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The Nuclear Waste Question

The Nuclear Waste Question

Discussions of nuclear waste must include an overview of the nature of nuclear waste. That must include a context of how much is produced per kilowatt-hour and suitable comparisons made to the nature of waste produced in the process of creating other types of energy. (Need to find breakdown and comparison)

Quotes below are from World Nuclear Association

Knowing that nuclear plants can reuse a large percent of the prepared fuel and that countries such as “France, Japan, Germany, Belgium and Russia have all used plutonium recycling to generate electricity, whilst also reducing the radiological footprint of their waste. Some of the by-products (approximately 4%), mainly the fission products, will still require disposal in a repository and are immobilised by mixing them with glass, through a process called vitrification.”

“The electricity generated from nuclear reactors results in small amount of waste and has been managed responsibly since the dawn of civil nuclear power. There are several management strategies in practise, such as direct disposal or reuse in reactors to generate more low-carbon electricity.​”

90% is low level wasteRepresents 1% of radioactivity
7% is mid-level wasteRepresents 4% of radioactivity
3% is high-level wasteRepresents 95% of radioactivity

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“Unlike any other energy generating industry, the nuclear sector takes full responsibility for all of its waste.”


“Nuclear fuel is very energy dense, so very little of it is required to produce immense amounts of electricity – especially when compared to other energy sources. As a result, a correspondingly small amount of waste is produced. On average, the waste from a reactor supplying a person’s electricity needs for a year would be about the size of a brick. Only 5 grams of this is high-level waste – about the same weight as a sheet of paper.”

“The generation of electricity from a typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear power station, which would supply the needs of more than a million people, produces only three cubic metres of vitrified high-level waste per year, if the used fuel is recycled. In comparison, a 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station produces approximately 300,000 tonnes of ash and more than 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, every year.”

Burning coal not only dumps toxic mercury into the atmosphere, it’s ash is both radioactive and poisonous. It contains a host of other toxic substances such as cadmium which have no half-lives. This means that coal represents a much greater threat to both the environment and the people in it than does the waste generated by existing or future nuclear power plants. The comparison reveals how misguided protests are towards nuclear plants.

“Since the dawn of the civil nuclear power industry, nuclear waste has never caused harm to people. The popular misconception is that because certain parts of nuclear waste remain radioactive for billions of years, then the threat must be sustained for that period. However, this is not the case. Whilst remaining weakly radioactive for a few hundred thousand years, the radioactivity from the main component of the waste which could cause health problems will have decayed to safe levels within a few hundred years.”

“A key factor in understanding why nuclear waste repositories do not pose a health threat also stems from the fact that the quantity of materials which would be found in the environment in the event of a leak would be very small. The amount of radioactive materials that would enter the environment would make no difference to the natural environment or future humans. After all, the environment we live in, as well as the human body, is naturally radioactive. Radiation is an unavoidable part of life on our planet, and life evolved and is thriving in this radioactive environment, and the doses from a nuclear waste repository would be almost 50 times smaller than the average background radiation.”

“Although some countries, most notably the USA, treat used nuclear fuel as waste, most of the material in used fuel can be recycled.”
Currently no-one in the US is willing to pay the price.
France’s recycling is mandated by government, so utilities are obliged to pay for it – as well as the DGR at CIGEO.
Other countries are much more concerned about nuclear being competitive with other energy sources, so any extra costs like recycling are frowned upon.

“Approximately 97% – the vast majority (~94%) being uranium – of it could be used as fuel in certain types of reactor. Recycling has, to date, mostly been focused on the extraction of plutonium and uranium, as these elements can be reused in conventional reactors. This separated plutonium and uranium can subsequently be mixed with fresh uranium and made into new fuel rods.”

It’s Not a Big Problem
The nuclear industry has developed – and implemented – most of the necessary technologies required for the final disposal of all of the waste it produces. The remaining issue is one of public acceptance, and not of technological feasibility.
The amount of waste produced by the nuclear power industry is small relative to other industrial activities. 97% of the waste produced is classified as low- or intermediate-level waste (LLW or ILW). Such waste has been widely disposed of in near-surface repositories for many years. In France, where fuel is reprocessed, just 0.2% of all radioactive waste by volume is classified as high-level waste (HLW).a

The amount of HLW produced (including used fuel when this is considered as waste) during nuclear production is small; a typical large reactor (1 GWe) produces about 25-30 tonnes of used fuel per year. About 400,000 tonnes of used fuel has been discharged from reactors worldwide, with about one-third having been reprocessed.b

Unlike other industrial toxic wastes, the principal hazard associated with HLW – radioactivity – diminishes with time. At present, interim storage facilities provide an appropriate environment to contain and manage existing waste, and the decay of heat and radioactivity over time provides a strong incentive to store HLW for a period before its final disposal. In fact, after 40 years, the radioactivity of used fuel has decreased to about one-thousandth of the level at the point when it was unloaded. Interim storage facilities also allow a country to store its spent fuel until a time when it has generated sufficient quantities to make a repository development economic.

Canada’s NRC gives the following volume figures.

Reactors using lots of graphite moderator, with ~5y life in the reactor, will have much more intermediate level waste, as seen in this slide from a CNL presentation:
(PDF) Backgrounder-2021-What-is-used-nuclear-fuel.pdf

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