Gene Balsmeier describes his varied and long career in nuclear energy, his time working at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), and nuclear’s role moving forward in the energy industry.
[00:00:00] Gene Balsmeier: When you talk about it, you don’t have to achieve safety through bureaucracy. And we have over the decades, I I call it risk aversion, right?
We are not willing to accept even minor accidents, which drives the cost of our business to a level that’s far more significant than what other industries, which are more hazardous, are doing to keep their program and their processes safe.
[00:00:25] Mark Hinaman: But how do you answer the question of, well, we’re still burying it thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth?
[00:00:31] Gene Balsmeier: Well, you, you don’t have to put it a thousand feet beneath the earth.
[00:00:35] Mark Hinaman: I love that answer. I love that answer.
[00:00:38] Gene Balsmeier: Let me, let me tell you for example right now the nuclear fuel out of all of our submarines, the expended nuclear fuel is setting above ground out on the Idaho Desert in a metal shed for the purposes of this discussion. No significant safeguards or you know, HEPA filtered ventilation. I can’t even remember if it’s temperature controlled or not. But, you can go maintain the metal buildings that we put ’em in.
Of course, those buildings are designed to withstand the high winds of Idaho, the occasional earthquake, those type of things. But for all intents and purposes, the structures that the fuel are put into can set there for 10 more million years. And it’s a very small workforce. It’s a very small footprint.
“There is not a significant problem that the planet faces today that can’t be solved with nuclear energy.” You need water. Build a reactor. You need electricity. Build a reactor. It’s clean. It’s safe, it’s minimally impactful. You want to deal with the hunger and the starvation that goes on all over the world. You want to deal with only one in six people on this planet have access to really clean. Build a reactor.
[00:02:04] Intro: Just because the facts are A, if the narrative is B and everyone believes the narrative, then B is what matters. But it’s our job in our industry to speak up proudly Soberly. And to engage people in this dialogue, those two and a half billion people that are on energy poverty, they need us. America cannot meet this threat alone.
If there is a single country, of course, the world cannot meet it without America that is willing to, we’re gonna need you the next generation to finish the job. Nuclear regulations, we need scientists to design new fuels, focus on net public benefits. We need engineers to invent new technologies for over absurd levels of radiation production entrepreneurs to sell those technologies.
And we’ll march towards this. We need workers to. With High Tech Zero Prosperity Football, diplomats, businessmen, and women and Peace Corps volunteers to help developing nations skip the development transition sources of, in other words, we need you.
[00:03:08] Mark Hinaman: Okay. Welcome to another episode of the Fire2Fission Podcast, where we talk about energy dense fuels and how they can better human lives. You’ve got awesome guest today. His name is Gene Balsmeier. He is a partially retired ex- nuclear professional. He’s had a long career in the nuclear industry and we’re super excited to, to chat with him.
How you doing Gene?
[00:03:28] Gene Balsmeier: I’m doing great. Appreciate the opportunity to visit with you today.
[00:03:32] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So, Jean, real quick, why don’t you go ahead and give us a kind of a 30 second self introduction about you and your background. I know you’ve had a long history, but brief us quickly on, on why we wanna talk to you.
I know that you were referred to us as an expert from one of our mentors, but why don’t you just give us kind of a quick overview.
[00:03:50] Gene Balsmeier: Certainly expert might be a little bit of a strong word, but uh, so, uh, I was going nowhere in high school uh, decided to join the Navy and see the world and the recruiter.
Uh, What a deal we have for you. You did well enough. You can be in the nuclear power program. So I, I joined Rickover’s nuclear Navy right out of high school, 1971. I entered Navy Bootcamp. Basically went through the training pipeline. Machinist made school, nuclear power school in Vallejo, California, prototype training up here in Idaho.
And then to my first submarine in Hawaii. Did tours on three submarines a number of shore duties. Mid-career, I got a commission. Spent the second half of my career in the Navy working at the nuclear shipyards doing overhaul testing, new construction of the nuclear ships and submarines.
Retired from the Navy in 94. Went to work for the Department of Energy and worked at various nuclear facilities. Well actually I had a very short stint with the Department of Energy as a Fed and did not find that very satisfying. So I went to work on the contractor side in the Department of Energy World.
First job was at the advanced test reactor out here in Idaho. And have been at several facilities from the advanced test reactor to the Radioactive Waste Management Complex over to the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit. Spent almost three years down at the WIPP facility where we do deep disposal of waste from the nuclear weapons program.
And then basically I’ve been trying to retire since 2019. On occasion get called back to do a little bit of consulting work.
[00:05:28] Mark Hinaman: Well, that’s what, what a whirlwind explanation of I I think by looking at your LinkedIn, it was almost 50 years of experience, and I think you just covered most of it in summary in, in like 60 seconds.
So, well, well done. I, I’d like to kind of walk through each of those and you know, the, the nuclear navy bRickovers, nuclear navy. Let’s start there. What was the, what was that like? Did you enjoy it? Did they, was it, don’t oversell on their part?
[00:05:55] Gene Balsmeier: No, I thought it was, uh uh, well, I still to this day think it is one of the, I’ll say premier technical programs in the world.
Yeah. I imagine now Rickover, he didn’t just send his college educated engineers through a lot of intensive training. He required everyone a, I came in as an enlisted boy, and went through a program, not college-based physics, but it was still physics, Chemistry uh, strength and materials.
