Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

The elephant in the nuclear power plant

Jerry Stratton, June 19, 2019

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, never used. A monument to government waste and the folly of government experts. Did it occur to anyone in the bureaucracy that if you have to go to this much trouble to contain the radioactivity it might still be a useful fuel?

For some reason nuclear power has been in my news lately, both new news and old news. I was watching a segment a few weeks ago about nuclear power plants going out of business, because it’s so expensive to dispose of the highly radioactive waste products that nuclear power plants produce. They can’t figure out what to do with it. Nobody wants it—it’s dangerous and it takes thousands of years to become not dangerous.

It occurred to me that this is nuts, and it’s so nuts it’s an elephant-in-the-room problem. Saying that nuclear power plants are going broke because they can’t figure out what to do with highly radioactive byproducts, is a lot like an oil power plant saying that the byproduct of burning oil is more oil, and what are we going to do with all this oil we’re generating?

If nuclear waste is so radioactive, why aren’t we recycling it for use in nuclear power generation instead of spending billions building waste repositories that the federal government just abandons? A quick bit of research, and it turns out that radioactive waste can be and is recycled back into useful radioactive fuels. But not in the United States. The US federal government not only wastes money building and abandoning waste repositories, it also bans recycling the waste, and has done so since President Carter. And so nuclear power plants go out of business because they aren’t allowed to recycle and they can’t throw it away.

Recycling radioactive waste both reduces its radioactivity—if it didn’t, obviously, it would be infinitely re-usable as fuel—and drastically cuts the volume of waste. Recycled waste takes up less space and is radioactive for far less time than first-generation waste. Not only would recycling nuclear waste provide more fuel, it would vastly reduce the cost of safely storing it by making the waste itself safer.

This is an example of how uselessly insular and provincial modern news is in the United States. The whole point of nuclear power plants is turning radioactivity into useful power; reporting on how nuclear power plants are going out of business because they need to dispose of radioactive waste, does no reporter think to ask why it needs to be disposed of if it’s still radioactive? It seems the obvious question.

Think of all the possibilities that the money, time, and effort that has gone into building the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository could have been used for. Wasted. This is what Milton Friedman meant when he said that if you give the government control of the Sahara Desert, in five years you’d have a shortage of sand. In the interests of safety, federal regulations make us less safe by mandating longer-lasting dangerous radioactive waste. And even long after it’s become obvious how counter-productive the regulations are, still they persist.

It’s the ultimate in government waste.

Just after writing this I read a satirical essay by Larry Niven about turning radioactive waste into money1. Radioactive waste already is money. For a nuclear power plant, radioactivity is fuel. It would be a source of money instead of a waste of money if the federal government didn’t make it illegal to extract that fuel from it.

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

  1. So as to increase circulation by making money too hot to handle. Niven also mentions in passing that the obvious solution is to use radioactive materials as fuel, since the whole problem with it is that it is still radioactive.

  1. <- Mice and Men