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How long is nuclear power plant waste really dangerous?

  1. Dec 5, 2003 #1
    I know that some of the isotopes have extremely long half-lifes. However, isn't it true that generally speaking, a longer half life correlates to a lower rate of radioactivity? So wouldn't the most dangerous elements be those with short half-lifes? Isn't most of the danger from waste therefore gone after the first few 100 or 1000 years?
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  3. Dec 5, 2003 #2


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    Yes, yes, and yes.

    However even with "most" of the radiation gone, its still going to be pretty dangerous. For our purposes, radioactive waste is radioactive forever - its so far above human timescales. But really, we're probably talking on the order of 10,000-100,000 years.
  4. Dec 6, 2003 #3
    You mean it would result in several times our usual annual dose even after 1,000 years? Is it orders of magnitude higher?

    What I was trying to determine is if the 10,000 year goal for places like Yucca Mountain are very conservative and that even if a problem occurred after 1000 years the radiation would be so diminished that it wouldn't be much of a problem.

    Seems to me that even if we did screw up badly and something leaked after only 100 or 200 years, our technology would be so advanced by then that we should be able to handle it without too much problem.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2003
  5. Dec 6, 2003 #4


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    Yes, it would still be dangerous after 1,000 years. I think the point of the 10,000 year goal is that its longer than all of recorded human history, not that the site will be safe by then.

    And yes, I think technology will change the equation within the next 100 years as well. But they are being conservative in thinking longer term than that.
  6. Dec 6, 2003 #5


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    There is already technology known - a version of the Integral Fast Reactor - that could "eat" high-rad waste and turn it into much milder radioactive material whose danger would be gone in a few hundred years. All that is required is the political will to fund it.
  7. Dec 6, 2003 #6
    Scientific Impossibility

    High level nuclear waste has already leaked into our precious
    ground water at Hanford..and exploded at the Russian Ural
    mountain nuclear dump. In the first 55 years of the atomic age!

    Activists protest Hanford dump through initiative

    by Rachel Fomon
    December 04, 2003 December 05, 2003

    http://www.westernfrontonline.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2003/12/04/3fd0eb2b2c788 [Broken]

    The U.S. Department of Energy plans to ship 70,000 truckloads of
    radioactive waste to unlined soil landfills at the Hanford Site, without
    cleaning the 54-million gallons of dangerous, high-level radioactive
    waste that already is there, said Eliza Johnson, field director of

    Johnson and Katie McClendon, of Heart of America Northwest, a nonprofit
    organization based in Seattle, spoke at Western Dec. 2 about
    Initiative-297 and the effects more radioactive waste would have on the
    environment and community.

    "I think that, in general, people don't want nuclear waste being dumped
    in their state," McClendon said.

    The Hanford Site, located along the Columbia River in southeastern
    Washington state, once was used as a plutonium production complex that
    assisted in the nation's defense for more than 40 years, according to
    the Hanford Web site.

    The Department of Energy is involved in the world's largest
    environmental cleanup at Hanford. The site has more than 50 million
    gallons of liquid waste in 177 storage tanks, 12 tons of plutonium, 25
    million cubic feet of buried waste and 270 billion gallons of
    contaminated groundwater, according to the Hanford Web site.

    "If we don't clean up the Columbia River, we are at danger of losing it,
    and now they want to bring in more," Johnson said.

    Initiative-297 would require the Department of Energy to clean
    contaminated sites such as Hanford before it adds more waste. If voters
    approve the initiative, it would forbid Hanford from being the nation's
    radioactive-waste dump in the future.

    It also would force the government to stop dumping waste into unlined
    ditches, require it to clean burial grounds and stop contaminated
    groundwater from spreading to the Columbia River.

    Moreover, the initiative would require the Department of Energy to
    remove the waste from tanks at Hanford that leak into the ground,
    according to the Protect Washington Web site.

    Heart of America Northwest and its volunteers have collected 180,000
    signatures in four-and-a-half months, but they still need 10,000
    signatures on petitions by Dec. 31 to place the initiative on the
    November 2004 ballot, McClendon said.

    "I think, obviously, the environment will be threatened, and we can
    expedite the Columbia River as a water source and be faced with doubling
    the waste already at the site," McClendon said.

    One of the main concerns is the contamination of the Columbia River,
    Johnson said.

    Employees at Hanford are doing their part in cleaning up the site,
    Hanford spokeswoman Andrea Powell said.

    "Everyone is focused on the cleanup right now," Powell said. "It's no
    secret that there are some contaminants in the Columbia River."

    The Department of Health routinely tests the river to make sure it is
    safe. The agency considers the river to be Class A, which means it is
    suitable for all water activities, she said.

