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June 16, 2008
Volume 86, Number 24
pp. 6, 8-9

‘The Forever Waste’

The author of ???The Forever Waste??? gave too much space to antinuclear types and did not spend enough time researching the underlying facts (C&EN, May 5, page 15). For example, only about 3% of the available fission energy has been extracted from ???spent fuel.??? Obviously, the remaining 97% will be of interest to future generations. In addition, the plutonium made in light-water power reactor fuel (excluding only the outer elements of the initial loading) has far too much of the 238 and 240 isotopes to be usable in a nuclear explosive.

Finally, the standards are being imposed on nuclear wastes that have no inherent danger whatsoever. Bear in mind that uranium and thorium ores have been lying around undergoing decay by ??-emission and spontaneous fission for a few billion years and are loaded with deadly fission and decay products. If one only requires the final processed waste products to be no more dangerous than pitchblende, then “forever” shrinks to several strontium or cesium half-lives.

Jacques Read
Washington, D.C.

Yucca Mountain is one of the U.S.???s driest areas, receiving 7.5 inches of rain yearly, of which 95% evaporates or is transpired by a sparse covering of vegetation. The remainder drains into a water table 500???800 meters below, which is part of the Death Valley hydrogeologic basin. None emerges into streams or lakes. The evidence is that there have been only modest changes in water table level in the past few million years, even in wetter periods. The disposal site is about halfway down, about 350 meters above the water table.

Water seeping past would tend to cling to the tunnel walls rather than contact the waste canisters. A 2004 report of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board stated that surrounding conditions made corrosion pitting of the canisters unlikely. Two outgoing members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Jeffrey S. Merrifield and Edward McGaffigan, have stated that they have seen no data to indicate that Yucca Mountain would not be a good place to dispose of spent nuclear fuel.

Contrary to C&EN’s story, no falsification of data has been found in these investigations. What was falsified was quality assurance information about the computer codes used to analyze the data. The analyst didn’t know the dates of origin, revision, and installation of the codes, so he made up the numbers. Then he complained in e-mails to colleagues about the unavailability of the information.

C&EN and Kristin Shrader-Frechette misunderstand the proposed EPA radiation standard for the period between 10,000 and 1 million years. The 350 milliroentgen (mR) per year additional dose limit is calculated for those (if any) living in the desolate land close to the disposal site and drilling for water there. There would be no significant radiation exposure from the disposal site for those farther away. For perspective, the average U.S. natural dose is 300 mR per year, the higher doses being over granitic soils and at higher altitudes.

We should protect future generations from reasonably foreseeable dangers. But protecting 1 million or even 10,000 years into the future from every scenario an armchair theorist can dream up is senseless. In what other important area of life do we use such foresight?

Of course it would be desirable to recycle the uranium and plutonium from the spent fuel rather than bury it, to bury at shallow depth the main heat producers—strontium-90 and cesium-137—and to consume the transplutonium actinides in a fast neutron reactor, all as proposed by the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. But that is not necessary for the safe use of Yucca Mountain. Nevada’s problem is an image problem???taking something no one else wants???not a safety or environmental problem.

John E. Tanner Jr.
Idaho Falls, Idaho

Living Within Our Means

In response to ???Energy Defines Sustainability,??? the premise that inexpensive and nonpolluting electricity and transportation fuels define sustainability is not only unsubstantiated but clearly false (C&EN, April 14, page 11). Consider the half century 1950 to 2000. Most would have considered this to be the time of inexpensive and nonpolluting electricity and transportation fuels, but clearly it was not.

Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is most appropriate for sustainability considerations. We must learn to live within the energy input we receive daily from the sun, including winds and tides generated by the sun, without using other stores of energy (even nuclear) if we are to develop a sustainable society. Abundant food, clean water, and human well-being will only be available for all when we learn to limit our exponential population growth and live within our energy means.

Without limiting population growth, we will suffer the same disastrous crashes that every other biological system faces given exponential growth rates and limited resources. In addition, any one of a number of cataclysmic events, such as a Yellowstone-style volcano or complete melting of Arctic sea ice, could also send us perilously close to the ruin of society as we know it today. We may already be well within the 11th hour of human society.

Ted Foster
Placerville, Calif.

Don???t Blame President Carter

A letter to the editor by Elliott Doane concludes with a weak endorsement of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) but asserts that ???research was halted by President Jimmy Carter in 1977??? (C&EN, May 19, page 6). This is false, and must be corrected.

Retired Argonne National Laboratory nuclear reactor physicist George Stanford states, “At the Clinton Administration’s urging, Congress terminated the research on Oct. 1, 1994,” which was about three years from finishing. Also, an interview on the PBS show “Frontline” in 1996 with Charles Till, a codeveloper of IFR, stated that “it was an outgrowth really of the studies that were caused by the Carter Administration in the late ’70s.”

It is unacceptable and morally wrong to blame former president Carter for the extremely unwise act of President Clinton 15 years later. It is also morally wrong for C&EN to print a long article about “Forever Waste” without any reference to IFR as the proven way to eliminate the problem. And it would be inadmissible to try and justify the omission; IFR R&D was terminated not for technical reasons but purely based on politics.

I would have expected C&EN to take an interest in the significant chemical aspect of IFR, which is that by purely chemical means the inhibitory fission products are removed from the mixture of heavy fissionable elements burned by IFR. This means that isotope separation by gas centrifuges is not done, and the fissionable mixture is absolutely unusable for bomb-making. This deserves a feature article in C&EN. And IFR deserves a major, accelerated “Manhattan-style” project to design and build these reactors at the absolutely earliest time technically possible. It is urgent.

George Tiers
St. Paul, Minn.


May 19, page 36: The article on drugs used in lethal injections should have included potassium chloride, not potassium chlorate.

Nuclear Is Not Nonpolluting

The letters under the head ???Confusion over Biofuels??? has me wondering: Is it just me or are more and more people grouping nuclear energy among ???nonpolluting??? forms of energy (C&EN, April 21, page 4)? How can a process from which waste materials need safe storage for hundreds or even thousands of years—longer even than civilizations last—be considered nonpolluting?

I suppose the reason is that most people don’t live near the wide-open western U.S. where these materials are destined for storage. We Utahans do understand the dangers. We live along the Wasatch Front and have been “downwinders” ever since the Nevada nuclear testing of the 1950s. Please, let’s be honest about it: Nuclear power is not only dangerous, its dangers are a legacy for many generations down the road.

John R. Peterson
Salt Lake City

Good Review For ‘Breaking Bad’

I want to thank C&EN for alerting me to one of the most interesting and entertaining TV shows I have watched in recent years (C&EN, March 3, page 32). The series ???Breaking Bad??? is not only well written and researched by Vince Gilligan and superbly acted by Bryan Cranston, but actually contains some real science. The dark humor of this series may have been lost on more conservative readers, but I trust the majority found this series (whose main subject is, after all, synthetic organic chemistry) to be refreshingly substantive in contrast to the mindless pap we are served by the major TV networks.

The review by Jyllian Kemsley was excellent, and I look forward to watching more of the series next season.

Jeffrey Michael
Marinette, Wis.

Mary Elvira Weeks

In his editorial on the 100-year history of ACS, Rudy Baum mentioned the book ???A History of the American Chemical Society: Seventy-Five Eventful Years,??? by Charles A. Browne and Mary Elvira Weeks (C&EN, May 5, page 2). When I was an undergraduate chemistry major at the University of Kansas in the early 1940s, Weeks was a professor there. These were the days when a woman member of the chemistry faculty of a university was indeed a rarity. She was a modest, unassuming lady, and it???s great that she is remembered.

Jud Goodrich
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Absinthe And Thujone

???Absinthe Myths Finally Laid To Rest??? was an interesting read, but those of us at Amalgamated Brewing disagree with the once-and-for-all evidence claimed by Dirk W. Lachenmeier (C&EN, May 5, page 42). Absinthe, like any alcoholic beverage, is a living, dynamic moiety and cannot be assumed to go unchanged during many years of storage. To the contrary, the complex mixture of volatile components in the ???green fairy??? makes this beverage particularly susceptible to chemical and physical changes.

Thujone is fairly volatile (BP 84 °C), and this small aliphatic ketone can be assumed to be rather reactive. We prepared a fresh 100-ppm standard of ??-thujone (Aldrich 89231; 1058112 24706082) in a 50% ethanol/water solution to quantify levels of thujone in wormwood samples. The standard was stored in several tightly sealed glass vials to be used at a later date. After four months, these standards were found to contain less than 10 ppm thujone when compared with a freshly prepared solution.

To the credit of the study, we have also found the thujone content of the wormwood samples tested to date to be very low. Following a typical recipe, the highest theoretical concentration of thujone in absinthe produced from these wormwood samples would be less than 5 ppm.

Mike Stapleton
St. Louis

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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