Lift, Launch, and Propel Radioactive Waste into the Sun
by Sandra Urias 30 June 2010
Radioactive waste has been accumulating at an alarming rate on this planet. And, nobody seems to know what to do with it. "At present, no country has come up with a way of safely storing its radioactive waste for longer than 50 years, meaning all current measures are temporary." (Bellona) Urban sprawl has made burying the waste in uninhabited locations an unlikely solution. Places on the outskirts of populated areas that were once considered for disposal sites, like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, are no longer remote. The risk of accidentally poisoning water and soil of surrounding populations has made many people, with memories of the Long Island and the Chernobyl accidents, adopt a "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) attitude. The biggest objections come from folks with long memories. After the nuclear accident at Long Island, NY in 1979, cancers such as Leukemia doubled in populations in the surrounding area. (Sternglass) Concerned citizens have suggested storing the waste on an asteroid or on the moon, but that doesn't get rid of the problem; it pollutes those locations with radiation. The launch of nuclear waste randomly into space also has amoral implications. Who is to say that we won't come across it again someday? Getting the waste into space can be hazardous as well. Rockets can be unreliable, and an explosion or mishap could spread radioactive fallout across many regions, nations, and oceans. The implications of that, especially in light of today's modern pollution disasters, are enough to make one's stomach clench in anxiety. And as far as solutions go, rocket launches aren't cheap. It takes $10,000 to launch a single pound of anything into space using conventional methods. (Kaku) But, the idea of sending radioactive waste into space isn't completely without merit. A safer and less expensive solution would be to lift and sling the waste into space using a space elevator with a trajectory pointed at the biggest nuclear reactor in our solar system; our Sun.
Nobody wants nuclear waste in his back yard. One of the main reasons is that the effects of radiation poisoning can be terrifying. Low exposure to radioactive material, such spent nuclear fuel (SNF), causes nausea and vomiting. Prolonged exposure brings on diarrhea, headache, and fever. If exposure continues, or if immediate, severe exposure occurs, dizziness and disorientation result, along with weakness, fatigue, hair loss, bloody stools, bloody vomit, the inability of wounds to heal, and infections. (Mayo) After you reach this point, there is very little chance of recovery. Or survival. So, what makes radioactive waste and fallout so deadly? "SNF contains long-live isotopes such as plutonium, caesium, californium and other 'hot' products from burning uranium fuel which are nearly impossible to dispose of long term safely without harm to humans and the environment. " (Bellona) It is this fear of exposure to radioactive material that has caused citizens to fight over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal facility for the last 22 years. Though scientists determined that the site could safely store radioactive waste for 10,000 years, it turns out that the need is more like a million years. Earlier this year, President Obama stopped funding for the site, which means that during his presidency, the option of using Yucca Mountain is off the table. (Wald) There are still 131 other nuclear waste burial sites around the U.S. storing radioactive waste, but they're running out of room.
In 1999, a new site was established; a salt mine nicknamed the WIPP, just outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) raised many concerns before it even opened. Statements by worried citizens appeared in newspapers to give warning, "WIPPs contents could pollute ground water" and "the ability of the water flowing above the WIPP site to carry and spread radioactive material has been misrepresented and the WIPP certification should be rescinded" (Price). An article by Mr. Price declared that citizens felt the government had not adequately researched the site prior to the proposal. But, the Website for WIPP claims that it "safely disposes of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste." (Office) What about energy-related radioactive waste? And, what about the highly radioactive uranium and plutonium waste? What are we supposed to do about that stuff?
This is where we resurrect the idea of getting the radioactive waste off of our planet. The biggest concern in doing so, and rightfully so, is the risk of radioactive fallout from an unplanned event, such as the waste reentering the Earth's atmosphere from an exploding rocket engine. In an article for the Sierra Club, Robin Hewitt describes a scenario that was seriously entertained by NASA where manned shuttle missions take the waste into space for the purpose of putting it into orbit around the sun. The theory was this: A space shuttle would take off and navigate the radioactive waste to an Orbital Transit Station (OTS) that orbits the Earth. The shuttle would dock with the OTS and transfer the radioactive cargo onto the OTS and send it into a heliocentric orbit. (Hewitt) The risks of this solution are many. Once again, a mishap in the Earth's atmosphere would cause radioactive material to rain down, uncontrolled, over populations in the United States and possibly other countries. In addition, the crew runs the risk of radiation poisoning from a large amount of radioactive cargo. And, the shuttle itself is at risk. The shuttle was designed to be a reusable vehicle, and contaminating it with radioactive material would make it impossible or very expensive to reuse.
