Who’s Afraid of Nuclear Waste?
The myth of the glowing green goo
Nuclear energy: power source of the future, right?
A lot of people think so.
Zero carbon emissions? Check.
Safety? It’s generated fewer deaths than basically every other power source, so check.i
So this seems like a problem.
Or at least it would seem like a problem … if it wasn’t total horse[*$^%].
We hate to be the ones to break this to you, but The Simpsons lied to you about nuclear waste.
Well, to be fair, The Simpsons and pretty much all pop culture … ever.
Here’s the thing: nuclear waste doesn’t actually look like this:
It looks like this:
It’s not a green goo stored in a drum that’s one accident away from catastrophe.
It’s a solid and it’s put in steel and concrete canisters that are designed to survive earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and even attacks with projectiles.ii
It may even be kraken-proof. Can’t know until we try.
But nevertheless people are still so scared of nuclear waste that it’s often enough to stop conversations about nuclear power dead in their tracks.
So, here’s the question: Do the dangers of nuclear waste outweigh the potential benefits of nuclear power?
Let’s start with the basics: Why would we even bother with an energy source that generates waste? Well, there’s a pretty easy answer to that question: because every energy source generates waste.
The reason we’re so much more aware of nuclear waste is that … well, we can see it right there in those concrete casks. It can be contained. All of our other fuel sources, by contrast, send their waste out into the environment.
And here’s the other thing: because nuclear power is so efficient, the amount of waste it generates compared to those other fuel sources is actually incredibly small.
The amount of power an average person uses in a year … would generate nuclear waste about the size of a brick. And the amount of it that would be high-level waste — the highly radioactive material we’re all afraid of — would weigh about as much as a sheet of paper. iii
Think about it this way: For nuclear to generate enough power for one million people, it’d create three cubic meters of high-level waste per year. To get the same amount of power with coal … it’d generate about 300,000 tons of coal ash, which contains contaminants like mercury and arsenic.iv
And, believe it or not, renewables have similar problems. One team of economists estimated that solar power could generate 300,000 metric tons of waste in the U.S. by 2025.v After all, all those used panels have to go somewhere. As for wind power: 720,000 tons of blade material that must be disposed of over the next 20 years.vi
Starts out green. Doesn’t necessarily end up that way.
Now one big difference, right? The waste from coal or wind isn’t crawling with radiation. But even there the danger is a lot smaller than you might assume. The small amount of high-level nuclear waste can, of course, be dangerous. But only if we’re actually exposed to it.
And have you ever noticed that nuclear waste has been around for a long time and that … you know, nothing’s happened?
There’s a reason for that. We’re really, really good at keeping it safe.
In fact, the most severe accident occurred in 1971, when a driver transporting nuclear waste swerved off a Tennessee highway to avoid a crash, throwing a cask of spent nuclear fuel off of the vehicle. The result? Pretty much nothing. The cask stayed intact and there was no radiation released.vii They’re built that tough.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that over 44,000 shipments of nuclear waste have taken place around the world since the early 1960s and … no one’s ever died from — or even been injured by — radiation.viii In fact, the biggest safety problem has been … activists blocking shipments to protest safety problems.
And that’s not the only time that people with seemingly good intentions have made things worse. Activists also helped to block the use of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a permanent storage site for America’s nuclear waste — despite the fact that scientists from the government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the site would be safe for … 1 million years.ix
That’s had real consequences for nuclear power. Thirteen states have restrictions on the construction of nuclear power plants, about half of them because there’s no central location to store waste.x
Which is not, by the way, an especially radical idea. There’s already an underground facility in New Mexico, where the government stores nuclear waste generated for military purposes.xi Finland is building its own underground storage site.xii Hell, in Holland they’re so chill about it that they actually store their nuclear waste alongside valuable works of art.xiii The Dutch, man.
Does nuclear waste have the potential to be dangerous? Absolutely. Has it been in practice? Not at all.
Yes, there are risks involved — but that’s true of all our energy sources. So we have to balance those risks against the rewards of cleaner, reliable energy. And so far, all the evidence points to us being able to handle nuclear waste responsibly and safely.
Unless that kraken brings friends. Then all bets are off.
