Waste of Breath

“Yea, but the one thing people always throw back in my face during any argument is, ‘What are you going to do with the waste?'” -Ken Hukari, 3/31/22

Author’s Note: the term nuclear waste in this article refers to the atoms in spent nuclear fuel and is used synonymously with fission products and spent nuclear fuel.

Executive Summary

  1. There’s virtually no nuclear waste compared to the waste of other energy generation technologies. Therefore, if we want to minimize “energy trash” and our impact on the planet, then we should be using more of it, not less.
  2. Nuclear waste is not dangerous. It’s never hurt a member of the public and is difficult to fathom how it could contaminate the biosphere at concentrations that are harmful.
  3. So what do we do with it?
    1. Plan A: Yucca Mountain
    2. Plan B: DOE’s Consent Based Siting in 20 to 37 years
    3. Plan C: Deep borehole deposition
    4. Plan D: Other engineered approaches
    5. Plan E: Use it. Create energy for the world.
  4. What can you do to help?
    1. Educate yourself on radiation. Really dig into the science.
    2. Change the narrative.
    3. Invest.

Why bother?

Why is the world concerned about nuclear waste when there’s so little of it? Why aren’t they pounding the tables about the mountains of electronic and fiberglass waste that’s going to pile up by building out a “renewable” energy plan with solar panels and windmills? Why are places in the developing world willing to sacrifice the health of the public by polluting their communities with the exhaust stream of combusted coal, which has been shown to cause air pollution deaths everywhere? Why does the narrative around energy triangulate to Climate Change and how we should “Do something about it!”, but when push comes to shove, the leaders and people of the world opt to continue burning oil and gas which subsequently emits millions of pounds of climate changing “waste”?

Why are we not concerned about the plethora of waste from each of these energy generation technologies and the raw materials they use, but the Collective “We” is perpetually terrified of spent nuclear fuel?

Many theories exist, but I believe the three prevailing reasons are 1) the minuscule amount of nuclear waste makes it easier to tell a story about it aka one death is worse than a million; a gross misunderstanding of the relative danger it presents to the public; and a subsequent overarching disagreement amongst the global populace about what to then do about it. We’ll address each of these one by one.

One Death is a Tragedy. One Million Deaths is a Statistic.

It’s easy to tell a story about something when only a few people, materials, or companies are involved. I believe the negative attributes of the nuclear industry are plagued by this reality. They are the singular death in a barrage of millions.

Never mind the thousands of people working tirelessly (and sometimes against their will) to make polysilicon in China. Never mind all of the coal miners I worked with underground who spend their careers performing brutal manual labor in dark and dangerous conditions. Never mind the thousands of truck drivers who put their lives at risk every day and are statistically millions of times more likely to die in literally a ball of flames than anyone in the public is to be harmed by radiation from a nuclear power plant or spent nuclear fuel.

Never mind my sister’s boyfriend who was chopped into three pieces on an oil and gas remediation job when I was 12 years old.

Never mind two of my father’s best friends who both died in horrific vehicle accidents when going home from their oil and gas production locations.

Those people know the risk. They’re disposable. They’re part of the plan, right?

Do I have your attention?

There’s just not that much of it.

The chart below compares the total volume and mass of waste generated over a 20 year time period to generate 1 MW (megawatt) continuously. The five favorite electricity generation sectors are analyzed: wind, solar, coal, gas, and fission.

Can you see the volume of fission material generated? No?

That’s why this is a singular death, and the millions of windmills being buried, solar panels getting landfilled, and thermal power plants emitting pollutants to the atmosphere all around the world are simply a statistic.

SourceVolume (m3)Mass (kg)
Wind                  817        315,912 
Solar                  384        115,582 
Coal                    90               177 
Gas                    37                 72 
Fission                 0.06               146 


If you’d like to check my math, here’s the spreadsheet used to calculate values complete with sources. I encourage you to double check my assumptions and calculations.

A few comments:

  • Capacity factors are used for solar and wind in order to account for their intermittency. Storage (and the subsequent waste generated from it) is not considered for simplicity.
  • The only waste stream assumed from coal and gas is CO2, which is an oversimplification, but it is the largest contaminant by mass and volume.
  • Several calculations are performed for nuclear waste with varying answers, but all are relatively close.
  • You’ll notice the mass of waste generated for nuclear is larger than the mass generated for coal and gas, but the volume is miniscule compared to the other two. This is a consequence of the state the waste is in and what’s considered waste. Spent nuclear fuel is a solid (not a green, liquid ooze as portrayed in the Simpsons), while CO2 at standard temperature and pressure is a gas. This yields a higher volume of gas and smaller volume of solid.
  • Additionally, the mass of nuclear waste is larger than the mass of CO2 generated. Remember, during combustion, water and other products are generated, so there are more combustion products than just the CO2. The nuclear waste accounts for the entire fuel rod assembly, of which only ~5% is truly fission products. The remainder could theoretically be recycled.

