Acton Institute Powerblog

The Problem of Nuclear Power Proliferation

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In today’s Acton Commentary, I examine the overtures President Obama has been making lately to usher in “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” I call for in part a “level playing field” for nuclear energy, which includes neither direct subsidy from the government nor bureaucratic obfuscation. The key to the latter point is to avoid the kind of breathless concern over the countries involved in the manufacture of the components for elements of the stations.

The playing field now is rather complex, of course, given the comprehensive system of tax breaks, incentives, and other subsidies that makeup today’s energy policy. In making this call I echo to some extent the complaint of Ralph Nader, although I’m much more sanguine about the ability of nuclear power to compete in a “free market” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Planet Gore’s Chris Horner calls Obama’s recent moves on nuclear energy contradictory and “flat-out dishonest.” Horner links to a couple of other important pieces that outline some of the economic distress potentially caused by clean energy legislation, as well as the official announcement of new guaranteed funds for nuclear power projects.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) points toward complicating factors beyond the availability of federal funds. I address the concern of regulatory “bottlenecks” in the commentary piece, but I pass by the concerns over nuclear waste disposal.

Apart from recycling possibilities, which is of course a special concern for fissile material, how might we be able to safely dispose of the waste from this “new generation” of nuclear power plants? I’m talking here about the 4% or so that can’t be productively repurposed.

For a long time I’ve thought that an extraterrestrial solution might be ideal, given the political problems surrounding terrestrial storage (as in the case of Yucca Mountain), although in practice finding the technology to safely accomplish some kind of outer space disposal is more difficult. Space elevators might work. Storing material on the moon afterward might be an option, although in lieu of a lunar solution perhaps a solar solution might work. Although volcanoes aren’t hot enough to break down radioactive material, the sun would be.

So maybe we could develop and apply the technology to shoot nuclear waste into space on a trajectory that would draw it into the sun, or failing that, into a path that would not run back into us on the way around or interfere with future intra-system travel. Why not use “a cannon for shooting things into space” to dispose of nuclear waste?

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill
How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill

Any disposal site or method, especially one that included the transport of material into space, would need to be virtually immune from the kind of attack that destroys The Machine in the film Contact.

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • why not re-invest in reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel. Considering the United States invented the technology. While I looked into the history of nuclear waste in the U.S. I was startled by the choices made by previous administrations to halt the reprocessing plans that had been established.

    Also thanks for referencing my article yesterday.

  • Jordan,

    The title, “The Problem of Nuclear Power Proliferation”, is misleading and misrepesentative. There is NO problem. If all the energy you consume in a life time were in the form of uranium, it would end up being the size of a 12 oz soda can. But instead when you use fossil fuel, you dump your refuse into the air and water willy nilly without a second thought about the consequences of using the environment for your cesspool. Each human generates hundreds of tons of fossil fuel waste during a life time that never ever decays away. Why is that better than a soda can of radioactive waste that decays away in 600 years?

    Oh, now let’s talk about proliferation: light water reactor fuel and its by-products cannot be used for weapons. Physics prevents it. There’s too much Pu-240 mixed in with the Pu-239 to make it useful bomb material. And the U-235 is enriched to only 5% or so whereas +90% is required for a bomb. Even in commercial fast breeders and burners, there’s too much Pu-240 to make th fuel useful as bomb material. So when you use the title “proliferation”, you’re being misrepresentative.

    Read Dr. Cohen’s article Understanding the Toxicity of Buried Radioactive Waste and Its Impacts at:

    Read his book “The Nuclear Energy Option” at:

    Using fast neutron burners gets rid of all the long lived actinides in spent fuel. What’s left over decays in 600 years. That’s easily resolvable by geologic repository.

    Exactly how long do you think all that coal ash and the radioactive uranium and thorium within it is going to be around if we don’t use nuclear energy? A lot longer than 600 years.

    One last thing: read Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger by Alex Gabbard at:

    By the way, the total net radiactivity in Earth reamins the same whether we use it or not. By using it we convert low level, long lived radioactivity to short lived, high level radioactivity. This is a concept lost on most people.

  • For information on nuclear waste (I prefer the term spent nuclear fuel because it can be re-used), go to:

    Integrated Used Fuel Management

    Storage of Used Nuclear Fuel

    Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel

    Common Myths: Is Nuclear Waste a Huge Problem?

