This was one of the biggest issues about nuclear power for me personally, before I started reading up more about it. Nuclear waste was a disaster waiting to happen. How could we justify producing any amount of energy if – bear with me – that meant risking that large areas of the earth become barren wastelands, should anything go wrong?
This, in reality, is the image that most people have. I won’t scoff at it, because I once held it myself. The feeling is, that should anything go wrong with nuclear waste, the problems would be on the scale of making entire countries, perhaps even continents, uninhabitable.
I remember a line from a song from the popular Finnish band Ultra Bra, which I used to sing to myself as a teenager. Rough translation: “I was eight years old, looking / for a remote place in the map / that would avoid the fallout.” (As it happens, the band’s lyrics writer became a politician for the Finnish Green Party, opposing nuclear power.) Whether that suggested fallout was to be from nuclear war or nuclear power gone bad, I didn’t much differentiate that in my mind – everything filed under the world ‘nuclear’ was ‘dystopian world’ -level dangerous stuff. Right?
I thought that nuclear power, because of the existence of immeasurably long-lived radioactive waste, simply had risks way above and beyond any other energy form. In this light it was entirely reasonable to reject nuclear power, period. The thinking behind it is quite startling when you spell it out loud:
We don’t need to look at the data on the risks of nuclear waste. We just ‘know’ already.
I’ve learned the hard way that ‘just knowing’ can be a risky position, as our ideas don’t always match reality. Every now and then we should stop and consider whether what we think is indeed true. This includes reading about what actually happened with accidents like at Chernobyl (see WHO summary) or Fukushima (overview by a radiation expert over at Popular Mechanics: Fukushima five years later), as well as looking into what we actually know about the handling of nuclear waste.
Initially, I was prompted to do just that when my friend, who was also formerly anti-nuclear, told me of her work during her studies in radiochemistry:
I wondered if there could be some way, somehow, that things could go wrong. What if the waste would leak out from its casing and into the bedrock? I was involved in the research on the storage of nuclear waste to study just that. […] Each [radioactive] solution was mixed with the rock material and left to incubate for a few days. When we returned to measure the level of radioactivity in the solution, well. It was no longer radioactive.
All radioactive material had been absorbed by the rock. None was left in the liquid phase. So really, should there be a leak from the containers in the repository, […] the radioactivity would not actually get anywhere – it would just bind to the rock.
That’s when I started thinking: maybe these guys really know what they are doing.
My friend’s insight reflects the actual data of radiation leak scenarios quite well. The risks associated with nuclear waste have been studied thoroughly. However, that data is rarely brought up – even by the fiercely anti-nuclear organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. One might ask oneself why. Why won’t the large activist organisations use the data to highlight what actually could happen with nuclear waste?
The Finnish Radiation Safety Authority (STUK) assessed several safety evaluations during the preparations for the Onkalo nuclear waste repository in Finland. Their worst case scenario is summarised well in this excellent collection of research on nuclear safety by Janne Korhonen and his banana infographic:
This is the worst-case scenario from the externally reviewed Posiva 2009 Biosphere Assessment Report (Hjerpe et al. 2010, p.137 in particular). […] Note that even if the canisters begin to leak immediately, the maximum exposure occurs only after some 10 000 years (AD 12 000) as it will take time for the radioactive materials to migrate to the surface. After AD 12 000, doses will fall steadily.
Considering the studies done on long-term storage, I allowed myself to accept that there was probably a lot of safety involved in handling of the waste. Great. But that didn’t quite manage to remove my discomfort about it, because it’s not so easy to wipe away the years of emotional baggage that I had grown up with. That became especially clear to me when I found myself jumping up from my seat when I read the news about a new technological innovation:
What if we could get rid of the waste?
There were a new type of reactors. The first exciting thing was that these reactors came with a fail-safe: if the process would lose electricity, the nuclear fuel would automatically drain off to a containment tank and cool off – no power, no fission, no meltdown (this is just one example – more about other passive safety means in the update paragraph further below). Compare this to the old tech: for the reaction not to overheat, cooling systems had to stay online. They were kept safe by a several back-up cooling systems, whereas several newer generation reactors (also those already in operation) have an operating safety that is an entire level above those older nuclear technologies: a passively safe operation principle.
But the truly exciting thing was to hear that the new reactors could run on existing nuclear waste.
Phenomenal news! The new process could extract vastly much more energy from the existing waste, leaving only a fraction of the amount of radioactive waste left – which, to top it off, would only be radioactive for a few hundred years. Factoring in what I already knew about the safety of long-term storage, the weight of the emotionally uncomfortable waste-conundrum began to lift from my shoulders. It was clear to me that if we could get rid of nuclear waste, then we definitely should. So, the ultimate solution to nuclear waste was this: we should build new nuclear power plants!
To quote an article in Scientific American in 2005, Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste:
Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated.
