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How to Rid the World of the “Element from Hell”

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plutonium-238The vast majority of the radioactive plutonium on the planet is man-made—roughly 500 metric tons, or enough to make 100,000 nuclear weapons by the calculations of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. Much of it is the legacy of the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia in the latter decades of the 20th century but, more and more, it is also the legacy of nuclear power.

Now a team of scientists—physicists Frank von Hippel and Richard Garwin along with environmental scientists Rodney Ewing and Allison Macfarlane—suggest that burying plutonium is the only reasonable solution to this problematic stockpile in a comment to be published in Nature on May 10. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) They also recommend the U.K., which is presently debating what to do with its nearly 100 metric tons of plutonium, should lead the way by studying how to immobilize the “element from hell” in ceramic pucks that can then be buried in deep caverns or even deeper boreholes.

There are other alternatives. The U.K. actually appears to be leaning toward following the example of France and Japan in their attempts to use the plutonium in so-called mixed oxide nuclear fuel, or MOX. This alternative fuel gets its name because it bears fuel pellets made by combining oxides of uranium and plutionium, a fact that also makes MOX more expensive and harder to handle. By one French estimate from 2000 recycling plutonium in this way adds $750 million to the annual cost of electricity generation in France compared with fuel rods manufactured from uranium freshly dug out of the ground and enriched. The U.S. is spending $13 billion to turn 34 metric tons of its plutonium stockpile into MOX at a facility in South Carolina. And the U.K. failed in its prior attempt to produce MOX fuel at Sellafield, which shut down last year after spending $2.3 billion in its abortive attempt.

Another option is to use the plutonium as fuel directly in so-called fast reactors, which employ neutrons to initiate fission that are whizzing about much faster than in current nuclear reactor technologies. That high-speed neutron action necessitates cooling such reactors with something a little more difficult to deal with than water, such as liquid sodium (which burns on contact with air or water). And that has meant maintenance problems have plagued the world’s fast reactors, such as Monju in Japan or Superphénix in France, although both Russia and the U.S. have each had some successes.

In the end such fast reactors don’t so much solve the plutonium problem as delay it: A hole in the ground to hide the radioactive stuff would still be required. So why not just take the cheap route and immobilize it, then bury it, asks the team of scientists? That may be because finding a place to bury it has proved politically radioactive—from Japan to the U.S. Here, Yucca Mountain in Nevada is no closer to being a solution for nuclear waste today than in the 1980s when it was first designated as a final resting place for U.S. radioactive residue. A recent blue ribbon commission recommended starting over from scratch (although the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has fared better). Nor has the U.S. adequately prepared for tearing down its aging nuclear reactors and dealing with the radioactive waste left behind, according to an April Government Accountability Office report. The problem with treating plutonium “unambiguously as the dangerous weapons material that it is,” as the scientists put it, is that few want to pay to have it buried, even very deeply, anywhere near their backyards.

Image: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Rorge Retson 2:21 pm 05/9/2012

    Why not just blast it all into space???

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  2. 2. Karl Johanson 2:27 pm 05/9/2012

    The internet gets around 16% of its electricity from nuclear energy. Every time you chose to use the internet, you are choosing to have more Plutonium produced (no one is forcing you to go on line, you are choosing to). If you thinks it’s the ‘element from Hell’ then why on Earth are you using the internet? Can’t live up to your own standards? The UN estimates that smoke from fossil fuels & biomass is killing around 2.5 million people a year (more than Chernobyl every day, possibly every hour). The number would be far higher without nuclear, much of which comes from fissioning of the Plutonium as it’s produced in the reactors. Plutonium is saving lives, by displacing more dangerous energy types.

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  3. 3. Ralf123 2:29 pm 05/9/2012

    At a rocket failure rate of more than 1%?

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  4. 4. LTony 3:04 pm 05/9/2012

    That “element from hell” link doesn’t even lead to the quote. Those sorts of histrionics add nothing to the debate, and make SciAm sound less and less scientific.

