Nuclear Waste

Annual waste from one reactor will fit into a pickup truck and the fuel from 50 years of reactor operation could fit in a single football field,  amounting to 77,000 tons (1,540 tons per year). We discard 179,000 tons of batteries per year in the United States and they contain toxic heavy metals. To improve the efficiency of renewable energies it is proposed that huge  batteries be used to store the energy,  just how much waste is this going to produce compared to nuclear power? When solar panels are decommissioned after the average 25 year lifecycle they also must be disposed of in toxic dumps as they contain highly toxic metals,  gases and solvents that are carcinogenic.  These include substances like cadmium, arsenic, selenium, indium and trifluoride (a substance 17,200 times more dangerous to the environment than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Cadmium is banned by EU Restriction on Hazardous Substances directive, although it made an exemption for solar power  because it absorbs light perfectly.  Some of these  toxic substances  in solar panels will never decay,  having a never ending life span. 

Another perspective is that the amount of waste produced by nuclear power is 2 pounds for each persons lifetime energy needs  (the size of a golf ball) compared to 68 tonnes of coal put into the atmosphere per person.  If all electricity was generated by nuclear power, every American would generate a weight equivalent to 7 quarter coins of waste per year.  Coal fired plants also expose the population to around 100 times more radioactive by-products than nuclear power plants do in their entire lifecycle.

Nuclear waste is fuel that comes out of a nuclear reactor after it has been used to produce electricity. Nuclear waste that has a long half life and high level radioactivity is first deposited into temporary storage facilities with strict regulations.  The location of these storage facilities is at the same site of the nuclear reactor and remains there for decades until it is placed into a permanent facility.  There is no urgent need to find permanent storage facilities for the nuclear waste but it is important we do find a solution. People say future generations will be furious with us if we leave nuclear waste for them to clean up.  I think future generations will be more furious with us if we continue using fossil fuels that produce waste that can't be contained adequately and potentially end life on earth as we know it.  Fossil fuels will be a far bigger problem for future generations than nuclear power ever will be.

The relatively small volume of nuclear waste permits us to let decades pass without having to decide what to do with it. During this time, mankind continues shamelessly to release each year over 25 billion tonnes of CO2 as well as millions of tonnes of highly toxic industrial waste – in addition to sulfur dioxide, the source of acid rain, ashes, heavy metals, nitrogen oxides, pathogenic and cancer causing particles. Our civilization also produces vast quantitites of household and industrial waste, some of which so-called special wastes – are very poisonous and they will be with us forever, since they are chemically stable.

The term 'half life' refers to the amount of time it takes for half the atoms in radioactive material to decay or how rapidly the nucleus is breaking away naturally. The longer the half life the less radioactive the material because the rate of decay is slower with less particles or rays being emitted per hour.  An example is salt substitute which emits 90% beta and the rest in gamma but has a half life of over a  billion years so is very weakly radioactive.

Scientists and other specialists in the field  are working on nuclear waste disposal solutions,  but currently the most practical option available is to bury the waste half a kilometer under the earth in a stable geological area that has not moved for millions of years.  The idea is the land will continue to remain undisturbed for a few thousand years more so the levels of radioactivity will decline to the point where it is no longer hazardous.  The design of these facilities has had assessments for worse case scenarios including geological changes and human intrusion and they ensure the impact on the environment would be below the current regulatory limits.

The safety of geological disposal has been demonstrated in nature. Until about two thousand million years ago natural reactors moderated by natural currents of water operated inter-mittently for millions of years at a uranium ore deposit beneath Gabon in Africa.  None of the waste remains radioactive today as it has completely decayed.  Throughout that time the material produced during the nuclear fission reaction hardly moved from its original location,  the furtherest movement was 3 meters. That "waste" remains in the sedimentary rocks, in or near each natural reactor, without even being dispersed or carried away by the ground water and this waste was not carefully confined as it is today.

The cost of nuclear waste disposal and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants is set aside by the nuclear industry and included in the cost of electricity and billed to the end users. This cost represents less than 5% of the total cost of electricity generation. Funds committed for nuclear waste are $35.8 billion (1/10th of a cent per kWh of electricity generated at nuclear power plants plus interest since 1983). Of the $35.8 billion, $10.8 billion has been spent. Payments to the Nuclear Waste Fund are included in the fuel costs.

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