The University of Texas at Austin has conducted studies of nuclear fission-fusion hybrid plants that could effectively manage and destroy nuclear waste. The process consists of processing the waste in light water reactors (LWRs) that apply detoxifying affects to most of the waste. What you have left is sludge; highly radiotoxic, transuranic, long-lived waste. This material is more difficult to dispose of because it needs to be burned at more than a million degrees Celsius in order for it to become safe enough for permanent storage. (Clippard) Though scientists agree on the theory, they are only now creating modeled simulations of the technology and have not yet begun to seek funding to build a prototype. Meanwhile, radioactive waste accumulates.
Even when used as a source of power as well as a disposal method, the estimated cost of fission-fusion hybrid plants is high. "The top-down approach used an estimated $200M factory cost with an annual budget of $21M for salaries and $70M utilities and maintenance…" (MeierII.C) To be clear, that's $200 million dollars to build one plant, $21 million dollars per year in salaries to run and manage a single plant, and $70 million per year to maintain the plant. Scientists have estimated that 50 plants would be needed to process the waste generated to meet America's energy needs. That's a $10 billion start up cost. Even though the hazardous waste output of these plants is significantly smaller than today's nuclear generators, a hundred years of waste that has been burned or utilized to the point of uselessness would still be hazardous. The waste would still need to be stored in a facility similar to that of Yucca Mountain, (MeierII.F) or a facility like WIPP for a thousand to a million years.
If we are going to move away from poisoning our Earth, and ultimately ourselves, we need to develop technologies that are clean from cradle to grave and don't leave us with toxic substances to deal with. Until that happens, nuclear power and radioactive waste will continue to be a reality. But, there's a better solution for disposal: "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace, where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees." (They) Sending radioactive waste to the Sun so that it can't pollute our earth and ground water is a similar option that is cheaper than all proposed solutions and safer. The Sun's intense heat would apply the same destructive principles to the radioactive waste that the fusion-fission hybrid plants would apply, plus the sun is a free and more reliable a heat source. It is so immense that the additional mass of the radioactive waste would have almost no impact on it. The temperature of the Sun's corona is approximately 2 million Kelvin. A solar flare, which might intercept the cargo, is approximately 1 million Kelvin, which is still hot enough to render the waste harmless. (C'Cora)
Until recently, shooting radioactive waste into the sun was a science fiction fantasy at best. The time has come where alternate, safer technologies are being developed that can seriously be considered as methods to safely launch and propel radioactive waste to the center of our solar system. The October 2009 Space Elevator Games proved that space elevator technology is plausible. For a $900,000 prize, team LaserMotive power-beamed a vehicle up 4,500 feet of cable at a rate of two to four meters per second. (Crazy) In the future, functioning space elevators will consist of a ribbon and two anchors; one on Earth and one in space. The space anchor will stay in geosynchronous orbit. One end of the ribbon will be attached to the space anchor, and the other end of the ribbon will be attached to the Earth anchor. Travelling at the same rate of speed as the Earth, the geosynchronous anchor will keep the ribbon taut. Vehicles will travel up and down the ribbon. The ribbon will support vehicles that weigh up to 20 tons. A station on the ground near the Earth anchor will beam a laser to the vehicles for power. The vehicle will convert the laser energy to electrical power and use it to lift itself and its cargo into space. (Edwards) Radioactive waste can be lifted into space using this method. Radioactive waste can be securely packaged and mounted to a vehicle. The vehicle stays in constant contact with the ribbon. This security eliminates the risk of having an uncontrolled trajectory of a hazardous material. If the elevator malfunctions, the vehicle and waste simply slide back down the ribbon to their starting point. Because no combustible material is used to counter Earth's gravity, the risk of an explosion or incineration is eliminated. This also eliminates the risk of radioactive waste turning into uncontrollable fallout.
Not only are they safer, but space elevators are a significantly less expensive option for getting cargo into space and for overall disposal costs. Using conventional methods, like the space shuttle, launching two tons of radioactive waste into low Earth orbit would cost $20 million. That doesn't include the cost to propel it to the Sun. Space elevators will reduce the cost of getting vehicles and people to orbit "by a factor of 1000" (Kaku). Two tons of radioactive cargo launched into space by a space elevator would cost approximately $20,000. That's a number that could fit nicely into even the most frugal budget. Not only could the space elevator break Earth's gravity to get an object into orbit, it could also act as a sling. (Edwards, Bradley93) Timed properly, a cargo of radioactive waste could be launched from a space elevator and slung into a trajectory toward the sun using centrifugal force. Only minor course correction would be needed to steer the cargo to its solar destination. And, nobody would need to assist it.
