Radioactive waste can be recycled into nuclear fuel, and can replace fossil fuel power
I have often been asked: "How can you support nuclear power? Even if nuclear power plants can be operated safely, it’s impossible to store radioactive waste safely in perpetuity."
The truth is that radioactive waste from nuclear power does not kill anyone. We should be much more concerned about the waste (pollution) from fossil fuels, which kills an astonishing number of people every year.
A coal power plant producing 1,000 MW of electric power burns 3.3 million tonnes of coal every year. It produces about 490,000 tonnes of toxic ash and 6.9 million tonnes of CO2 every year. The mountain of ash from a coal power plant is stored outdoors and inevitably runs into nearby rivers. Its volume ensures that there is no realistic way to store it safely.
Radioactive waste is a smaller problem than you think
A nuclear power plant producing 1,000 MW of electrical power (using a conventional light water reactor) produces only about 30 tonnes of spent fuel (radioactive waste) every year. The waste from the nuclear plant is small in volume, and is carefully stored to prevent it from spreading.
Spent fuel is stored underwater for at least a year in a “spent fuel pool” (to allow it to cool) before being moved to a “dry cask” (steel cylinders, surrounded by concrete, filled with inert gas which will not react with the fuel). No other waste is stored as carefully.
In Russia and France, spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed (recycled); this reduces the volume of waste which must go into storage.
Coal is a very widely used fossil fuel because it is cheap; the world burns about 8 billion tonnes of coal every year, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of coal ash every year.
Nuclear waste slowly becomes less dangerous over time, but the toxic metals in coal ash (like lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium) are toxic for all eternity.
Ironically, because coal contains trace amounts of naturally-occurring radioactive elements, the mountains of coal ash produced by power plants are radioactive.
Coal ash is stored outdoors, and is inevitably spread by rivers over a very large area. So a coal power plant actually creates more radioactive pollution than a nuclear plant.
Air pollution and greenhouse effect
Of course, we should be more concerned about the air pollution produced by coal than about the ash. Outdoor air pollution kills over 4 million people every year. Most of that pollution is from burning fossil fuels, particularly coal.
So the fact is that waste from nuclear energy is much safer than waste from coal. That is not the end of the story.
Natural gas is often considered a “clean” fossil fuel. However, if you consider its impact on the climate, gas is not so different from coal. Both produce CO2; the advantage of gas is that it doesn’t produce toxic ash.
The disadvantage of gas is that leaking gas pipelines spread methane, which has a much stronger greenhouse effect than CO2.
Food shortages and rising sea levels
When one considers the impact of greenhouse gases, fossil fuel power is much more dangerous than the waste from nuclear power. It is likely that greenhouse gas emissions will cause much of Bangladesh and other low-lying countries to become permanently inundated.
It is also likely that many tropical countries, including Bangladesh, will not be able to grow enough food as the climate becomes hotter. People will adapt to rising sea levels by moving from inundated coastal areas to inland cities.
The migrants will have been impoverished by the loss of their lands. To feed them, we will probably have to import and ration food. If the world continues to burn fossil fuels, food shortages and food rationing will probably become the norm.
How do we get rid of fossil fuels?
Let’s remember that the realistic energy choices for poor countries are nuclear power and fossil fuel power. Solar and wind are intermittent; they can’t supply the continuous power which cities and industries demand.
Solar and wind installations typically produce power only 30% of the time, because the wind doesn’t blow every day, and the sun doesn’t shine at night. Utilities which own renewable power assets run “backup” power plants (which usually burn gas) 70% of the time.
Renewables will never replace fossil fuels.
Fortunately, we can still avoid catastrophe by replacing fossil fuel power with nuclear power. The next generation of nuclear plants (molten salt reactors and sodium cooled fast reactors) will produce spent nuclear fuel which will be dangerous for a few centuries, not for millennia.
Some of the new reactors have been designed specifically to be fueled with radioactive waste. These reactors should be built as soon as possible. Recycling spent fuel into new fuel is smarter than treating it as waste and storing it for millennia.
The fuel of the future
The nuclear-armed states (the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, and others) now have an opportunity to build next generation nuclear reactors in every country, and to monopolize the recycling of nuclear fuel.
Spent nuclear fuel contains plutonium, which can be extracted and used for nuclear weapons. Nuclear fuel recycling should therefore only take place in countries which already have nuclear weapons, and which naturally desire to preserve their advantage (by preventing proliferation).
By monopolizing the recycling of nuclear fuel, the nuclear powers will gain control of the world’s future energy supply.
Every new 1,000 MW power plant which burns fossil fuels is likely to operate for 40 years; during that time it will produce about 130 million tonnes of CO2. The time has come for every country to build new nuclear power plants to replace fossil fuel power plants.
The stuff we now think of as radioactive waste is actually the fuel of the future.
Kazi Zahin Hasan is a businessman living in Dhaka.