An Assessment Just Waiting to Happen

by John Brian Shannon

What is the matter with energy? A scientist might say, what is the energy with matter?

There are really only two things in the universe. One is matter and the other is energy. All matter can be turned into energy if you have a large enough or sophisticated enough machine available.

Take the Sun for example. It is a big, hot ball of nuclear fusion taking place somewhere in space not too far away from us, thankfully. If it were too far away, we wouldn’t receive enough energy (mostly in the form of heat and visible, infrared and UV light) to support the many life forms on this planet.

So is the Sun matter, or energy? Our Sun is made up of matter which produces energy using the nuclear fusion process which takes place there on a huge scale.

Our Sun produces energy from its mass using fusion while today’s nuclear reactors produce energy from matter using a highly-efficient process — nuclear fission. Nuclear physics is used to enhance energy production from matter and this process requires certain metallic elements for maximum efficiency.

When we discuss electrical power generation using nuclear power, there are really only a few downsides. All of which cost you a lot of money, unfortunately, as some costs are paid by taxpayers (government-funded R&D and national security, to name just two) while other costs are in the form of electrical bills, paid by electricity users.

One of the highest costs has been the research and development of nuclear materials and nuclear power plant design/engineering to provide electrical power for cities and towns, which began in the cold War era. The United States has borne much of the cost of nuclear power research in the Western nations over the past decades. Such R&D is very costly and continues.

The various fuels used in nuclear reactors are (like many things) hazardous if misused. A crude nuclear bomb, one that a domestic or foreign terrorist could make from a new or ‘spent’ nuclear fuel rod requires a full-blanket approach to security of nuclear plants, processing facilities, transportation of nuclear materials and even uranium mines, which translates to high costs.

Another high cost are the power plants themselves, which must first of all be constructed with very high security in mind, have locations near waterways and the very high levels of design and engineering required for dealing with nuclear materials combine to add to the costs involved.

So far, so good. Because thus far, nuclear power plants in the U.S. and the rest of the Western world have thrived and produced profit for their investors. Whether government or privately-owned, nuclear power is so efficient and has such a small carbon footprint, that it would be almost unimaginable to not have had them adding baseline load to Western power grids all along. Yes, they have been that good, and, for that long!

There is one unsolved externality with regards to nuclear power; What to do with the spent rods? This is one kind of cost which could turn out to become larger than all the other costs put together – IF this part of the nuclear equation isn’t handled properly.

Or, if handled properly, and recognized for the true resource it really is, it could spark a renewed interest in nuclear energy AND could become the greater part of a solution to the entire spent fuel problem!

For decades people have been rightly concerned about the thousands of tons of so-called spent nuclear fuel stockpiles just sitting around in astronomically expensive storage facilities in many Western nations. Which is where some of it must stay for up to 20,000 years or longer, in massive air-conditioned underground bunkers. Were the A/C shut down for more than 36 hours — even once, a catastrophic event of national proportions could occur.

The amount of energy which could be extracted from this spent fuel is truly mind-boggling. With careful usage, these presently useless and costly-to-store materials could power much of North America for decades.

Yes, some government subsidy money would be required in order to ‘burn’ these partially-spent fuel rods and produce plenty of power from them until they are only slightly radioactive and infinitely safer to dispose of – but that will pale in comparison to the amount of subsidy money the U.S. government already spends to securely store, monitor and keep cool, spent nuclear fuel rods for up to 20,000 years!

There are tons of very expensive and toxic matter that is presently sitting around, costing uncountable billions to store and becoming ever more unstable as time goes by. It can become one of the nation’s prime sources of energy by re-processing it and ‘burning it’ as nuclear power generation fuel, and doing so will dramatically increase America’s energy and environmental security.

Which is why I respectfully call on President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to call for an assessment of all spent, otherwise unused, or unusable, processed nuclear materials of any kind, in the U.S. – much of which could be re-processed or used ‘as is’ for electrical power generation by a new generation of American SMR nuclear reactors, thereby solving the ‘thus far unsolved’ externalities of nuclear power.

John Brian Shannon


I write about green energy, sustainable development and economics. My blogs appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint, EnergyBoom, Huffington Post, United Nations Development Programme, WACSI — and other quality publications.

“It is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.”

Green Energy blog:
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Twitter: @JBSCanada

2 thoughts on “An Assessment Just Waiting to Happen

  1. Les Drury fellow coursera student October 21, 2012 / 05:00

    So if I understand you correctly, there exists technology to utilize the spent fuel rods in systems that will provide power for others and not require it to be located by water or have high security concerns or that must use high power outputs to burn and utilize spent rods till they are feasibly less dangerous?

  2. John Brian Shannon October 22, 2012 / 00:26

    Hi Les,

    Thank you for your question. To answer correctly, I will break it down into several parts.

    1) Yes, there is technology to process the many kinds of spent nuclear rods and use them in certain kinds of reactors. The Candu reactors, for just one example can burn several types of fuel, including the spent rods from some U.S. reactors.

    Some other reactors located in France, Russia, China, India and South Africa can burn other types of spent nuclear rods — which they burn as their regular fuel.

    There IS the high cost and security problem associated with transporting hundreds of tons of rods overseas. Until now, these costs have been prohibitive and that is why only a few shiploads have ever sailed out of the U.S. carrying spent rods to other nuclear sites to be used as fuel.

    Without government assistance or tax credits designed to move these spent rods, they will continue to sit, costing huge money to maintain and cool and be an ever-present danger for up to 20,000 years in the case of highly-enriched spent rods.

    2) Small Modular Reactors (SMR) must have access to water supply, but a very small river could do the job — as opposed to the huge water resources that conventional nuclear power stations require.

    3) Most SMR designs store their spent 5% uranium slugs right inside the sealed chamber after use, until radioactivity levels decline to almost zero (about 25-30 years after use) so there is no chance of theft, or vandalism, etc…

    If you look at a cutaway image of the GE SMR, you can clearly see where the used slugs are stored for 25-30 years right at the bottom of the containment vessel.

    4) Some SMR’s can burn exotic nuclear products, including 20% enriched uranium or higher. Russia especially, has used these reactors to burn up much of their leftover nuclear weapons stockpiles — and produced huge amounts of electrical power for their electrical grids.

    I could go on here for quite a while, but suffice to say, without government assistance to help defray the cost of processing all the different nuclear rods into slugs that can be safely used for electrical N-power stations and some seed money for building special SMR’s in this country to burn so-called spent fuels and without government assistance to ship spent fuels off to other countries for fuel use there — the situation that exists today, will still exist for many years from now.

    Which is about how long it would take us to completely solve the entire problem by processing all those spent rods into useful slugs and approving the new SMR designs, burning all that highly toxic spent uranium and plutonium — turning it into the equivalent of very low radioactive lead (over time) while producing thousands of gigawatts of cheap power for the next 30 years.

    I can provide you with more links if you like, or you can simply do a Google search “SMR reactor” and “GE SMR” — there is plenty of information out there.

    Also, at World Nuclear News you can sign up for a daily email which gives you current and informative articles from the nuclear industry.

    Thanks for your question! Cheers, JBS

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