Is Burning Nuclear Waste to Create New Energy a Good Idea?

Hundreds of thousands of years must pass for spent-nuclear fuel to become non-radioactive.
Bury or burn to create energy is the new debate in nuclear waste circles. (Photo: The Ecologist)
Jul 11, 2012· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

As nuclear power plants across Japan get ready to have their power switched back on for the first time since last year’s tsunami, there is news from the United Kingdom that there may be a way to recycle nuclear waste and turn it into new energy.

According to The Guardian, a GE-Hitachi-led campaign to create a process to burn nuclear waste and turn it into new fuel is close to being realized.

The U.K. has a sizable quantity of nuclear waste lying around—about 100 tons—which is thought to be the largest collection in the world. If successful, government officials think its burning could power the country for more than five centuries.

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Experiments have been successful enough to encourage the country’s nuclear approval agency that the process will be viable sooner rather than later—in a matter of five years instead of decades, actually. A feasibility study suggests the process is both a credible and cost-effective way of somewhat quickly dealing with stockpiles of nuclear waste not just in the U.K., but around the world. For the moment, environmental groups are expressing skepticism that the process can actually work.

Debate continues in Japan as to whether it’s too early to go back to nukes. On consecutive Friday nights, the Japanese have taken to the streets in well-mannered, but loud, protest. Still, a reactor in Oi—Number Three—in western Japan is said to have passed stringent tests and will be turned on soon. The hope is that the nearby Number Four reactor will come on line later in the month. The government apparently hopes to restart more of Japan’s 50 working reactors ASAP.

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A blue-ribbon parliamentary panel in Japan investigating the accident have concluded in a 641-page report that the accident was “preventable” and “rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture.”

One of the scariest unknowns of the Fukushima meltdowns was what could have happened if the highly radioactive spent fuel rods lying in shallow ponds atop the reactors had been exposed—i.e. if the pool water had somehow drained. If it had, the accident would have been far worse.

Hence the research into alternatives, like burning the waste to create energy.

Doing that would seem to make a lot more sense than burying it in a mountainside, which is the closest we’ve come in the U.S. to dealing with nuclear waste pile growing in our backyard (see Yucca Mountain).

What should be done with nuclear waste: bury it in a mountainside or burn it to create energy? Let us know in the comments.