    Just sayin’.

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  5. 5. sault 3:33 pm 05/9/2012

    “The U.S. is spending $13 billion to turn 34 metric tons of its plutonium stockpile into MOX at a facility in South Carolina.”

    Wow, how much money will we end up wasting on this dead-end technology before we realize it’s worthless? The fact that light water reactors keep building up plutonium as they operate is just one of MANY reasons that nuclear power is a tragic waste. This is merely a consequence of this technology being developed for the Manhattan Project and chosen for its ability to help make weapons-grade material. Cost and safety concerns were secondary when the Light Water Fuel Cycle was developed.

    As such, a nuclear power plant can’t even buy liability insurance on the private market at ANY price and has to depend on MASSIVE government intervention via the Price Anderson Act just to get a suitable level of coverage. This is why, after 70 years of development and billions upon billions in government handouts, these reactors START at $5B a pop. And that’s only when the company building it can charge its customers billions more years before the reactors crank out even one electron!

    The implosion of the nuclear industry in the 80s should have taught us a valuable lesson. However, here we are again, poised to sink billions more into a failed and dead-end technology.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 3:36 pm 05/9/2012

    “Karl Johanson”, that is pathetic. You do not care how many lives and tax payer’s dollars will be saved by eliminating nuclear from our environment, do you? It may not be your life that is saved, it will be the lives of generations ahead of you. You have let greed and stupidity cloud your judgment and the generations ahead of you will pay dearly for your like of caring today. People like you cannot see beyond the point of your nose or the tip of a dollar bill.

    Coal, nuclear, oil, natural gas, and all other fossil fuels should be eliminated from our environment and cleaner sources of renewable energy like: hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean and river wave implemented. You may not care what condition of this planet your grandchildren inherit, but I do and we should make sure people like you stay out of power because your greed and stupidity is killing us.

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  7. 7. David Biello in reply to David Biello 4:02 pm 05/9/2012

    Quote is at that link, it’s just behind our pay wall. You’ll note that the Nature paper and our article at that link share an author: Frank von Hippel. Hence the use. Just FYI.

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  8. 8. Karl Johanson 4:11 pm 05/9/2012

    @James: You used nuclear energy when you decided to post on the internet. Go off line if you think nuclear is so evil. Hydro kill far more people than nuclear (230,000 killed in 1978 in China, for a single example), displace 10s of millions of people (possibly a hundred million so far), cause insect borne disease outbreaks due to the reservoirs, and cause earthquakes. Geothermal energy in California alone, emits up to 5 curies of radiation *every day* into the environment, and it emits chemical toxins and causes hundreds of earthquakes. Nuclear energy saves lives. The life expectancies in countries with nuclear power plants are substantially higher than those without, not lower. Cancer rates in US counties with nuclear plants aren’t higher than their counterparts without. Nuclear energy can reduce your exposure to radiation, by powering trains to reduce cosmic ray exposure from air travel, by reducing radiation emissions from coal, oil, gas and geothermal energy, by powering fans to reduce natural Radon in your home, and by providing desalinated sea water to areas which use naturally radioactive ground water. You’ve been reading propaganda, some of which is financed by fossil fuel interests.

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  9. 9. singing flea 4:26 pm 05/9/2012

    “The vast majority of the radioactive plutonium on the planet is man-made—roughly 500 metric tons, or enough to make 100,000 nuclear weapons…”

    You can’t bury this much plutonium for 24,000+ years (and that is only the first half life)with any reasonable expectation that it will still be safe for that long. The way the world is going, humans will not survive another century or two without a massive die off of the human specie. Anyone who doesn’t understand this concept needs their head examined. Japan and Russia both have no clue how to get rid of the relatively low level radiation they have stored in their wrecked reactors. The are like a couple of cats trying to bury their feces under an oak leaf.

    Still, there is literally hundreds of millions of people in this country alone who are so brainwashed by the nuclear industry that they do not believe this is a problem.