These Generation IV ‘fast reactors’ are not only a theoretical possibility, they already exist. In fact, many prototypes and small scale reactors were built as early as in the 1940s. France recently restarted one of its reactors specifically to experiment with spent nuclear fuel in 2003 – but developing these technologies has not exactly been easy when the popular atmosphere and the following political power has been indiscriminately hostile toward any solution including the words ‘nuclear power’. This despite an entire array of safer and more efficient nuclear technologies in the pipeline (breeder reactors, fast reactors, small modular reactors, molten salt reactors, using thorium for fuel etc, see more) with drastic reductions to the amount of waste produced.
Update: helpful experts have pointed out to me that there are several ways that the passive safety principles (not only with molten salt reactors type where a frozen plug melts, but other solutions that work with gravity, freely circulating air with sodium cooling etc,) exist, and even current light water reactors have incorporated several levels better safety mechanisms. More about Russian working examples of Integral Fast Reactors that can process fuel here and here. Good overviews of all different reactor types by Instititue for Energy Environmental here, as well as by a non-profit young engineer site here.
It is only in the last decade or two that scientists (Top US Climate Scientists Support Nuclear Power), engineers (Transatomic, Safer Nuclear Power At Half The Price) and environmentalists (It’s Time For Environmentalists To Give Nuclear a Fair Go) have began standing up and trying to pin the importance of nuclear power back onto the map of public awareness.
There is waste, and then there’s nuclear waste – worlds apart?
Enthusiastic about this new type of technology, and worried about the trajectory of climate change, I became more interested in questions of energy in general. Discussions on nuclear power turned out to be very tricky, however, and following the reasoning of a great number of conversation participants helped me pinpoint something I had been guilty of myself, too, all this time:
I had considered nuclear waste in a vacuum. I had not thought we’d need to compare nuclear waste to any other type of waste resulting from other energy forms. Why should we? Those wastes were not as dangerous! The convenient idea of a ‘near zero risk’ scenario as an alternative to nuclear power, had been creeping somewhere in the back of my mind. But that zero-risk scenario does not exist.
We can only put risks in proper context if we compare them to the risks of avoiding those risks.
Our brains are wired to notice big, red, unusual, and alarming signals, while ignoring more mundane, unclear, gradual and constant risks. Air pollution? We breathe all the time and we’re still here. It doesn’t end up on the brain’s ‘red list’ the same way. Wind and solar tech with rare earth minerals, mining waste, future landfills sites stuffed with problematic elements? These wastes are also toxic, but they just don’t ring our bells. Mining of rare earth minerals and the toxic waste left over from that process (which is also radioactive, by the way) is an actual dystopian wasteland -level disaster in Baotou, China, at this very moment, but this does not really get on our radar. Mining operations, in fact, all result in harmful consequences to the environment, and the volumes of materials needed are a major factor in that impact. Nuclear’s material requirements per energy produced, and thus its mining waste, are considerably much lower than most other energy forms.
If we talk about how we might safely handle these other types of wastes, our brain does not shut down and say ‘But what if? We just can’t take the risk!’
The risks of other types of energy generation and their waste don’t really even enter the picture. Those are complex manageable problems, and many appear to think it petty to even try to compare them to nuclear waste. I’ll examine these problems in more detail below – but first, let me underline the perversity of the discussion. Nuclear is usually not even allowed to come to the same starting line where pros and cons could be weighed against each other, not even if the alternative is to produce more of other waste…
- which is orders of magnitude larger in volume,
- which causes vastly greater health problems,
- which the corresponding industries do not have to take responsibility over,
- or which even causes more radioactive contamination than nuclear waste.
I was floored when I realized how vastly much larger were the scale of the waste problems, the seriousness of their health implications, and their radioactive contamination issues with the waste from coal.
Meanwhile, all actual data on the health burdens of renewable energy forms indicated a very similar level of harm as nuclear energy.
How could it be that we were still talking about nuclear waste in a vacuum?
Firstly, radiation is not exclusive to nuclear waste
People fear nuclear waste because it is radioactive. Radioactivity, in our mind, is a mysterious and dramatic killer. Through human history, the existence of radiation was not on our radar – we have no way to sense it. The fact that the bedrock and soil naturally contain fair amounts of uranium and radon is not something naturally included in our world view. The way we think about radiation is a bit as if we thought that the idea of fire would only refer to forest fires or volcanic eruptions, not candles, torches, and fireplaces.
We don’t stop to find out more – like the fact that the nuclear industry contributes less than 0.1% to the background radiation we are exposed to, of which 80% is entirely natural.
If radiation hazard still were the number one worry, we would actually have even more reason to replace coal with nuclear. That way, we would produce less radioactive waste that spreads into the environment, and would diminish our radiation exposure.
