EcoMeme: Nuclear Weapons and Waste


Capitalizing on the pro-nuclear-power views of President Obama, privately held companies and investors, in particular Bill Gates and Nathan Mhyrvold, are investing in the development of miniature and traveling wave nuclear reactors that could use spent uranium from nuclear power plants to safely supply energy to our humble abodes.

At least entrepreneurs are talking directly about what to do to solve nuclear waste problems. Because this week the Obama Administration released its plan to reduce and put limits on the usage of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, but disappointingly failed to address the costs and impact of nuclear waste from power plants and the weapons industry, on our health and the environment.

The Nuclear Posture Review, a 49-page document, contains plenty of prose about aging nuclear warheads and facilities that are in decline, and admits these need to be revamped to better handle nuclear materials. But words like cancer, sludge and water pollution did not appear. The phrase “safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal” was repeated copiously, though.

The nuclear lobby spent almost half-a-million dollars in the last four months of 2009 to sway public and political opinion, according to Business Week. And perhaps not surprisingly, Gallup polls show that Americans are more approving of nuclear power these days than they have been in decades. They are also more willing to accept environmental suffering in exchange for more sources of energy.

This is all despite some good arguments against nuclear power from the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

Sierra Club notes that nuclear reactors, even the safest ones, can be susceptible to natural disaster and rendered unsafe. As recently as 2007, an earthquake in Japan impacted a nuclear power plant there, releasing radioactive water into the Sea of Japan. Friends of Earth suggests that nuclear power investments are a distraction from better renewable energy and efficiency alternatives. They found that “from 1948 to 1998, the government awarded nearly $75 billion in handouts to the nuclear power industry while spending less than $15 billion on renewable energy and only about $12 billion on energy efficiency measures.”


But nuclear energy and science insiders resoundingly believe nuclear is part of the essential, global, clean energy solution. Prof. Kathryn Higley, the acting department head at Oregon State University’s Nuclear Engineering & Radiation Health Physics department, points out that some environmentalists who changed their mind and supported nuclear power, over time, include some of our favorites!

They are: Stewart Brand, a founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, one of the Greenpeace founders Patrick Moore, Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, and Gwyneth Cravens, author of The Power to Save the World.

Some anti-nuke environmentalists, Higley believes, hold on to outdated fears. “While I’m not advocating that you go and hug a fuel rod, we understand very well by now how radiation interacts with matter,” she says. “We understand the hazards of radiation and radioactive material more than any other type of hazard, today. In fact, we use radiation and radioactive materials to diagnose and treat a variety of diseases, including cancer now.”

Higley explains that in order to meet growing demands for energy, while limiting the CO2 emissions that are produced from power facilities, we are limited currently to hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear energy. Some of these low CO2 technologies are limited in their ability to expand capacity, she says, and have their own negative impacts on the environment. For example: hydro dams adversely effect salmon populations in the Northwest today, and solar works, only where it is sunny.

Waste not, want not, Higley believes: “Spent nuclear fuel shouldn’t be viewed as waste! There is so much energy left in the fuel, so it is really silly to permanently dispose of it. New fuel reprocessing techniques can reduce waste volume as well as the radiotoxicity of the residual material so that the volume of real waste is very small and…more easily stored.”

Are no nukes, good nukes to you? Or can you see a way to make the problem into the solution? Learn more about nuclear weapons, waste and how it can get recycled, with the links and resources below. Then call it like you see it, here or on Twitter @ecosalon.

Basic Reading:

– A article on the Bill Gates-backed Terrapower plan to develop “traveling wave” nuclear reactors, safe for home-use

– “Can Bill Gates and Toshiba save us from global warming? They plan a miniature traveling-wave nuclear reactor in every home, to spell the end of climate change…” – Interesting opinions on the idea of home, mini-reactors curated by blogger Richi Jennings for Computer World

– “Not that long ago, any Democratic president daring to fly a ‘More Nukes’ banner would have been fried by his own base. But Obama’s request for $54 billion in federal loan guarantees, and his State of the Union pitch for a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants,’ have barely moved the ire meter… [T]here is still no solution to the radioactive-waste storage problem. Current plants produce 2,200 tons of waste a year, all of which has to be stored on-site. Do the math: That’s more than 60,000 tons over the last 30 years. Some California plants are storing their waste next to seismic faults. ” – A political op-ed by Dick Polman via the Philadelphia Inquirer

– “Energy development and energy independence are enormous issues our nation must continue to address aggressively. The economy will recover, growth will resume and energy deficiencies will, once again, be front and center as topics of major concern. That’s why it is heartening to see the Obama administration tackle energy issues head-on, with aggressive support for all forms of energy, including new nuclear plants…” A pro-nuclear argument from the Salt Lake City Tribune

– The U.S. Department of Energy Environmental Management page, detailing different types of nuclear waste, and admitting that the D.O.E. lacks information about the impact of nuclear waste and possibility for true, environmental restoration around contaminated land and water

Further Resources:

The Sierra Club’s guide to nuclear waste issues

“A False Solution to Climate Crisis,” statement by Friends of the Earth, and their anti-nuclear campaign website,

An Associated Press story on recent, nuclear waste management issues and politics in Utah

Roger Alford’s news brief on nuclear politics and past problems in Kentucky via Business Week

A discussion on the Flickr comment board of investor Steve Jurvetson, about Bill Gates’ TED talk on the Nuclear Future

This is the latest installment of EcoMeme, a column featuring eco news, tech and business highlights by EcoSalon columnist and tech editor Lora Kolodny.

Image: World Economic Forum