Saturday, October 23, 2010




Who knew how high feelings now run on the possibility of expanding use of nuclear power in California? But no column in this space during the last 30 years has drawn the impassioned response of one published last spring which argued that atomic power is not a viable answer to the problems of either global warming or our dependence on foreign oil.

Many readers cited French dependence on nuclear power as an example California could follow, especially since France uses mostly American technology in the 56 nuclear generating stations which now produce about 76 percent of its total electricity.

Trouble is, despite its dependence on the atom, France has no more solved the problem of nuclear waste disposal than we have. Yes, the French are more efficient in recycling nuclear waste than American plants. Plutonium is reclaimed from spent fuel rods in France and any unused uranium made into new fuel elements.

But there’s still plenty of leftover waste after all that. “Currently scientists don’t know how to reduce or eliminate the toxicity,” Christian Bataille, the French official charged with solving the problem told the American television program “Frontline.” “Maybe in 100 years, perhaps the scientists will.”

In the meantime, there have been riots over abortive French plans to store radioactive waste underground and now it is “stocked” in closely-guarded above-ground government-run centers.

Says Claude Mandil, head of atomic energy for the French ministry of industry, “If France is unable to solve this issue, I do not see how we can continue the nuclear program.”

So much for following the French example.

Then there’s the common argument that nuclear power plants create no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. That turns out to be a classic half-truth.

Sure, the plants themselves don’t spew any greenhouse gases. But nuclear power comes from uranium and that has to be mined somewhere. Since gases produced anywhere on the planet all contribute equally to the global warming problem (yes, some readers also deny that this problem is real, but even onetime denier President George W. Bush has come around to accepting reality), it’s valid to examine how much CO2 is spewed in mining and shipping that uranium.

It turns out much uranium is strip mined in places like Australia and South America. All material removed from strip mines is hauled out by trucks that run on diesel.

In a typical Australian operation outlined in an Australian academic paper titled “Nuclear Power: the energy balance” published on the website, the ore is taken to a mill, where the rocks in which it is found are crushed into powder that is then treated with an acid to dissolve the uranium from the ore. Depleted ore is washed and eventually put into slurry and tailings ponds maintained with more diesel-powered machinery. In its final processing stage, uranium yellowcake is roasted at about 800 degrees Centigrade (about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit) in oil-fired furnaces.

Virtually every step of uranium mining, processing and shipping depends on fossil fuels and the paper’s authors conclude that for high quality ore, the CO2 produced in getting uranium to nuclear power plants amounts to about one-third to one-half what an equivalent natural gas-fired power plant would produce. When using low quality ore, the CO2 is about equal to what the same energy production spews in a gas-fired plant.

All of which means the claims about the greenhouse gas purity of nuclear power are far from true.

“Yes, there is a waste problem, but that is not an unsolvable problem,” wrote another reader. Maybe so, but until the problem is solved, questions about the ultimate safety of nuclear energy will remain open. And that’s not even including the possibility of terrorist attacks. The sheer size of atomic power plants renders them vulnerable to 9/11 type attacks, and even though nuclear cores are well shielded by very thick reinforced concrete, no one knows if they can withstand the type of heat produced in such an event.

The bottom line: Even some of its biggest users are now doubting the wisdom of continuing dependence on nuclear energy, while claims that the atom is one answer to global warming don’t hold water. Which means California would be far better off developing renewable energy sources like windmills and solar panels on a far larger scale than today’s, rather than taking any more nuclear risks.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit


  1. With nuclear waste it is always better to just make less of it.

    Improved Thorium Nuclear Technology Solves the Nuclear Waste Storage Problem.

    Storing spent nuclear fuel in a Yucca Mountain style long term repository for in excess of 10,000 years is one of the biggest problems preventing more wide spread acceptance of nuclear power. An improved nuclear technology, Thorium Fuel Cycle implemented in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR), dramatically reduces the need to store high level nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain storage repository.