- Politifact — Poynter Institute
- Backgrounder on Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel — United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- What Is Nuclear Waste, and What Do We Do With It? — World Nuclear Association
- Cleaning after Solar Panels: A Circular Outlook (pg. 10) — Social Science Research Network
- "The Dark Side of Solar Power" (Atalay Atasu, Serasu Duran, Luk N. Van Wassenhove) — Harvard Business Review
- A Historical Review of the Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel (pgs. 49-56) — U.S. Department of Energy
- A Historical Review of the Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel — U.S. Department of Energy
- Supplement to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada — U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- States Restrictions on New Nuclear Power Facility Construction — National Conference of State Legislatures
- Waste Isolation Pilot Plant — U.S. Department of Energy
- Finland’s Spent Fuel Repository a "Game Changer" for the Nuclear Industry, Director General Grossi Says — International Atomic Energy Agency
- The Art of Preservation — COVRA
SOUND | Artlist: “Steam" (Rex Banner) / "NYC" (Ido Maimon) / "Gamer Girl" (Barrows & Sun) / "Analog Glitches" (Dauzkobza) / "Fantasy Ambiences", “Boom” (OG SoundFX) / "Alchemy" (Lukas Tvrdon) / "Dystopia" (Shapeforms) / "Cinematic Transitions" (Krotos) / "Stereo Whoosh" (CB Sounddesign) / "Crimson" (Cèline Woodburn) / "Organisms" (Marcello del Monaco) / "Door Slam" (Eytan Krief) / "Earthquake", “Heavy Rain” (Shirly Spikes) / "Epic Disasters" (Sam Fourie) / "Evolved Creatures" (Epic Stock Media) / "Paper Collection" (Cinematic Sound Design) / "Under Construction" (Systemic Sound) / "BMW 760" (Fly Sound) / "Car Accident" (DB studios) / "Car Accidents" (BOOM Library) / "Camera" (Soundholder)
FOOTAGE | U.S. Department of Energy // Library of Congress: Geography and Map Division // U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Rosie Walunas // Perry-Castañeda Library: U.S. Geological Survey // Encyclopædia Britannica: William & Alexander Keith Johnston // U.S. Federal Government: National Nuclear Security Administration (Nevada Field Office) // Collier's New Encyclopedia: L. L. Poates Eng. Co. // The New York Times // ABC News // Geograph: Dorcas Sinclair // Disney/ABC: Avengers Assemble (2018) // Viacom (CBS): Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles // Fox: The Simpsons // Warner Bros: Adventure Time // TROVE: The Canberra Times // The Internet Archive: Unknown World, Lippert Pictures (1951), Night of the Living Dead, Continental Distributing (1968), Duck and Cover U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration (1951) // Getty: Guenter Fischer, PhotoAlto/Claire Nijnikoff, George Tsartsianidis, Koya79, Sean Gallup / Staff, Dolucan, Apiwan Borrikonratchata, E'ugenesergeev, Paul Taylor, Miguel Sotomayor, Pixhook, PM Images, Jay's Photo, Marina Lohrbach, Lineas 1703, Voyagerix, Westhoff, Benjamin Rasmussen / Contributor, Ryan McVay, Carsten Koall / Stringer, Miguel Villagran / Staff // Flickr: U.S. Department of Energy, NucleairNederland, Tacowitte, Charlie Jackson // Flickr/IAEA: Tapani Karjanlahti (TVO) // Pexels: Paul Basel, Mark Haynal, Joel de la Cruz, Joshua T., Khaled Akacha // Unsplash: Parrish Freeman, Joshua Fuller, Julian Steenbergen, Pat Whelan, Krišjānis Kazaks, Kit Sanchez, Hari Nandakumar, Simone Hutsch, Masrur Rahman, Moritz Kindler, Michael Wilson, Tyler Casey // PNGTree: KenStock // Pixabay: Alexfrlepr, Clker-Free-Vector-Images // Storyblocks: Dapoopta, SVZUL, Berkerdag, Grey Coast Media, Aerocaminua, Seventyfourimages, Pressmaster Production Studio // Adobe Stock: Andrei Merkulov, Gluschenkoart, Adil, Rawpixel.com, Waranyu, Krakenimages.com // IAEA // Demaag // Nzeemin // Hullie // Justin1569 // Jacek Halicki // Andrewlister // Soakologist // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- Poynter Institute
- United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Backgrounder on Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel
- World Nuclear Association
What Is Nuclear Waste, and What Do We Do With It?
- Social Science Research Network
Cleaning after Solar Panels: A Circular Outlook
- Harvard Business Review
"The Dark Side of Solar Power" (Atalay Atasu, Serasu Duran, Luk N. Van Wassenhove)
- U.S. Department of Energy
A Historical Review of the Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Supplement to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada
- National Conference of State Legislatures
States Restrictions on New Nuclear Power Facility Construction
- U.S. Department of Energy
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
- International Atomic Energy Agency
Finland’s Spent Fuel Repository a "Game Changer" for the Nuclear Industry, Director General Grossi Says
The Art of Preservation
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Stop Letting Your Fears of Nuclear Waste Kill the Planet” (Forbes)
- “A Historical Review of the Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel” (U.S. Department of Energy)
- “Here’s Why We Still Don’t Have a Place to Store Nuclear Waste” (CNBC)
- “Nukes of Hazard” (Grist)
- “Get Serious About Burying Nuclear Waste” (Wall Street Journal)
- “The Activists Who Embrace Nuclear Power” (The New Yorker)