Heat transfer and fluid flow. Radiological controls, water chemist, secondary water chemistry, primary water chemistry. So Rickoverhead, the standard. Imagine him taking a an 18 year old graduating from high school. Four from the bottom of his class. 270 outta 274. Just barely got outta high school and.
He, he embedded in the minds of those of us that went through his program, things that we still carry with us today. Yeah. It as a machinist mate, we learned the electrical we learned the nuclear, we learned the reactor physics, and the only criticism I have of the Rickover program is it builds great technocrats but does not invest a lot of time or energy in developing good leaders.
[00:07:14] Mark Hinaman: Mm. Interesting. Do you, do you think that’s changed?
[00:07:18] Gene Balsmeier: No. I had two sons that have worked in that program also, and they’re, they’re still very heavily focused on the technical aspects. Yeah. Rightfully so. Nuclear energy is a Like so many others. I call it a high hazard industry, and it requires demands, discipline, rigor, and everything that you do.
But a lot of folks didn’t like the Rickover program. It was it was tough, it was disciplined and not very forgiving. From the perspective that Rickover didn’t care who you were, where you came from, the color of your skin what religion you were, he just demanded that you follow his processes, learn his material, and operate his reactors safely.
I don’t think there’s another organization on the planet that has a safety record like the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.
[00:08:12] Mark Hinaman: Kind of speaks well to a lot of the equality and inclusion themes that you see in society nowadays. That he, he kind of lived those themes before they were popular in mainstream, right.
[00:08:24] Gene Balsmeier: Oh, he did. He was, he was a, a man of vision when everybody else was dumping their radioactive effluent into soil columns. He was taking the primary coolant, reprocessing it and reusing it, putting it back into ships and submarines rather than you know, dumping it in the ocean.
[00:08:40] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, and being in the Navy, you talked about an excellent technical program, but uh, everyone has to be good in that environment, right?
Because it’s you’re, you’re underwater on this vessel that if it breaks all you’ve got, Yourselves to count on,
[00:08:55] Gene Balsmeier: right? Well, yourself and your teammates. And the, the, the training was demanding and of course, you had those milestones. You show up on the boat and the first thing you’re given is a qualification card to learn your first watch station and be able to stand watch on that watch station.
And the folks in the engineering department, they. Tough on you. They expect you to know your job. And when you’re on a submarine and something happens it hits the fan. You’ve got to be able to rely on not only the equipment, but the people operating the equipment to make sure that the submarine recovers and gets to where it needs to be.
[00:09:38] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, absolutely. So remind us again, how long were you in?
[00:09:43] Gene Balsmeier: I spent precisely 22 and a half years. I’d just say 23 years in the Navy program.
[00:09:50] Mark Hinaman: Okay. Excellent. And so you got out in the mid nineties? I did. And then went, went to work for DOE.
[00:09:56] Gene Balsmeier: I worked for the DOE. I was looking around and there were several opportunities.
So I started as a radiological assessor out here working for DOE headquarters. Basically overseeing radiological work at the Idaho National Lab out here. And after about 18 months it, it just wasn’t very satisfying and I. Had networked and made contacts with folks on the contractor side and was invited to apply for a position at the advanced test reactor here in Idaho.
And my first position on the contractor side was the environmental safety and health manager, which included environmental safety, health quality, and the radiological controls organiz.
[00:10:43] Mark Hinaman: Okay. And how, how long do you do that?
[00:10:46] Gene Balsmeier: I did that for, it was about four years, and then I went down to the radioactive waste management complex.
That’s where we at that time had, were disposing of radioactive waste, non-trans at that time, non-trans radioactive waste. At R W M C and I spent about a year there and then the contract changed and the contractor that I was with invited me to go down to Rocky Flats. So I spent a year cleaning up Rocky Flats and enjoyed that.
[00:11:20] Mark Hinaman: Excellent.
Yeah. Some of our listeners may not be familiar with kind of all these projects than kind of Idaho National Labs, so I’ll ask maybe some more basic questions about some of ’em. But the, the advanced test reactor project, what, what was that focused on and what were you guys trying to accomplish?
[00:11:34] Gene Balsmeier: The advanced test reactor was a really high neutron dense reactor. It was low temperature relatively low pressure. I called it a time machine. Basically, they did I’ll say the large majority of the work that they did, they did for the naval nuclear program, and they would test different materials in a reactor environment.
Give you an example of the, the work and the advancement in, in what we do. When Rickover built his first submarine, you were changing reactor cores, changing the fuel tanks, so to speak, about every nine to 12 months. And through the work that they’ve done at the advanced test reactor, they will now install a reactor core in one of the submarines and it’ll last the lifetime of the submarine 33 years.
[00:12:23] Mark Hinaman: Wow, that’s a hell of, and that’s the actual, yeah. Right. Am I interpreting this correctly? Meaning that that would be the actual metallic or steel component that’s casing the nuclear material used to have to be replaced annually and then through advancements in materials, it’s, yeah. Could be replaced much less frequently.
[00:12:43] Gene Balsmeier: Yeah, so the reactor core package basically was designed to be replaced, and then it, it goes inside the high pressure vessel, the reactor vessel which contains the high temperature and high pressure operating environment that creates the heat, which creates the steam, which then creates, uh, Energy that you need to turn the screw or the propeller on the submarine or the surface ship.
Yeah. Amazing technology and amazing advancements.
[00:13:11] Mark Hinaman: So the test reactor then was am I thinking about this correctly? It would be a facility that you could irradiate materials with and, and test the materials to see how they behave when you expose them to high levels of radi.
[00:13:25] Gene Balsmeier: Absolutely all types of different materials from metallurgical, mostly metallurgical type irradiation that we would do.
And we would then take those experiments and put ’em in a an NR cask, a naval reactors cask, ship them down to the Naval reactors facility, where they would then take the test material, they would bring them from their, their their water pools into their hot cells. Disassemble those tests cut them open, inspect them microscopically electron microscope type investigations to see what the the effect of the reactor environment.
The neutron flux was on the various metals and materials that they would test.
[00:14:05] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. And then take it back and redesign ’em and make ’em better. Absolutely. Absolutely. Okay. You mentioned waste, and I know you, you know, you’ve focused on radiologic materials and, and waste and disposal throughout a large part of your career, and we’ll, we’ll get into that.
But before we do, I wanna touch on kind of the nrc, the DO OE and from your perspective how these organizations might have changed over time. So, I believe when you started in the Navy the NRC wasn’t even around. It was still the Atomic Energy corpor or commission.
[00:14:36] Gene Balsmeier: Absolutely. So yeah, the AEC what came about in the fifties timeframe and most everything to do with nuclear, whether it was nuclear energy for power production or weapons, was under the Auspices and oversight of the Atomic Energy Commission.
And then in the, now I joined in 71 and somewhere in the mid seventies, 75, 77 timeframe the AEC evolved and we developed basically the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC’s foundational role is to oversee and approve design of commercial nuclear power stations.
And then the Department of Energy fundamentally continues to do, I’ll say, research and development in reactor design and development as well as now oversee with the military, the nuclear weapons program.
[00:15:37] Mark Hinaman: Gotcha. Yeah. And so I, I think the NRC in particular has I’ll say many people in the industry and outside of the industry have been very critical of it for not approving new licenses.
I’m curious if you share that perspective or if you think they’ve or, or perhaps why, why might. Big topic. So
[00:15:58] Gene Balsmeier: that’s a better question is, is why, and I, I, you know, what, what I have observed my experience since, well, 71 and today to today. We become more and more risk averse and we become more and more bureaucratic.
And I, I think that lends itself in a bad way to the long lead times for licensing of of commercial reactors. We were, we’d started four new. AP 1000, I think reactors two at what summer? Two down in Georgia and fi first of all, finding people with the experience to be able to do the work that’s required with the discipline and all the, I’ll say, technical documentation that goes along with it.
We’re all dinosaurs nowadays and building nuclear reactors the way we used to is very time consuming, very expensive and we don’t seem to have the motivation to streamline and improve our processes to where we could go build a commercial reactor now and get it up and running in less than a dozen years or so.
[00:17:16] Mark Hinaman: It’s almost like you need some young WIPPper snappers to come in and shape WIPP you guys into shape.
[00:17:21] Gene Balsmeier: Well, you almost need a Rickover style personality. Yeah. You do. It’s, it’s gotta be that that cult of personality that comes in. And I, again, when you talk about What do you call it? Fire to fission? In the future of nuclear energy, it is, I’ll say one of the single most important aspects of dealing with our warming global climate.
And China was on a path to build, I think over 400. Commercial reactors. My, my son Aaron got to spend three years building AP one thousands over in China. And they were committed. He said and you learn very quickly why you go to any of their metropolitan areas and everybody’s wearing face masks because the pollution is just so significant.
But it’s no small feat to, to build a commercial reactor, a power reactor, right? But. They at that point had the vision, you know, they were like I said, scheduled to build some 400 reactors over the next 40 to 50 years.
[00:18:24] Mark Hinaman: Right. Now, the risk aversion has been in the name of safety or that’s what continuously gets touted.
Do, do you think the culture at the NRC and in the industry has actually made these systems safer and have they needed to be safe?
[00:18:42] Gene Balsmeier: I don’t have much personal experience with the nrc. The limited experience I have with the commercial nuclear industry is the, the goal is to obviously have a facility that can generate relatively inexpensive power and do it safely protecting the worker, the public, and the environment and the work that they’re doing with.
And I’m most familiar with the AP 600, the AP 1000. They were built with new design features that made them inherently safe in the case of a total loss of site power, you know, for up to three or four days. And now the new work that they’re doing with some of the small modular react. Make them even more safe and more stable in the event of those, those one in a million type catastrophes.
You know, the the Fukushima event over in Japan was one of those things that we think will never happen. But then we had the earthquake, we had the tidal wave, and it basically wiped out their emergency diesels and you know, the rest of the.
[00:19:53] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Okay, well, let’s, let’s pivot to the waste conversation.
I think much of the public is still uneducated about. Waste and thinks that it’s a big problem in a glaring black mark in the industry. And our perspective, my perspective is kinda the opposite where I think it’s a big benefit that we contain all the waste. What’s, what’s been number one, your commercial or business experience with waste?
Kind of what kind of roles have you done where you’re perhaps directly involved with it and then Yeah. I, I guess we can just start there.
[00:20:23] Gene Balsmeier: Well, You know, from the commercial aspect we have attempted, again as a country to deal with the waste. Now, the waste in general is I’ll say well controlled, well taken care of.
It’s put in a place that is absolutely very minimally impactful to the environment. And, and the people, the, the public around it. Now a lot of the work that we did when I went down to the Radioactive Waste Management complex for a lot of years, we, the industry.