    Nuclear Fuel Recycling: Getting Down to Business

    Opposition to Reprocessing: Are the Reports Always True?

    Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel

    By the way, Dr. Carlo Rubbia proposed some time ago the use an an Energy Amplifier – a proton beam, neutron spallation process – that would burn up spent nuclear fuel. See:

  • Folks,

    Regarding the misnomer “proliferation” in the title of this blogsite, please read “Why You Can’t Build a Bomb From Spent Fuel” at:

  • Folks,

    For more information on nuclear wastes, please read the sub-links at:

  • And Folks,

    Here is my favorite way of eliminating the problem of nuclear wastes: the Carlo Rubbia Energy Amplifier:

  • Folks,

    I have a case of the stupids today. I work with the guy who has designed an advanced reactor for eliminating the reactor waste problem. His name in Dr. Eric Loewen and the reactor is called the GE-Hitachi PRISM.

    Here is a training slide show he made up for the American Nuclear Society (of which he’s President):

    And here’s a nice little description of the same:

    Boy oh boy, how could I forget about Eric!

  • Folks,

    I forgot about Oklo’s Natural Fission Reactors. From the American Nuclear Society:

    More than 1.5 billion years ago (that’s more than 1,500 million years) a nuclear fission reaction took place in an underground uranium deposit in Oklo, Gabon, Africa. The fission reaction continued – off and on – for hundreds of thousands of years. Eventually, the reactor shut down.

    While it was active, the natural reactor generated fission products (wastes) very similar to those produced when fission occurs in modern nuclear reactors at power plants.

    When evidence of the Oklo reactor was discovered in 1972, the fission products had been lying in Mother Nature’s repository for about a billion years (that’s 1,000 million years). In fact, it was studies of the fission products found in the uranium mine which showed that a natural reactor had operated there.

    The Oklo reactor provided an interesting natural analog for waste management. Studying what happened to the fission products in the reactor has provided valuable insight into the requirements for a long-term waste repository.


    Imagine that: naturally occurring uranium in Okla, Africa underwent spontaneous fission lasting a million years or longer. Please read more at:

    We don’t have a nuclear waste problem. We have a moral waste problem. Just turn on the TV and you’ll see that.

  • The title you call misleading and misrepresentative I call provocative and accurate. We’re talking about the consolidation and “a rapid increase in number” (i.e. “proliferation”) of nuclear power plants.

    Perhaps I’m not using “proliferation” in the standard or expected sense with regard to nuclear weapons…but that too is a kind of rhetorical form; in this case intended to provoke the reader to read more rather than to mislead or misrepresent. I regret if you were unable to get beyond the post’s title.

  • Jordan,

    that’s OK – maybe I got a little carried away with myself. I apologize. But many people who read “proliferation” in context with “nuclear” think weapons. These reactors cannot be made weapons – not physically possible. But we all know that.

    So I apologize.

  • Folks,

    I guess I am belaboring the point again, but the International Nuclear Societies Council has an excellent 64 page paper on “Current Issues in Nuclear Energy: Nuclear Power and the Environment”:

    Table 2 gives “Toxic Constituents in Coal and Annual Emissions from a Coal Fired Power Plant” on PDF pages 12.

    Section 4 starting at PDF page 25 discusses the “Environmental Advanatges of Nuclear Power”. Look at the thousands of tons of emissions per year from a coal fired power plant a 1300 MWe nuclear power plant avoids.

    Look at Table 6 on PDF pages 31 and 32 to compare fuel, land and transport requirements between coal and nuclear.

    Tables A.2 and A.3 on PDF page 50 give “Savings from Using Nuclear Power” and “Reduction in CO2 Emissions” respectively. Table A.4 on PDF page 51 gives “Reduction of SO2 and NOx Emissions”. Note the thousands of tons per year of waste that fossil fuel dumps willy-nilly to the environment whereas in nuclear energy we have to sequester all our own wastes from the envionment up front.

    Towards this end, Appendix B beginning on PDF page 55 provides a good summary of the “Environment Impacts of Electricity Production.” Guess who wins?

