Nuclear Waste: Dispelling Fears and Myths
Here at Sprott, we believe that nuclear energy is one of the safest, most effective and cleanest forms of baseload power generation on the planet and a major solution to reducing carbon emissions while providing reliable electricity. However, not everyone is as convinced and one of the main concerns we hear is:
“Yes, but what about nuclear waste?”
Well, if that’s you, we’re so glad you asked because in this video, we’re going to educate you about the following facts:
- The solution to nuclear waste already exists and is far easier than you might imagine.
- The amount of nuclear waste resulting from energy generation is very small, especially compared to other energy sources.
- There has not been a single accident or fatality involving nuclear waste.
- The radiation present in spent nuclear fuel declines to levels that are harmless to all forms of life.
Let’s dive in.
Part 1: The solution to nuclear waste already exists and is far easier than you might imagine
Water, concrete and steel. These are the simple elements that do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to the solution for safely dealing with nuclear waste, or what is better termed as “spent nuclear fuel”.
The two main dangers presented by spent nuclear fuel are heat and radiation, both properties that are easily measured.
Spent fuel rods are the end result of nuclear energy generation and when they’ve completed their duties and are ready to retire from action, they are extremely hot and radioactive. To deal with this, they are removed and placed in steel-lined cooling ponds made of reinforced concrete near the nuclear reactor. The water and steel are very effective at dealing with heat and radiation, and the concrete also helps to block radioactivity, so submerging the fuel rods in the cooling pond renders them harmless. Human beings with no special form of protection can stand above the pond with no negative effects.
And these cooling ponds haven’t just been thrown together. The science behind engineering the ponds perfectly to render the spent nuclear fuel harmless has been perfected over decades, and like everything in a nuclear power plant, is subject to extraordinarily strict oversight that ensures no mistakes are made in their construction and utilization.
Now while these cooling ponds are sometimes designed to store all used fuel for the full life of the nuclear reactor it services, most of the time, after a year or more in the pond, enough time to greatly reduce the amount of radiation they emit and remove the heat, the spent fuel rods are transported to the next stage of storage.
This involves placing the rods into dry storage casks that each weigh north of 150,000 pounds, sealed in an extremely thick shell of reinforced concrete and stainless steel. In fact, only a quarter of the cask volume is spent nuclear fuel; the remainder is all steel and concrete. Like I said, it's simple, but it works. Like with the cooling ponds near reactors, a human being, or any life form for that matter, can hang out beside these casks and even lean against them, with zero danger to their health.
After spending 50 to 100 years in storage, it’s time to send these casks underground to a deep geological repository to live out the rest of their days. To transport the casks, robotics are used to place them in containers made of 31 metric tonnes of stainless steel, which are loaded onto trucks and sent on their way. These stainless steel containers have been put through the most rigorous safety testing imaginable, including being hit by locomotives, dropped from very high up, submerged in water, placed at explosion blast zones, and they have proven to be impervious in all those scenarios and more.
Of course, these containers aren’t just thrown into random holes; they are placed 650 meters below the surface in a part of the earth’s crust where no meaningful amount of water can be found. This is important, because the only risk of the nuclear waste someday popping back up on the surface is if enough water is present to eventually dissolve the spent fuel. However, this deep in the ground, the chance of that happening is very small.
Here’s Per Jander, Director of WMC, an expert on nuclear power to explain further:
"Prior to going into the reactor core, nuclear fuel is completely harmless. You can touch it. You can stand right next to it. But after the fuel has been used in the core, it is a very different story. Used nuclear fuel removed from the core must be kept in water for one year to two years to let the high heat cool down before it can be transported to storage.
And there are different approaches to storage among countries. Most countries have what's called dry cask storage, where spent fuel is put into concrete canisters outside the reactor that are well shielded. I'm sure you've seen pictures of people standing right next to these storage canisters. They're lukewarm to the touch, but the radiation on their surface is no different than it is anywhere else, and they are very effectively sealed.
