Monday, November 15, 2010
Ron Smith: Sheep and Nuclear Waste
Germany generates around 30% of its electrical power by nuclear means. It would be more, and the power would be significantly cheaper, if the German nuclear power industry had not been the victim of political sabotage over many years, due largely to the influence of the Green Party in the German Parliament. The specific point is that, for a long time, Germany has reprocessed spent fuel from its reactors in order to extract plutonium for further power production. This reprocessing also has a beneficial effect on storage/disposal at the end of the fuel cycle, since it removes the longer-lived isotope, plutonium-239. Reprocessing is currently done in France (and not in Germany) and the explanation for this is, again, more political (ideological) than technical. Germany could have reprocessed its own fuel; indeed a pilot plant for the purpose was in operation in Germany as early as 1971.
There is a general principle in the civilian nuclear industry that waste material is ultimately returned to the country where it is generated. This is why high-level waste from the reprocessing of German spent fuel is periodically returned to Germany for ultimate disposal. It is a service that France also performs for Japan (the subject of a column on this site, just about twelve months ago) and some other European countries. As in these other cases, the German consignments are contained in enormously robust shipping casks, which completely shield the radioactive contents from the environment and which are tested to resist extreme conditions of accident and fire. There has never been an accident with these shipments that has resulted in the release of radioactive material to the environment.
At Gorleben, the shipping casks and their contents are held in temporary storage until they can be finally placed in an underground repository over 3,000ft (nearly one kilometre) down in a thick layer of rock-salt. This facility has been ready for almost ten years and the reason emplacement has not happened has much more to do with political and ideological factors than it has to do with technical concerns. There are no plausible scenarios in which radioactive materials placed, as envisaged, in the vast galleries and storage areas below can escape to the environment. The salt layer was laid down some two hundred million years ago and it would not have retained its coherent structure if (for example) water was permeating through it.
Greenpeace is fond of saying that the ‘problem’ of nuclear waste has not been ‘solved’. This is simply not so. Wastes of various kinds from nuclear operations are being held and disposed of in a variety of locations around the world. The particular matter of the final disposal of long-lived isotopes was also the subject of a blog last March, where the facility at Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has been operating for more than ten years, was also described.
Given all this and all the problems of the world (environmental and other) Greenpeace and their allies could surely find a better cause to which to put their undoubted energy and imagination. It is also worth noting that if the activists were successful in their aim of closing down the German nuclear power industry (which is their avowed objective), Germany would need to import as much as 25,000 MWe from neighbouring countries and this would undoubtedly come from nuclear power. Otherwise, and given the global cooling that appears to have already begun, there are likely to be a lot of cold Germans, especially on those still, cloudless winter nights when not a windmill turns. At this point, the mindless destruction of the German civilian nuclear industry is going to look very foolish indeed. Protesters dressed as sheep, seem quite appropriate.
at 2:36 PM