Advances in robotics would further reduce cost and eliminate the need for any human to propel hazardous, radioactive material through space toward the Sun. We already have unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), like Global Hawk, that can take-off, perform a mission, and land without any human intervention. (Loochkartt) The same autonomous means could be applied to a radioactive waste disposal mission. Using the existing, proven navigational technology applied to UAVs, vehicles travelling through the solar system to the Sun could make necessary course corrections and navigate the radioactive cargo through space all by themselves. By eliminating the need for a crew and constant monitoring, you not only preserve human health and safety, but you also reduce overall mission cost. The only human involvement required after launch would be course correction verification, and, if needed, intervention.
Getting the waste to the space elevator location is a potential problem that will have to be overcome in order for this theory to work. Space elevators need to be located along the equator or within 20 degrees of it (Edwards). Further north or south of the 20 degree mark places the elevator at an unusable angle. To anchor a space elevator to the Earth, Countries along the equator would have to allow anchor sites to be built on their land. It is likely that these countries would find it unfavorable to have hazardous materials routinely trucked across their lands, so anchoring a space elevator within someone's country for the purpose of radioactive waste disposal is probably not a good solution. Even if the country allowed the waste in, a fee or tariff would likely be applied to each trip, making multiple trips across their land cost prohibitive. A neutral location would have to be found, and luckily, planned locations for the world's first space elevators could provide this. The most popular location suggested for the first space elevator is the international waters of our oceans. In his book The Space Elevator, Doctor Bradley Edwards suggests that a floating platform off the coast of Ecuador is the best and most likely location for the first space elevator. He cites many advantages to having a maneuverable platform as the Earth anchor for a space elevator. A maneuverable platform would allow cargo to be loaded by land or far off into the ocean away from land and people. The platform could be moved into international waters and cargo ships could dock to it. It is also easier to ship large or dangerous cargo by sea than over land. Radioactive or hazardous waste could then be offloaded and then mounted to the space elevator vehicle. This eliminates the need to transport the radioactive waste across land and into countries who might not appreciate it. Positioning the space elevator in the ocean has an additional advantage. Should the space elevator's ribbon break, the segments any payloads would fall into the ocean instead of on land in anyone's country. (Edwards, Bradley) This significantly reduces the risk of hazardous waste container breakage and increases the likelihood that the cargo can be retrieved and refitted for transport into space. Refurbished oil rigs make ideal platforms or anchors for space elevators. In addition to being maneuverable, they are a proven technology. Acquisition and refurbishment would cost less than $100 million. (Edwards, Bradley89)
Another advantage of having the space elevator anchored in international waters is that all nuclear powers could ship their radioactive waste there, and the shipment and receipt of the cargo could be regulated. All countries have the right to operate in international waters. The waters off the coast of Ecuador are accessible to all known nuclear powers through normal shipping routes. Resolutions have already been made by the United Nations concerning the international transportation and disposal of nuclear and hazardous waste. With the space elevator located in international waters, the UN could monitor the disposal activity for the good of all nations and people. Under the Waste Disposal Covenant, countries are already obligated gain the consent of other nations prior to transporting hazardous waste through their domains. (GTT) Though this is invalid for international waters, it still applies if the hazardous waste has to pass through another nation's water space. There is a likely chance that this would occur. The Covenant already declares that only a certified entity can transfer the waste, and is right to charge for its services. This declaration makes the transportation entity accountable, and safety increases with accountability.
The ideal energy solution is to have a source that is clean from beginning to end. Solar and wind power currently provide the clean energy hope for our future. Until these technologies are fully realized, nuclear power is the best option because of its low carbon emissions; it contributes significantly less to global warming than burning of fuels. Until nuclear power is no longer a necessity, its waste, which is highly toxic, needs to be disposed of in a safe manner. Burying or otherwise housing radioactive waste is an unviable solution; there is significant risk that improper storage or an unplanned accident can cause harm to populations from irradiated water, earth, and food stores. And, even though it is a very safe technology, when a nuclear power plant has a malfunction, the results can be significantly more disastrous than fuel burning methods of energy generation. Until the day we can turn nuclear power plants off for good, and disassemble them, we need to get the waste as far from human populations as possible, and destroy it. Slinging nuclear waste into our solar system's nuclear reactor, the Sun, is the most inexpensive and safest solution. And, very soon, space elevators will be able to accomplish this.
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