Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Toxic waste

What a problem. What do we do with it? The dreams of the 1950’s whereby we envisioned a society run with cheap and abundant fuel has somewhat been tarnished by Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Susquehanna River accident [1979], the Chernobyl accident [1986], and the waste byproducts of nuclear fission. We want the ability to gain energy but don't want or know how to properly handle the waste products. Plus, there is the additional waste from nuclear medicine and industry. This has been an ongoing debate involving not only science but politics and the safety of societies. We haven't the technology to neutralize radioactive waste, fearful of shipping the waste into space--so the best thing is to bury it somewhere and wait. Does anyone have any other ideas? Do we need nuclear reactors? And like with all technologies side effects do happen. I am amused at the advertisements on television and in print that offer a pill that will give symptomatic relief from an ailment and discover that the side effects are worse than the ailment. Cancer chemotherapy has made great strides in reducing side effects from treatment. But the nuclear issue is a tough one. Digging a hole is impractical. I don't even know what the physics would be under those conditions. Sending the waste to the sun is extremely risky--just getting it off the planet is a problem. And I don't think a class of mutant turtles would work either or the denizens of Springfield’s river --pizza rules for Donatello, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Raphael. Nuclear power is still a good option. A change over from fission to fusion. A total dependency on nuclear resources would really imbalance the global economics. It is best not to places all of one’s eggs in one basket--spread out the energy sources. I suppose we are doing the best we can with spent nuclear fuel. Bury it, forget it...until we glow in the dark. Industrial toxic waste is a different story for much of it can be filtered, treated, neutralized, recycled. We occupy the Earth and are having a tough time keeping it ecologically clean.

“Spent fuel accounts for the majority of U. S. highlevel nuclear waste. (Nuclear weapons facilities also contribute to the total.) As of 1997, about 70 power plants across the nation stored 35,000 metric tons of spent fuel. Increasing by about 2,000 metric tons per year, total highlevel waste will reach at least 60,000 metric tons by 2010, and 80,000 metric tons by 2020.”

Fossil fuels:

The history of the chemistry of cracking crude petroleum into kerosene, gasoline, etc. is fascinating and was introduced through the combustion engine ca. 1890’s [yes, the automobile] and that promoted the distillation of gasoline. Nevertheless, the early gasolines were poor in performance and huge polluters and improvements of a higher octane gasoline [introduction of tetra ethyl lead gasoline] didn't help matters a whole lot either except in engine performance. I suppose that the byproducts of the combustion engine can be stretched to fall into the realm of toxic materials and ranked with the farm cows emitting large quantities of methane, but the largest culprits are those of industry and energy production. Contamination can be severe and insidious such as a recent warning regarding methylated mercury in tuna. Benign science created the toxins and those using the services and technologies of science to create amenities and improve the human condition must assume the responsibility for wise management: Production, distribution, and eventual control of many products. Simply sticking it in the ground is the “Band Aid” approach and is extremely shortsighted. However, in defense of short term solutions, man is limited in the knowledge in the proper neutralization of many toxins. Sometimes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Foresight and correct thinking with the “profit” motive placed in suspension or at least in proper perspective will go a long way in solving the toxic waste issue. For now we are stuck with a lot of nasty stuff.

And biofuels aren't the answer either: Economics of producing one gallon of ethanol does not make economic sense plus it is depleting the food supply and adding to inflation.

Electronic waste:

The electronic industry offers its own form of toxic waste...yes, the good ole PC. What are we going to do with all of the discarded computer products--or any electronic goods? It is not a simple issue and covers the spectrum of environmental hazards, altruism, and software proprietorship, money in recycled parts and elements. Most people simply place the broken or obsolete item on the curb and hope that the trash company will alleviate your worry and pick the items up and absolve your responsibility. It's their problem now. Granted, there are some companies in large urban areas that will accept your goods and attempt to refurbish them for donations or for profit. And then there is the scrap value--some good and some bad. Plastic can be recycled and certainly elements like gold, platinum, copper, tin, antimony, barium, lead, palladium, niobium, tantalum are worth reclaiming. But the industry is small and does include expense and danger. Collection, refurbishing, and the whole gamut of recycling the materials is not that cost effective. The consumer is going to have to pay somewhere along the line. Maybe a built in cost at the time of purchase, a "dumping" fee, or a special tax increase. And, the issue of copyrighted software items that are refurbished may be a legal issue. ARGH, we created these pieces of technology and we must share in the responsibility of their recycling.

I suppose if you owned a "Cray Y-MP C90" supercomputer things would be different. The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center owned this item and were somewhat stuck as what to do with it when it was replaced. The manufacturer said they would haul it off for $27.000--yipes. However, someone at PSC came up with the brilliant idea of putting it on eBay. Well, it sold for $45,100.70 to a retired person [age 47] from Silicon Valley--Steve Blank.

"Pittsburgh Auctions Off Vintage Supercomputer"

References to read:

"Low-Level Radiation: The Effects on Human and Non-Human Life"

"Microbial Fuel Cell: High Yield Hydrogen Source and Wastewater Cleaner"

"Nuclear Waste Disposal"

"Promising new materials for better nuclear waste storage"

“Protecting the Land”

"Radioactivity speeds up"

"The Effects of Low Level Radiation"

"War of words over waste"

"Waste Management"

No comments: