Reactors, Trees and Recycling

Taking a Stance on Nuclear Energy, Newspapers and College Recycling

What is a breeder reactor, and what are fission and fusion?

—Anthony Gill, St. Bonaventure, NY

Murphy Illustration

Sue Gagner, public affairs officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), offers this definition, “A fission reactor splits the nucleus of atoms into parts, while fusion involves combining the nucleus of two lighter atoms into one. A breeder reactor produces fissionable fuel as well as consumes it.”

According to The Dictionary of Ecology, a breeder reactor “produces at least as much fissionable fuel as it consumes,” hence the name. These reactors take in a combination of plutonium and uranium, and yield re-usable plutonium. Fission, derived from Albert Einstein’s revolutionary relativity theory, is the process that makes modern nuclear power-and some nuclear weapons—possible. Fission reactors, while in decline, are still in common use around the world. The sun is a giant fusion furnace, but fusion reactors have not yet proved workable.

Bill Magavern, director of the Washington-based Critical Mass Energy Project (CMEP), says the U.S. has no current operating breeder reactor. In part because of a CMEP campaign, the Department of Energy’s Argonne-West reactor in Idaho was shut down by Congress in 1994, and is now undergoing a costly decommissioning. Another proposed facility, The Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee, was stopped by Congress in the 1980s.

What’s wrong with breeder reactors? “They undermine control of nuclear weapons proliferation,” says Magavern, “because plutonium is, along with enriched uranium, one of the key components in making nuclear bombs.” The first breeder reactor in Japan, Monju Nuclear Power Plant, suffered a serious accident in 1995, resulting from the leak of non-radioactive sodium coolant. France’s Super Phoenix reactor has also been troubled by a poor safety record.


Critical Mass Energy Project
215 Pennsylvania Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20003
Tel: (202) 546-4996.

I’ve heard some staggering estimates of the number of trees consumed by the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Could you please tell me how many trees are used to print one Sunday edition of the paper?

—Lisabeth Correa, Middletown, CT

The New York Times, through spokeswoman Nancy Nielson, says it doesn’t know. And environmentalists aren’t sure, either. “It’s very difficult to make a calculation of that type. There are so many variables involved,” says Linda Shotwell, director of communications for the National Recycling Coalition.

However, the San Francisco Recycling Program’s public outreach coordinator, David Assman, says that if a mix of soft and hard wood trees are used, each averaging six to eight inches in diameter, the newspaper would probably consume 24 trees per ton of newsprint. The Times Nielson says that about 1.8 million copies of the Sunday edition are printed. As a representative sample, the November 24, 1996 edition weighed about 3.5 pounds, which means that 75,600 trees were probably consumed, or about .042 trees per copy. About half of that—.021 trees per copy-went to print advertising.


National Recycling Coalition
1727 King Street, Suite 105
Alexandria, VA 22314
Tel: (703) 683-9025.

I am a student at The College of New Jersey and am interested in starting a recycling program here. Could you please tell me how to begin a college campus recycling program?

—Faye Fredrickson, Trenton, NJ

Congratulations for taking charge of greening your college campus! Jon Miller, the solid waste manager at Georgetown University and chairperson of the College and University Recycling Council (CURC), recommends a three-step process to begin a campus program. 1) Do a waste audit to identify major trash source points on campus. Pick an average site, weigh trash according to material (paper, plastic, glass, trash), and then estimate from there. Sarah Ketchum, training coordinator of the Collegiate Recyclers Coalition in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says the waste audit should be done not only when getting your program started, but also annually to measure recycling success. 2) Identify local recycling contractors—check listings in the Yellow Pages under “Recycling Centers.” Your college’s waste collection agency may also take recyclables. 3) Keep an ongoing cost/benefit analysis to track the savings and other gains from the recycling program-and keep identifying ways to be more efficient. One way to save is to rely on volunteer student labor to collect and deliver the recyclables.

Miller adds that if your school resists recycling efforts-and many do-students can use their clout and change the school’s stance through a letter-writing campaign. But this is just an overview. Contact one of the organizations below for more information.


College and University Recycling Council
1727 King Street, Suite 105
Alexandria, VA, 22314
Tel: (202) 687-2033

Collegiate Recyclers Coalition
UNC Chapel Hill
Office of Waste Reduction
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
Tel: (919) 962-4440