Nuclear Waste Part 4: The choice … waste into fuel OR renewable wastelands

This is the final in a four part series on nuclear waste which has run on over a four-day period, authored by Geoff Russell. Go here for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

I conclude the series by discussing why nuclear waste is such a valuable resource and also cleans up a few related issues surrounding waste and concerns about waste.

Recycling is so sensible…

It’s only waste if you don’t use it

While there are no shortage of excellent ways of disposing of nuclear waste, there are even better reasons to not dispose of it at all. Which is perhaps why the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires that all waste be recoverable for the first 50 years after it is disposed of. Other countries have similar requirements.

Think about this requirement … very carefully … what’s it for?

It’s rather like requiring nuclear waste be stuffed in the back of your bottom drawer instead of really being thrown out because you never know when it might come in handy.

This is because most nuclear waste will only be waste until such time as what are called fast neutron reactors are rolled out. At which time nuclear fuel waste will no longer be waste, but a highly valued fuel and the NRC is clearly betting on this eventuality. More than a few countries have built these reactors. They work. The Russians used them in nuclear submarines for decades and are hoping to have a scaled up demonstration unit by 2017. Other fast reactors are due to be completed in China before 2020 following the completion of a small Chinese prototype in 2011. Commercialisation at scale is a question of “when” rather than “if”.

Current reactors only extract about one percent of the energy available in uranium. Fast neutron reactors can exploit the other 99 percent. What’s left after this second pass is an even smaller amount of waste material that is even easier to deal with.

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Nuclear Waste Part 3: Case studies

This is the third in a four part series on nuclear waste which is running on over a four-day period, authored by Geoff RussellGo here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Case studies in waste disposal

Finland’s nuclear waste repository

For many, I suspect the most compelling evidence for thinking that nuclear waste is a tough problem is news stories about billions of dollars being spent or foreshadowed to build repositories. Let’s consider an expensive example.

Finland’s nuclear industry is often held up as evidence of how costly nuclear power is because they have a reactor project that is way over time and over budget … Olkiluoto 3. The Finns are so devastated by the problems that they’ve ordered another one … Olkiluoto 4. Possibly because, despite the problems and cost-overruns of this “first of its kind” reactor, it’s electricity will still be some four times cheaper than German solar electricity.

But our main interest is in Finland’s planned state of the art nuclear waste repository. The rock that the nuclear waste will replace hasn’t moved for 2 billion years. Drilling 400 meters into igneous rock isn’t cheap, but this isn’t a complex intractable problem. It’s just a hole in some rock. It will cost 3 billion Euros over the next 60 years. They’ve already put aside 2 billion Euros for this expense out of profits made selling their nuclear electricity. Reactors generate such huge amounts of electricity that waste disposal costs per megawatt hour are a very tiny overhead.

If you still think a 3 billion Euro repository is expensive, then compare it to the 100 billion Euros Germany is paying in feed in tariffs over the next 20 years for just 19 terawatt hours of electricity from solar panels installed before the end of 2011.

What about the bad old days of nuclear waste disposal?

Prior to 1972 nuclear waste was just dumped at sea.

What were they thinking?

That’s just it, they were thinking.

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Nuclear Waste Part 2: The nuts and bolts of waste

This is the second in a four part series on nuclear waste which is running on over a four-day period, authored by Geoff Russell. Click here for Part 1.

Everyday items can kill - do you see the ingested button battery in this x-ray?

Everyday items can kill – do you see the ingested button battery in this x-ray?

What’s special about nuclear waste?

In Part I, we found that radioactive decay in the earth’s crust is continuously releasing as much energy as 44 million large nuclear reactors. Is that troubling? Presumably not. I’ve not heard calls from anti-nuclear activists like Helen Caldicott or Jim Green to seal the surface of the planet with a layer of lead to save future generations from horrible deformed babies.

So what is it about nuclear power waste disposal that people find so troubling? Dig a hole into that crust and replace some naturally radioactive rock that hasn’t moved for billions of years by the aforementioned waste. Fill and forget. Of all our hazardous waste disposal problems, this is one of the few that’s been properly solved. Others remain unsolved and kill large numbers of people on a daily basis.

What exactly are the differences between the waste-products of nuclear electricity generation and those from other energy sources?

  1. Nuclear waste quantities are small and contained. A typical reactor produces about 30 tonnes of high level radioactive waste per year. This is fuel rods rendered quite safe by a suitable layer of water. Most long term disposal plans involve melting and mixing the rods with ceramic material of some kind to create a stable compound. After this, the 30 tonnes of rods will occupy just a few cubic meters and there are many ways of disposing of them safely and permanently. More about this later.But a coal plant with a similar electrical output will be producing 400,000 tonnes of coal ash containing variable amounts of arsenic, mercury and chromium. These poisons don’t have half lives, but are toxic forever. They have, just like nuclear fuel, been mined from the earth’s crust but, unlike spent nuclear fuel, they are incredibly hard to collect and return to their source. Compared to coal waste, dealing with nuclear waste is a stroll in the park. Continue reading

Nuclear Waste Part 1: The elephant (shrew) in the room

This is the first in a four part series on nuclear waste which will run on over the next four days.

Geoff Russell, July 2013

(Geoff is a computer programmer, vegan, environmentalist, and more generally, a ‘by-the-numbers’ polymath. For a list of all of his posts on BNC, click here. He also has collections here and here).