    I see no problem with belief in a religion, it may prevent some of the kooks from murdering their brothers or robbing a bank, but belief that nuclear energy is safe and non-polluting is as reckless as believing that God will protect you in a head on collision with a train.

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  10. 10. silvrhairdevil 4:39 pm 05/9/2012

    Won’t we be needing something potent to blow up the asteroid?

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  11. 11. ryanpatil17 4:57 pm 05/9/2012

    Karl, I agree with you to an extent. Nuclear Power is efficient and i would say a better alternative to fossil fuels. When accidents happen the effects can be disastrous and long lasting. It is difficult to gauge the full effect as many symptoms only appear after many years. However i would also say that the safety record of Nuclear Power is extremely good so this offsets that a bit. I also know that there are severe disadvantages to Nuclear Power. The waste is definitely a problem and finding a place to put all that dangerous material is difficult and having that much radioactivity around is leaving a messy future for our descendants. Renewables definitely are important and we should be investing in them greatly and i believe they are a lot safer than Nuclear or fossil fuels in the effect they have on the environment but they can probably never supply the bulk of our electricity needs. So to be honest we don’t have a lot of choices right now. My hope is that we can get fusion to work, hopefully overcoming many of the disadvantages of fission. But right now i think fission is the the best way forward at least for the near to medium term. However as soon as better sources of energy become available we should switch to them.

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  12. 12. Carlyle 5:07 pm 05/9/2012

    Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste
    By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation
    Just in Australia, 8 million tons of fly ash is produced by coal burning power stations. A tiny proportion of global output.
    500 tons of plutonium is a NIMBY political problem. Not a scientific problem.
    The world MUST have base load power. To claim renewables are pollution free is dishonest. To claim they can replace coal or nuclear ignores reality.

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  13. 13. Carlyle 5:12 pm 05/9/2012

    That fly ash waste is per annum. The plutonium is the total from all nuclear weapons & power production since the beginning of the nuclear age.

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  14. 14. seebee32 5:30 pm 05/9/2012

    Why not just burn it up in a Thorium LFTR reactor? Don’t worry that we don’t have any- the Chinese are developing this technology, since we in the west are so blinded by our love of uranium reactors that we have chosen to neglect this much safer and more versatile power source.China will be able to sell it to us at a good profit. I thought we would be able to compete with them by having the technological edge???

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  15. 15. Karl Johanson 5:32 pm 05/9/2012

    Scientific American has run several articles on natural nuclear reactors at Oklo in Gabon Africa. Around 1.8 billion years ago natural nuclear reactors went critical there for quite some time. Thousands of pounds of plutonium was produced. The produced plutonium barely migrated through the rock it happened to be formed in. This in spite of the plutonium being unclad, uncontained, unvitrified, not packed in bentonite clay. In spite of the area being tectonically unstable, and in spite of the rock being fractured, and in spite of boiling water flowing over the plutonium as it formed for
    around half a million years. The spent nuclear fuel should be handled with care, but Oklo shows us that it isn’t that big of a technological challenge. Yes, you can bury it in my back yard.

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  16. 16. frank n beans 5:44 pm 05/9/2012

    Why not seal the crap in leaded glass and dump it in the Marianas Trench? Nuclear garbage has been dumped there before. Have you seen Godzilla lately?

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  17. 17. singing flea 6:36 pm 05/9/2012

    Carlyle, your reading and comprehension skills are again sorely lacking. The SA article you linked to is comparing local area radiation from the two sources, which for both is miniscule compared to normal background radiation. Your unqualified quote that, “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste…” was totally fabricated by the author of that article for effect. He was comparing what is released into the air, the ground and the water by both types of plants.

    This article is all about spent nuclear rods and the PU 239 that is left over, but never released into the environment. It is this radioactive material that is a concern for long term storage.

    Searching google for articles to prove a point can backfire if you don’t actually read the article.