    "This is an issue at Western because it is something that affects
    everyone in Washington state," Environmental Center Co-coordinator Sarah
    Young said. "It's important for all of us to be educated about it and do
    something about it."


    Posted for educational and research purposes only,
    ~ in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107 ~

    See also http://nucnews.net - NucNews Links and Archives
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  8. Dec 8, 2003 #7
    Is this reprocessing or a different process entirely? And it would be suitable for generating electricity while it is using high-rad waste?
  9. Dec 9, 2003 #8


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    The integrl fast reactor is a design that produces low-level radioactive waste that is less dangerous, decays much faster, and is much easier and safer to store (but of course somebody with theroyprocess's philosophy that any radiation at all is too much radiation wouldn't be persuaded by these considerations).

    The people who designed the IFR also designed a version of it optimized for converting existing high-rad waste from current light water reactors. It would use the high-rad as fuel, I think, and produce its usual low-rad output. I am not really up on the details of this.

    The IFR program was cancelled by the Clinton administration.
  10. Dec 9, 2003 #9
    Dr. Roy Knew from the Ground Up

    Dr. Roy knew the nuclear industry from the ground up. He
    designed the Roy Process on an industrial scale using
    existing infrastructure, commercially available machinery
    and current technology. It will generate electric power using
    the existing generators at each nuclear power plant
    where the waste is stored in cooling ponds.

    Dr. Roy was the former director of the nuclear physics labs
    at the Univeristy of Belgium, Penn State and designed the
    buildings, nuclear instruments for students to study physics.
    He was very aware that good science must be the most
    cost effective.

    You could shut down all the dangerously aging reactors and
    use the heat from the transmutation of the spent fuel to power
    the generators and ELIMINATE it forever. Other schemes
    creates more nuclear waste and only perpetuates the problem
    which is why the Roy Process is being ignored.
  11. Dec 9, 2003 #10


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    Excellent! Have you got online technical details of the Roy Process? It seems there is so much tecnology that would alleviate or solve the waste problem, but nobody in the government wants to apply it.
  12. Dec 9, 2003 #11
    Roy Process Article

    The patent application of some 100 pages, apparatus and theory, with
    proprietary technical data for transmuting Pu239, Sr90 and Cs137 can
    only be seen by scientists representing a company capable of realization
    who contracts with us. The below article contains a brief description
    which Dr. Roy released to the press. It is incomplete to protect patent
    rights necessary for commercial realization.

    Guest Article: Making Nuclear Waste Less Harmful
    Friday, 29 August 2003, 12:36 pm
    Opinion: Guest Opinion

    A Process To Render Nuclear Weapons & Waste Less Harmful

    By Dennis F. Nester,
    special for NuclearNo.com,
    Originally published 20 June 2003
    - Recycling plutonium from warheads into MOX nuclear reactor fuel only perpetuates the security and environmental problems of bomb grade elements
    - There is a better way which will completely transmute plutonium and other high level nuclear waste known as the Roy Process

    It was the TMI partial meltdown that moved Dr. Roy to spend the summer school break proving calculations to see if it was possible to transmute high level nuclear waste cost effectively. He found it could be done with existing infrastructure, commercially available machinery and current supporting technology.

    Estimated cost to build a pilot facility was $80 million dollars. A newspaper editor persuaded Dr. Roy to release his Roy Process to the press which was published in November of 1979. (see article on web site below).

    The Roy Process Brief Description
    from the web site: http://members.cox.net/theroyprocess

    Is there a safe process to get rid of nuclear waste? Maybe! One possible solution is a process invented by Dr. Radha R. Roy, former professor of Physics at Arizona State University, and designer and former director of the nuclear physics research facilities at the University of Brussels in Belgium and at Pennsylvania State University.

    Dr. Roy is an internationally known nuclear physicist, consultant, and the author of over 60 articles and several books. He is also a contributing author of many invited articles in a prestigious encyclopedia. He is cited in American Men and Women of Science, Who`s Who in America, Who`s Who in the World and the International Biographical Centre, England. He has spent 52 years in European and American universities researching and writing recognized books on nuclear physics. He has supervised many doctoral students.

    Roy invented a process for transmuting radioactive nuclear isotopes to harmless, stable isotopes. This process is viable not only for nuclear waste from reactors but also for low-level radioactive waste products.

    In 1979, Roy announced his transmutation process and received international attention. The Roy process does not require storage of radioactive materials. No new equipment is required. In fact, all of the equipment and the chemical separation processes needed are well known.

