Nuclear? pt. 3: Waste

Why nuclear, and not wind and solar? Less waste.
Another major argument that’s often used against nuclear energy is the issue of waste; what to do with spent fuel rods, contaminated parts, etc. It is often said that nuclear waste can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

There are a few assumptions in that argument that are factually incorrect. First of all, burying the waste as we have been doing for decades works just fine. The fears that this will somehow magically leech back up to the surface, or into groundwaters, are unsubstantiated. Not only is nuclear waste dealt with appropriately, the nuclear industry is the only industry that takes 100% responsibility for its waste, from the cradle to the grave. Other industries may be held responsible for some of their waste products, but not all of it like nuclear is. Solar companies are not liable for what’s done with solar panels at the end of their lives 20 to 25 years down the road.

The radioactivity of an element is determined by its’ rate of decay, or how quickly the atoms decay producing radiation. Elements that have tens of thousands of year half-lives (the time in which 50% of the atoms have decayed) are not decaying quickly; that is to say, they’re not as radioactive (they’re less dangerous than faster-decaying elements). That’s not to say you should hold or eat some, but especially when it’s buried, it’s not a threat to life, human or otherwise.

All the waste arguments against nuclear power fall completely apart when you compare them to the alternative: waste and pollution from fossil fuels, heavy metals from solar panels, etc. Solar panels are incredibly toxic, and unlike radioactivity, that toxicity will never ever deplete. Solar panels can of course be recycled, but so can nuclear fuel; in fact, spent nuclear fuel can usually be recycled for 95% of it’s use again.

Fossil fuel waste is not only toxic, but astronomically enormous when compared to nuclear waste. All nuclear waste produced in this country in the last 40 years (approx. 76,430 metric tons of used fuel)[1] can fit in the area of one football field and only stack it 24 feet high. In comparison, coal produces 125,000 tons of ash and 193 tons of sludge (from the smokestack) per plant per year. [2]

Ash from a coal plant also contains radioactive materials that are found naturally in coal, but don’t burn well and therefor become concentrated in the ash and released into the atmosphere. Zero waste from coal is recyclable by the way, and I’ll also mention again that the only thing that comes out of a nuclear cooling tower is water vapor. Air pollution is estimated to kill 7 million people worldwide every year. [3]

As far as waste from solar and wind are concerned, the average lifespan of both is around 20 to 25 years [4][5], at which time a serious effort is needed for maintenance and replacement of components, or even whole units. Wind and solar farms take up huge amounts of land and resources, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the near future.

Bottom line, nuclear waste is a non-issue. It might not be perfect but when compared to the alternative, it’s by far the best chance we’ve got. And why can’t that alternative be wind and solar? Many reasons; we’ve already covered capacity factor and why wind and solar can never keep up with demand. In the near future we will also cover carbon footprint, construction, cost, maintenance, proliferation, transportation, death per kilowatt hour by industry, etc. Below are a couple of references for some of the above information.

1. Nuclear waste:
2. Coal waste:
3. Pollution:
4. Solar lifespan:
5. Wind Lifespan: