Thirty years ago Petr Beckmann, a professor of electrical engineering, published a pamphlet titled The Non-Problem of Nuclear Wastes. In it he showed that while no source of energy is entirely free of waste storage dangers, nuclear waste was less of a problem than any other viable energy source, especially coal. Among the many problems of coal waste disposal is its sheer mass, which dwarfs nuclear waste; coal itself is radioactive (but no one suggests a “nuclear priesthood” needs to watch over it for a thousand years); it emits particulates into the air which get into people’s lungs, causing fatalities; and coal waste contains other toxins, some of which remain toxic forever (such as arsenic), unlike radioactivity, which eventually decays to below the level of radioactivity of the ore that it originally came from.
He showed how bad coal is in comparison to nuclear, not because he was against coal, but simply to show that nuclear is a better, cleaner, and safer source of energy. Also, he bases his arguments on the sensible idea that American nuclear plants would reprocess spent fuel, which would reduce the amount of nuclear waste – something which is not being done, again, for political reasons.
At any rate, I bring this issue up because President Obama has apparently decided that nuclear waste could never be safe in Yucca Mountain, and he won’t allow it to be stored there. This simply isn’t a rational conclusion, as Beckmann demonstrates in his pamphlet. I advise anyone with an interest in the so-called problem of nuclear waste disposal to read Beckmann’s pamphlet.
On a related note, a promising new nuclear energy technology is written up in Technology Review, something called a Traveling-Wave Reactor. It would reduce the already minute amount of waste produced by the nuclear industry.