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  18. 18. singing flea 6:39 pm 05/9/2012

    Karl, the half life of plutonium is 24,100 years. 1.8 billion years ago is hardly a fair indication to compare modern day disposal proposals.

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  19. 19. Carlyle 6:58 pm 05/9/2012

    Karl, it is so hard to counter the irrational coupled to belief with the rational coupled to science.

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  20. 20. davidhill222 7:21 pm 05/9/2012

    Everyone wants cheap energy, everyone wants to play with new gadgets, to have the coolest cars, etc. and consume as always. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but nobody is willing to pay the price. Without nuclear energy the world will be a very backward and dirty place. New technologies are nothing but a drop of water in a bucket.

    Bury the damn thing, an that is it. Enough of the this eco-paranoia, the political correct ways to generate energy and all this stuff that only makes living much more complicated than it should be.

    It is impossible to live in a planet with 7 plus billion using only renewable energy sources…

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  21. 21. Karl Johanson 7:41 pm 05/9/2012

    @Singing flea: Again, the uncontained plutonium in the fractured rock at Oklo had boiling water flowing over it for around half a million years (more than 20 half lives of plutonium 239) and it barely migrated through the rock it was formed in. Clad plutonium in multi-lined containers, surrounded by Bentonite clay will do even better, with an absurd over kill factor.

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  22. 22. singing flea 1:31 am 05/10/2012

    “Everyone wants cheap energy, everyone wants to play with new gadgets, to have the coolest cars, etc. and consume as always. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but nobody is willing to pay the price. ”

    Who is everybody? You sure are presumptive. What makes you think there is nothing wrong with destroying our environment?

    People who think like you is what is wrong with today’s Godless society, not what is right about it.

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  23. 23. phalaris 1:57 am 05/10/2012

    From the article above:

    In the end such fast reactors don’t so much solve the plutonium problem as delay it: A hole in the ground to hide the radioactive stuff would still be required.

    In the March 2012 article to which the link goes, SciAm and the “environmentalist” who parroted this were challenged: the residue from the fast reactor has a half-life of 30 years, so it’s absurd to compare this with the original plutonium.

    As far as I can see, there has been no response to this riposte, which makes it look like, on the most favourable interpretation, the public is being grossly misled.

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  24. 24. Carlyle 2:24 am 05/10/2012

    As far as I can see, there has been no response to this riposte, which makes it look like, on the most favourable interpretation, the public is being grossly misled.
    Seems to be working just fine with some of the posters here phalaris.

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  25. 25. djysrv 5:42 am 05/10/2012

    Fact Check: The image is of PU 238, which is not weapons grade material. It is used in RTGs to power NASA deep space probes. Decay heat is turned into electricity where solar power beyond Mars orbit is too weak to be useful.

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  26. 26. zimo29 6:29 am 05/10/2012

    i dont know squat about nuke power, but if they can enrich it, can they unenrich it?

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  27. 27. Carlyle 6:32 am 05/10/2012

    I guess it is not really important but it is symptomatic of the whole green AGW thing like the so called smoke stacks depicted to demonstrate pollution when they are actually pictures of steam, not smoke.
    What is not mentioned in the article is that plutonium is only dangerous to humans if it is in powder or dust form & is breathed. You can actually carry it in your pocket without suffering harm. Only if you have enough to form a critical mass does it become dangerous. That would be downright careless. Then there is its bomb making potential. There is also huge power generating potential. I am confident the technical difficulties can be overcome. It would be a crime to dispose of it prematurely.

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  28. 28. phalaris 8:05 am 05/10/2012

    zimo29 : I think I’ve seen it argued that much nuclear waste has less radioactivity than unenriched uranium when it’s dug out of the ground.

    But it still makes good ammunition for the political environmentalists, when the public is so poorly informed by the media.

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  29. 29. Steve926 8:35 am 05/10/2012

    Please excuse my ignorance. Why can’t we put in a subduction zone fault under water. Won’t the Earth “recycle” it that way? Just encase it in cement and dump it.