Secondly, fossil fuel waste – the REAL alarm bells
Burning of coal frees coal ash into the air – and coal ash contains uranium and thorium, concentrated from all the carbon that has been burned away. Because there is so incredibly much more waste from coal than nuclear – about a thousand times more per kW produced – coal ash spreads a considerable amount of radiation into the air. Scientific American had an article about this in 2007, Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste:
Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.
But even so, the risks to human health from the radiation from either, nuclear or coal, are actually very very low. The really big killer is particulate air pollution from burning of fossil fuels, which kill millions every year.
Let that sink in. While human lives lost to renewables and nuclear are on the same – very low – levels, fossil fuel use causes hundreds of thousands, to millions, of deaths each year. WHO estimates that outdoor air pollution costs 3 million lives yearly. Coal plants and transport are not alone in producing air pollution, but they are responsible for a lion’s share of it. Considering that normal nuclear waste has actually not caused any health impacts so far, and is not expected to do so either, let’s compare this instead to the worst effects of nuclear power in human history: the Chernobyl disaster. As Korhonen summarises the reports, even taking Greenpeace’s own highly biased figures into consideration:
300 largest coal plants in Europe are alone responsible for some 22 000 excess deaths per year. The figure does not include risks of CO2 pollution. If we therefore believe Greenpeace’s own reports, if the price of the closure of only the 300 largest coal power plants in Europe was a Chernobyl-scale disaster every ten years, that would be an improvement in public health.
To quote George Monbiot from the Guardian: “while nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong.”
The true comparison between energy forms
If we are serious about protecting human health as well as that of the environment, we need to step above our gut reactions, our ‘we just know’ estimates on the problems of different energy forms, and we need start comparing all the external costs (all risks and health impacts) from each type of energy – estimates that take into account the impacts from mining, operating, and waste.
Such comparisons have been done. They find nuclear to be the among the safest (and some the safest) energy form per kW produced. Unfortunately simply stating that doesn’t really ‘work’. People who hear that either simply won’t believe it, or think that the analyses can’t actually take into account that mysterious, catastrophic kind of risks they feel nuclear power must carry.
An EU-funded project Ecofys, also presented in the book Climate Gamble, and in the nuclear safety article by Janne Korhonen, has analysed the impacts and concludes them like this:
We should look at the risk of nuclear waste in perspective
The waste from nuclear energy isn’t anywhere near as mysterious or dramatic as most of us have grown up to believe. Like fire, radiation is certainly capable of causing great harm if handled inappropriately. You shouldn’t put your un-shielded hand into an open fire, just like you shouldn’t handle very radioactive materials without protective layers. But you can extinguish a candle flame with wet fingertips, and you can handle and even eat radioactive materials. Such as bananas and avocados – or any number of other foods. Because radiation, like heat, is not a an either/or danger. It is the dose that makes the poison.
We tend to think that if radioactive waste exists somewhere, its mere existence carries with it an immeasurable risk. But it is actually much harder for radioactive material to cause problems than we would imagine. For the radiation to cause any significant health problems, it needs to reach us in considerable dosage. It would have to get transported, somehow, while remaining in a highly enough concentrated form.
But wouldn’t some natural or man-made disaster be able to distribute nuclear waste out from its stores?
It is certainly a scenario that is within the realm of possibility – especially if we talk about the temporary storage above ground (which, in the case of basically all other harmful types of wastes, from other energy forms and other industries, is the status quo). Any type of problematic waste has a certain chance of being suddenly distributed where it shouldn’t be, say, by an explosion or a tsunami. Considering the small volume and few sites of nuclear waste, and the types of protective containment, the risks, again, however, are not dystopian level disasters. Radiation is not a danger above and beyond any harm – it is simply one type of harm among others. Existence of risk is not basis for rational decision making – realistic comparisons to other types of risks, and taking steps to reduce those risks, is the way to go.
If we are talking about the actual long term repositories, such a scenario is so unlikely that it is more a point of scientific curiosity rather than part of a realistic risk assessment. If, say, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption would, against all odds, disrupt a previously stable location in the middle of a tectonic plate of bed rock, where the waste was stored, it could bring nuclear waste out of its containment in some form, and expose it to the elements. What would happen then?
It is a little known fact that we actually have a number of startling natural experiments of just such scenarios, in the form of nuclear waste from natural nuclear fission reactors.
Natural nuclear power plants – a 2 billion year experiment in nuclear waste storage
In Gabon, West Africa, some 1.7 billion years ago, groundwater flowing through a rich deposit of uranium ore (comparable grade to the fuel used in power plants) resulted in constantly recurring 3-hour cycles of fission chain reaction during hundreds of thousands of years. These 16 natural reactor sites are estimated to have consumed five tons of Uranium 235. Many papers have been published analysing them, for instance: 2 billion year old natural analogs for nuclear waste disposal: the natural nuclear fission reactors in Gabon (Africa). It has also been covered at length in a blog on the Scientific American.
