For many people, fear or concern about nuclear waste tops their list of opposition to nuclear energy, although with a little examination this can be seen very unreasonable. Like other technologies, nuclear power plants produce waste, and so strategies are needed to provide safety from being compromised or the environment being spoiled.
Technologies and their wastes may be compared: whether the waste is toxic or contagious. For simplicity, let’s compare three types of waste produced by human activity: combustion waste, personal biological waste and nuclear waste.
Combustion waste consists of ash (particulates) and carbon dioxide. There is a mass release into the atmosphere every day for each person such as: the burning of gas, oil and coal, for transportation, heating and electricity generation causing a steady build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is well established.
Biological waste is closer to home and its management is an individual and personal responsibility taught to children at an early age. However, not everyone has toilets. A recent well-publicized example was the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Around the world nearly a million children die every year from diarrheal disease spread by polluted water (fecal matters).
Nuclear waste is another waste like biological and combustion waste. However, unlike the latter two types, nuclear waste has not caused any deaths from accidental exposure. The waste is mainly solid and can is compactly stored and it is not discharged into the environment by default like carbon dioxide and biological waste.
There are two types of nuclear radioactive waste: low level transuranic elements and high level spent nuclear fuel rods.
Transuranic elements are created from the uranium fission process. These radioactive elements represent about 1% of the unused spent fuel at commercial power plants. If those isotopes don’t have some medical value, it is considered waste and needs to be stored for at least 300 hundreds years to decay.
Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) is the unused portion of the uranium fuel rods and this ‘alleged waste’ is actually uranium fuel to be stored for the next generation of nuclear reactors that will be able to consume it. Until 4GEN reactors are commercialized, the SNF has to be stored in dry cast at interim consolidated storage facilities like the proposed Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance site in Southeast New Mexico. To be continued…
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