    Again, the spent nuclear fuel from 30+ years of operation of a 900 MWe boiling water reactor I had worked would all sit comfortable in 12 steel and concrete canisters out on a concrete slab beside the reactor building. Even if a jet aircraft hit the area full throttle, while the canisters would be overturned, steel and concrete canisters would remained unbreached with no radioactive leakage. Now imagine all those oil, gasoline and natural gas tanks off I-95 in New Jersey outside of NYC. What happens when the same jet hits them? Answer – no more Trenton and no more NYC as the explosions propagate from one set of tanks to the next.

  • Ken Day

    The source of energy, and the quantity of energy supplied, should occur in an open and free market. You words Jordan of “I call for in part a “level playing field” for nuclear energy, which includes neither direct subsidy from the government nor bureaucratic obfuscation “, is spot on. I feel that Government should not excessively tax the industry. It should not excessively regulate it either. Policies should be the same as with other energy sources.

    Our country of Australia ia big place. We also export a lot of uranium. We have a lot of uninhabited land out here, and I understand its pretty stable. Australia could become a big player in the field of safe storage for waste. After all, if we sell it, we should also be prepared to store it for others.

    I think about 20% of the worlds electricy is now nuclear generated. We have come a long way in recent years to improve safety, have less waste, and generate more power from a smaller amount of uranium. Nuclear power is an obviuos option today.

    Let’s never forget ” for there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3: 22-23. I mention this in this nuclear debate, because whatever we do, we must never underestimate the power of human sin. As humans we have the power to achieve, to help, acquire, and invent. But we also have the power to deceive, to to be greedy, and to be full of our self.

    We pray for the Lord’s wisdom, and a righteous heart, for ” it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come. ” Mark 7:21.


  • Ken Day is 100% correct:

    “You words Jordan of ‘I call for in part a “level playing field’ for nuclear energy, which includes neither direct subsidy from the government nor bureaucratic obfuscation “, is spot on. I feel that Government should not excessively tax the industry. It should not excessively regulate it either. Policies should be the same as with other energy sources.”

    If coal, oil and natural gas had to sequester all their wastes from the environment as nuclear does, then coal, oil and natural gas would never be economical to operate. And yes, fossil fuel pollution even more deadly than spent nuclear fuel. 30000 die annually from particulate emissions from coal fired power plants in the US. The mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals dumped willy nilly into the ground from fly ash disposal never ever decays away.

    Indeed, if the radioactive emissions from coal fired power plants were held to the same standards as nukes, not a single coal plant in the US would be running.

    And if govt susbsidies for energy were cut off, solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, etc., would all die as uneconomical.

  • BTW, folks, one of the managers at my place of work sent out this morning the following web link on the GE PRISM reactor and the GE-Hitachi Advanced Recycling Center which can consume the long lived actinides in spent nuclear fuel while extracting unused uranium for CANDU reactors:

    GE’s Answer to Nuclear Waste

    GE-Hitachi Advanced Recycling Center

  • There is a large difference between a subsidy and a guarantee for nuclear power. The latter insures the builders for their costs if the government changes regulations that increase the cost of a plant after it has received regulatory approval. It isolates the builder from politics.

    The short term problem of waste disposal is a political problem, not an engineering problem. For the long term I’d suggest a nuclear design that produces much less radioactive waste than the uranium oxide reactors now online. You might want to consider a design called LFTR.

    I think space disposal is a bad idea. The last thing I’d want to do is put nuclear fuel on a huge stack of explosives called a rocket. Space elevators require materials that are orders of magnitude stronger and lighter than those we’ve built to date. If you want to remove radioactivity from the biosphere then you want to put fuels into a reactor and burn them up.

    • Rob, I agree that creating a de facto nuclear missile (nuclear fuel on a huge stack of explosives called a rocket) is not wise. That’s why I was trying to think of other seemingly safer options for putting waste into space. Why not the space cannon?

      I heard an anecdote about a possible new nuclear reactor that said that all the funding and regulatory approval was in place, but that they couldn’t move ahead with building the plant because they didn’t have enough skilled welders, so the project never happened. Have you heard anything like this?

      • I don’t think that report is accurate. There is a shortage of large forge capacity to make pressure vessels for PWR/BWR reactors. That constraint does not impact LFTRs.

  • Fast flux reactors can consume nuclear waste as fuel. That is true. Fast flux reactors are a difficult reactor to operate safely. Engineers design a core so taht any failure make the core LESS reactive. That is hard to do with fast reactors. Fast reactors also require a great deal of fuel at startup. Said another way, fast cores are HUGE.