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  30. 30. Jack_sauer 10:18 am 05/10/2012

    Why not just make satellite plutonium reactors that are cooled by the vaccum of space, aren’t we developing technology to beam energy directly from satellites? Or we could funnel the energy into a laser that could hit a receiving panel on the surface

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  31. 31. Jack_sauer 11:31 am 05/10/2012

    Or we could send it to a planet we haven’t set foot on yet so we could have a stockpile that’s unaccessable until we could possibly make any use of it beneficially.

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  32. 32. Jack_sauer 1:43 pm 05/10/2012

    Thoriums better anyways.

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  33. 33. domfischer 4:44 pm 05/10/2012

    - What about the Synrock technology…. seems to work. Any development on this?

    - Why don’t we dig and bury in sites that are already contaminated by previous nuclear tests (for ex. in Western Australia, Northern South Australia… from UK tests)or accidents (Tchernobyl). Could be a good money makers for these countries…
    Since the damage is already done, additional radiation would not make much difference.

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  34. 34. dubina 6:42 pm 05/10/2012

    If the stuff should go away, bury in deep bore holes and cement the bore holes.

    Yes, bury it in my backyard as well.

    Holy crap, what’s the problem?

    If there’s some compelling reason or reasons to hang onto the stuff, flush it/them into the open. Safe disposal is a red herring.

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  35. 35. Dr. Strangelove 12:46 am 05/11/2012

    The Mariana Trench is the best place to dump the element from hell. 35,000 ft under the sea is safer than 30 ft under the cooling pool of nuclear plants. Just remind James Cameron to wear radiation suit next time.

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  36. 36. rrocklin 12:54 pm 05/11/2012

    The problem with renewable energy is that it does not handle base load well. This is where a fossil fuel or nuclear plant provides a great value. Depending on fossil fuels is short sighted and has high hidden costs including global warming, deaths from mining and pollution, and destroyed land and water. So, at this point, nuclear seems to be the only reasonable long term alternative for base load power.

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  37. 37. rrocklin 12:56 pm 05/11/2012

    Would have been nice if they explained by MOX is so expensive to make.

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  38. 38. David Biello in reply to David Biello 3:59 pm 05/11/2012

    Absolutely Dan. Do you have an image of weapons-grade plutonium I can use? It’s a tough one to illustrate…

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  39. 39. Carlyle 6:16 pm 05/11/2012

    Try this one David.

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  40. 40. the Gaul 6:26 pm 05/11/2012

    Disposal is the need, therefore disposal must receive the attention and effort to accomplish safely. Re-use is absurdly expensive, and does not address disposal.

    Subduction faults could still propel the waste to the surface and beyond. A good idea in theory, but… fault line are too haphazard in their release.

    Off-earth is the gold standard for nuclear waste disposal, but most everyone cites rocket failures as the reason why that avenue cannot be taken. However, I have yet to see a proposal to utilize railgun technology to place containers of waste into space. While my limited reading says orbits are the objective, I do not see why waste cargo could not be directed toward the sun.

    Since the article makes light of the vast sums of money being wasted on reuse, Yucca Mountain,, there is NO reason why a far lesser sum of money could not properly develop space-bound railgun technology.

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  41. 41. Carlyle 2:34 am 05/12/2012

    Re 40. the Gaul
    6:26 pm 05/11/2012
    In 1859 it cost $US1550.00 to produce 1 kg of aluminium.
    Within a few years this cost was reduced to about $17 per kg. Today it is about $2 per kg.
    You can not look at the cost of a process in an experimental or development phase & assume that it will always be that expensive. If we took that view with aluminium & new processes had not been developed we would still be only using it for making very expensive objects.

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  42. 42. HUHUH 9:50 am 05/12/2012

    Wow. Clearly a topic to encite anger in the fruitcake population. Nice dividing topic. Take your cues from Obama?