    To generate 1 gigawatt of electricity a current conventional one pass through Uranium-Plutonium Fueled Light Water Reactors would require 35 metric tons of enriched Uranium Fuel and would produce 35 metric tons of waste all of which would have to be placed in Yucca Mountain for in excess of 25,000 years. A conventional Uranium-Plutonium Fueled Light Water Reactor only burns about 2-3% of its nuclear fuel .

    A Thorium Fuel Cycle LFTR reactor would burn 1 metric ton of Thorium-232 to produce the same 1 gigawatt of electrical energy while producing 1 ton of fission products as waste. LFTR Thorium reactors are in excess of 98% fuel efficient and burn up almost all of its Thorium fuel to produce energy and fission products. The fission product waste produced by a LFTR reactor to produce the identical amount of electrical energy decays to safe levels in a much shorter amount of time. 83% of LFTR fission products would decay to the level of the natural background radiation in 10 years. All of the remaining fission products (17%) will decay to natural background radiation level within 300 years. None of these fission products would have to be placed in a Yucca Mountain geological repository. A LFTR reactor started on its preferred start-up fuel, Uranium-233, would produce on the order of 30 grams of Plutonium and minor Actinide contaminants in the course of generating 1 gigawatt of electricity for 1 year. Only the 30 grams of Plutonium would have to ultimately have to be put into long term storage at Yucca Mountain. This is less than 1 part in 10,000 the quantity of waste requiring long term sequestration by our current technology Uranium-Plutonium Fueled Light Water Reactors. It is very possible that this very small quantity of Plutonium produced in the operation of Thorium LFTR reactors could be yet further reduced by improvements in LFTR chemical processing and contaminant extraction technology.

    If you use Thorium Fuel Cycle power and do not generate the high level Plutonium and minor Actinide nuclear waste to start with you will not have build and fill Yucca Mountain storage facilities at great cost leaving a long term environmental worry for tens of generations of Americans to worry about. Thorium Fuel Cycle nuclear technology “solves” the long term high level nuclear waste problem. Thorium Fuel Cycle is better technology and it deserves your investigation and support.

    [1] Le Brun, C., "Impact of the MSBR concept technology on long lived radio toxicity and
    proliferation resistance"

  2. A better approach for handling nuclear waste through use of Thorium nuclear fuel in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors:

    1. Shut down Yucca Mountain and devote the funding in the waste fund to the development of liquid-chloride [4] and liquid-fluoride reactors [5]. Chloride reactors would be used to destroy transuranics and breed U233 from thorium. Fluoride reactors would start with U233 and thereafter consume only thorium without producing transuranics. It is an advantage to transition to Thorium fueled Fluoride reactors because they can be operated in a mode that makes only one hundredth the amount of waste as a conventional commercial LWR for a given electrical power output [6].

    2. Fluorinate spent nuclear fuel currently in storage. Remove uranium through further fluorination (from UF4 to UF6) and either send it for re-enrichment or convert it to UO2 for low-level disposal. Remove transuranics from the fluoride mixture by reduction with aluminum metal, which was recently demonstrated by French research to effectively separate TRU-fluorides from fission product fluorides [2].

    3. Send fission product fluorides to a monitored storage site for ~300 years until they decay to background levels of radiation [3].

    4. Convert metallic TRUs (obtained by reduction) to TRU-chlorides and destroy them through fission in a chloride reactor. Chloride reactors are capable of very hard spectrums and have inherent safety features not found in solid-core fast reactors [4].

    5. Breed U233 from thorium during the destruction of TRUs in the chloride reactor and use them to start thermal-spectrum, fluoride reactors that use thorium as an essentially unlimited energy supply.

    Such a scheme would destroy long-lived waste while transitioning to a fuel source (thorium) that does not produce the transuranics in the first place. Plus it would settle the "nuclear waste" issue once and for all.


    Sincerely, Robert Steinhaus