So what happened to their waste? To quote the book Climate Gamble (page 64):
Despite the fact that these reactors and their waste were for the most part close to ground and in contact with flowing streams of ground water for the unimaginable stretch of time during which the shapes of the continents were transformed beyond recognition and life itself evolved to all its current splendor, most of the dangerous waste had traveled less than a few meters from its point of origin.
This goes against all the notions of harm from nuclear waste products that I grew up with. Because…
…our ideas about nuclear waste generally have very little to do with reality.
To actually make decisions that will benefit humans and the environment, however, basing our ideas on reality is a must.
Nuclear power is the only energy form which does collect and take permanent responsibility for all its waste products. The discussion about the safety of the long term storage of nuclear waste is, quite literally, bananas: while direct exposure to high level radiation is certainly harmful, delivering that harm into the environment is far slower and less efficient than we think. The worst case scenario from a leak would amount to a person eating two extra bananas per year, for the people living directly atop that leak. In fact, even completely natural, near-ground stores of nuclear waste from natural fission reactors in West Africa, freely in contact with groundwater, have passively remained in perfect containment for soon two billion years.
Nuclear has, in effect, a safer way to handle its wastes than do most other energy forms. Even so, there is hopefully no reason to leave the spent fuel in containment for long. That fuel has given up only a few percent of its energy, and the already existing fourth generation fast reactors can use more than 90% of those stores, producing more low-carbon energy, diminishing the waste to a fraction again in volume, and rendering it into a type that will run out of its radiation in a few hundred years. No residues of arsenic, cadmium, lead, chromium, or mercury – distributed into the atmosphere or collected in landfills – from renewable and coal wastes can boast the same profile of being rendered harmless with time.
Something I didn’t even have time to get into, is that nuclear power also offers a way to use up another quite dangerous waste: the reserves of nuclear weapons. There are not that many other ways to actually get rid of those stockpiles of plutonium, but nuclear power can do that too.
Just the other day someone told me that “unlike nuclear, coal won’t explode and contaminate your whole country.” It is deeply ironic that people believe the one energy form, that has contaminated the whole globe (without even needing the help of accidents), is better than the one which could actually save those millions of lives that fossil fuel contamination costs, while contributing less than an extra 0.1% to the natural radiation ‘contamination’ of the world.
UPDATE: in addition to reading more about the waste, I have now also widened my perspectives by visiting a Swiss nuclear waste interim repository and handling facility! You can read more about that in Warming My Hands on Nuclear Waste.
Thank you for reading
I really hope you, the reader, believe that my motivation is only the best of the environment and humankind. Please, let’s talk about these things sincerely. If there ever was an issue so important as to warrant really looking at the best science and the best understanding we have, then this is it! We can’t let the fate of the world rest on assumptions alone. In order to fight climate change, alleviate poverty and human suffering, and preserve the biodiversity of our planet, we really need to be interested in what the evidence says.
I truly believe we all want the best for nature, humans, and the planet. Let’s respect that, and look for the answers sincerely, with our minds open to the evidence.
This article was updated June 2021, replacing the older US Department of Energy data on material requirements (as presented by Environmental Progress), with a fresh new chart from International Energy Agency on mineral requirements. More discussion on the more recent estimates on concrete, steel, and other materials by Bright New World here.
For more of my articles on climate and energy, look here. Even better idea, however, is to read the short, evidence-dense book Climate Gamble or browse the graphs in their blog. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.
Thank you for this article. As for possible future nuclear reactors that could use “waste” as fuel, Bill Gates company Terrapower is working on one http://terrapower.com/technologies/mcfr Also, a similar one to Terrapower is Elysium Industries https://www.elysiumindustries.com/technology-1/ . Canada’s SNC-Lavalin has signed a memorandum of understanding with China to develop the Advanced Fuels CANDU Reactor “The reactor reuses used fuel from light water reactors.” http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/C-Canada-and-China-team-up-on-AFCR-2309164.html . Finally, the EBR-II that was close to commercialization over 20 years ago in USA (but was cancelled during Clinton adminstration) seems to be getting rejuvenated https://www.icef-forum.org/platform/speakers/2017/topic6/ICEF2017_CS3-3_Eric_P_Loewen_fin.pdf
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Thank you for the input! This article got longer and longer, and still I feel I could have kept adding so much important info. Especially the when where and which types of reactors, that was definitely one of those topics still lacking.
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Very thorough and clear explanation.
Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of Elysium Industries
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The source of waste: High-level and long-lived waste is produced when radiation damaged and incompletely used solid fuel rods are removed from the reactor and this solid fuel is not reprocessed thereafter.
The liquid-fuels are not prone to radiation damage. Fuel can be kept in the reactor as long as 40 years (Reference: ORNL-TM-7207 Denatured Molten Salt Reactor). And these liquid-fuel reactors may cost less than other advanced technologies, if given a chance to prove.
However actinides in solid fuels can be reprocessed and reused to reduce long-lived waste.
