have an agressive nuclear war.

                I was alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I can tell you that as a small boy I wondered one morning, waiting for the school bus, very seriously, about whether I would be vaporized in the afternoon.   The problem has very much to do with the speed and devastation of the trigger, and not so much on the part of the agressors - who may in fact be insane - fear of their own demise.

                War is always a mistake.   No war is ever right, since war always at the least makes no distinction between the innocent and the guilty.   War never achieves its objectives, and whatever objectives were initially proposed for it are soon substituted.  Thus the claim that war can be guided by rational notions - including notions about suicide - is dubious at best.

                The Sherman argument is sometimes made in modern times that if war is too terrible, no one "will appeal to it."   But war has gotten very terrible and people still appeal to it.   Sherman was wrong.

                The firebombing of Dresden or Toyko or London far outstripped anything Sherman might have done in Atlanta or in Georgia or in South Carolina, and still war goes on.

                Even if a Soviet-American conventional war had been fought in the absence of the nuclear "stand-off," I very much doubt that it would have been the equivalent of either an accidental or deliberate nuclear war.

                •  "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  Richard Rhodes carefully documents not only the drama of the Manhattan Project but also all the death and destruction of WW I and WWII from chemicals and firebombing.  

                  Japan suffered much more death and destruction from prolonged conventional bombing.

                  The horror of a nuclear weapon is that it is so much force in such a small package. And then there are the health effects of the high-level radiation.  It doesn't linger, but it kills while it is operative.

                  The conventional explosives we dropped on Vietnam were the equivalent of several atomic bombs in terms of energy released.

                  The other terrible thing about nuclear weapons is that they made people phobic about nuclear energy as a force for the good (nuclear medicine; nuclear power) and people have confused low-dose radiation with high-dose.  If nuclear weapons have made people so phobic that we will never get the 3000 new reactors we need to stop carbon emissions by 2100, then that would be tragic.

                  "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

                  by Plan9 on Thu Feb 08, 2007 at 11:24:17 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  I have to agree (2+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Plan9, NNadir

                    Nuclear bombs are nasty, no doubt about that, but if you actually sit down and crunch the numbers, conventional weapons have done far more damage to far more people with far fewer consequences for the aggressor.  Thus, nuclear weapons are, in a sense, overrated.

                    The so-called "dirty" bombs (conventional bombs containing radioactive material) are even more overrated.  I used to think that they were seriously dangerous devices, until I read up on studies that actually analyzed their potential effectiveness.  Aside from the devastation of the actual explosion, these bombs do very little physical harm.  Their greatest threat is psychological and relies on the misplaced fear that is spread by antinuclear groups and well-meaning, but ignorant, people.

                    •  Amen, Bro (0+ / 0-)

                      Fearmongering regarding low-dose radiation is a far greater threat to public safety than a dirty bomb is likely to be.

                      Not only does most of the impact come from conventional explosives, buildings in a city would shield most of the area from dispersal of radioactive material.  Radionuclides are naturally very heavy and would tend to drop straight down.  

                      Whereas a chemical plant blowing up, as they tend to do with dismaying frequency, can disperse lethal and health-impairing substances far and wide.  Five years after 9/11 chemical plants are still vulnerable targets. And far, far softer than nuclear plants. Homeland Security is at last "looking into the matter". But I digress into one of my pet peeves here.  

                      "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

                      by Plan9 on Thu Feb 08, 2007 at 04:34:39 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                    •  When the first "dirty bomb" was proposed to (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:

                      Oppenheimer, he rapidly concluded it would be too difficult to make and too difficult deliver to be useful.

                      It's been 60 years since the concept was first discussed and still no one, for all the talk, has ever produced such a bomb.   In fact no has been discovered even trying to make such a bomb.

                      The entire concept, in fact, seems to rest on the shoulders of that poor Padilla fellow, and there is zero evidence that he had any idea of how to find or use nuclear materials.   The entire story, like all other stories about "dirty bombs" is more or less science fiction, and bad science fiction at that, the kind that is all fiction and no science.

                      The idea is pretty silly since almost by definition the assembly of the thing would be fatal to the persons trying to build it.

                      It is amazing how much currency this idea can get.   It almost seems that people want to be silly.   You know what?   They do want to be silly.

                      •  Maybe the people who spat on Viet vets (0+ / 0-)

                        ...are the ones making the dirty bombs.

                        Or--could be Cheney who originated the concept of the RDD.  Not content with WMD, yellowcake from Niger, anthrax, and a guy trying to set his shoe on fire, he crafts talking points on the RDD.  

                        And the Global Security guys at Princeton immediately invented a scenario about how if every bit of a rod of cobalt-60 from a food irradiating plant that was exploded in lower Manhattan was evenly and uniformly dispersed in micron-sized particles would permanently contaminate the Tri-State area and cause cancer in one out of ten people.  In fact, it would be, they speculated, the same as Chernobyl only worse.

                        Of course if all the contents of Beth Israel hospital were uniformly dispersed, all the radioactive material and chemical toxins would contaminate the Tri-State area.

                        But the Bush administration has shown zero interest in controlling radioactive sources floating around that could be used in that fantasy dirty bomb.

                        "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

                        by Plan9 on Thu Feb 08, 2007 at 08:14:10 PM PST

                        [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site