[00:20:55] Mark Hinaman: What, what, what was this complex?
Yeah, what, what was the goal?
[00:20:58] Gene Balsmeier: So Radioactive Waste Management Complex was nothing more than a uh uh, a waste disposal yard. Where in the early days trucks of low level, low level radioactive waste would be brought into the facility and we would dispose of them in long trenches probably 30 feet deep.
You build, you dig down to just about bedrock. You back, fill it with a foot or two of soil and then you. Typically would place drums all sizes of drums, but predominantly 55 gallon drums that were filled with low level radioactive waste. And then we backfilled it with over with dirt. And for a lot of the waste that’s in at least my opinion, perfectly acceptable.
Anything that the drums will eventually corrode, the low level waste will any of the activity gets well filtered by the the soil column so that nothing reaches. The aquifers or the environment. The concern became when we were disposing of transuranic waste. This is waste from the weapons industries.
That’s a higher level. Yeah. That it’s, it’s there is high level waste, but this is the transuranic family of waste that’s created from the plutonium, the uranium, the extremely long-lived waste.
[00:22:13] Mark Hinaman: So maybe we, we break these down for, for folks. What’s, what’s kind of low level refers to the lower radiation level or less
[00:22:22] Gene Balsmeier: low level waste, less radioactive, right?
Low level waste. For example you, you and I could go up and stand next to the, the drum of low level waste. The, the low level waste criteria back when I was in the business was basically couldn’t read more than a hundred millirem at one foot or 30 centimeters. And was I’ll say very low risk, low problem from a personnel handling and higher level ac.
So you break it down into,
[00:22:51] Mark Hinaman: it’s like standing next to a bunch of bananas, right? Absolutely. Not to be flip it about it, but the, there’s, yeah, yeah. A little bit more radiation than that, but not by much.
[00:22:58] Gene Balsmeier: Right. So, but that’s the, the reality is, you know, the, the folks the, the public. We’re, everything we do, every time you go to get a medical exam, you’re shot with radiation either through dental x-rays, through whole body X-rays through isotopes that we use to help cure numerous cancers, right?
And what, what the industry has failed to, and still fails to do, is to educate the public on how nuclear energy touches every one of our lives, every day in almost every way. A lot of countries, for example, they irradiate their food so that you can do shelf safe milk that’s not refrigerated.
You set it on the shelf and it’s got a shelf life of, I can’t remember, several weeks to several months. And then once you open it, then you can refrigerate it to keep it going. We don’t appreciate that. And I think I’ve gotten off track a little bit here, but yeah. Yeah. So low level waste, back to low level waste, and then there’s a low level transuranic waste and that basically is determined by the amount of transuranic waste and Above a certain amount or limit, they then move into high level waste.
And that kind of is, I’ll say the three different categories, low level radioactive waste, low level transatlantic waste, and then a high level waste, which primarily consists of, I’ll say expended nuclear reactor type material. As an example you’re probably well aware of our facility in Nevada. Where we were supposed to send the nation’s commercial nuclear fuel and all of the Navy expended fuel.
Yucca Mountain is the name for it. And of course, people, politics got into a mindset of all things nuclear bad, even though nuclear touches their life in almost an everyday way, and it’s, it’s a failure on our part to properly educate.
[00:25:04] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Yeah. No, the story behind Yucca Mountains a long one that, we, we need to have two or three episodes on that alone just to kind of cover what, what happened.
And every time I studied the history, I’m baffled the serious events occurred as they did. But we’ll shelve that one for now. You bet. Well, actually, lemme ask, did you work on Yucca Mountain?
[00:25:25] Gene Balsmeier: No. In my short stint of working for the doe, I got to tour it go in the tunnel and it was still a going concern.
We were hoping to be able to activate it and make it work for us, but no, I, I did not get to work on it.
[00:25:39] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Total political project. Okay, but you, you have worked on WIPP or waste isolation?
[00:25:47] Gene Balsmeier: I have Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Yep. And WIPP is the facility where the, we send low level transuranic waste.
This is primarily waste from dealing with development plutonium and uranium the low level contamination, the rags, the tooling and that type of stuff. And that happened all around the country from Savannah River on the East Coast to Hanford. Used to have a number of reactors that made weapons, grave material, and other facilities.
Basically, I’ll say most of the Department of Energy sites had their hands and fingers in some type of. Nuclear weapons work. And so WIPP was developed to dispose of the nation’s transuranic waste from the weapons program. WIPP is. A facility that is basically a salt mine. It was mined in the middle of a bed of salt that’s about 3000 foot thick, leftover from the Permian sea.
That was in existence 250 300 million years ago and evaporated and, and left this large layer of salt now. So, and we’re about in the middle of that 3000 foot bed and we WIPP our 2,150 feet below the surface of the the planet there. And so we ride conveyances down to get underground to do the mining.
The interesting aspect for me, it was one of my, I’ll say more interesting jobs because I’d been mostly focused on, I’ll say standard nuclear facility operation. And now you’ve got a mining environment and you’ve got the nuclear radiological environment where you’re now disposing of the radioactive waste.
And blending those two cultures sometimes is a bit challenging because the miners. Don’t understand all of the rigor and the discipline that we demand when we’re all we’re doing is handling 55 gallon drums and, and putting them underground. But what we do mark, is they, they mine down 2,150 feet.