Once again, I encourage you to check my math.

So where does this show up?

It shows up in solar farms becoming decrepit and heading to landfills:

Photo courtesy of PV Cycle

It shows up in Wyoming with thousands of blades and towers getting buried from old turbines:

Windmill graveyard in Wyoming courtesy of Bloomberg

And it shows up in the atmosphere and subsequent IPCC reports when coal and gas are lit on fire:

Water Vapor from a Coal or Gas Smoke Stack

For completeness, this is what modern spent nuclear fuel looks like:

Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel

Which one do you choose? Also, notice the large bulldozer in the windmill photo compared to the small crane in the dry cask storage photo. They’re similarly sized, but one has thousands of more pounds of waste to bury.

Dangerous? Hardly.

Many people are terrified of spent nuclear fuel, but the reality is it’s simply not that dangerous to the people working around it or the public.

Case in point: here’s a photo of a crowd of people standing just meters above a cooling pool where fuel bundles are stored. The water in the pool shields them from the harmful radiation in the same way a lead blanket shields patients during an x-ray.

Nuclear Fuel Rods in Cooling Pond

And yes, you can stand directly next to the dry cask storage without fear of being harmed:

Standing adjacent to dry cask storage. Courtesy of Paris Ortiz-Wines, Director of Outreach at Environmental Progress

So what are people afraid of? Exposure to high levels of radiation is the typical culprit for most, but it’s simply difficult if not impossible for a harmful dose to move through the biosphere to harm people. We’ll discuss how high of a dose is dangerous in another post.

If you can find examples of someone being harmed from spent nuclear fuel, please send them my way. I’ve struggled to identify any, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Contrast the non-existent threat of nuclear waste to the very real threat of moving vehicle incidents in the oil and gas sector, air pollution from burning fossil fuels, and pollution from the chemical processes associated with the mining of raw materials for solar panels and other electronics.

What to do?

The original plan by the United States (and much of the world) was to have a deep, geologic repository. The idea is relatively simple: we took this material out of the ground, so let’s put it back in the ground at a depth and location deep enough to effectively remove it from the biosphere. Some argue even this step isn’t necessary, and it would be safe enough to place the spent nuclear fuel in standard landfills.

The following “Plans” are listed in order of chronology and reverse order of practicality. In other words, this is what’s been tried before or is being tried now, but in reality there are better and simpler engineered solutions to the waste problem. We’ll step through each of these one by one.

Plan A: Yucca Mountain

Courtesy tunneltalk.com

Yucca Mountain was the United State’s attempt to build a permanent waste facility in Nevada to house the long lived high level waste from all domestic nuclear power plants. There’s a plethora of information about the history of it on the web, but the project was paused indefinitely for political – not engineering – reasons.

The state of Nevada ultimately blocked the project from moving forward in 2004 after billions had already been spent to build the fully functional facility. This blockade was supported by the subsequent Obama administration and has remained a point of political contention through 2022. The DOE currently doesn’t have intentions of pursuing Yucca Mountain as a solution.

Plan B: Consent Based Siting

In 2017, the DOE released a draft outlining a process to develop a Consent-Based Siting system. The fundamental idea behind Consent-Based Siting is receiving buy-in from a community and giving them autonomy to build and operate an interim or permanent spent nuclear fuel facility. While this approach is innovative, makes sense on the surface, and has been implemented with success elsewhere in the world, two prevailing problems exist:

  1. What is the definition of community, and who needs to buy in? Is it a municipality? A county? A state? The entire US? The whole world? If a county wants to have a storage facility, but the broader state doesn’t, then can the state stop it like occurred in the Yucca Mountain project? To resolve some of these questions, the DOE issued a Request for Information in 2021 and is reviewing the responses now in 2022.
  2. The timeline outlined in the DOE’s Draft document is laughably slow. Stepping through all of the steps outlined in the draft, the entire process to get a single facility built is scheduled to take 20 to 37 years. This is entirely unacceptable from a financial perspective and really screams that the DOE isn’t serious about developing this project to be helpful to the nuclear industry or society in general. If this timeline could be expedited to two to five years, then this would be an acceptable approach.

Plan C: Deep Borehole Isolation

Courtesy Sandia National Labs

Why do we need a giant, underground industrial facility to deposit the waste? Isn’t there another technology that’s been developed and matured for over 100 years to place mechanical components and materials deep in the subsurface?