Other countries, like Sweden for example, use intermediate storage where spent fuel rods are put under water in one central storage facility for the entire country and stay there for 40 to 50 years. After that, they are put into the final repository.
The basic principle is to put the spent fuel into intermediate water storage for the high rate of radioactivity to calm down. Then you can move the rods into a final repository, which will most likely be deep underground."
But wait, if we have to store all the nuclear waste in these huge casks in holes underground, surely we’re going to run out of space eventually? That brings us to our next point.
Part 2: The amount of nuclear waste that results from energy generation is very small, especially when compared to other energy sources
This statistic has been repeated ad nauseam, but it’s worth mentioning it again, so here’s a quote from the Nuclear Energy Institute:
“All of the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry since the late 1950s would cover a whole football field to a height of approximately 10 yards.”
And that’s not just for the United States; it is used fuel for the entire planet.
Let’s compare that to other baseload energy generation options. Fossil fuels, such as coal, produce an incredible amount of toxic waste that is released into the air. Burning coal produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and more, which contributes to acid rain, respiratory illnesses, smog, lung disease and other issues.
Of course, that’s coal, the dirtiest form of energy production still used at present, so maybe it's not a fair comparison. What about natural gas? While it is the cleanest burning form of fossil fuel-based power generation, it still produces far more harmful waste than nuclear power. The important factor here is that every single gram of nuclear waste is accounted for and must be safely stored away to meet stringent regulations. With fossil fuels, the impact is much more difficult to physically see, measure, and contain.
When we examine these facts, there’s no doubt that the impact of nuclear waste on the planet is much smaller when compared to the alternatives. And before you bring up wind and solar power, while these are promising technologies, they are intermittent, not baseload sources of power, and have never been used exclusively to power a grid.
Here, once again, is Per Jander to break things down for us:
"Life cycle waste of a nuclear power station is primarily concrete and steel, and most of those structural byproducts are not even radioactive. That's why you often leave this debris for a decade or two because then you can declassify a lot of this material. It may be marginally radioactive for approximately 10 years, but after that, it's just regular concrete and steel, and you don’t have to worry about it. Those are obviously nuclear reactor lifetime byproducts.
"But what most people focus on when talking about nuclear waste or spent nuclear fuel is the fuel itself. That's where we need to consider the operating waste stream. It is worth understanding that the amount of waste created per person per year is the size of a standard brick, and 90% of that brick is low radioactive waste. It's just clothing, chemicals, or material with very little radioactivity that you have to worry about or put somewhere in a landfill. And then, five years later, it's not anything to worry about anymore. But it's virtually nothing when it comes to the high level of waste, five grams per person per year.
"The interesting thing now is that when the spotlight is returning to the other energy sources, what are you guys doing here? What is done? And I think the further this debate goes, the more it will become clear that nuclear entities are responsible for taking care of their own waste stream."
Ok, so we have a solution for dealing with nuclear waste and the quantity and impact of this waste is small. However, what about accidents when dealing with the waste? Surely there’s been a few? Well…
Part 3: There has never been a single accident involving nuclear waste
Although there have been a few accidents involving nuclear plants, with the only one including fatalities being Chernobyl, none of these incidents involved spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste. Even in the Fukushima meltdown of 2011, the spent fuel rods in cooling ponds on-site did not leak radiation or contaminate the environment.
Over the course of 70 years, operating 500 nuclear reactors in over 30 countries, there is not a single recorded incident of anyone dying from exposure to nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel.
There is a whole other subject of just how serious most of the recorded nuclear accidents were, and the truth is far less serious than the media would have you believe, and when it comes to nuclear waste you can rest assured of its strong safety record.
“Technologically it is not difficult to ensure the nuclear spent fuel is safe, just cover it up. It's all you need to do. The measurement techniques we have are so sensitive that you know right away how radioactive it is, and you know what it takes to shield it. And the means of shielding it are not that complicated. It's been a very good track record.”
Part 4: The radiation present in nuclear waste rapidly declines to levels that are completely harmless to all forms of life
This is the one that most people have trouble wrapping their heads around. After all, we’ve all heard about how some of the radioactive isotopes present in nuclear waste have a half-life of thousands of years, so surely there’s a danger that the stored nuclear waste could someday be exposed to the environment again and wreak havoc? Well, not really.
When spent nuclear fuel is first removed from a reactor, it is very radioactive and if the safety precautions we outlined earlier weren’t in place, the spent fuel could cause great harm to anyone in the nearby vicinity. However, these high levels of radioactivity decline to harmless levels faster than you might think, as long as the spent fuel remains in a protective cladding.
Let’s break down the different kinds of radioactive waste present in spent fuel. The first are radioactive isotopes lighter than uranium, namely cesium-137 and strontium-90. These two isotopes are responsible for the vast majority of penetrating radiation in the spent fuel, so it’s a good thing their half-life, which refers to the time it takes for the radioactivity of a specified isotope to fall to half its original value, is only around 30 years. After 60 years, it still has 25% of its radiation, and eventually, radiation levels will fall further until it is no longer a danger to anyone.
The second kind of radioactive waste are isotopes heavier than uranium, such as plutonium-239, which has a different type of radiation than the lighter isotopes but a half-life of 24,000 years. That might sound scary, but the truth is, plutonium-239 isn’t very harmful to begin with as it mostly emits alpha particles, which are easily stopped by fuel cladding, skin, or any other simple barrier.
"The shorter half-life, the more intense the radiation. People say, “Oh, it's half-life is 24,000 years!” Yes. That also means that there's almost no radioactivity coming out from it. But something with a half-life of 10 seconds will be like a very bright light. But it also means that the radioactivity is gone fairly quickly.
"If you look at a spent fuel rod coming out of a reactor after 40 years, you have 0.1% of its activity left. So, the radioactivity has gone down by a factor of a thousand. The vast majority of the radiation, like 95%, is from the smaller fission products created when the atoms split.
"The atoms aren't very comfortable where they are. If you want to get technical, the atoms have way too many neutrons. They tend to move again and you basically have these chains before they become an isotope and a more stable atom. During this period, which depends on what material it is, but again, that 400-year period after that, you're more or less certain that there is only alpha radiation that we have to worry about. The other types of radiation are gone, not as intense anymore, so the cladding works just fine in protecting it. The bright, heavily radioactive stuff that's gone now is more of a matter of ensuring that it's shielded from humanity so it doesn't enter our bodies through inhalation or ingestion. And it's as simple as that."
"One further point to keep in mind: we are actually all exposed to a certain degree of radiation in our daily lives. This background radiation comes from natural sources such as radon, a gas that forms when uranium, thorium, or radium breaks down in rocks, soil, or groundwater, cosmic rays, and the earth itself, as well as man-made sources from medical, industrial and commercial industries. We are also exposed to radiation when taking a flight and, of course, getting an x-ray. All of this radiation exposure is perfectly harmless and we don’t even notice it, but it is often higher than any radiation you could be exposed to from safely stored used nuclear fuel.
And there you have it: nuclear waste is not something to be feared. The care with which it is handled and stored contributes to the fact that nuclear power is one of the safest forms of baseload energy generation known to humanity.
About Jesse Day
Jesse Day is a video producer and writer with a focus on commodities and natural resources. Jesse’s vision for Commodity Culture is to provide education to anyone interested in exploring the delicate balance of commodities and the vital role they play in our economy and our lives. Jesse studied film at Capilano University and currently works as Communications Coordinator at Kin Communications Investor Relations in Vancouver. Jesse has also had a fairly long career in broadcasting in Asia, having hosted a variety of travel programs in China and South Korea.
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