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In response: Recycling, modern reactors can solve nuclear-waste 'problem'

The claim in an Aug. 1 commentary in the News Tribune that on-site storage of nuclear waste is our only viable solution missed an opportunity to highlight other solutions that have been ignored.

The first involves recycling that "waste," which actually is 95 percent uranium that can be reused as valuable fuel. By recycling, heavily nuclear France reclaims that uranium and reduces its storage problem by 90 percent.

And we should, too, in the U.S., but we don't recycle our spent fuel here because President Jimmy Carter ended our recycling program during the Cold War to ease Russian fears that we would retrieve plutonium, which could then be used to make bombs.

The second solution involves replacing our water-cooled reactors (that are fueled with uranium pellets) with modern "walk-away-safe" reactors like the molten salt reactors that can actually consume stored waste as fuel, a process that reduces its volume by 90 percent while generating gigawatts of carbon dioxide-free power.

This is not a dream. A molten salt reactor ran successfully at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee for five years in the 1960s. Molten salt reactors have many advantages, two of the most important are that they cannot melt down and they cannot create the hydrogen that damaged the power plants at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

So why don't we have these marvelous reactors? The answer, again, is partly political. Due largely to the success of conventional reactors in Admiral Rickover's submarines, water-cooled reactors became the choice for commercial power production. Scientists like Alvin Weinberg, who argued that molten salt reactors were safer and more efficient, were sent packing, and the molten salt reactor program was terminated.

For more than 50 years, emission-free nuclear power has been generating about 20 percent of our nation's electricity, and the "waste" created during those decades could actually be stored on just a single football field. After just 40 years, only about one-thousandth as much radioactivity remains, and that portion could be stored between the 5-yard line and the goalpost.

In reality, the nuclear waste "problem" that so many agonize over is a molehill, not a mountain. With the political will to recycle our spent fuel and/or build modern reactors like molten salt reactors, especially if they are fueled with thorium, that molehill shrinks even further.

Lost in anti-nuclear banter is the fact that 30,000 Americans die early deaths every year from pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, which releases mercury, arsenic, radon, cyanide, and carbon dioxide into our already burdened atmosphere. Worse yet, our intermittent, environment-damaging, 30 percent-efficient wind and solar farms require carbon dioxide-producing coal and natural gas (methane)-burning plants to supply the 70 percent of their rated power that they fail to provide. To fuel those power plants, we have massively expanded fracking, which has polluted our groundwater and created yet another problem: Our natural gas distribution system is leaking so severely that this "fugitive methane," a powerful greenhouse gas, is offsetting any gains we have made by cutting back on coal. According to the EPA, natural gas leakage in the U.S. distribution system is causing "explosions that damage lives or property every other day."

Consider this: The Xcel Energy plant at Becker, Minn., converts about 2.5 million pounds of coal per hour into tons of toxic ash and other emissions that include more carbon dioxide. But less than one pound of uranium will generate the same amount of electricity without making any climate-changing carbon dioxide.

Imagine what our world would be like if we had built that fleet of molten salt reactors instead of firing scientists like Weinberg. No tons of toxic ash and heat-trapping emissions would have been created by our power plants — only ever-increasing amounts of safe, reliable, carbon dioxide-free electricity.

George Erickson

George Erickson of Eveleth is a member of the National Center for Science Education and the Thorium Energy Alliance. He also is the author of "Unintended Consequences: The Lie that Killed Millions and Accelerated Climate Change." Find him on the Web at