Saturday, November 13, 2010


More about Nuclear Reactors

In my previous post I argued in favor of using nuclear reactors as reliable, back-up power sources to fill the power gaps occurring when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing in an electrical power system based mainly on solar power and windmills.  A friend has pointed out another important use for nuclear reactors: producing radioisotopes for use in medicine.  Even if we do manage some day to develop geothermal energy as the reliable back-up for nights and windless days, we would still need reactors for medical uses.  There would be some radioactive waste from these reactors also even if not in the volume produced by power reactors.

One of the goals in the petition I was writing about was to avoid reprocessing spent fuel elements.  I think that expressing such a goal in a petition is pointless.  In the United States we do not reprocess spent fuel elements.  It is cheaper to mine fresh uranium, enrich it to the desired U-235 content, and make new fuel elements.  We have rich deposits of uranium ore.  We have no commercial incentive to reprocess spent fuel and so we don't do it.

In France the situation is different.  The country derives a large fraction of its electrical power from reactors but has no domestic sources of uranium.  All uranium has to be imported.  It makes economic sense, therefore, for France to reprocess spent fuel elements and recover the uranium for subsequent use.  An added benefit is that the waste or the fission products removed from the uranium in the reprocessing operation is very concentrated and does not create a great storage problem.

Some Americans point out that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel creates quantities of highly concentrated radioactive material.  Such material would be a target for thieves who could sell it at a good price to terrorist groups who would use the material in "dirty" bombs.  I accept the argument, but I must point out that banks are targets for thieves and robbers who use the money for nefarious purposes.  We have learned how to deal with bank robbers.  We can learn how to foil radiation thieves and similar criminals.  My point is that we don't give up using money because of bank robbers.


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