Design of a Thorium Extraction Process from Monazite Sand; Actor Responsibility in the Failure of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

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Sepulveda, Peter, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

My technical and STS works both dealt with the nuclear power industry in the United States. The former proposed a method that could revolutionize nuclear technologies in the future, while the latter was an examination of a failed project so that we can learn from the mistakes of our past. The technical work was a design process for synthesizing thorium nuclear fuel which could serve as a viable replacement for uranium with improved environmental benefits, costs, safety, and efficiency. However, one of the greatest current challenges of nuclear technology is nuclear waste management, as while the government initially designated Yucca Mountain to be the permanent storage site, the project failed. The STS paper investigated the causes of the project failure using actor-network theory and attempted to apply ethical responsibility in order to provide a new perspective on how the project failed to increase understanding for the future.
As mentioned above, the technical project focused on extracting and synthesizing thorium nuclear fuel. The most prominent source of thorium in nature is found in the mineral monazite. Our goal was to design a chemical process that isolates the thorium from the raw monazite, purifies it by removing trace amounts of other rare earth elements, and finally converts it to the desired form of thorium dioxide. We used information from prior literature, consultations with professors, and our chemical engineering knowledge to complete the technical parts of the project. We also conducted an economic analysis which showed that the process would be profitable 2 years after construction had been completed, and we evaluated the relevant safety, health, environmental, and social effects of our proposed processing plant.
The STS research paper was an examination of the Yucca Mountain project failure. I used actor-network theory to analyze the projects foundation and eventual destruction and then applied ethical principles in an attempt to assign moral responsibility to certain actors. The short answer to my research question was that the underlying political system was the problem, but it ended up being more complicated because while individual actors could have been considered responsible at first glance, further analysis supported by primary source documents revealed that the roots of the problem expanded far deeper than originally thought. The problem of many hands was the barrier in the analysis because the design of the entire modern political system could in no way be attributed to a single or small group of actors.
Having worked on these projects at the same time was very insightful and helped me in obtaining a greater understanding of the nuclear industry and environment. The technical report yielded a viable chemical process that was economical, but in order for it to actually be realistic a thorium power industry is required. The STS paper helped me realize how complex and problematic our political system is, and my project was on a single case study as opposed to novel technology. Overall, I learned that just because something is technologically possible and economically viable, there are political and social actors that require serious consideration and analysis before progress can be achieved.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Thorium Extraction, Yucca Mountain

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Eric Anderson
STS Advisor: Ben Laugelli
Technical Team Members: Ben Newhouse, Samuel Ong, Karl Westendorff, Anna Winter

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