“What nuclear waste problem?” (TWiN Podcast 77)

Get the MP3 Here Download printable version here I have a family member that I love dearly and have an infinite amount of respect for.  She is a fantastic mother, a caring person, respected in her chosen profession, and a good friend.  She would do anything she could to help someone in need.  When we first met she was strongly opposed to nuclear energy.  Over the years we have discussed it from time to time and I’ve had some influence on her perspective.  She’s not totally won over yet, but we’re making progress.  Not too long ago she asked me, “But what about the waste?  That really worries me!”  She really didn’t believe me when I said “There’s no such thing as a nuclear waste problem.  That’s nothing but a myth.” Let me explain. Used nuclear fuel is very safely stored in earthquake proof storage pools and dry storage casks at nuclear plants around the USA.  It can stay there until we’re ready to recycle it, and we WILL recycle it eventually because it would be a waste not to do so.  When we remove used fuel from a reactor more than 90% of the potential energy is still in the fuel.  It would be wasteful to even consider putting it in a hole a mile underground!  Also, when we do recycle it, the left over material is much smaller and is much easier to handle, but we’ll talk about that in a few minutes. First we need to look at the components of used power reactor fuel, and recognize that with recycling each of the components can be separated from one another.  A typical batch of used nuclear reactor fuel is made up of the following materials (not counting the structural materials): % Composition (approx) Uranium 93% Plutonium 1.5% Minor Actinides 0.2% Fission Products 5.3% When the fuel is new the concentration of the isotope U-235 is about 4% and U-238 is the rest.  After the fuel is burned in a reactor the uranium is mostly U-238 (very close to the isotopic mix of natural uranium) because most of the U-235 gets burned out by absorbing neutrons and fissioning.  There is also a small but important amount of plutonium that is formed when uranium atoms capture neutrons but do not fission.  This is called “breeding” and in fact at the end of life of a reactor fuel load more than 20% of the heat generated is from the fission of plutonium atoms formed by breeding.  All of this plutonium and uranium can be mixed back together to make new nuclear fuel.  This is what is commonly referred to as mixed oxide fuel,...

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Saber Rattling & Iran’s Nuclear Program (TWiN Podcast 75)

Get the MP3 File Here News outlets around the world were buzzing last week when Iran announced in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has built a second nuclear fuel enrichment facility deep under a mountain near the city of Qom.  The UN security council appeared outraged and the US government claimed it has known of the facility for “some time.” There continues to be deep disagreement between Iran and the UN Security Council about the Islamic Republic’s intentions and their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  Iran claims they are following the rules to the letter: they notified the IAEA about the facility 180 days before it is scheduled to go into operation, precisely as required by their agreement with the IAEA.  President Obama on the other hand, stated Iran is “breaking the rules all nations must follow.,” and other members of the Security Council seem to agree.  They cite a later UN provision that requires Iran to notify them before building any such facility. Herein lies the problem: there are TWO SETS OF RULES!  The earlier version required Iran to notify the IAEA before loading special nuclear material into a new facility – essentially they had to tell the IAEA (a branch of the UN) 180 days before beginning operation.  A later version of the rule requires notification before beginning beginning construction of an enrichment facility.  Iran claims they are not required to comply with the later version because other parties to the agreement (the USA and Europe) failed to meet their end of the deal.  Specifically, under what are called the “additional protocols” and the “Subsidiary Agreement” the USA and Western European nations were to recognize Iran’s legitimate right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and in exchange Iran would agree to notify the IAEA before BUILDING more enrichment capacity.  The earlier version of the agreements required notification later in the process – before OPERATING a new enrichment facility. At least one nuclear weapons expert says Iran is right.  Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector, says Iran is both legally and technically correct.  According to Mr. Ritter, Iran agreed to voluntarily follow the later agreement pending ratification by their Parliament.  Since their Parliament has never ratified the agreement, Iran is not legally bound to it.  Instead, Iran is bound by the earlier agreement requiring Iran to inform the IAEA about the facility before beginning operation. Mr. Ritter also says the IAEA currently has a 100% accounting for all of Iran’s nuclear material and none has been diverted to weapons production or enriched to weapons grade.  If Scott Ritter is correct,...

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