And when I left WIPP my last time there was I left in June of last year. We had basically seven. Areas where they have six rooms in each of the areas and then you feel those with waste. And we were just about to finish the last room in area seven. And we had mined out additional areas and I believe they commenced putting waste in, in the new area was, oh, a few months ago.
So, They’re still probably, well, they’re planning for an additional 50 years of work. Most of the waste, I’ll say a large portion of the waste has been sent to WIPP. Now they’re looking at and evaluating, sending, as you know, with the various start treaties that we’ve had, we’ve significantly reduced the amount.
Weapons grade material that’s needed for our nuclear arsenal. And so that excess material is being diluted and put in a condition that makes it not useful or extremely hard to reuse if you wanted to. They’re looking at disposing of a lot of that material at the W facility going forward.
[00:29:22] Mark Hinaman: Interesting. Okay. I wasn’t aware of that. So the, I’ll, I’ll characterize some of this back to you. The, yeah. Waste isolation pilot plant. Why, why do they call it a pilot plant? Well, it’s originally, it’s originally supposed to be a test and now, and they just, the name stuck when it became kind of a permanent facility.
[00:29:39] Gene Balsmeier: That, that’s exactly right. It was, it was originally designed to be a pilot plant and they just never took the pilot out of the the WIPP. Yeah. Name is just stuck. It’s an amazing facility because a lot of, a number of university do neutrino investigation, dark matter investigation, because as you can imagine, 2000 feet,
[00:29:58] Mark Hinaman: it’s a big tunnel. It’s a big mine underground, right?
[00:30:01] Gene Balsmeier: It’s, it’s a huge mine, extremely low background. And so a number of universities have done work there. Commercial industry’s been there doing the K heat experiments to see what the feasibility of potentially commercial fuel might be in the future. It’s not permitted to handle or take any of that at this point.
So if anybody listens to this and gets excited that they need to not be excited they’ve just done it.
[00:30:26] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. And, but this is an example of a facility that is in the US that is taking radioactive material that, and, and I’d like to touch a little bit on if we think this is even necessary for some of this material to be stored there, but, and, and effectively storing it in a place that’s all say, socially acceptable for us to store it.
And it, it’s an example of what we could do with the existing nuclear fuel.
[00:30:49] Gene Balsmeier: Absolutely. Spend nuclear. You could do a lot with that without even having to go 2000 feet underground. Now, when you look at the program, what we do is we try to find a place that’s yeah, so that’s acceptable, socially acceptable.
You’re in a very seismically, stable area WIPP, right? There are no,
[00:31:07] Mark Hinaman: notwithstanding all those oil and gas guys pumping, Saltwater into disposal wells that are
[00:31:12] Gene Balsmeier: ab Absolutely. And, and it’s,
[00:31:14] Mark Hinaman: it’s a huge business. I know a little bit about that.
[00:31:16] Gene Balsmeier: Yeah. Well, and you know better than I do. One of the, one of the most significant hazards on my drive, my 40 mile drive to WIPP, was the the water tanks going out to, to support you know, the truckers going out
[00:31:28] Mark Hinaman: to, you mean oversized water tanks on the highway that are Yeah.
Driving a hundred miles an hour. And That’s right. Yeah, taking up all three lanes of traffic even though there’s only two lanes on the road. Right. So
[00:31:37] Gene Balsmeier: our, Our fire department at WIPP would would routinely several times a month respond to an accident between a trucker and another vehicle and the smaller vehicles.
Yeah, of course, didn’t fare too well. Excuse me.
[00:31:50] Mark Hinaman: Okay, so, so WIPP underground, tunnel, under. Potentially 50 more years, but it’s not disposing of spent nuclear field, but disposing of the military grade material. The, we’ll say, spent material from submarines and part, part of the weapons program, right?
This was Spent fuel or spent spent weapons, grade material that they want to dispose of. Yeah, like I said, in a socially acceptable spot. So what’s the difference between what they’re disposing there and the spent nuclear fuel at power plants?
[00:32:24] Gene Balsmeier: Well spit nuclear fuel versus say a plutonium or uranium set of material that’s for weapons.
That type of material, the uranium, the plutonium, you could set between you and me on a desk and from a radiological perspective. It’d be far more hazardous from a heavy metal poisoning than it would be from radiation spent nuclear fuel. However basically you look at the rule of thumb, at least for a enriched type reactor.
And this is a technical term of about six curries per wa spent. Nuclear fuel is extreme. Highly radioactive, radioactive, a spent nuclear fuel module out of the commercial reactor or submarine reactor. You and I would see receive a lethal dose in, in seconds if we were in the same room with it.
Hence the need for keeping it in a deep water pool, right? A fuel pool is what we call it. Basically until it’s the k. Is below a, a point where you can now just set it out in the atmosphere and it would naturally cool. So, but it would still have
[00:33:35] Mark Hinaman: so I’d like to clarify that point, right?
Meaning as, as soon as the fuel comes out of the reactor, yeah. It’ll kill you. Just like, you know, if you. Touch gasoline that’s on fire or become encompassed with jet fuel, which is another way, way to think about this, right? The fuel just came out of that reactor. Then yes, that will also kill you, but over time it cools down and becomes less dangerous.
[00:33:59] Gene Balsmeier: Now, yeah, it cools down to and becomes less dangerous from the need to have to keep it cool. But it, it will still present a radiological radiation hazard for thousands of years to come. I can’t even, I, I could guesstimate, we’re talking about millions of rem per hour on contact with a fuel cell fresh out of the reactor.