Yes, there absolutely is. This approach is known as deep borehole isolation, and when considering all of the requirements that have been laid out in the past, it’s relatively bizarre to realize this hasn’t received more attention as a solution previously.

Geoff Freeze gave a great presentation outlining the basics of this process in 2016. Essentially, we construct a wellbore (aka dig a hole in the ground and line it with pipe and cement) identical to the process used by the oil and gas industry and then place the spent nuclear fuel assemblies into it. We’ll be able to seal the Wellbore later with mechanical isolation devices and thousands of feet of cement to isolate it from other geologic formations, groundwater, and the biosphere.

Deep Isolation, a US based start-up, is currently working to pioneer the deployment of this approach utilizing horizontal wells. Their approach is innovative, inexpensive (think $10 million per wellbore versus $6 billion for Yucca Mountain), and can be deployed virtually anywhere – including at existing nuclear facilities.

Plan D: Other Engineered Approaches

Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

An approach I’m particularly fond of would be to emulate the oil and gas industry’s process of placing sand in deep geologic formations to dispose of the waste in the Earth’s crust. These formations have been isolated for millions of years, and it’s incredibly reasonable to believe they’ll be isolated for millennia more. If we can dissolve the spent nuclear fuel into a diluted slurry, then we’ll simply pump it into a deep geologic formation where it will be naturally dispersed and diluted in the subsurface. We’ll outline the specifics of this in another post.

An approach I’ve long thought would be simple and easy would be to just drop it in the ocean. Why not? Water is a tremendous shield for radiation (see above picture of humans just meters away from the pond), and the ocean is vast. Additionally, talk to any sanitation or process engineer, and they have a simple mantra: dilution is the solution to pollution. Based on the quantity of waste, it seems difficult to believe the concentration of high level radioactive material in the ocean would ever reach dangerous levels. Want to make it impossible for any human to access it long term? Deposit it along a submerging fault line that will eventually drop into the subsurface.

Unfortunately, the EPA limits don’t allow for radiological or high level waste to be dumped in the ocean per the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act. Why? It’d be helpful to know why the EPA decided on this rule. What were they using for their reasoning?

Finally, some argue a permanent repository isn’t even necessary, and we should just be able to dispose of the waste in landfills. If the radio-nuclei ever dissolve and get into the groundwater, then they’ll still be at such low concentrations so as to not be harmful to humans or other life. Kugelmass outlines this excellently in his presentation at Johns Hopkins.

Plan E: Plan Energy aka Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Courtesy of Moltex.com

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” -Anyone in a second marriage

Modern spent nuclear fuel still has a plethora of remaining energy value in it. Currently, we only fission about 5% of the uranium in the fuel. Of that 5%, 80% (or 4% of the total spent nuclear fuel) is short lived radioisotopes aka atoms that will be radioactive for 500 years or less. These atoms will need to be disposed of in a disposal facility, but 500 years is much easier to design for than a million. The other 20% (1% of the total spent nuclear fuel) is transuranic isotopes aka atoms with long half-lives. These are the atoms most people are concerned about when referring to nuclear waste; however, they still have value! Nuclear reactors exist throughout the world and have been in use for decades which are capable of taking these atoms, fissioning them again, and making more energy out of them. That means there’s still value in 96%.

So why don’t we do this?

The short answer is similar to the reason most solar panels and windmills aren’t recycled: it’s simpler and easier to get new raw material out of the ground than build the machines and processes necessary to recycle existing widgets.

This doesn’t have to be the case. There are multiple countries throughout the world who actively recycle and reuse part of their waste streams including France and Russia.

Additionally, there are several new commercial nuclear reactor designs coming to market which have the capability to use spent nuclear fuel as a fuel. These include micro-reactor designer, Oklo, molten salt reactor, Moltex, and Bill Gates’ reactor company, TerraPower. The industry is growing rapidly, and the opportunists and entrepreneurs of the world are capitalizing on the problem.

How You Can Help

This conversation isn’t going away, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change and be improved. I prefer to leave people with actionable material, so here are three ways you can help to push this conversation in a positive and productive direction:

  1. Educate yourself on radiation. Really dig into the science. Question why the public believes radiation to be harmful, why the dangers have been vastly overstated, and what we can do as a society to correct this mythology. This podcast is a great place to start for the history.
  2. Once you’re more educated on the history, start changing the narrative. Engage in discussion with your peers everywhere. Talk with your co-workers, your friends, and your family.
  3. Invest in new supply chains and opportunities. Put your money where your mouth is. Nucleation Capital is a fantastic opportunity to get in at the ground floor with a firm who’s making investments in new nuclear opportunities. If you want to change the world, then help fund some of the people who are developing technologies to make it a better place for all of us.

-Mark Hinaman, 4/3/2022

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