The Biggest Problem with Nuclear Energy: Radioactive Waste

Nuclear energy is a powerful source of electricity, but it also brings with it a number of political, environmental and safety concerns. The biggest problem with nuclear energy is the creation of radioactive waste, such as tailings from uranium mills, spent (used) reactor fuel and other radioactive materials. These materials can remain hazardous to human health for thousands of years, and the disposal of this waste is a major environmental concern. A small group of scientists have proposed replacing 100% of the world's fossil-fuel power plants with nuclear reactors as a way to solve climate change.

Many others propose nuclear cultivation to meet up to 20 percent of all our energy needs (not just electricity). They advocate that nuclear energy is a “clean and carbon-free” source of energy, but they do not observe the human impacts of these scenarios. Utility-scale wind and solar farms, on the other hand, take on average only 2 to 5 years, from planning to operation. Rooftop photovoltaic solar energy projects have been reduced to just 6 months.

Therefore, the transition to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible would cause tens of millions fewer deaths. Uranium mining causes lung cancer in a large number of miners because uranium mines contain natural radon gas, some of whose decay products are carcinogenic. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10 percent) died of lung cancer, a rate six times higher than expected based on smoking rates alone. Clean, renewable energy does not have this risk because (a) it does not require continuous extraction of any material, only single extraction to produce the power generators; and (b) mining does not carry the same risk of lung cancer as mining uranium. Most fuel rods consumed from nuclear plants are stored in the same location as the reactor that consumed them. This has resulted in hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and financed for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the useful life of any nuclear power plant.

The more nuclear waste that accumulates, the greater the risk of radioactive leaks, which can damage water supplies, crops, animals and humans. The 444 nuclear power plants that currently exist provide about 11% of the world's energy (1). Studies show that, to meet current and future energy needs, the nuclear sector would need to expand to around 14,500 plants. Uranium, the fuel in nuclear reactors, consumes a lot of energy and is likely to be more difficult to reach deposits discovered in the future. As a result, much of the net energy created would be offset by the energy input needed to build and dismantle plants and to extract and process uranium ore.

The same goes for any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the shift from coal to nuclear (1). It is not possible to expand to 14,500 nuclear plants simply because of the limitation of feasible sites. Nuclear plants must be located near a water source for cooling, and there are not enough locations in the world that are safe from droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or other potential disasters that could trigger a nuclear accident. The increase in extreme weather events predicted by climate models only exacerbates this risk. Unlike renewables which are now the cheapest energy sources, nuclear costs are rising and many plants are shutting down or are in danger of being shut down for economic reasons. Initial capital, fuel and maintenance costs are much higher for nuclear plants than wind and solar, and nuclear projects tend to suffer from cost overruns and construction delays.

The price of renewable energy has fallen significantly in the last decade and is projected to continue to fall (1). Going down the nuclear route would mean that poor countries which do not have the financial resources to invest and develop nuclear energy would depend on rich and technologically advanced nations. Alternatively poor nations with no experience in building and maintaining nuclear power plants may decide to build them anyway. Countries with a history of using nuclear energy have learned the importance of regulation supervision and investment in safety when it comes to nuclear energy. Peter Bradford of Vermont Law a former member of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission writes: A world more dependent on nuclear energy would involve many plants in countries that have little experience in nuclear energy with no regulatory background in the field and some questionable quality control records security and corruption. They should lead by example and encourage poor countries to invest in safe energy technologies.

USNRC (201) Ferguson Charles D. The Future Of Nuclear Energy In The United States Federation Of American Scientists (201).