[00:34:27] Mark Hinaman: But then after, yeah, it, it lasts for a long time, but the radiation decreases over time. I think it’s a fundamental principle that a lot of people don’t really appreciate meaning, and it’s an exponential decay that it is, you know, after absolutely an hour after, a week after a year, after three years, it’s much less radioactive than it was.
That’s correct. Okay. I, I guess that kind of brings me to my next question. You know, this is a problem that I’ve seen in the industry as an outside observer, that the hazards created from other energy generation technologies, from their waste streams are often much more dangerous or harder to handle than the nuclear waste hazards.
That, is that something that you’ve given much thought to or thought, thought about or, I’m, I’m just cur curious on your perspective.
[00:35:18] Gene Balsmeier: I don’t put a lot of thought into it, but just when you talk about relative hazard, relative risk, and exposure of the public to these hazards, all you have to do is look no further than the 8,000 gallon gasoline tanker that drives through your neighborhood to keep the gasoline stations filled up or the rails that drive through Ohio, derail and then dump half a million pound. I think it was. Well, it was, it was thousands of tons. According to the news report of, of lethal hazardous material into the atmosphere, we, we have a jaded perspective on the relative risks of everyday industrial hazards that we are exposed to compared to the hazards associated with the nuclear energy business.
When you stop and think about it and you go out and look at the hazardous industries, we, we rank, we, the nuclear industry, r rank at the very bottom, meaning the very lowest, meaning the very best when it comes to safety to the worker, to the public, and to the environment.
[00:36:28] Mark Hinaman: Which I, I think that’s a consequence of just the physics and the reality of the material and how little there is of it, and not necessarily a consequence of the regulations.
And don’t get me wrong, the industries have a high focus on safety and there’s been lot of safety culture, but. There, there’s just not nearly as much material to move.
[00:36:49] Gene Balsmeier: Yeah, that’s true. But, and when you, when you talk about it, it’s, you don’t have to achieve safety through bureaucracy. And we, we have over the decades, As opposed to it, you know, our, I I call it risk aversion, right?
We, we are not willing to accept even minor accidents, which drives the cost of, of our business to a level that’s, that’s far more significant than what other industries, which are more hazardous, are doing to keep their, their program and their processes safe.
[00:37:24] Mark Hinaman: So, I, I wanna challenge you with a question.
And I’m gonna characterize this from a recent experience. So, Colorado, where I live the state legislator recently shot down a bill that was advocating to include nuclear energy in the definition of clean energy. And when I went and spoke to the state senator afterwards she wasn’t convinced and she was obviously uneducated, but which is part of the efforts of this podcast to help educate people.
But she wasn’t convinced that nuclear energy could be clean. And, you know, her question was, what about the waste? Why do we have to bury it thousands of feet beneath the surface if it’s so safe? And
[00:38:05] Gene Balsmeier: well actually, there, there’s, I guess, a number of ways to uh, approach that. First of all when you talk about lifecycle costs, lifecycle cleanliness from groundbreaking to final disposal nuclear energy’s probably one of the, the cleanest and least impactful to the environment of energy sources on the planet.
Yeah, I know everybody’s really excited about uh, electric vehicles, but when you look at what we’re doing, I, I call Americans, we’re the new environmental terrorists because what do we do? Oh, good. Yeah, we, we pawn off all of the really hard, hazardous, dirty, environmentally dangerous work. To the third world countries to go mine the the special metals that are required for our lithium batteries.
Right. And, and now what are you gonna do with those? Not to mention, I’ll say lack of research. What, what we learned at WI, for example, is we, we were gonna transition to electric power. Vehicles in the underground to move away from diesel powered vehicles,
[00:39:09] Mark Hinaman: which is helpful.
Staying underground. Have to say again, don’t need as much bad. I said that’s helpful for underground, right? Don’t have to have as much ventilation.
[00:39:16] Gene Balsmeier: That’s the whole UN until one of the lithium batteries catches on fire, which happened in Nevada. And, and it puts that, first of all, they’re, they’re virtually impossible to put out.
All you can do is evacuate and hope that you don’t get a lethal exposure to the off-gassing materials that come from the lithium batteries when they catch on fire. And one of my biggest worries is as we start to populate more and more homes when one of these batteries catches on fire. It, it’s not just a, a fire in the garage that you can extinguish.
You’ve basically lost your whole home if you have an attached garage. And the waste that’ll create when we have to dispose of those batteries in, in 10 years, right? If we get that kind of life out of them, where are we gonna put the, literally billions of batteries that are created.
[00:40:04] Mark Hinaman: You know that, it’s funny that you bring this up cuz literally just today there’s, in my daily newsletter, the headline was Exploding Batteries.
And let’s see. I remember reading this and thinking, oh my gosh, this has killed way more people than nuclear waste ever has. So, let’s see. This headline was LA last year in New York City. E-Bikes, electronic bikes ignited 216 fires, double the amount from the year before, resulting in 147 injuries and six deaths in New York City from bikes.
Yeah, and I’m like, oh man. And yet we think nuclear waste is dangerous when it hasn’t killed anyone ever. No, it has not. So what should we do with, I, I appreciate your perspective I, that meaning life cycle cost from cradle to grave. It’s not dangerous. We know how to handle it. But how, how do you answer the question of, well, we’re still burying it thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth.
[00:41:00] Gene Balsmeier: Well, you, you don’t have to put it a thousand feet beneath the earth.
