After FYI answered why dumping the world's nuclear waste into a volcano would be a bad idea in March, our inbox was flooded with readers wondering, "Well, how about shooting it into the sun?"
On paper, this is a fantastic way to wipe our hands clean of all that pesky waste. The sun is a constant nuclear reaction that's about 330,000 times as massive as Earth; it could swallow the tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear rods as easily as a forest fire consumes a drop of gasoline.
And NASA currently has two probes orbiting the sun, so the technology exists to get the job done. Alas, the benefits fall far short of the risk involved.
There isn't a space agency or private firm on the planet with a spotless launch record. And we're not talking about cheapo rockets—last year, the craft carrying NASA's $280-million Orbiting Carbon Observatory fizzled out and crashed into the ocean near Antarctica. It's a bummer when a satellite ends up underwater, but it's an entirely different story if that rocket is packing a few hundred pounds of uranium. And if the uranium caught fire, it could stay airborne and circulate for months, dusting the globe with radioactive ash. Still seem like a good idea?
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two words... space elevator
If remember correctly, Bill Gates stated a month or so ago, that we could use nuclear waste as more nuclear energy. Here's the link:
Why would you want to dispose of valuable material in the sun?
Slightly used nuclear fuel contains fuel(neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium) that will be desirable in order to start up fast reactors when uranium becomes more costly in the latter half of the century and when greenie-weenies come to their senses and stop promoting coal, potential fuel(mix of uranium isotopes, mostly fissionable U-238) for use in fast reactors and fusion-fission hybrids, fission platinoids suitable for industrial use after a period of cool-down, Sr-90 that could potentially make very good beta cells for space probes in the outer solar system and industrial thickness gauges.
If you insisted on throwing away valuable material where it is not retrievable the cheap and safe way to do it is to put it into salt-domes, which slowly self-heal. These salt formations have been there for hundreds of millions of years without water leaking in and disolving them. This is how WIPP does it.
omaracoustic, of course, we've known how to use slightly used nuclear fuel as energy for several decades now. It's not going to get off the ground with uranium as cheap as it is today(1 to 2 dollars per barrel of oil equivalent).
This is a great question. I asked the same one awhile back after the volcano piece. The space elevator is one option. But why not go elsewhere in PopSci for the answer: a modified space cannon?
It's like a battery. refine the spent rods, or convert them into plutonium for reuse.. breeder reactor. BUT pretty much all countries are banned from doing this. so we sit with TONS of nuclear waste just ticking away when we could be reusing it.
argh! i HATE this question. the primary problem isn't even the risk; it's the expense. there's a LOT of nuclear waste, and it's HEAVY. do you know how many enormous rockets and tons of rocket fuel would be used in the attempt? if we could launch anything that cumbersome into space, we wouldn't start with trash.
and "space elevator?" come on. why not suggest warp drive while you're at it?
"it could swallow the tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear rods as easily as a forest fire consumes a drop of gasoline."
Yea but just 10,000 tons of the stuff would cost 200 billion dollars to launch at the current rate of 10,000 dollar a pound.
We have a device like the sun on earth that has proven to break down most nuclear matter to safely depose it, its a plasma arc-furnace, one side effect from this is a net amount of energy will produce electricity....
@rlb2 I agree with your premise but it is far worse than you speculate; you need a delta v of like 29.8 km/s to crash into the sun that is significantly more energy than it takes to get to orbit from earth, your figure of $22,000 per kg is way off. I'm sure some gravity assists could help out but its going to cost loads regardless.
animemaster - That figure was from the cost in 2003 for a heavy lift Delta IV. Agreed today it is higher for a heavy lift Delta IV which would carry at most 9,306 kg out of earth’s gravity well to escape earths orbit. That means they would have to build and launch approximately 1,000 Delta IV rockets to dispose of 10,000 tons of nuclear waste. For some extremely illogical reason they decide to do this then all it would take is one failed launch to stop future launches from happening….
I sweep all of my nuclear waste under the rug.
It's kinda cool because if I get up in the middle of the night, I don't have to turn on a light because my rug now glows enough to fill the entire room.
It's also a lot easier to kill the dust mites since they are now two feet long. No longer need a microscope. Two birds.
If you frequent this site often, you may remember the hydrogen cannon made to launch ruggedized items into space. One would think that you could do the same to the nuclear waste. G's couldn't damage it or anything like that. I can't imagine how a failure would work with the cannon either. The link to the article is below. Copy it into your browser.
i say that we just send em to pluto or the astriod belt
A space elevator would be the best bet, but that's still technology that's decades away, but it's not in the realm of science fiction anymore. Space elevators (or "bean stalks") were proposed by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Forward many years ago, and it's really a matter of engineering now; work is already underway in this direction.
The cable to which the escalator would be attached would extend beyond the geostationary point, so once released, the payload would have a velocity greater than that required to merely orbit the Earth. Maybe elevator would be the wrong term; conveyor belt is more accurate. Any other method would be way too costly and risky. A processing station at the equator would break up the nuclear material into small packets and send them up, bit by bit.
If we could cheaply send that much stuff into space, we would start with massive solar stations and sun shields.
By then, we will hopefully already be using safer and cleaner nuclear technology, like liquid sodium reactors, and would just be getting rid of old waste.
Announce it on Craig's List.
Highest space alien bidder takes the lot.
(Space alien credentials required. Space aliens responsible for all costs of transportation. All transport vehicles must have adequate tie-down and tarp materials to meet EPA requirements. All sales final.)
Couldn't we just ask Superman to fly it to the sun for us? We could bundle it all up in one big package labeled "Do Not Drop" and he could carry it to the sun all at once, or maybe take several trips if he prefers. I bet if we ask him nicely, he would be willing.
UK had a "spotless launch record", sadly, being English they did it once perfectly then decided it was too expensive and scrapped the whole program. Can't remember exactly what it was they launched.
We could make bullets out of the stuff, or bombs, maybe armor. I mean the stuff is super dense, and if we could find a way around the radioactivity we could use it for a lot of things, a super dense metal is very useful.
There's another, perhaps more important problem--angular momentum. It takes almost as much energy to loose the angular momentum and be able to actully hit the sun as it does to escape the solar system. Anthing short of that and you just orbit the sun. It is much easier to go to Mars or Venus. I vote to use Phobos; it already has the right name.
(BTW, I am a Health Physicist. The materials with the multi-thousand-year half lives are not nearly as scary to me as the heavy metals we bury all the time in simple landfills which will remain heavy metals forever.)
No no no. This is silly.
When you have nuclear waste you want to dispose of this is what you do:
1. Take one ocean oil drilling platform.
2. Position it above a subduction zone in the ocean.
3. Drill a hole as deep as you can. I think a modern oil platform can drill down to about 2 miles or more.
4. Pack the bottom of the drilled hole with the waste material.
5. Top off the top 1/4 mile or so with concrete.
6. Move platform and watch as nature pulls the waste down into the mantle of the Earth.
7. Position platform 1/2 mile away along subduction zone and repeat.
Yes, it will take some time for the waste to be pulled down under the Earth's crust, but the process is inevitable and unstoppable. Also, I think a quarter mile or more under the bottom of the ocean is a pretty secure temporary storage space.
Dumbest idea ever, do the math,
Amount on nuclear waste=
31 million pounds of uranium product
2.5 billion pounds of other N waste
2.75 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris
the current cost to put a satellite into space is about $10,000 per lb
This was the DUMBEST ANSWER by Pop Sci, to an uninformed question.
So-Called Nuclear waste is only waste because WE Refuse to reprocess it into More Energy.
In other words, we have a Waste Problem, because We POLITICALLY decided to have one.
In the US Federal budget 2010, the current active law & policy is to continue with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed in 1987, where we are going to move the storage of most of the high-level radioactive waste to the Yucca Mountain Repository in NV. There are current discussions where we may retrieve it years from now when transmutation technologies (burn down the waste) are available or if new future technologies may find uses of the waste material.
The initial thought is to rid ourselves of the waste, but when you stop and think it through the sensible solution is to store the waste in an accessible & manageable method for a few hundred years as there may be technological discoveries that could re-use the material or transmute it perminately...
Let's just wait a little longer and then Captain Kirk will beam it all into the sun for us with the Enterprise's Transporter System. More power Capn'. (a little humor never hurts) or we can send it all to The former Soviet Union where they would never notice it anyway since they already dumped so much of everything without any regard for anyone. Or we can send it to Paris as the French never seem too concerned about setting off more tests outside of France.
one word - Challenger
it's expensive...great, i smell a great business opportunity. the space freighter would need guards, more work for blackwater, too bad about no returns...the new agency could be headed by osama bin laden, once we rehabilitate him...something like we did with werner von braun,,,now there was a terrorist who got a cushy government job...like a bailout! hey osama is anti-commie too...
sorry for the negative frame of mind...
Yucca Mountain is the perfect place.
(did I feel an earthquake)
There is already a solution in the works for nuclear waste disposal. If the design for the "fast integral reactor" works the way its proponents predict, our present nuclear waste can be used as fuel, for a long time,and, it's waste products have a very short half life. Look it up.:-)
deegeezee, you're so right-- the expense is the primary question.
Before that, even, is: can we control demand for energy? Especially, can we reduce our explosive population growth which is the fundamental problem of all others?
These are perhaps less PopSci questions and more social science, but science all the same and it seems with people getting crazy upset and violent everywhere, maybe some of our scientific minds need to be more focused on addressing how people in our social systems can better work together. I mean, I love science for the pursuit of knowledge (and gadgets!) but with tempers and climate boiling these days, I don't know if my great grandchildren will be able to do the same.
brother.sand has the answer. Throw it down a hole and let the Earth's own nuclear furnace dispose of the stuff.