Parting the Radioactive Water: Can the Nexus Guide Us Through Our Nuclear Legacy?

Retrieved from the Guardian


Parting the Radioactive Water: Can the Nexus Guide Us Through Our Nuclear Legacy?

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.

Not so long ago it seemed that the 21st century was going to be the era of Nuclear Renaissance. A global industry which had largely stagnated after the 80s in a post Three Miles Island and Chernobyl world found powerful resurgence in the 2000s. The argument and now is generally framed along a cost-benefit landscape dotted with divergent rhetorical flair. It reached a zenith with climate change mitigation- in electricity generation nuclear power produces negligible (or zero depending on the calculation) carbon emissions. It can replace coal to provide baseload power and drastically reduce emissions- a vision of the future (again).
Today when folks talk about low-carbon versus renewable in alternative energy debates the low-carbon means either nuclear or carbon capture and storage, but mostly nuclear (CCS hasn’t been commercialised yet as a whole socio-technical system, not even at demonstration scale yet actually). The argument has held enormous sway and is still heavily influential, particularly in the UK. I’m far from a champion of nuclear power, but theoretically this positive potential is real. Particularly in comparison to coal, depending upon your risk parameters nuclear power can almost be benign.
Along every step of the commodity chain from exploration to generating electricity coal is marked by inefficiency and negative externalities (economics’ fun euphemism for those costs to socio-natural health not included in price). Look no further than mountaintop removal and strip mining, or coal’s emission profile relative to almost any other source. Its easy to see why some folks in the environmental and climate change communities push nuclear as a real alternative.
Its my estimation however that the most accurate and holistic accounts of the life cycle costs of nuclear energy are still damning. Setting aside issues of cost, decision making  or general policy implications the problem is that the uranium still has to be mined and the waste dealt with. Both have considerable socioenvironmental impacts, potential and realised. Water for energy is exemplified by nuclear power, acting as a constant vital coolant. Its in this arena we face the Nexus full force (though of course it pervades the entire energy chain up to and including reactor coolants).
Contemporary developments in nuclear power have come to be defined by this. Yes, I’m going to start here with Fukushima. A set of reactors on the coast, dependent upon sea water and in a seismically active region. An earthquake and tsunami devastated the Japanese coastline and helped initiate one of the worst industrial disasters the world has seen.
Through sea-level rise and increased storm severity climate change poses a grave threat to this kind of nuclear system. They tend to be built on coastlines, anywhere close to readily available source of water for cooling .The threat is far from insurmountable, but considerable. the world has taken notice, and the drive for more nuclear power which had already slowed ground to a halt as the disaster unfolded. Fukushima was the inflection point for nuclear, in all likelihood the death knell of the Renaissance. Japan and Germany renounced nuclear power, expansion around the world stagnating. The industry and all its challenges continue all the same.
In Washington state six underground storage tanks are leaking radioactive waste. The threat currently seems to manageable, potentially threatening the area’s soil and groundwater but far from contaminating the Columbia river.  There are however 149 single-shell tanks at the Hanford facility filled with waste and previous leaks have damaged the soil already. The tanks are ageing, leaks are more and more likely. One tank for instance was leaking 150-300 gallons per annum of radioactive fluid. Developing the right policies to deal with this waste once its been produced is extremely difficult.
The US is a major producer of nuclear waste but doesn’t have a strategic solution. The planned national storage facility at Yucca Mountain outside of Las Vegas has been effectively shut down. Just about every major politician in Nevada has been fighting the federal government against the Yucca project for years. There’s mass opposition at all levels. Coming from that area you develop a strong aversion to any such proposal, whether or not its well informed. Not only was the potency of nuclear waste as a symbol at work, but folks just couldn’t see any benefit for them in taking in the country’s waste. When locals especially can’t find an economic benefit the legitimacy of big infrastructural projects stands on shaking ground. Much as I do personally support the opposition it makes a tough policy area all the more complex.
This adds further pressure on facilities like Hanford and exemplifies the strident NIMBYism of nuclear waste in the US and UK. The UK too has a waste problem and planned to build an underground storage centre in Cumbria. Its the site of both the world renowned Lake District and the Sellafield nuclear facilities. Last month the county council voted down the proposal, killing off for now the hopes of a central holding site. Cumbria was really the only viable place currently available, and with so many residents dependent on nuclear power for jobs and the proximity to reactors and current holding sites made it ideal.
As with Hanford, at Sellafield and nuclear sites all across the UK and US the kit is ageing and ageing rough. In the past mass dumping, such as into the Irish Sea has been acceptable and left a legacy of radioactivity, ecological destruction and socio-political strife in its wake. Historic uranium mining has shattered the land, water and people of Southwestern reservations in the US. The waste is there and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future no matter what energy choices are made. The legacy of the atomic age is inescapable.
The question is how that waste is managed, and may the Water-Energy Nexus be a guide.
~ Miles on Water


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