[00:41:04] Mark Hinaman: I love that answer. I love that answer.
[00:41:07] Gene Balsmeier: Let me, lemme, let me tell you for example right now the nuclear fuel out of all of our submarines, the expended nuclear fuel is setting above ground out on the Idaho Desert in a metal shed for the purposes of this discussion.
no significant safeguards or, you know, HEPA filtered ventilation.
I can’t even remember if it’s temperature controlled or not. But, You can go maintain
the barn that we put ’em in, the metal sheds, that we put ’em in,
the metal buildings that we put ’em in.
Of course, those buildings are designed to withstand the high winds
of Idaho, the occasional earthquake, those type of things. But for all intents and purposes, the structures that
the fuel are put into can set there for 10 more million years. And it’s a very small workforce.
It’s a very small footprint.
You think, I can’t remember when we first took the the first reactor the first Nautilus prototype out in Idaho in the fifties, late fifties. And all the com, all the commercial fuel from our nuclear react com commercial nuclear reactors could be placed on a facility out here in the Idaho Desert.
There were some Indian reservations that were saying, come let us store it above ground. Right? Yeah, it’s co completely feasible to do. But we’ve created an atmosphere of all things nuclear are bad. And of course, a few years ago, a number of years ago when one of the scientists said, one plutonium atom will kill you.
We, we’ve created a panic and a fear that is irrational and we, no, I’ll say you young people.
[00:42:56] Mark Hinaman: Do you think that came from inside or outside the nuclear industry? This is a controversial question among nuclear circles?
[00:43:04] Gene Balsmeier: I, I think, well, it could be both. I don’t know if they’re, I’ll say terrorists inside the industry.
[00:43:11] Mark Hinaman: don’t think it was intentional. I just, I, I do think that, so my bias is, I think there was a culture that was built up that we, you know, we had to get to zero and, and no radiation was acceptable. And, you know, we cha we chased safety in the name of chasing safety. Well, and then it became the goal rather than,
[00:43:31] Gene Balsmeier: We, we have to educate the public.
Tell ’em to quit eating bananas, tell ’em to quit putting fire detectors in their homes, which have Krypton 85 in them, right? And the potatoes almost everything has radioactive material in it of some type or another. And if I took a sample of any person’s blood and counted it long enough, I would find a number.
Isotopes even plutonium.
[00:43:59] Mark Hinaman: Yep. Okay. And so the, the waste that was stored in, in the desert that you were mentioning, sorry that was from the spent fuel of the submarines, correct?
[00:44:08] Gene Balsmeier: That’s correct. We spent nuclear fuel out of our submarines that were decommissioned, and we’ve decommissioned a whole bunch of those submarines.
And so all of that fuel sits right out on the desert in a few nice metal buildings. And the reactor compartments themselves from the submarines. You know, they get basically cut out of the submarine or the surface ship and then we ship them off to the Hanford reservation where we basically, and this is part of our start treaty observations, where we put ’em into an open burial pit for a certain period of time and the Russian satellites can take pictures and say, yep, that’s submarine is actually outta commission.
So is that surface ship. And then after a certain period of time, we will actually backfill and cover those those decommissioned reactor compartments.
[00:44:58] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, so you answered the question. You know, why do we have to bury this? And perhaps the answer is we don’t have to. Meaning we, we’ve overblown the danger in the hazard, which is a hundred percent in my view meaning I can’t feasibly perceive how.
You know, some of this material might get into the biosphere without, you know, I think just disposing of a lot of it, like we do most other hazardous waste or even just in landfills, is sufficient from all of the analysis that I’ve done. So,
[00:45:30] Gene Balsmeier: yeah, absolutely.
[00:45:32] Mark Hinaman: It’s refreshing to hear someone share that opinion.
[00:45:34] Gene Balsmeier: No, we, well, we’ve driven ourselves there and, and it was what I opened up with and it’s the risk aversion and the belief that zero is the only acceptable level. But when you, again, present, try to present I’ll say the non-believers, the uninformed with the facts. Would I rather sleep right next to the thousand megawatt electric commercial nuclear reactor or the thousand megawatt coal-fired reactor? And hands down, it’s next to the nuclear reactor. The amount of material that goes up the stack from a coal burning plant both radioactivity and other hazardous materials is, is tens and hundreds and thousands orders of magnitude more than what comes from the generation of nuclear power from a commercial power plant.
[00:46:26] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Oh, totally agree. And I, I’ve worked underground in coal mine. You mentioned WIPPs 2150 feet under from the surface. I’ve been 900 feet underground in coal mine. It’s, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous,
[00:46:38] Gene Balsmeier: it’s extremely dangerous.
[00:46:39] Mark Hinaman: I got some way more
dangerous than nuclear waste.
[00:46:41] Gene Balsmeier: Like, well, what, what people don’t appreciate for example, is all the material that we use on a day-to-day basis that come out of minds, the, the fertilizer that we end. Creating from material that we mine down in the southeastern New Mexico area.
It, it’s a hazard. As an example, in 2022, last year no, excuse me, it was 2021. Anyway, the first half of the year, the mining industry had killed 40. In America. This was in America, mark. Yeah. And the hazards that we expose those people to, to dig up all the stuff that we need, nobody pays any attention to.
Because it, it w it doesn’t make big news. It doesn’t make anybody money. The anti-nuclear activists are making a career in a living out of being anti-nuclear. Yeah. And they frightened everybody. It’s no different than the, oh my goodness. Back when you might have been too young. The story came out about the material that we sprayed on apples.
