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Could a year’s waste from a nuclear power plant be stored under a desk?

Dear Cecil:

USA Today once quoted President Reagan as follows: "All the wastes for a year from a nuclear power plant could be stored under a desk"--but I won't believe him until old Cecil says he's right. Be my guide

Perplexed, Los Angeles

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

You know I loved the Gipper, but this was one of those cases where he was indulging his penchant for politically convenient oversimplification. We note in the quote the weasely presence of the word “could.” What he was saying was that if the spent fuel from a nuclear power plant were reprocessed (i.e., if the reusable portions were separated out from the unsalvageable trash), you’d conceivably end up with just a few cubic feet of waste. This would indeed fit under a desk, and I confess in moments of irritation I felt that if Ron had sat down at that desk, the whole country would have been a lot better off.

Unfortunately, for a variety of economic and political reasons–the most compelling being that reprocessing involves the creation of plutonium, which would attract the attention of terrorists–no commercial reprocessing is presently being done in the U.S. and none is contemplated. What happens is that the utility simply removes the spent fuel rods from each reactor periodically and stores them in a big swimming pool at the plant site, until such time as some genius comes up with (a) an economical way to reprocess them, or (b) a nice, geologically stable hole in the ground where they can safely be stored for the next 200,000 years, which is roughly how long they’re dangerous (you begin to get an idea of the dimensions of the problem here, I think). I once calculated that from a typical 1,000-megawatt unit you’d get maybe 8,000-10,000 spent fuel rods per year, which works out to about 130-165 cubic feet of unreprocessed high-level waste. Needless to say, it would take one helluva desk to have all this fit under it. In addition, you also have anywhere from from 2,400 to 22,000 cubic feet of low-level waste per unit per year, which consists of contaminated clothing, filters, sludge, and stuff like that. There’s no way to reprocess this; it’s usually just shipped out in drums and buried. Politicians can say what they like, but nuclear waste won’t just go away.

Cecil Adams

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