This Post-Fukushima Nuclear Reactor Runs on Nuclear Waste

How to reduce nuclear waste and make clean electricity at the same time.

Nuclear waste is a tricky problem, just like anything that can make people sick, must be stored under guard away from groundwater and population centers for thousands of years, is incredibly difficult to safely transport, and could be targeted by terrorists.

Ok, so maybe nuclear waste isn’t very much like anything else. That's why it will take a creative solution to dispose of it safely. The United Kingdom has one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear waste in the world, with nearly 100 tons of radioactive plutonium costing the country more than $3 billion a year to store. In February, the U.K.’s nuclear agency put out a request for solutions.

One of the most promising answers came from General Electric Hitachi, which proposed building a nuclear reactor that can process plutonium, producing low-carbon electricity and producing safer, easier to store nuclear waste.

The technology behind the new reactor, called PRISM, was developed in the United States. By using liquid sodium to cool the reactor instead of water, engineers say, the reactor can accomplish nuclear fission with chemically heavier fuels, including modified nuclear waste. One ton of used nuclear fuel can produce enough electricity to power 600,000 U.S. homes for one year—as much as three million tons of coal.

The reactor’s engineers have also learned from the recent disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Should the reactor be approved, it will be built on seismic isolation bearings, which absorbs some of the shock that occurs during an earthquake. Unlike like the reactor at Fukushima, which malfunctioned when it overheated, the PRISM reactor relies on passive cooling that Eric Loewen, the chief engineer behind the project, says can remove heat indefinitely without human help.

The waste produced by PRISM is much less radioactive than the fuel that went in; it needs to be stored for hundreds of years, rather than tens of thousands, and is easier to store and transport. GE also hopes that, should the U.K. get behind the reactor, they will also be interested in upgrading to a more robust nuclear fuel recycling system that would reduce waste impact even further.

PRISM’s chief competitor is a disposal process that creates MOX—mixed oxide—fuel by blending waste plutonium with other nuclear materials in a way that can be used in nuclear reactors. But this approach would require additional processing that doesn’t produce electricity, and would also require the government to find someone to purchase the MOX fuel, which is not used in new nuclear reactors and isn’t in high demand.

The process of approving and constructing this reactor will, if successful, still take more than a decade, and require a multi-billion-dollar expense on the part of the U.K. government. While the controversy over nuclear power—whether the benefits of clean energy are worth the environmental, human and security risks—isn’t going away any time soon, the pressures of climate change will maintain nuclear power as a viable part of a clean energy strategy. If a nuclear reactor can help reduce the dangerous waste from previous nuclear experiments, so much the better.

Photo courtesy of GE

via Honor Africans / Twitter

The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

Keep Reading Show less

Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet