Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Send in the Microbes?

May 14th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Though it’s still siphoning money from Uncle Sam’s coffers, the general consensus is that Yucca Mountain will never emerge from its bureaucratic coma. So what’s next? Microkhan is glad you asked:

For the moment, the only real option is to leave the waste where it was created, encased in metal cylinders and stowed in concrete bunkers. Barring the machinations of some truly ingenious evildoers, that approach should get us safely through the next century or so. Unfortunately, we’ll still have another 9,900 years to go until the waste becomes no more radioactive than unmined uranium. So, we better hope that over the next 100 years, our nation’s best and brightest figure out a feasible workaround—one that may involve proton beams or (we kid you not) extremely hardy microbes.

Read the whole thing. For the record, we’re highly skeptical of this solution, so frequently touted by Nevada’s junior senator.


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    I have a relative who is working on the use of microbes for different kinds of pollution, including nuclear waste. Still has a ways to go, but more plausible than it initially sounds.

  • Jordan

    I tend to feel that opposition to places like Yucca Mountain rests on yet another failure of the American education system to explain things like radioactive half-life. Isotopes with a short half life will disappear quickly. There’s a nuclear reactor at my alma mater and whenever they end up with hot waste, they just stick it in canisters for a while until it’s gone through enough half-life cycles to die down. It can then be sent off as low-level waste, which is a whole lot cheaper. On the flip side, anything with a long half-life isn’t very radioactive. There’s so much mysticism around radioactivity that people get scared by the idea of long half-lives without understanding what they mean.

    With respect to the junior senator from Nevada, I wish that the government wasn’t so opposed to recycling spent fuel. Destroying uranium and plutonium in an energetically expensive process is just about the dumbest thing one could do with the stuff. It’s like saying “We have all this leftover jet fuel and we don’t want anyone else using it, so let’s torch it with flame throwers and let it burn”. The amount of energy we extract from uranium in conventional light water reactors is on the order of single-digit percentages, so it makes sense to reprocess the spent fuel and try to get more out of it. Even better would be a willingness to use breeder reactors, which would cut down on our need for new fuel exponentially. While there is a proliferation risk associated with breeding plutonium, France has been running lots of breeder reactors for decades, apparently without incident. Time to let physics start working for us instead of getting spooked.

  • Captured Shadow

    I tend to think that long term storage has to be in a form that can be retrieved and any spills re-contained. Stuff always leaks eventually and we might come up with a better way to reprocess it so I don’t think putting it deep underground and waiting is such a great plan.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: I’ve never been too sure what to think of the microbe solution. primarily because it seems so tailormade for gee-whiz science-page pieces. But the cynic in me has to realize that awesomeness does not exclude the possibility of effectiveness.

    @Jordan: Yeah, I just think our species is hardwired to NOT understand the odds on risk. I have a line in the Slate piece that gets at this: “When it comes to the specter of radiation, people are rarely comforted by actuarial arguments.” No matter how well you explain the math, the vision of Chernobyl is much more visceral in folks’ minds.

    @Captured Shadow: Part of what’s behind the cask-storage strategy is the assumption that we’ll eventually figure things out. In other words, hey, maybe we’ll have the disposal problem figured out in 2100 (or whenever), when the casks give out. Strikes me as a big maybe, though.