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  43. 43. Biodiversivist 3:58 pm 05/13/2012

    Recycling may, or may not add $750 million to the cost of nuclear generated electricity, but that’s OK. It costs me $5 to recycle my used car tire. Add that up for every tire in the world.

    Dealing with waste adds to costs. Coal would be much less competitive if it were made to deal with the damage it causes to the environment and health. The damage being wrought by the green house gases from fossil fuels make the reduced profit margins caused by recycling nuclear fuel seem trivial.

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  44. 44. Dr. Strangelove 1:16 am 05/15/2012

    “Subduction faults could still propel the waste to the surface and beyond”

    Yeah maybe in 10 million yrs and beyond.

    “Off-earth is the gold standard for nuclear waste disposal”

    Yup cost more than gold to send an ounce of waste to space.

    “I have yet to see a proposal to utilize railgun technology to place containers of waste into space.”

    Maybe because no railgun has ever attained the escape velocity of 25,000 mph. The air friction at that speed will melt the container.

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  45. 45. darkfire79 2:50 pm 05/15/2012

    I fall in the unpopular camp. Use it for fuel. And. Go ahead and bury it in my back yard after.

    Someone has to go first.

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  46. 46. Michael M 8:55 pm 05/17/2012

    Political and religious diatribe or comment are inappropriate as comment.

    Ad hominem attack comments are especially inappropriate.

    Uranium mining has been repeatedly shown to toxify groundwater and downstream flows from water used in the mining process.

    Benthic areas of oceans are occupied with diverse organisms, and deep ocean flows guarantee cycling within a few hundred years.

    Geologic and hydrologic uncertainties can cause wildly inaccurate estimates of corrosion in attempts to sequester high-level nuclear waste: Consider the discovery of Pu clearly proven to have come from 1950s H-Bomb Pacific tests, in Yucca Mountain faults showing that water reached proposed shielded and cladded materials in about 50 years, rather than the 3-orders-of-magnitude-greater previously estimated cycling.

    Although mining is profoundly ecologically damaging to habitats, Thorium is 3 or 4 times more abundant than uranium, and its waste products can hardly be used for weapons technology. In addition, used as fuel it is less prone to the high temperatures associated with meltdowns.

    LFTRs and MOX technology reactors are among the tech-fixes for nuclear waste which reduce products with immense half-lives to more quickly decaying isotopes of other elements.

    Subduction faults take mixes of sedimentary and organic materials to depths where volcanism favors these lower-density materials for recycling to earth’s surface – their densities are associated with lower melting points and other volatilities

    A huge proportion of US nuclear reactors generating waste are east of the Mississippi; very little nuclear power is used or proposed in the Western States. Generalizing power usage and source is inaccurate.

    Australia is a major exporter of uranium.
    Enriched Uranium is categorized:
    1. low-enriched, wherein percentage of highly fissile U235(and artificially produced U233) to U238 is around 1 to 5% for commercial reactors, and under 20% for research reactors.
    2. Highly-enriched means 20% to over 80 or 90% U235, and is used in weapons. HEU is also used in Military ship reactors, no doubt due to its efficiency as power source.

    Most uses of nuclear power also generate low-level waste which is hazardous. There are many divisions of waste levels, but all are toxic to some extent. You don’t want to bury them in your yard, unless you are enamored of slow and grotesque suicide.

    Other commentors have addressed remaining issues raised. The epithet “Element form Hell” is appropriate, as Pu is the most toxic element known.

    SciAm is a journalistically written magazine using strongly peer-reviewed literature as sources. Should those who take issue with their presentation, I suggest that some might find that literature more palatable to their taste. In any case, interest sufficient to desire more specific information is best served by recourse to such resource, and clearly NOT by complaining about SciAm’s journalism or writers’ choice of vocabulary.

    Thank you all for considering that latter, and my first two comments before posting comment.

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  47. 47. Ying Rui 6:00 am 05/18/2012

    Is it possible to bury the plutonium and make use of the thermal energy emitted by radioactivity to produce electricity like how geothermal taps underground heat to generate electricity?

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