Nuclear Waste Overstated say nuclear proponents

Nuclear waste problem exaggerated say nuclear proponents. They claim there is not a nuclear waste problem and that the amount and potential impact of any waste is overstated. But looking at the scope, cost and complexity and this fails on these 3 grounds.

  1. Technology
  2. Economics
  3. Social and political

Most of the concerns are overwhelmingly focused on “high-level waste”, which is almost entirely spent nuclear fuel. In contrast, medical waste is a very large quantity but the levels of radioactive are low and with short half lives, with other challenges. For more detail on Nuclear Waste, check out this article

What Arguments do Nuclear Proponents have?

Madi Hilly (Twitter handle @MadiHilly) as the founder of the Campaign For a Green Nuclear Deal ( is typical of how you downplay the challenges of waste. Primary arguments ignore the two primary isotopes, U235 and U238. These isotopes decay at a constant rate that has a half-life (i.e., time for the activity to reduce by half) greater than 100 million years. These are still in the waste, and some systems refine waste to pull these out and reuse them. Wikipedia has more details on nuclear waste. The primary product is plutonium. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years and Pu-241’s half-life is 14.4 years. So 2 to 4 half lives will need about 45,000 years.

Three Strategies for Waste Solutions

  1. Short-term is segregation and storage on the surface or near-surface.
  2. Long term by burial in a deep geological repository
  3. Re-use and transmutation to reduce the high level waste

Exaggerated Nuclear Waste Problem – Lets Follow the Processing Steps

  • Nuclear fuel is made up of metal tubes containing small pellets of uranium.
  • These tubes are gathered into bundles for loading and unloading into the reactor.
  • After nuclear fuel has spent about five years in a reactor making energy, it’s placed into a pool of water to cool off for another five years.
  • After another 5 years several bundles are placed inside concrete and steel “casks” and placed in rows next to the reactor.
  • Uranium is very energy dense and the amount of waste is relatively small. All of the fuel rods ever used by the commercial nuclear industry since the late 1950s could fit on a single football field stacked about 50 feet high.
  • No one wants to have this in their backyard
Nuclear Waste Overstated say nuclear proponents
  • When the fuel rods are done in the reactor, over 90% of the potential energy from the uranium is still left in them!
  • Provides an opportunity to recycle the spent fuel and turn it into new fuel, which is already routinely done in Europe, Russia, and Japan.

How is Nuclear Waste Problem exaggerated – Time!

These are the typical discussion points nuclear proponents make

Proponents ArgumentCounter Argument
The main concern associated with spent nuclear fuel – radioactivity – diminishes with time.45,000 years is a long time. We are simply pushing the problem to our grandchildrens grandchildren or more
Plutonium with its half-life of 24,000 years pales in comparison with the oldest human structure are ~10,000 years (just identifiable ruins), durability problems?All man made structures have much lower resilience
About 40 years after it’s done making power, the heat and radioactivity of the fuel bundle will have fallen by over 99%.Concentration is important but so is absolute amount.
Most of the industrial waste we manage never gets less toxic over time.Not true. we hve developed methods to deal wtih toxic wastes. The issue is that most companies transfer the responsibilty to taxpayers
Mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, etc. are all dangerous and remain so forever.Depends on levels, and there are proven scientific and economic pathways
In rich countries, this waste is gathered up and stored without fanfare.Due to EPA and other regulatory bodies
There’s nothing special about radiation that would prevent us from doing this with high-level waste.Has only been possilbe in 1 Western democracy.
The only difference is that high-level waste is much easier to detect and thus easier to monitor.False
Rather than being honest and explaining that 1) radiation does not make nuclear waste uniquely dangerous and 2) dry cask storage at the plant is safe, cheap, and has a flawless record, the industry has attempted to offer technical solutions to what is a political problem.Downplays technical, economic and political considerations
Yucca Mountain is an anti-scientific dumpster fire, eating up public wealth.Issues include hydrology, the inadequacy of the proposed waste package, repository design and volcanism. The Yucca site is seismically and volcanically active, porous and incapable of geologically containing the waste.
Yucca Mountain $15 billion flushed for no benefit.Discounted benefits and risks. It was a poor decision at the start by the corporations desperate for any solution. Cannot help stupid.
Scientists and engineers abuse public trust when they pretend we must bury nuclear waste deep underground or put it in the middle of a desert.The concentration of uranium is key. As a mined product it is limited concentration. However nuclear concentrates to a high risk product
Any “expert” who believes this is, at best, confused about the role of science and engineering in advising public policy.Misunderstand the science process and ignores scientific diligence
The Netherlands offers a compelling solution: encourage people to visit!Promotion and public relations is not a counter to science, and economic solutions
Taken from a Nuclear Proponent

Option 3 – Use Fast Breeder Reactors

Nuclear waste could generate up to millennia of zero-carbon electricity for Europe if it were recycled and repurposed as fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, according to the environmental campaign group RePlanet and reported by Energy Monitors

Spent nuclear fuel, the most radioactive part of nuclear waste, could be reused in advanced nuclear plants known as ‘fast reactors’ to create between 600 and 1,000 years of carbon-free electricity for the EU, according to the research. A fast reactor is one in which the fission chain reaction is sustained by fast neutrons (carrying energies above 1 MeV or greater), as opposed to slow thermal neutrons used in thermal-neutron reactors.

Instead of being buried in deep geological repositories, the spent fuel could be maintained in an accessible form and used to power the clean energy transition, argues the ‘What a Waste’ campaign. They claim while the economics of fast reactors are currently unproven, if resources currently intended for deep geological disposal of spent fuel were diverted instead into a fast reactor programme that would enable the re-use of that fuel, this would turn a burden into a useful part of a legitimate circular economic activity,” the authors write in the report.

There is only 1 problem. Fast breeder reactors costs are at least double the price.