Nuclear Energy Waste–Making Mountains Out of Mole Hills
Contrary to what you read in the lay press, nuclear energy is starting to make major headway around the world with a plethora of new technologies (and attendant potential investment opportunities) on the horizon.
Nuclear is currently the biggest contributor to the mighty low-carbon energy quatuor: nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar.
My previous articles on nuclear energy dealt with the scientifically established, statistically irrefutable fact that modern nuclear power stations are one of the safest forms of energy at our disposal:
Some antinuclear commenters tried to turn the discussion towards other antinuclear talking points because they weren’t doing so well with the safety issue argument but my response to them was to stick to the safety issue because I would eventually address the others in their own articles.
Engineers love graphs but the general public, not accustomed to seeing them every day, tend to ignore them. There have been many attempts to convey without graphs how little waste is produced. In the documentary Pandora’s Promise, they showed a football stadium that would contain all spent fuel used in the United States since the invention of nuclear energy. But to some people, this seems like a lot of waste. Images of Coke cans or a hand holding a vitrified glass disc of waste as examples of how much waste would be generated to provide an American with a lifetime of electricity fail because it requires the reader to trust whatever numbers were used to make this claim.
Which is why I created the graphic below. No trust required. All you need are your eyes.
A common recycling bin helps put into perspective just how little waste that cask holds. Also note how small the nuclear waste cask is relative to the people standing next to it, and keep in mind that because that cask is very thick, it tends to greatly exaggerate the amount of waste inside.
Cutaway View of Storage Cask
That power station produces roughly one of those casks every year. I included a picture of the actual fuel rods placed in those casks as they arrived at the nuclear plant. Now look at the coal cars. Each of those cars could hold a couple of casks, or about a decade’s worth of spent fuel rods if not inside of a cask.
What about the waste produced to make that fuel you may be asking? Below is a list of waste produced when making solar panels not including the the waste created mining and processing the silica and aluminum for them. And keep in mind, waste is only a concern if improperly dealt with. When you consider how many solar panels it takes to produce the power of a single nuclear plant, the amount of waste created by solar may be mind boggling, but, like nuclear, as long as it is properly dealt with, it’s not a big problem.
- hydrochloric acid
- trichlorosilane gas
- silicon tetrafluoride
- sulfur difluoride
- sulfur dioxide
- sulfur hexafluoride
- sodium hydroxide
- potassium hydroxide
- hydrochloric acid
- sulfuric acid
- nitric acid
- hydrogen fluoride
- arsine gas
- phosphorous oxychloride
- phosphorous trichloride
- boron bromide
- boron trichloride
- ammonium fluoride
- phosphorous oxychloride
- ethyl acetate
- ethyl vinyl acetate
- ion amine catalyst
- silicon trioxide
- stannic chloride
- tantalum pentoxide
It never ceases to amaze me when an antinuclear commenter uses the cost of waste disposal as an argument against nuclear energy. The willful ignorance and lack of critical thinking would be gob-smacking if it weren’t so …ordinary. How could they never have bothered to Google the topic and read the Wikipedia article about the Nuclear Waste Policy Act? Nuclear power station operators have paid $25 billion into a fund for the government to provide central repositories.
Who are the bad guys here? Answer; the antinuclear energy groups who have successfully lobbied our politicians to prevent the creation of a repository. If you think that the storage of dry casks at nuclear power stations is a suboptimal idea, you can thank them for that.
James Conca over at Forbes wrote an excellent article about a way to outflank the bad guys, which isn’t to have one central repository, but to have lots of deep bore repositories in communities that actually want them and the income they would provide to the community. The antinuclear ideologues would have to go toe-to-toe with citizens who would stand to improve the quality of their lives.
The deep borehole goes down so deep in the crust that the overlying rocks don’t matter. The water table doesn’t matter. The climate doesn’t matter. Human activities don’t matter. And it takes millions of years, if ever, for anything to get up to the surface from that depth in the Earth’s crust.
At these depths, the pressures are quite high, exceeding 15,000 psi for target sites, so most pores are closed and many formation waters are not mobile. And the path lengths needed for travel of contaminants to the shallow crust, where they can enter aquifers and the environment, are incredibly long.
Since no single borehole can hold all the commercial nuclear waste we have, there would be many boreholes around the country, ideally some in every state that has nuclear power.
Deep Borehole Deposit
One of the ah, more imaginative arguments in this category is that some future primitive civilization (an advanced civilization might actually seek them out for fuel) will find its way into one of these repositories. The odds of that happening is slim, to say the least, and the impact of doing so, not very big, especially when they realize this stuff has bad spirits and they rebury it.
There’s only one argument that brings the disingenuous more than the above, and that’s the idea of shooting waste into space. God help us, individually, we’re just not all that bright.
And of course, there is the very real future prospect that this waste will one day be consumed as fuel to provide humanity with centuries of zero carbon power.
OK, I’ve covered the first two items on the following short list:
- Safety argument
- Waste argument
- Cost argument
- Proliferation argument
- Not needed argument
Up next is the cost argument. Stay tuned.