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The Godzilla Effect

Updated: Jun 8

Part 3 of a 6-part series

Nuclear ‘Waste,’ an Ashes to Ashes Story

I left the nuclear energy topic back in March to take some side trips into the arena of COVID-19 communication. I hope my tips (download here) have been helpful in dealing with the pandemic challenge. The principles put forward – care, concern and empathy; collaborative partnerships – can be applied just as effectively toward raising the bar of brotherhood and social justice in our nation. My thoughts go out to friends, family and all those significantly impacted – physically, emotionally or economically – by these trying times.

I began this nuclear energy series looking at the cows of Fukushima – which happen to be just fine – during which I mentioned the Godzilla effect of perpetual fear. In Part 2 I returned to the cows, this time at Three Mile Island, where Jimmy Carter leveraged his leadership skill and nuclear expertise to alleviate public fear. In this next installment we return to Godzilla and explore the myth of nuclear waste.

Public surveys identify nuclear waste storage – specifically used nuclear fuel storage – as the number one reason some Americans oppose nuclear energy.

‘It’s just too dangerous,’ I’ve so often been told.

‘It has to be stored securely for thousands of years, and that poses a danger to future generations living in a world we’ll no longer control.‘

This too is part myth (see other myths).

Click here to learn about used nuclear fuel – what it is and how it’s stored – in less than three minutes from earth and environmental scientist Jim Conca. (Energy Northwest)

Used fuel contains plutonium and uranium isotopes whose half-lives – the time it takes to lose half of their atoms – range from 24,000 to four billion years. That’s fantastic, because the longer the half-life, the less intense the radiation, and the less radioactive it is.

These plutonium and uranium isotopes in used fuel give off about the same amount of radiation found in common, naturally occurring uranium ore – harmful if ingested, but safe to hold in the hand. We mine this ore from the earth, use it, then someday we’ll put it back in the earth no more harmful than when we pulled it out. (Or we’ll simply burn it all away in advanced nuclear reactors – but that’s yet to be seen.)

At the other end of the scale are the extremely “hot” isotopes xenon and iodine. These elements are radiation intense, and as a result they also have the shortest half-lives – about nine hours and eight days respectively. They decay away completely, meaning their radiation falls below detection limits, between four days and three months respectively. Since used fuel is removed from reactor buildings no-earlier-than five years after last use, they pose no long-term storage danger to humans or the environment. They’re gone.

From a storage perspective, the only dangerous elements remaining are cesium and strontium, with half-lives each of about 30 years. These elements are truly worthy of our collective concern because they’ll remain harmful to humans for an additional 240 years or so. Although none of us will be around by then, we should take comfort in knowing that it’s still 210 years less time than Puerto Rico’s Cathedral of San Juan Bautista has been around; about 130 years less than New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors; and 40 years less than Boston’s Old State House, among more than 100 structures in the United States that we have protected for 270 years or longer.

Boston’s Paul Revere House is 70 years older than the dangerous lifecycle of cesium and strontium, the most harmful elements found in used nuclear fuel storage. (Dana Berez blog)

A critical difference, of course, is that we don’t use wood and brick to store used nuclear fuel; we use 180-ton concrete and high-grade stainless-steel casks. This isn’t a technological, cultural or environmental challenge for us. It would, however, be more economical and logistically easier to manage if all the storage was in one location instead of spread out all over the country.

As for the amount, we can fit all the fuel used by America’s 100-plus nuclear reactors during the past six decades under one 10-yard-tall, 100 by 50-yard-wide roof. That’s just over an acre of land, or the equivalent of a football field up to the top of the goal posts. By any measure this is inconsequential compared to the enormous environmental impact footprints of coal slurries, wind farms, solar fields, potential large-scale battery disposal, and future remediation sites for the hundreds of tons of cadmium and other toxic heavy metals used in solar panels.

So how did we get the myth of environmental devastation?

Cold War

Had the electric chair, I’ve heard said, been invented before the light bulb, public fears would have hindered the introduction of electricity into society by at least a generation. Unfortunately, nuclear bombs were dropped more than a decade before commercial nuclear power came on scene, and the latter has since struggled to escape the fearsome shadow of the former.

Enter the Godzilla effect – the perpetual fear of radiation.

The uranium fuel used in a commercial nuclear power plant is not capable of causing an explosion. (National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office)

In 1954 film writer Shigeru Kayama imagined a nuclear bomb test that brings Godzilla forth from the Pacific Ocean to devastate Tokyo. Sixty years later the franchise’s historic anti-war theme gets turned on its head. In the 2014 Hollywood film, we learn that the ‘50s nuclear bomb tests were really repeated attempts to kill Godzilla. The monster now brings to bear tsunami-like force to destroy a Japanese nuclear power plant and feed off its escaping radiation. Many people die or are displaced in the process. The message is clear: Nuclear bombs, useful; nuclear energy, bad.

I get it. Many people – I used to be among them – perceive nuclear energy and the destructive nature of nuclear weapons as two sides of the same coin, but they are not.

Here in Washington (great state of), the price of Cold War victory will be with us for decades more in the form of our nation’s largest environmental waste cleanup at the Hanford Site nuclear reservation. The reservation holds nearly 50 years of very nasty radiological material created by Cold War nuclear warhead production. This bomb-making waste has no connection whatsoever to commercial nuclear energy production. Yet a 2017 survey commissioned by Energy Northwest revealed that 65% of Washington residents believe otherwise.

The myth lives on.

Differentiating terminology, such as ‘fission energy’ versus ‘nuclear power,’ may have helped. After all, words matter, and the differences are real.

Neither bombs nor power plants can use natural uranium because the ore has too much of the uranium 238 isotope – which won’t fission (i.e., give off heat) – and not enough uranium 235, which will, but then only in the right concentration. So between 3% and 5% more U-235 is added during processing to create fissionable nuclear fuel for power plants. But that’s not enough to cause an explosion.

To make a reliable bomb, uranium must be enriched with U-235 isotopes by more than 90%. Anything less increases the probability that it will be a dud. The path to creating a bomb, however, begins at 20% U-235 enrichment, the point at which uranium is generally considered weapons-grade. Only nine countries in the world have this. This is why world powers are so very sensitive about Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

Needless to say, a bomb cannot be fashioned from a commercial reactor’s nuclear fuel. It’s Impossible.

Didn’t the Fukushima plants explode? Well, yes. But not the nuclear reactors. Stay tuned to read about waste water and explosive hydrogen in part four of this series.

These are troubling times. Organizations are struggling with how, when and if to communicate corporate perspective on social issues to employees and customers, especially in social media space. If you need a hand, Tri-Cities PR is interested in helping. To start a conversation, call Mike Paoli at 509-713-4950.

Read more about “the wild stuff you can imagine” happening from nuclear and used nuclear fuel in Jim Conca’s, “Debunking Fears Of Nuclear Waste At California’s San Onofre Reactor.”

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