There are two types of solid-fuel reprocessing techniques. Pyroprocessing and aqueous processing (PUREX for plutonium fuel cycle & THOREX for thorium fuel cycle)
The fast reactors with integrated reprocessing employ pyro-processing which involves dissolving solid fuels in molten-salts and seperating unused fuel and minor-actinides. Pyro-processing is efficient and proven in EBR-2.
The currently employed technique is aqueous processing which is established but very inefficient and costly.
I agree that ANY type nuclear waste is more manageable than carbon-dioxide and methane from coal, hydro reservoirs or natural gas. But this should not be used as an argument against nuclear innovation and to prevent the development of pyro-processing and liquid-fuel reactors.
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Actually, the reuse of nuclear waste was part of the original plan. Since, quite obviously, it is much better to use nuclear material several times, and to reduce the amount of waste that has to be deposited. Consistenty, plants like Sellafield in the UK or la Hague in France were built.
Writing from Germany, I remember that there was a breeder reactor in Kalkar in the 70s and violent fights in Bavaria (Wackersdorf) where a nuclear plant like Sellafield was about to be built in the 80s. Chernobyl stopped the latter project, and Fukushima finished off nuclear energy here some 25 years later.
Thus, today, we have a lot of nuclear waste, a large CO2 burden (since nuclear power had to be replaced by coal), wind mills all over the place, and a Green movement that wants to shut down coal power stations in due time. I am not surprised to learn that this does not look too attractive from the outside, and that clean(er) and safe(r) nuclear energy is making a comeback.
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I have been curious about nuclear power for several months now, wondering whether my previously-held view of it being nothing but death, doom and destruction was accurate. I wanted to look into it, as I’ve looked into materials debunking many other of my old biases, but was unsure where to start. Thank you so very much for this article, and the links of your sources! I look forward to reading through this information!
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We have a small community that might help you. Heaps of awesome links about nuclear.
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Thank you for this thoughtful and well-constructed argument.
I hope that this gives people pause when they consider voting against nuclear power or even giving credence to popular movies, literature or memes that suggest that nuclear power will be the death of us all, when in fact, we tolerate millions of premature deaths each year from environmental pollution produced by other forms of electrical power production that we’ve chosen as “safer” alternatives.
Perhaps we aren’t assessing risk correctly?
I also find it ironic that the anti-nuclear anything movement has only succeeded in thwarting the beneficial uses of nuclear power while doing very little to disarm the vast nuclear weapons arsenals. To them I say, please stop trying to help humanity…. we’d be better off without your efforts!
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Dear Billy Gogesch, I very heartily agree with your last paragraph. So far as I know, there has been no trace of an anti-nuclear outrage against Bill Clinton’s allowing the DoJ to require of the DoE that the upgrade to its civilian Watts Bar reactor under the TVA authority should include provision for making tritium, the hydrogen isotope essential to the “H-bomb” stage of thermonuclear weapons. Tritium in storage wastes away, precisely because it is radioactive.
The level of hypocrisy in this is underlined by the Clinton administration’s ending of the IFR project in 1994, about three years before its scheduled “completion”, but eight years after it had shown, before the infamous Chernobyl meltdown, that it was meltdown immune.
Sadly, blunders are not limited to a single administration… nor are they all in the past. The current insistence on tying nuclear power to coal power is a connection I do not understand and it does not serve to put nuclear power in the positive light it deserves. It’s almost as if they are tying to float a sinking rock by tying it to something that is having trouble treading water in the current muddy water of public opinion.
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Excellent article. Thank you!
A couple of quibbles WRT the diagram comparing radiation though:
The diagram compares various sources of radiation one might receive but that’s over a lifetime. I question the concept of total lifetime dose as that fails to factor in the effects of biological repair mechanisms. It would be much more appropriate to compare dose rates, it seems to me.
Another nit, that the diagram uses mrems; Can we not simply drop the multiple units in use that mean the same thing? Why can’t we settle with the use of Gray for emissions and Seivert for biological effect? It seems to me that using these different units just confuses the layman audience.
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Yes, one thing I did not even have time to go into is the hormesis effect, and how the timeline of exposure makes the harm/vs not harm or even a benefit even more complicated.
And I agree about the units! I would prefer to always use sieverts. I just did not find handy graphics with those units, for whatever reason.
Thanks a lot for your input!
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Yes, once again thank you for your efforts. This is the process for Canada’s spent fuel repository https://www.nwmo.ca/en/Canadas-Plan/About-Adaptive-Phased-Management-APM. Following it from the perspective of a lay person living in a community that put itself forward as a potential site, the process has been remarkably sympathetic to whether it will improve well being in the area long term. I honestly believe the community that supports and receives the sight will benefit greatly.
As far as risk, I ran across a book on the history of Atomic Energy Canada a few years ago. It was a fascinating story about how a small (by population) country came to develop the very successful CANDU reactor. Long before they ever set about building the commercial reactors though they were thinking the waste management process through. Two things stood out.