Abstract: The nuclear industry used to dispose of nuclear waste in a safe and environmentally benign way. It’s a trivial technical problem compared to many other much larger waste problems that kill and sicken thousands of people daily. But they stopped. Not because of any problems, but because people who understand reactors and medicine and isotopes and engineering discovered that nuclear waste is far too valuable to simply throw out … it is already being used to kill cancer … and it has many other uses. So the policy changed from disposal to “retrievable storage”: don’t put it anywhere you can’t get it back from.

That abstract will surprise more than a few people who talk about nuclear waste as if its some kind of elephant in the room. “But they can’t even solve the waste problem!” they shout, or “I wouldn’t mind nuclear if only there was a solution to the waste problem”. If it really is an elephant, then it’s incredibly small. Just a little shrew scurrying along hoping to hell somebody doesn’t decide to make its habitat collateral damage underneath tonnes of concrete, steel and mirrors for a solar farm.

The smallest of the elephant shrews weighs 50gm

The smallest of the elephant shrews weighs 50gm

This is a four part series about nuclear waste designed to make the abstract blindingly obvious.

  1. What’s the fuss about?
  2. The nuts and bolts of waste
  3. Case studies, ocean dumping (safe and benign … yes, really) and Finland’s repository
  4. The choice … nuclear “waste” OR renewable wastelands

Part I: What’s the fuss about?

When you compare the nuclear waste problem with other waste problems, it quickly emerges as one of the easiest to solve safely and completely. Globally, another of our waste problems kills 3.5 million people annually. Which one? No, it’s not waste from coal fired power stations. Human sewage would be a good guess; it certainly kills millions. But the one I have in mind is a renewable energy source. Which one? Please read on.

What exactly are the problems relating to nuclear waste?

Here’s a quote from the Greenpeace website:

Most of the current proposals for dealing with highly radioactive nuclear waste involve burying it in deep underground sites. Whether the storage containers, the store itself, or the surrounding rocks will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long term is impossible to predict.

Currently no options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated from the environment over the tens to hundreds of thousands of years. There is no reliable method to warn future generations about the existence of nuclear waste dumps.

The page in question cites no accidents, no injuries, no illnesses, no deaths, no untoward radiation leaks. Not a single relevant adverse incident. The same is true of other anti-nuclear websites (e.g., the Friends of the Earth website).

Back when I was anti-nuclear, these paragraphs would have been persuasive. It’s a simple argument: Nobody’s perfect, therefore stuff will always go wrong and nuclear stuff is dangerous. It’s a no brainer. These days my response is multi-layered.

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Worrying about global tipping points distracts from real planetary threats

In a paper published last week in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, I (Barry Brook) and my colleagues argue against the idea of an ecological global-scale “tipping point”. Here, I outline the paper’s core argument, while Professor Corey Bradshaw (not an author on the study) explains what it means for conservation practice.

Locally, tipping points are real, but it’s unlikely the whole globe will go at once. (

NOTE: For some counter arguments, see this HuffPo piece: Tipping Points: Can Humanity Break The Planet? What strikes me is that many of the critics apparently did not read the original article, because they’ve confused/conflated what we’ve said about ecological tipping points with those observed or forecast for the climate system. Because of the inherent global interconnectivity and physical couplings of the latter, tipping points are plausible and indeed likely for some elements, such as Arctic sea ice. Not so for biomes, we argue. If you want a PDF copy of the TREE paper, email me.

Barry Brook

We argue that at the global-scale, ecological “tipping points” and threshold-like “planetary boundaries” are improbable. Instead, shifts in the Earth’s biosphere follow a gradual, smooth pattern. This means that it might be impossible to define scientifically specific, critical levels of biodiversity loss or land-use change. This has important consequences for both science and policy.

Humans are causing changes in ecosystems across Earth to such a degree that there is now broad agreement that we live in an epoch of our own making: the Anthropocene. But the question of just how these changes will play out — and especially whether we might be approaching a planetary tipping point with abrupt, global-scale consequences — has remained unsettled.

A tipping point occurs when an ecosystem attribute, such as species abundance or carbon sequestration, responds abruptly and possibly irreversibly to a human pressure, such as land-use or climate change. Many local- and regional-level ecosystems, such as lakes,forests and grasslands, behave this way. Recently however, there have been several efforts to define ecological tipping points at the global scale.

At a local scale, there are definitely warning signs that an ecosystem is about to “tip”. For the terrestrial biosphere, tipping points might be expected if ecosystems across Earth respond in similar ways to human pressures and these pressures are uniform, or if there are strong connections between continents that allow for rapid diffusion of impacts across the planet.

These criteria are, however, unlikely to be met in the real world.

First, ecosystems on different continents are not strongly connected. Organisms are limited in their movement by oceans and mountain ranges, as well as by climatic factors, and while ecosystem change in one region can affect the global circulation of, for example, greenhouse gases, this signal is likely to be weak in comparison with inputs from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation.

Second, the responses of ecosystems to human pressures like climate change or land-use change depend on local circumstances and will therefore differ between locations. From a planetary perspective, this diversity in ecosystem responses creates an essentially gradual pattern of change, without any identifiable tipping points.

This puts into question attempts to define critical levels of land-use change or biodiversity loss scientifically.

Why does this matter? Well, one concern we have is that an undue focus on planetary tipping points may distract from the vast ecological transformations that have already occurred.

After all, as much as four-fifths of the biosphere is today characterised by ecosystems that locally, over the span of centuries and millennia, have undergone human-driven regime shifts of one or more kinds.

Recognising this reality and seeking appropriate conservation efforts at local and regional levels might be a more fruitful way forward for ecology and global change science.
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