In the June 20 edition of the Albuquerque Journal we read that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing board held hearings in Hobbs a few days earlier and heard arguments about whether or not the Louisiana Energy Services Corporation was proposing a "plausible strategy" for dealing with what was called the plant's "radioactive waste."
From what we read, a dozen or so lawyers from New Mexico's Environmental Department, the LES staff and various anti-nuclear organizations argued this weighty subject for hours and hours. Apparently, there was little or no discussion as to whether the plant was needed, nationally or statewide, was a good idea or a bad one. We often wonder how national and international matters of importance are decided, and now we have some insight into this "Alice in Wonderland" world.
We will take issue with the trivial and childish details l ater, but first we wish to comment on matters of significance.
First of all, the plant will produce the fuel used in the 100 or so nuclear power plants in the United States; these plants produce about 20 percent of all the electricity consumed in the U.S. Currently, the nation imports, yes imports, 85 percent of the fuel used in this industry. And this in the nation that started the whole nuclear reactor industry and furnished fuel for the rest of the world for years and years. This single plant will increase our U.S.-produced fuel fraction to 40 percent.
Second, it will be the first such plant constructed by a nongovernmental agency a general objective that is desired by most of us, but not seriously by bureaucrats from our state and national governments.
Third, this plant is a big and long-range operation. It is a multibillion-dollar construction that will provide fuel for electricity plants and hundre ds of jobs. Lots of tax revenue will accrue to the state for years and years and years.... Lord knows we need the money, given our standing in childhood poverty and education.
Finally, will it be safe? The answer, in spades, is yes. Will anyone ever be hurt, killed, or injured? We expect that, given the industry it is in, but it will be safer for the workers than any other industry in the state.
The bugaboo of radioactivity is raised, of course, by our environmental department and the various anti-nuclear organizations. We suggest that, as a state, New Mexico has had more experience in this area than most, and the experience has been very good when one measures real matters and real risk.
The input to this plant is uranium hexafluoride, a gas of which the molecule consists one uranium atom with six fluorine atoms attached. The input uranium is of normal composition, 0.7 percent U-235 and 99.3 percent U-2 38.
The end product of the plant is uranium enriched in the lighter isotope to a few percent, generally 3 percent to maybe 6 percent whatever the customer wants. The by-product, not a waste, is UF-6 that is mostly U-238. This material is not needed now, but will be needed in 50 to 75 years when most of the U-235 is used and we will be depending on sodium-cooled reactors for electric power. This is not a long time the nuclear age is well over a half century old.
The half-life of U-238 is 4.5 billion years, about the age of the Earth itself. A less hazardous "radioactive" material is hard to find. It will be contained in steel cylinders, innocuous, easy to store out of sight if desired, and safe, safe, safe.
Earlier we said we would take issue with two words. These are calling the by-product material "waste" and questioning whether the storage scheme is "plausible." Briefly, t he waste is in the time and efforts of people who actually got through high school, college and maybe law school. Why argue such a trivial point? Because they make a living this way, no other reason.
The output material to be stored is a by-product, useful in years to come, but not just now. Is LES's plan for storage of the by-product plausible? Our dictionaries tell us that synonyms for this word include credible, outwardly acceptable, and reasonable at first sight. We can answer only yes, the plan is plausible. We can find no serious problem or even a minor problem.
If the worry is radioactivity, we point out that U-238 is barely, barely radioactive; it can be handled routinely without gloves and has been for years by many people, including pottery makers who like the yellow color of the uranium oxide. No harm to them or any others.
Too bad that Lewis Carroll didn't know about these "problems." They could have been used in his "Through the Looking Glass."
Los Alamos Education Group members Donald Petersen and Stephen Stoddard contributed to this op-ed.