And that was a, a huge, huge deal for quite some time relative risk insignificant. But it’s the type of scare tactics that people use to create a, a movement in a negative.
[00:48:05] Mark Hinaman: Okay, so how do we tell stories about the nuclear waste instead of giving facts and figures? Cause one of the facts that I give is all of.
Nuclear waste that has powered the US fleet for the past 50 years is about the same amount of mass or volume as 25 windmills, and there’s now thousands of windmills all over the country that are gonna be just trashed and we’re gonna have to deal with them versus just the sheer volume. But that’s a fact and figure.
So how do I and pe you know, the people in psychology and politicians tell me we have to tell stories. So how, what kind of stories could we tell to help motivate people to. Feel better about
[00:48:43] Gene Balsmeier: Well, I, I think as, as my son Aaron says, who’s, who’s and, and I hope that I, I don’t know if you guys did, did he respond to you in your email?
Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, I would hope he just think we got, we gotta go through the INL channels a little bit. Yeah, and if you do, he’s, he’s got some amazing stories, but his, his simple comment because he’s intimately involved with a lot of develop development. He’s an engineering manager out there working small modular reactors, military reactors micro reactors.
And his simple comment is, “
there is not a significant problem that the planet faces today that can’t be solved with nuclear energy.” You need water. Build a reactor. You need electricity. Build a reactor. It’s clean. It’s safe, it’s minimally impactful.
you want to deal with
the hunger and the starvation that goes on all over the world.
You want to deal with
the lack of, o
only one in six people on this planet have access to really clean. Build a reactor.
Yeah. And it’s amazing. And, and that’s the story that we have to tell is that it is, it’s our future. It it, if nothing else that a natural gas has to be our transition to a period in the future where we have, say, fusion energy.
Right. But that’s decades off still.
[00:50:17] Mark Hinaman: And I think that that answers two of the kind of last questions that I had, which is I, or I think it does, which is are you afraid of nuclear power? And it sounds like absolutely not.
[00:50:26] Gene Balsmeier: No. I went to sea on a submarine and I slept within 20 feet of a reactor that was producing a lot of energy, pushing that 8,000 ton, 12,000 ton submarine through the water.
[00:50:42] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s awesome. Okay, so if, if you, well, and the, the last question that we often ask is what gives you hope about the future? But I think telling that story of. Hey, if you want to generate more hope, deploy more nuclear. It’s an awesome awesome story to tell. And that’s kind of the story that we’re trying to tell, so it’s fun that we didn’t have to bait you too much into that answer.
[00:51:06] Gene Balsmeier: Well, and there’s, you know, there’s a lot of you go out there and I can’t remember the, the Netflix documentary, but the, the green people are starting to recognize that, that it has to be a significant piece of our. It has to be there’s, there’s nothing else that will move us in the direction as quickly as nuclear energy to help us solve the global warming that we’re experiencing.
And again, I’m not gonna argue whether it’s manmade or not, because the Earth’s gone through lots of warming cycles and cooling cycles. But if we want to in general be good stewards and not put co, CO2 into the atmosphere, nuclear energy is the way to go.
[00:51:50] Mark Hinaman: Okay. So I’ll challenge you, Gene, as as my last question for you.
If, if you had to deploy more nuclear power tomorrow how would you do it? What are the one, one or two things that you think would make the biggest impact to get more nuclear built?
[00:52:02] Gene Balsmeier: Well, the, the first thing that you have to do is, is you have to have a, a government that backs it, right? And I’m, I’m too old to really be too concerned, but you, you and the people your age have to go fight the fight.
So we’ve gotta get a government on board and, and consistent. If we could develop, like we have the Federal Reserve for money, if we could develop the federal energy czar similar to the, that’s independent set up of with, with technically competent engineers and scientists to start the movement towards a nuclear energy future. And then you have to take a roadshow like we did at WIPP when we, when we told people we were gonna start hauling transuranic waste, we had a small team that went all over the country to say, “we’re gonna be moving material through your facilities.” And then they would talk about the design of the Tru Pack facil or the Tru Pack container that contained the waste. And how at 60 miles an hour it is designed. If the truck has an accident, it breaks off, it rolls down, expends the energy, and you can run a you set it in a, a diesel fuel pool for an hour at 1300 degrees and guess what.
It’s the fuels, I mean the, the waste is still okay. You, you’re gonna have to have a blitz that gets people educated and more fearful of the 8,000 gallon gasoline tank, the lithium batteries that they’re driving in their cars. And until we do that, I think we will continue to have that struggle. So you gotta have a PR program, you gotta have a government to support it, and then you gotta find I’ll say nuclear positive states that welcome nuclear energy.
[00:53:48] Mark Hinaman: Awesome. Well, we’re, we’re on the PR campaign right now and hopefully we can motivate some, some of our favorite states like Colorado and, and elsewhere to, to build more. So.
[00:53:58] Gene Balsmeier: Well, good luck and if, if I can do anything to, to help push that idea of nuclear energy to let me know.
[00:54:05] Mark Hinaman: Excellent. Well, Gene Balsmeier thanks so much for your time.
This has been, this has been great. I can tell when we have more questions, we might have to have you back on, so.
[00:54:14] Gene Balsmeier: Love to do it, mark. Thank you. It’s been very enjoyable.
[00:54:17] Mark Hinaman: Thanks.