    What`s the basis for the Roy Process? If you examine radioactive elements such as strontium 90, cesium 137 and plutonium 239, you will see that they all have too many neutrons. To put it very simply, the Roy process transmutes these unstable isotopes to stable ones by knocking out the extra neutrons. When a neutron is removed, the resulting isotope has a considerably shorter half-life which then decays to a stable form in a reasonable amount of time.

    How do we knock out neutrons? By bombarding them with photons (produced as x-rays) in a high- powered electron linear accelerator. Before this process, the isotopes must be separated by a well-known chemical process.

    It is feasible that portable units could be built and transported to hazardous sites for on-site transmutation of nuclear wastes and radioactive wastes.

    To give an example, cesium 137 with a half-life of 30.17 years is transformed into cesium 136 with a half-life of 13 days. Plutonium 239 with a half-life of 24,300 years is transformed into plutonium 237 with a half-life of 45.6 days. Subsequent radioactive elements which will be produced from the decay of plutonium 237 can be treated in the same way as above until the stable element is formed.

    The Roy Process could be developed in three distinct phases, according to Roy. Phase I consists of a theoretical feasibility study of the process to obtain needed parameters for the construction of a prototype machine. Phase II will involve the construction of a prototype machine and supporting facilities for demonstrating the process. Phase Ill will consist of the construction of large scale commercial plants based on the data obtained from Phase II.

    Cost estimates for Phase I and II are in the neighborhood of $10 million. For Phase Ill, Roy estimates a cost of $70 million. Says Roy, `It will be interesting to do a cost analysis of eliminating nuclear waste by using my process and by burying it for 240,000 years - ten half-lives of plutonium - under strict scientific control. There is also an ethical question: can we really burden the thousands of generations yet to come with problems which we have created? There is no God among human beings who can guarantee how the geological structure of waste burial regions will change even after ten thousand years, not to mention 240,000 years."

    If you are interested in finding out more about this process, please contact Dennis Nester, Roy`s agent, whose address is listed below.

    A final note

    To those who say that a process for transforming nuclear wastes is an invitation to keep making them, I ask, when we find a cure for cancer, shall we say it`s okay to continue to eat, drink and breathe carcinogens?

    "There is no way one can change nuclear structure other than by nuclear reaction. Burial of nuclear waste is not a solution." Radha Roy, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus

    "Do not be surprised if you learn that the nuclear industry makes billions of dollars by being a part of government`s policy of burial of nuclear wastes. It is not in their financial interest to try any other process. They are not idealists. Radha R. Roy, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus

    The below includes the Patent application claim.....describing other uses for the Roy Process transmutation method

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  13. Jan 10, 2004 #12


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    If your over-riding concern is to rid the world of the 'nuclear threat', then surely the most certain way to do this is through the widespread implementation of the Roy Process?

    Can you please explain why keeping the technical data secret is the most effective way to ameliorate the 'nuclear threat'? It surely can't be to protect the IPR (intellectual property rights), since those are already protected through the patent?
  14. Jan 10, 2004 #13
    Roy Process Is Available


    The nuclear industry, which gives millions to Congressmen in political
    action money and 'owns' federal nuclear jurisdiction, got Congress to
    pass the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act which limited nuclear waste
    disposal to geologic isolation putting alternatives in scientific limbo.
    No company would spend money on new science which by federal law
    they can not use. This is or should be patently unconstitutional. So it was
    by decree that the Roy Process was stopped so the nukers can siphon
    billions of tax payers money to let nuclear waste leak into our
    precious groundwater and is irretrievable.


    The Roy Process was ready for commercial realization when Dr. Roy
    announced it to the press on 1979. It is still available through normal
    business protocal.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  15. Jan 11, 2004 #14


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    Re: Roy Process Is Available

    I read a summary and the introduction to the act - it doesn't appear that it says what you say it says. It does not make it illegal for a power company to dispose of the waste themselves if they are capable of doing so. http://www.nrc.gov/who-we-are/governing-laws.html

    And your answer didn't address Nereid's question: why the secrecy?

    Also, if this "roy process" was ready to go in 1979, why are you talking about a patent application and not a patent? Was the application rejected?
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  16. Jan 12, 2004 #15


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    There are more countries than just the US!

    Adam, in the Politics and World Affairs board, gives some links about countries; there are >200 of them, and the US is but one.

    Even if one were to accept your statement (and clearly there is much that could be debated), you haven't said anything about the other >200 countries.

    What is the legal situation in other countries which have nuclear power?

    Many countries are poor and would love to have a part of the business of cleaning up the US's messes; I'm told there are millions in Mexico who are less poor than they'd otherwise be for just this reason (money sent back by illegal immigrants who do janitorial and 'waste management' jobs few US citizens are willing to do).

    If the Roy Process is as you say, what's to stop an entrepreneurial businesswoman in Benin (say) from starting a highly profitable business importing high-level nuclear waste from the US and processing it into low-level materials?
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  17. Jan 12, 2004 #16


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    Re: There are more countries than just the US!

    That's an interesting possibility - even at $100,000 / lb it would still be worth it for us to have someone else reprocess it.
  18. Feb 3, 2004 #17
    Recycle it. Problem solved. Oh yeah, I forgot, we can't. Because a bunch of peacenics caused it to become illegal. Now these same rednecks complain about the waste THEY caused to happen. Nice one GreenPeace.
  19. Jun 6, 2004 #18
    The discussion of P53 protein repair of chromosome breaks is suppressed in health physics, because it is obvious that low level radiation will at some dose be repaired. We see this in the fact that we get 0.2 rem or 2 millisieverts per year from background radiation, which is 0.02 millirem per hour on the earth's surface (compared to 1 millirem per hour on the moon in solar calm, and far more during solar storms).

    In the 1950s there was a long argument between people setting "safe dose limits" for nuclear workers and the theorists who used studies from short lived mammals like mice which have less sophisticated DNA repair mechanisms. The theorists argued that men are mice and any dose is dangerous. Eventually the "safe limit" people were outnumbered and put on the defensive, renaming their safe doses as "acceptible doses".

    So today it is heresy in physics to use the latest P53 protein research on the natural rate of repair of radiation damage to check if there really is a safe dose. The concept is heresy just like the ether is a heresy and electromagnetic theorists must pretend that the 377 ohm impedance of free space is some kind of geometry, not a physical characteristic of the ether.

    In the same way, Copernicus' solar system was a heresy because Aristarchus of Samos had previously said the same thing and been ridiculed for it. The problems of scientific leaders having to eat humble pie are so great that physics always ends up getting bogged down in heresies, suppressions, humorous ridicule without checking scientific proofs and data, etc. In other words, science is dominated by big money politics. If ex-bookbinder Michael Faraday was alive today, doubtless his invention of the electric motor and generator would be dismissed ad hoc as cranky new ideas.

    With radiation, the most penetrating types (neutrinos and gammas) are less easily stopped, interact less, and produce less ionisation and damage. The types which are stopped easiest like alphas from plutonium-239 cause the most damage if the atoms are inside the lung tissue, but they are harmless if they are kept out of the lungs. Sealing them in glass, as happens when you ground burst a nuclear bomb on silicate sand, prevents an inhalation danger because refractory elements like plutonium condense into molten sand before the sand solidifies (although you get some fractionation with elements of lower melting point like iodine-131 and similar ending up on the outside of already solidified glassy fallout particles).

    All the radioactive waste on earth is trivial compared to the hazards from natural potassium-40 in the oceans and radon gas from the ground. Not to mention the natural radiation hazards in space. The nuclear industry made a mess of the whole publicity business by cheapskating on radiation research and using fragmented data instead of setting up an organised central radiation research project in the 1940s and 50s. However, the messy public relations propaganda and the incompetence in getting the facts straight in health physics and nuclear energy, is typical of many areas of science.

    You can look at the cancer research industry, which has for a century been very good at spending money on research and has delivered results only slowly. Whenever you have bureaucracy, with its obsession on heresy suppression, ridiculing new work from Faraday type scientists, and so on, you can't expect anything but inertia and sleek, glossy self-promotion, because these are the only things committees all agree to do. Quite often, these committees decide where they want discoveries to be made, and subconsciously try to forge the discoveries by hyping up any hopeful result when they big progress doesn't come in the required highly funded area. We see the same thing with speculative superstring and quantum gravity. Proven work which gets somewhere is automatically heretical and sneeringly suppressed. Thus the business of science has become so commercialised that political decisions take precedence over all else. Money speaks.

  20. Jun 6, 2004 #19


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    I agree with your technical conclusions, but not with your social or political finger pointing. Much of today's (changing) scientific attitudes on low level radiation comes about because when the TMI and Chernobyl disasters happend microbiology was still at the single cell level. And it is perfectly true that an isolated single cell, if zapped by a beta ray (a fast electron) will probably die. They had at that time no real science to predict whole body effects so the single cell biology drove the standards. For a long time the voices for whole body rad repair had no really good evidence, nothing that could be studied and predicted but just anecdotes.

    Now this is all changing. As genomics gives way to proteomics and the study of life processes in multiple cell systems gets off the ground, real science is being brought to bear on these issues. If as you and I both believe this will revolutionize understanding of low rad effects, even to the point of predicting a benefit from light doses, then it will be soundly based and the screams of the increasingly isolated Naderites will be borne down.
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