One was that they never expected to use the fuel as a once thru and bury system. Back in the late 50’s uranium 235 was thought to be a scarce commodity, so they planned to reprocess. What happened was in part due to the fact it turned out to be much more abundant and cheaper than they anticipated. Even with the relative abundance now though, it would be incredibly foolish to bury that resource with no plan in place to re-use in new reactors. That would be a disservice to future generations I believe.
The other notable for me was that in testing they took spent fuel and mixed it with vitrified glass, then buried it just below the water table with the thought of watching the radio-activity move thru the test environment. It turned out the movement was so slow and so small to be almost un-measurable, so they remixed the waste material with a poorer quality medium to try to get it to move more significantly. In the end biological processes tied up the radio-activity long before it could reach the adjacent water body. Just as your friend found in her studies.
So in many ways I think the repositories being planned are robust to the extreme as far as environmental safety.
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It is very fascinating to hear you enlighten us more with your experiences and insight into the Canadian system. I think it’s a great pity that the more exact nature of nuclear waste and it’s ability to move (or more precisely, not move much!) in the environment is not more common knowledge.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Advanced nuclear reactors that can burn used nuclear fuel can just as well burn the DU tails from enrichment plants — which is far more plentiful, and don’t require any special handling (DU is used as radiation shielding in hospitals), licensing the use of DU is far cheaper than radioactive used fuel, nor does it require large-scale homogenization like used nuclear fuel (uneven U235 depletion, especially in the axial direction of reactors & fuel assemblies) – an important aspect for predictable safe operation of reactors, required for licensing.
As such, nobody is going to touch used LWR fuel for a very long time, regardless of where it’s stored.
Much longer term planning seems in order.
TerraPower for one, already said they’re going for DU fuel in their TWRs, rather than SNF.
It’s all about costs and regulatory hurdles.
SNF isn’t attractive in either category (although recycling may be government mandated, like with other waste materials).
Moreover, even if used fuel were somehow to become popular for FBRs, the vast majority of that material is U238 (much like DU), and the time it would take to use it all up — even with large-scale FBR deployment — would be several thousand years.
So that means that a lot of the used fuel ends up having to be stored for some thousands of years regardless.
Hence why DGRs are preferable to surface storage, regardless of whether future generations decide to burn LWR used fuel – or not.
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Thanks for this very interesting post! However, I’m very uneasy about suggestions that we should use fast reactors as a way to deal with the nuclear waste “problem”. My impression is that it is best not to go along with the anti-nuclear lobby’s narrative about nuclear waste being such a problem. You do a great job of explaining how nuclear waste can be contained safely. Let’s just leave it at that. The history of fast reactors hasn’t been good. Whilst conventional nuclear power has produced affordable, clean power; attempts at using fast reactors have rather “let the side down” -with little power produced despite vast expense and significant risk. My view about fast reactors has been coloured by this link (admittedly by an anti-nuclear group) : http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf
Thanks for your interest in my post! I wonder, could you elaborate on what you see as the ‘significant risk’ with Integral Fast Reactors? I have a difficulty seeing which type of risk you might be referring to. These power plants have been in operation in Russia for years, even commercially, and newer types are expected to come into wider user within the next decade. They operate with passive safety principles (which leads to the reactor cooling passively at the loss of power) and they minimize waste. They are also able to use the plentiful Uranium 238, and AFAIK, are currently using Russian plutonium, using up nuclear weapons material. Here’s a presentation of the Russian power plants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5q7gP1q9zM&app=desktop and the prospects of building more of their kind. http://tass.com/economy/973209
All the information I can find points toward a reduced risk, if anything, which is true already for many Gen2, and all Gen 3 and Gen 4 nuclear reactor types, as I have understood it.
Thanks again for reading. Please let me know if you have specific concerns that you can enlighten me of.
+Some of the real nuclear experts at Los Alamos or Oak Ridge have stated, no doubt correctly that a bomb could be made from this, that, or the other type of nuclear waste. I have little doubt that such real nuclear experts could do so.
But with their level of expertise, or that of anybody that could also do it, surely the way that Little Boy and Fat Man were made is easier?
Thought provoking and enlightening article (for me at least). Thank you for researching and sharing it.
Allow me to share the perspective of many rational people out there with little access to hard data (counting myself tenatively among them). For them, their reluctance towards atomic energy revolves around its perception as an existential risk (https://futureoflife.org/background/existential-risk/). To many people switching fully to an atomic future is like playing with “super safe black hole generators” on planet earth.
In basic risk management terms, the benefit becomes irrelevant if the risk becomes infinite.
A somewhat clumsy analogy would be the following:
You are asked to play a game of Russian roulette using a gun with 1000 chambers. If you win you become the richest person in the world (or whatever mythical reward you can think of). If you lose, you die. Would you play the game? Most people would answer negatively because no matter what the benefit is, the existential threat potential renders the benefit irrelevant.
