Jul 24, 2007
Waylon Smithers, Jr.
The Dulce Herald
July 24, 2007
Los Alamos — New Mexico's swimming pools are the perfect sites to store spent nuclear reactor fuel rods, the U.S. Department of Energy said.
The Energy Department completed an environmental study last month of options to deal with the fuel rods. The rod program will increase citizen awareness of how various radioactive wastes should be handled.
Other options the agency studied included the use of the Ashley pond in Los Alamos, DOE project chief Charles M. Burns said Monday.
Currently high-level waste, like spent nuclear reactor fuel rods, must be stored. That's where New Mexico's pools come in. DOE's Nuclear Pool Project (NPP) will provide storage for spent fuel rods awaiting the eventual opening of Yucca Mountain or shipment to WIPP.
NPP is a temporary solution to the storage problem, Mr. Burns said. "A main objection to nuclear power is the waste material, largely the spent fuel rods, that are periodically removed from reactors. As manufactured, they are slightly radioactive, modestly enriched uranium in a metal coating. After generating energy in a reactor, they become "hot" - both radioactively and physically, due to the various fission products and isotopes they now contain. They remain this way for many years, and are considered "waste" because there's such a bulk of these dangerous artifacts. They are typically stored in pools of water at the reactor facility."
Mr. Burns says NPP will put these fuel rods to good use. First, the project eliminates the danger of bulk storage by dispersing them. There are literally thousands of suburban swimming pools in the Los Alamos/Santa Fe area. These pools require heating to a greater or lesser extent.
The highly radioactive fuel rods are protected by glass with a very high lead concentration which shields against much of the radiation - alpha, beta, and gamma. Suspended in the center of the glass encapsulation in an empty channel so that cooling water can flow around it, the fuel rods are installed as pool heaters.
According to Burns the rods have a blue glow that surrounds them caused by Cerenkov radiation, the shockwave caused by particles traveling faster than light in the water when they enter it. "Because we are encapsulating the fuel rods in lead glass, this lovely nimbus can impart an enchantment to the pool ambience if the "heater" is installed in the bottom or side of the pool rather than on an external concrete slab as is often done."
Because the environment between the fuel rod and the lead glass shield is highly radioactive, circulating the pool water in this area will kill any bacteria, so little or no chlorine or ozone will have to be added to the pool.
"Homeowners whose pools are selected for the NPP will not have to reimburse DOE for their pool's heating, lighting or sterilization." said Burns. "Unlike solar pool heaters, fuel rods emit energy continuously. Unlike propane or electric pool heaters, no expensive and scarce hydrocarbons are burned, hence this doesn't add to the anthropogenic CO2 burden in the atmosphere. The pool will remain warm at night as well as day, at no incremental cost for heating. Its a win-win solution to this storage problem!"
Those selected to receive an NPP fuel rod for their pool were mailed notifications late last week. Homeowners have 90 days to appeal their selection as an NPP site, but no appeals are expected. According to Mr. Burns, "The only complaints we expect are from those who were not selected to receive a rod. We are looking at selling lottery tickets for the pool heaters in the future."
Pool water has a high neutron absorption cross section so neutrons from the fuel rod will harmlessly convert a tiny proportion of the hydrogen atoms that pass through the nuclear heater to deuterium. Due to proliferation concerns, separation and resale by the homeowners is not permitted Burns said.
[Yes, this article is satire. Please don't call DOE looking for Mr. Burns.]