Consumer Energy Report is now Energy Trends Insider -- Read More »

By Russ Finley on Jun 12, 2016 with 5 responses

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.

10 New Nuclear Power Reactors Connected To Grid In 2015, Highest Since 1990

Obama is seeking $10.25 billion to expand research for development of nuclear reactors, clean-vehicle technologies, and energy storage.

The International Energy Outlook 2016 report predicts nuclear will be the single largest low carbon source of electricity by 2040.

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:

Bill Nye the Science Guy Social Primate and Nuclear Energy

Parsing Bill Nye’s Anti-Nuclear Energy Keynote Speech

Terrorists, Nuclear Powerplants, and Snakes

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
  • tetrafluorosilane
  • sulfur dioxide
  • sulfur hexafluoride
  • sodium hydroxide
  • potassium hydroxide
  • hydrochloric acid
  • sulfuric acid
  • nitric acid
  • hydrogen fluoride
  • phosphine
  • arsine gas
  • phosphorous oxychloride
  • phosphorous trichloride
  • boron bromide
  • boron trichloride
  • lead
  • trichloroethane
  • ammonium fluoride
  • phosphorous
  • phosphorous oxychloride
  • diborane
  • 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:

  1. Safety argument
  2. Waste argument
  3. Cost argument
  4. Proliferation argument
  5. Not needed argument

Up next is the cost argument. Stay tuned.

  1. By Forrest on June 13, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Shouldn’t the first step be to reprocess waste? It’s to valuable to bury and by reprocessing the volume is but a percentage of original.

    The cost of space flight is continually decreasing as the safety increasing. If were talking of future solutions that may be acceptable, it would not be outrageous to suggest disposing of nuclear waste by transporting to the sun’s nuclear furnace. Small quantities transport may not be that dangerous, even with an accident. For example, I would think an linear motor like what the defense depart has invented for projectile weapon has enough horsepower capability to propel a very small projectile into space.

    Also, given the rate of technology and science advancement, it’s not outrageous to think the waste may become a valuable commodity. That future generations will not be pleased that we buried such a valuable substance. I still like the idea of storing the stuff in an accessible way.

    I would think robots will continue to become a more valuable tool within the nuclear industry, for inspection, repair, and emergency response. This will be true of competing energy suppliers, as well, but nuclear has very demanding work environment that robots may prove to be very valuable. Another promising or complementary technology developing is the safety of our transportation system. Would not this make transportation of very small quantities of nuclear waste extremely safe and cost effective?

    • By Forrest on June 14, 2016 at 5:12 am

      Recycling. Federal government has sustained investment in R&D and plans to handle nuclear waste by recycling. Current spent nuclear fuel has only utilized 1% of the energy capacity. So, waste disposal not a priority. I read of progress in that the cryogenic process will be obsolete and replace with ambient temperature process. The achievable goal is to utilize all of the hazardous waste per fuel. I guess we can’t rest the future of the country upon the wisdom of antinuclear activist gaining truth from Jane Fonda movies.

    • By Russ Finley on August 19, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      You make several good points above. Although, shooting waste into space is an idea that should stop bouncing around the internet. The cost of a space launch is huge and the odds of an accident are high, not to mention, we may want it for fuel and there is no shortage of places to store it.

  2. By Adam White on June 13, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Alternative energy will prove the greatest transfer of wealth in our generation. I get some real value from this blog. As we enter the end of the oil age and lead the charge into the information age I cant help but believe that soon average and ordinary people will have the ability to build our own personal electrical grids.

    DISRUPTION: An Entrepreneurs Guide…

    Disrupt the natural order of things

  3. By jonno on February 8, 2019 at 11:09 pm

    With the advantage of writing a few years after this blog was originally produced, the answer seems to be Molten Salt Fission. MSRs (molten salt reactors) may be safest when Thorium is the fuel precursor, and wastes are processed to extract the unburnt fuel onsite, and keep running it through the reactor until it’s all burned up; pressurized water reactors, otoh, only use about 4% of their very expensive fuel, for which we’re gonna dig up Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, when we already have millions of years worth of fuel in storage? The big dang deal is that MSRs can burn spent fuel from PWRs, reducing its volume tenfold and turning the remnant radionuclieds into stuff with shorter half-lives, some of which are useful.

    Drop a MSR–there are companies ready to build them right now (ThorCon)–into a power plant to replace the coal/gas-fired boiler, while retaining the expensive turbines and generators and such; being a shipbuilder, ThorCon can first deliver to tidewater, so you use the waste heat for desalinization, and extract the 40 or so useful chemicals from the remnant concentrated brine, including magnesium oxide for carbon-sequestering cement. That’s at least four birds with one stone–I’ll let you figure out which birds–and a pattern solved. We need to solve patterns; we need to feed one industry on the wastes of another, biomimicry, if we’re going to solve climate change.

    And BTW: fission energy with pressurized water reactors is a lot like aviation: It’s very, very safe until there’s an accident, and then hundreds of people die. If many of them die years later of cancer, that radiation release still killed them. Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi–do not try to tell me that pressurized water fission is safe. But molten salt fission just might be, if it’s not built on fault lines and in reach of tsunamis, and it has enough advantages that we should start build plants right fracking now, and refine them as we gain experience with this better–second-generation–nuclear fission technology.

Register or log in now to save your comments and get priority moderation!