Therefore I believe the atomic energy discussion shall focus on studying and quantifying the existential threat of large scale atomic energy utilization.
Your article provides some good arguments and thank you for that
We need to take a risk-based approach to these climate change, excess CO2 emissions, excess combustible fuel use and excess air pollution emissions problems http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/making-sense-of-nuclear/
Interesting report. Thanks for sharing. To be honest though I find statements included in the report like the following:
“[quote] This showed that the effect of exposures at Chernobyl has been an increase in cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents in Ukraine, Belarus and the four most affected regions of the Russian Federation. Up until 2005, 6,848 cases were reported in those under the age of 18 at the time of exposure. Only 15 of these proved fatal as thyroid cancer is mostly treatable.33 [unquote]
to be highly problematic. Especially if you read the original UNSCEAR report it drew data from:
Click to access 11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf
It concerns me that the increase in children thyroid cancer is not acknowledged for what it is i.e a significant spike of cases. It mostly concerns me that it is downplayed so casually since “it is mostly treatable”
This is intersting really, all of it. And thank you all for providing such a wealth of balanced data, or at least looked at with nuanced considerations.
Regarding radiation from radioactivity, the big opinion issue is it’s the invisible killer to the layman. Even though it is rather thoroughly understood how it interacts with organic and inorganic matter. If we could convince people that UV from the sun is dangerous AND it is manageable…well then applying this to ionizing or particulate radiation becomes a matter of demystifying it for the public.
Likewise with air particles, chemical contamination from rare earths or even pesticides…i just believe radiation from radioactive elements gets a comparatively bad rap due to unfortunate ignorance.
Another big issue muddying the considerations is that mining and infrastructure are fields with a low number of projects, high visibility, and unfortunately almost always associated with some form of corruption or mis-management…see how the EPR in Finland project was handled by Areva for example. Combine this to a general attitude of secrecy and lobbying…the layman will hate. And who could blame regular joes and jane for that?
Lastly regarding the Tchernobyl and Fukushima numbers, in both cases the governments and concerned managing entities have tried hiding, obfuscating or downright lying to the public. Hence the numbers and attitude regarding victims and impacts tend to vary wildly…
I realise I am merely pointing out issues, but I believe naming them is the first step to finding solutions.
And I’m not saying that nuclear energy should be praised or promoted over anything, but I believe a combination of education and transparency would allow the public to make their mind up adequately. Unfortunately rational discussion does not make easy ratings in the news…
My current opinion is that nuclear must be part of our energy future. And that MSR and SFR should both be pursued and could even be complementary. I believe renewables will be a beautiful addition to the grid. I believe coal oil and gas need to be edged out.
I’m eager to be convinced otherwise.
One thing I’m not clear on is risk of weapons proliferation related to the various spent fuel approaches, like long term storage, reprocessing or use in fast breeder reactors. Proliferation risk seems to be the fall back argument for those who want to see no further use of nuclear generation.
I recall that was one of the reasons offered by the Clinton/Gore gov’t when the US cancelled its apparently successful fast breeder program in the mid ’90’s.
I’d be pleased with guidance around this.
This might interest you Robert:
Nuclear energy programs do not increase likelihood of proliferation, Dartmouth study finds
BTW, the full paper is available on SciHub, using the DOI #
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The notion that used nuclear fuel is usable for making bombs appears to be another lie, that is repeated by people who have believed the lie.
We live in a Universe comprised of matter and radiation, where too little of either is just as deadly as too much.
The U.S. NRC Linear No-Threshold Standards, including the title of the NRC Proposed Rule, should be revised to reflect what we now know about radiation, and the need for humans to balance the benefits of radiation with the risks. Relevant Risk Assessment processes, as recommended by the EPA, have to be applied in a more balanced way, in order to insure the continued survival of our species:
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You could also argue that the consequences of a major natural catastrophe capable of exposing vast amounts of radioactive waste would be far greater than the radioactivity. Like Fukushima: the news coverage regarding the radioactivity leak was equal if not greater than for the actual tsunami. But the latter has been far more destructive!
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Have you considered the possibility that you were the recipient of a well executed and financed propaganda campaign designed to implant fear of radiation?
When people fear radiation and resist nuclear energy, there are both direct and indirect benefits received by all of the competitive sources of power. Coal, natural gas and oil interests are famously powerful and skilled marketers. Wind, solar, and other forms of popular energy have also proven to be skillful marketing message producers.
As is the case in political campaigns, it is difficult to argue with the fact that “going negative” is often quite effective. My studies of the energy industry lead me to believe that the propaganda effort began far earlier than most realize; I’ve currently dated it to 1930 when the world’s energy suppliers were warned at a major conference held in Berlin that their products might be replaced by “sub-atomic energy.”
