Nuclear power is clean – except for all the waste

Thumbnail: A spent fuel pool at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente, Calif. Nuclear Regulatory Commission/CC via Flickr

Nuclear power generates electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or other air pollutants. Yet it hasn’t been extensively deployed to fight climate change because of safety fears, the high cost of construction and, perhaps most significantly, the hazardous waste, or spent fuel, reactors produce. Now, as the climate crisis worsens, pro-nuclear groups are speaking out.

One such group, Generation Atomic, argues that nuclear power doesn’t really have a waste problem. All 88,000 tons or so of waste produced by reactors in the U.S. could fit onto a single football field, stacked just 24 feet high, it says, with the waste produced by an individual’s lifetime energy consumption fitting in one soda can. Compare that to the 100 million tons of solid waste — about a 5-mile-high pile on a football field — that U.S. coal-fired power plants kick out each year.

These figures are accurate, but incomplete: They leave out several steps that precede the power generation phase, each of which produces sizable quantities of hazardous and radioactive waste. By omitting these, we risk ignoring the bulk of the nuclear industry’s human and environmental toll.

These figures are accurate, but incomplete: They leave out several steps that precede the power generation phase, each of which produces sizable quantities of hazardous and radioactive waste. By omitting these, we risk ignoring the bulk of the nuclear industry’s human and environmental toll.

NUCLEAR WASTE
Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station generates about 31,000 gigawatt-hours of power each year. That requires about 86 tons of uranium oxide, enriched to 3-to-5% uranium-235. In order to produce that, you need to:

… AND THEN THERE’S COAL
In order for a coal-burning power plant to produce 31,000 gigawatt-hours per year, or the same amount of electricity generated by Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, you would need to:


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3 thoughts on “Nuclear power is clean – except for all the waste”

  1. the problem is there’s no “quickly” with nuclear. Getting a nuclear power plant funded, sited, built, certified, and online is not only a massive undertaking, it can take a decade or two. You could cover half of Saskatchewan with solar panels in the same amount of time, not that that’s necessarily a brilliant idea.

    Hansen’s unfortunately thinking only about energy budgets and not people and how they behave. You put those things up and there’s no temporary, no “instead of”.

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  2. Right. I work with radiochemists. We already have a massive and currently intractable problem with nuclear waste: we don’t even know how to store it, and it’s toxic in the sense of “will kill you and any other living thing slowly and horribly.” It’s leaking out of rotting tanks, which it destroys from the inside, and we don’t even know how to pull it out of the tanks without generating a nuclear blast. Partly because we don’t really know what it’s turned into, in there, but partly because the science just doesn’t exist, and isn’t going to exist anytime soon. Making things even more exciting is the fact that we seem to be headed into another cold war with a nuclear power, meaning that research money that had been about remediation of nuclear waste will probably now be diverted to military work. There’s only so much scientists can do to dress up their environmental projects as defense projects.

    The other thing’s that if we do start generating more nuclear power, a bunch of geniuses will decide we’re fine for power and that there’s no need to conserve — in fact, we ought to have more energy-intensive lives! And all the good from shifting to nuclear will be undone.

    (And no, we can’t blast it into space. The number of rockets needed would be vast, as would the energy needed to power them, and if only one of the rockets blew up on launch, the fallout problem would make people start talking about Helsinki again.)

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    1. The Devil’s bargain: “I will supply near-zero massive energy so you can build your renewable infrastructure.”
      Climate scientists tell us Canadians have to stop putting additional Co2, methane, nitrous oxide (NO2) into the atmosphere; set hard targets to reduce greenhouse gasses by 40% by 2030; and zero emissions by mid century.
      Using near-zero combustion energy we can rebuild our energy infrastructure using solar and wind. The best sources of near-zero energy at the moment are nuclear and concentrated solar power. This is why climate scientist James Hansen recommends nuclear power to quickly transition to wind and solar. We need to rebuild with 100% zero combustion energy our energy infrastructure.
      Of course, that’s our ‘best case’ scenario –an immediate choice between two disaster scenarios.

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