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.
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.