The speaker that provided the warning was one of the world’s most knowledgable astrophysicists, Sir Arthur Eddington.
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For evidence for this position I like to link to this:
& tell people to click on the name of the person who funded FotE to see where he got his money.
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Fantastic, Rod! I didn’t know about this, but as an atheist Eddington is my favourite proof that strange as it may seem, a theist can indeed be a first class scientist. But I think it’s even harder for a biologist to believe in a benevolent Creator, than for a physicist.
A yes, Eddington; an astrophysicist, nuclear science wasn’t mature enough to wear diapers when he was important and he was a member of the British royal society during both world wars when most of the advances on the physics that allowed nuclear science to eventually proliferate was being done by Germans. In the end, overwhelmed by the evidence that suggested that Einstein could prove the golden boy(tm) Newton wrong, he deviced that it had to be a British expedition the one that proved Einstein right to keep at least a modicum of pride and respect, even as his colleagues strongly opposed such possibility. Good fellow if only he could’ve learned to keep his religion outside of the field of science he wouldn’t have fallen into such obscurity.
I honestly prefer the war on currents as a first and straightforward example of how pampered businessmen will waste millions in scaring people out of accepting a product that benefits them in any practical way over pre-established obsolete options that the businessmen have invested into.
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Love the article – big fan of nuclear. Problem is the NGOs and mainstream media who slander the industry and who only seem to support renewables. Nobody ever seems to talk about renewables in terms of waste.
To alphapupfish and others:
It seems to me that D. Trump’s “energy advisors” know exactly what they are doing in presenting nuclear with coal. They are encouraging filthy coal, while also suggesting to the uninformed semi-liberal layfolk that there is an ugly resemblance between coal and its most capable clean replacement.
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Sorry, I didn’t have the time to read the whole article right now, but there was a detail that I found should comment on: you mention that there poeple have “now” invented reactors that can use waste of other reactors, I’d like to set straight that breeder reactors have existed as far as the 50’s, in fact, less developed versions or “unevolved ones” were greatly used by both the US and USSR to nothign short of producing much of their vast arsenal (the one at Chernobyl for example); the breeder works in much the same way as these, only it is more efficient and the uranium and plutonium isn’t taken away by the army, but loaded into the reactor again. Designs for using waste plutonium and such have also existed for quite a while, etc. have existed since pretty much the same time, the first nuclear reactor which would shut down automatically when every possible thing went wrong was built in 1984 (the people who built it tried to make it blow off: shutting down all failsafes, overloading it, and then cutting power; and it failed, proving how safe it was, operations where cancelled by Ronald Reagan just a few weeks after that, due to protests), the problem is that they were either never constructed, cancelled mid-way, closed down right after completion, etc. It comes to no surprise that nuclear scientists believed, before the first nuclear regulation law was enacted in 1977, that by the year 2000 80% of the US energy would be produced at a nuclear power plant. Like how France in 1984 started backing nuclear energy and by 2017 75% of their energy came from that source, if Germany had spent in nuclear what they have in nuclear phase-out and solar and wind farms, they’d have reached 100% by now with surplus.
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Iida, I have been writing about nuclear energy and nuclear fuel storage for several years. Recently I had a couple of people respond in a positive way about my articles. Neither had background in nuclear energy and became fascinated by my fascination about nuclear energy.
The reason I am at this blog site again is because one of those people sent me this link. In other words, he was doing his homework without me guiding him and sharing his discoveries with me. I have been educating people one person at a time and it feels fulfilling.
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Iida, Thanks for the response. Now that I know you go back over older blogs I would like to add a link for some new information that you may not be aware of. Ed Pheil of Elysium Industries has been recorded at several presentations around the world about his fast reactor strategy to use all nuclear fuels, not just SNF. I would encourage you to watch this video several times to get the message that he is presenting. Make sure you listen to all the Q&A discussion because that has some of the best information.
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Great article. Just disagree slightly on one point. I am not sure that there is any such distinction as natural vs unnatural radiation. There is, of course, anthropogenic radiation.
Just the same as there is natural CO2 vs anthropogenic CO2.
Radiation is one of the four fundamental forces of the Universe and is ubiquitous.
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So I posted this great article on Facebook, and was directed to the following AP article from 2011. Now, I know they are using facts without enough perspective and letting people laden with mythology speak out.
But it would be nice to have an authoritative response to this article because it embodies a more developed but still hysterical argument about nuclear waste. Let me know if there is a great published answer or someone wants to write one.
I should have used the actual FB link for the article. This is it. https://www.facebook.com/CampOfTheSacredStone/posts/2333019683653723?comment_id=2333021240320234¬if_id=1554656923686406¬if_t=comment_mention
From the article you linked to:
“Any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how slight, boosts cancer risk, according to the National Academy of Sciences. ”
I have seen the claim that that started as scientific fraud.
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Thank you for writing this article.
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