08 May 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Bathing in the Cerenkov Glow

We opened the swimming pool yesterday. 

Which reminded me how expensive it is to heat the pool, and how every year it's a contest between comfort and parsimony.

Which, of course, reminded me that I have a solution to the "nuclear waste problem."  No, it's not Yucca Mountain.  Even Nevada has its NIMBYs. 

Which solution, coincidentally and conveniently, also encompasses a partial solution to the lead waste problem caused by the obsolescence of CRT monitors and teevee tubes.


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 while the pols dither about where to store them "permanently."

My Modest Proposal

I'm not a pol!  My idea would not only put these fuel rods to use, it would make them profitable for the utilities to sell! 

First, eliminate the danger of bulk storage by dispersing them.  There are literally millions of suburban swimming pools in the USA.  Except in the warmest climates, these pools require heating to a greater or lesser extent.  Certainly there are more pools than there are spent fuel rods, so why not auction off the rods to individual pool owners for use as heating elements?  A "Dutch auction" would be best, to settle on a single selling price. 

The fuel rods are highly radioactive, so they need to be protected.  Old CRTs are made of glass with a very high lead concentration.  If they were melted down and used to encapsulate the fuel rods, this lead would protect against much of the radiation - alpha, beta, and gamma.  It would be necessary to suspend the fuel rod in the center of the glass encapsulation in an empty channel so that cooling water can flow around the fuel rod.  Once installed as a pool heater, the water that cools the fuel rod would itself become warm, and raise the temperature of the swimming pool.  Mission accomplished!

Bonus:  If you've seen photographs of "CANDU" nuclear reactors, you may remember the blue glow that surrounds them.  This glow is 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.

Another bonus!  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.

What about radiation?  The lead glass will shield against gamma; stray alphas and betas don't go too far in matter.  Finally, ordinary light water (i.e., not heavy water) has a high neutron absorption cross section and so neutrons from the fuel rod will harmlessly convert a tiny proportion of the hydrogen atoms that pass through to deuterium.  Not enough, unfortunately, to make separation and resale worthwhile.

And the final extra added plus:  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! 

Today the nuclear and lead waste problem; tomorrow a cure for all diseases!

Follow-up 19 January 2022

While searching the internet for other takes on swimming with nuclear waste, I found that my notion may not be as bizarre or dangerous, at least in terms of danger to the swimmer, as one might expect. The ever-entertaining Randall Munroe of XKCD has done more "research" than I:

Richard Factor