Thrawn Rickle 8

Nuclear Waste

© 1990 Williscroft

“Nuclear” causes a great deal of confusion. Since both atomic power plants and atomic bombs are nuclear, many people equate them. These same people would never confuse exploding dynamite with the oil-fired steam generator in a modern power plant, although these two reactions operate on identical principles, too.

All radiation in a nuclear generator is contained within the pressure vessel where energetic neutrons generate heat for making steam for driving turbines for generating electricity. A free-world reactor cannot blow up, and in the event of a run-away problem, the mess will be confined to the containment building. The newest reactors shut themselves off in the event of a problem, immediately, always, without fail—nature’s laws mandate it.

By its nature nuclear waste is a problem. In its lifetime, a typical reactor produces several cubic yards of waste. All the nuclear waste produced by all American reactors could be stored in a relatively small place. But the stuff is undeniably dangerous for a very long time. The trick, then, is to confine the waste until it no longer is dangerous, or to get rid of it in a way that eliminates the danger. Surprisingly, both options are available today.

Nuclear experts have developed an extraordinarily durable borated glass. Tests show that encapsulating nuclear waste in marble-like beads of this glass, and then casting these beads in hardened concrete will keep it contained for at least ten thousand years.

You could just store the blocks, but this raises complicated issues of where, how much, under what conditions, with whose permission…?

Store them in old salt mines? Store them in new granite excavations? Store them in an open field surrounded by a fence with signs that read: “Danger! Keep out!”? Sure, why not? It does not matter where you store the encapsulated waste so long as you control access. Radiation given off

by encapsulated waste cannot contaminate ground water or the air or anything else. It is akin to radiation from the sun, the open sky, anthracite coal, ancient redwoods—similar, just more concentrated.

There is a better solution, however, that can make long-term storage completely unnecessary. Our planet’s crust consists of a multitude of individual large pieces called tectonic plates. These plates are constantly moving around the surface of the planet, jostling and rubbing one another, and sliding over and under each other. When the plate upon which the Indian sub-continent rests bumped into the Asian plate, the resultant crumpling formed the Himalayan mountain chain. When the Eastern Pacific plate hung up while sliding past the North American plate and then let go, the Oakland viaduct collapsed. The Western Pacific plate slides under the Asian plate, forming the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. These forces are enormous, surpassing by orders of magnitude anything else on this planet.

As one plate subducts under another, the entire plate edge is forced deep into the bowels of the Earth where it and everything on and in it is totally transformed into the stuff that makes up the Earth’s mantle. This transformation results from tremendous pressure and from heat, caused in part by the pressure and by radioactive substances contained within the Earth.

You see the solution: dump the encapsulated nuclear waste into especially active trenches where it will be subducted into the Earth’s mantle within several decades or centuries—certainly within ten thousand years. We already know it will remain safely encapsulated for far longer than it will take to be drawn deep into the Earth’s interior and obliterated forever.

Problems that have solutions don’t bother me.

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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