What about radioactive waste?
1. The amount is very small.
2. It’s all contained and secured.
3. It’s never harmed anybody.
4. It’s not as dangerous as people believe.
5. We know how to handle it safely.
6. It’s not really waste.
1. The most valuable quality of nuclear fuel is its energy density, millions of times greater than the best fossil fuels. Since it takes so little fuel to produce so much energy, it creates a comparatively tiny amount of waste. If powered by coal, your lifetime energy usage would require tons of material and create tons of waste. If powered by nuclear fuel you could hold the required fuel, and the resulting spent material, in one hand.
2. So-called “Nuclear Waste” is actually an argument for nuclear. Nuclear power generation is the only method that contains all of its after product. In the United States, during cool-down in pools of water, the fuel rods lose over 90% of their radioactivity, and are then safely stored in rugged air-cooled dry casks awaiting “permanent disposal”. The dry casks are heavily guarded and virtually impregnable to ballistic attack. The removal of this material by rogue actors is a fear-based fantasy. In other countries the material is often reprocessed to provide fresh nuclear fuel. In France where this is done – and France has produced most of its electricity from nuclear for decades – the waste volume is so small that all of it is stored in sub-floor tubes in one building, after being encased in glass to make it insoluble in water.
3. During the development of nuclear weapons, in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union, there were many incidents of carelessness with radioactive waste. This is not true of the power sector where everything is contained, and the flow of material is followed in exquisite detail. This bookkeeping is so meticulous that it resulted in the discovery of extinct two-billion-year-old natural reactors in Africa, but that’s another story.
4. Storage for “tens of thousands of years”. How often we hear this. We need to have a less superficial and sensationalized understanding of what we are actually dealing with. The most threatening radioactive isotopes produced, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, have half-lives of 30 years which will render them essentially harmless in less than two hundred years – not tens of thousands. It’s important to understand that long half life means low radioactivity and vice-versa, by definition. The material of concern consists of the so-called transuranics, primarily plutonium. These materials do remain “hot” radioactively for thousand of years, but they also consist of only one percent of the spent fuel. If we don’t reuse this material as fuel – which we could do – the volume is so tiny that it can be easily stored geologically if necessary.
5. If we elect to reprocess used nuclear fuel as they do in other counties, vitrifying the tiny fraction which is then waste, we know how to do this. If we elect to bury it all, we know how to do this too. We have already proven this in the U.S. with our Waste Isolation Pilot Plant where we safely secure the high-level waste from our weapons programs. In Finland and Sweden, programs are well under way to do the same thing with domestic power sector waste deep underground. We know how to do this.
6. As stated earlier, the fuel rods that are removed from a conventional nuclear power plant should not be called waste. They are really partially-spent fuels. Most of the material can be recycled back into reactors as fuel. Some of the remaining radioisotopes can even be recovered for practical use in medicine and industry.
For an excellent video on the subject of waster, watch Ultimate Nuclear Waste.