Monday, November 08, 2004

How much waste is there, really?

A nuclear protester in France got his leg severed by the train carrying the wastes against which he was protesting. He was in the process of chaining himself to those very same tracks when he and his protest group were "surprised" by the train. The protester later died.

The protesters complain that the nuclear waste is "unsafe." It's a measure of how fortunate the protesters are that the physical amount of the waste produced in nuclear power plants is so small. Nuclear nations can afford to dither for decades about what to do with the wastes, wringing their hands over how "dangerous" it is, sounding concerned over the number of protesters there are.

I've found it to be a refreshing mathematical exercise to calculate just how much nuclear waste there really is. Based on the most believable numbers I could find, the total amount of high-level radioactive waste (spent fuel rods) produced in the United States over the last 50 years is about 49,000 metric tons. To give you an idea of how much waste that really is, imagine that all of those fuel rods could be melted together to form a single mass. Now think of a city block. It's 1/10 of a mile on each side, 6.4 acres. Lets now add some transparent walls around that block to form a big vat. Now pour that 49,000 metric tons of molten fuel rods into our fantasy vat forming a pool of the most horrible and poisonous substance known to mankind. How deep would it be? I'll wait.

All right, I'll make it easy for you:

(49,000 metric tons)
x (1000 kilograms/metric ton)
x (1000 grams/kilogram)
x (1 cubic centimeter/5.5 grams)
x (1 liter/1000 cubic centimeters)
x (0.0353147 cubic foot/liter)
x (1 acre/43,560 square feet)
x (1 city block/6.4 acres)
x (12 inches/foot)
= 13.5425 inches over the area of a city block.

Friends, it would be approximately 13 ½ inches deep. That's inches, not feet, not miles. I calculated that depth using the assumption that the fuel rods have about the density of the earth as a whole, 5.5 grams per cc. Just over a foot deep...spread over a single city fifty years.

If you notice in the story, the train that killed the protester was carrying twelve containers of processed waste. Not a thousand, not a hundred: twelve.

It reminds me of the anti-climax in "This is Spinal Tap," when the band begins their big number "Stonehenge," and the stage crew lowers a foam mockup of a massive Stonehenge arch onto the stage behind the lead singer...and it turns out to be 18 inches high, not 18 feet.

You know what? I've got a solution for those people who are concerned about terrorists stealing our nuclear wastes. Simply let the tracks be lined with protesters and the terrorists wouldn't have any room to maneuver.

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