Why nuclear waste isn’t as big of an issue as you think

By Andrew Quaal

Introduction

Nuclear power is the future of energy and the key to combating climate change through carbon free energy. With proponents like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, the scientific community seems to also believe that nuclear power is how we achieve carbon zero as a whole, as the technology continues to progress and lead us to our goals. However, public discourse around nuclear energy isn’t all positive, with discussion of accidents, cost, and waste. Nuclear waste is one of nuclear power’s largest boogeymen. Images of green slime giving fish a third eye show up all over pop culture, leaving nuclear with a bad rep in people’s minds. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear waste isn’t as big of an issue as you might think.

What is nuclear waste?

Nuclear energy produces waste just like any other industry. This waste consists of anything that has been involved in the nuclear energy cycle, but it is also produced by other uses of nuclear technology, like hospitals, research laboratories, and the military. Nuclear waste is made up of three different categories: low, intermediate, and high level waste. 90% of waste produced is low level, including objects that have been lightly contaminated like tools and protective gear. This waste contains only 1% of the total radioactivity of all waste produced, showing that most nuclear waste is barely even “nuclear”. In fact, Intermediate level waste makes up 7% of all waste and includes parts from the reactor, used filters, etc. This section still only makes up 4% of the total radiation, remaining at a relatively low level. The last 3% of nuclear waste is high level, containing the last 95% of total radioactivity. This includes the spent nuclear fuel once it is done being used to provide energy. Even though this waste is quite radioactive and dangerous, there is not much of it, with all the spent fuel ever produced in the US being able to fit on a football field. Also, spent nuclear fuel is a solid, contrary to the belief that it is a green, glowing ooze.

What do we do with nuclear waste?

Like stated before, the majority of nuclear waste is low level, meaning that it has low levels of radioactivity and decays quickly. This waste can be handled without shielding and can be stored near surface facilities, often being contained on site until it can be disposed of completely. The spent nuclear fuel is usually the main topic of discussions about the cons of nuclear power, but there are methods for dealing with this waste. Although spent fuel is treated as waste typically, most of it can be recycled, with 94% of spent nuclear fuel being able to be reprocessed and used in other reactors. However, when disposing of waste like the US does, there is a specific process. First, the spent fuel is removed from the reactor and placed in a cooling pool for several years. This allows it to release excess heat and radiation, lowering the fuel to a safer level. After it has properly cooled, they place it in concrete and metal dry casks that are completely sealed and filled with an inert gas. These containers are designed to withstand any kind of natural disaster or other compromising situation to insure safety and containment. Currently these dry casks are safely stored on site all over the country. There has been discussion to create a permanent storage site for the US’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. However, this is a very polarizing topic with many concerns regarding environmental hazards. The Yucca Mountain repository would store carefully and safely contained nuclear waste deep in the mountain to sit there as their radioactivity decays. This solution is still quite far off as it is held back by much disagreement and discourse between politicians, scientists, and activists.

Is nuclear waste worse than coal?

Waste of any kind is not ideal, but almost every single industry produces waste at some point in its process. As a result, we are forced to find the lesser of two evils until a better solution comes about. This is why nuclear waste isn’t that bad when put into perspective. When comparing the waste produced by nuclear energy against the waste produced by burning fossil fuels, it’s easy to see how much better of an option nuclear is. Nuclear fuel is extremely dense and energy efficient in comparison to coal. For example, one fuel pellet of uranium produces as much energy as one ton of coal, so right away, much less fuel is being used to produce the same output. Additionally, using nuclear energy to generate electricity doesn’t produce any greenhouse gasses while using coal and other fossil fuels does, and they are one of the main contributors to climate change. Directly comparing the two, a 1000 megawatt nuclear reactor, which would provide electricity for over a million people, would only produce three cubic meters of high level waste a year. On the other hand, a 1000 megawatt coal plant would produce around 300,000 tons of ash and six million tons of carbon dioxide in one year. This really puts the sheer amount of waste that coal produces into perspective. Also, nuclear kills significantly less people than coal does. It is estimated that around 8.7 million people die from fossil fuel-caused air pollution annually, and as stated before, nuclear energy avoids this issue by not emitting any greenhouse gasses. While nuclear waste is not the best substance, it is surely a lot better than the amount of CO2 that fossil fuels pump into our atmosphere.

Conclusion

Nuclear energy is the future of our society as we transition to a carbon zero world, and waste is not a reason to oppose nuclear energy. Nuclear is by far the most reliable form of energy and one of the safest overall. As new reactors get developed, the amount of waste produced goes down as well, with new reactors that can use up other reactor’s waste and ones that produce very little (see our blog on Gen IV reactors). Nuclear waste is no reason to stop the pursuit of nuclear power. In this situation, the pros clearly outweigh the cons, and we need nuclear as the key to our cleaner future. The fear around nuclear energy is extremely frivolous and only exists out of a lack of education. Correcting this ignorance will hopefully solve the issue, for now is the time to make the change to nuclear energy and green energy as a whole. As FDR once said “The only things we have to fear is fear itself.”