What is Nuclear Energy?
When you hear nuclear energy, you probably think “that stuff that makes bombs” or “isn’t that in the ugly plant Homer Simpson works in?” National Geographic tells us that nuclear energy is “the energy in the nucleus, or core, of an atom”. When you consider the impact of nuclear bombs, that is a massive amount of energy. How else do we use nuclear energy? Nuclear fuel, a source of nuclear energy, made with a mix of uranium, plutonium, and a hodgepodge of other radioactive elements, is used to power a nuclear reactor which creates nuclear energy which in turn is used to create electricity. Let me repeat that. Nuclear Energy makes E-L-E-C-T-R-C-I-T-Y. Yeah you heard right! No coal and no natural gas! No non-renewables! But theres a catch, Nuclear fuel produces nuclear waste. Remember that mess in Japan? Fukushima? Fukushima was one of the largest nuclear disasters the world has ever seen and it was just a
few years ago. In 2011, following the tsunami that hit Japan, equipment in this Japanese Nuclear Power Plant began to fail and after three boiling water reactors were shut down, their spent fuel pools needed cooling and it resulted in a massive nuclear meltdown. Radioactive material released into the environment as a result of the meltdown poses the greatest threat. Although no deaths were reported as an immediate result of the meltdown, there are increased cancer risks as a result of ingesting groundwater contaminated from said radioactive material. Also due to the backlash nuclear energy safety has seen, several power plants have closed around the country contributing to a lack of energy in Japan, and in turn contributing to worsened economy.
How Would Nuclear Be Better Than Fossil Fuels?
For starters, how do waste generations compare? If we look at coal waste, once coal is burned to produce energy, a couple things happen. Of greatest concern are the large amounts of solid waste in the forms of ash and sludge that are produced and the cooling water used throughout coal power plants is released back into bodies of water(i.e. lake, ocean, etc.) at temperatures much higher than the body of water. Within the sludge and ash are many toxic substances that taint the surrounding environment especially if they are not properly regulated. The largest safety concern surrounding the solid waste is it’s contamination of groundwater, which can commonly contain arsenic and mercury and can be incredibly harmful to anyone drinking it. Additionally, the release of hot water threatens any ecosystem it is released into because it creates “thermal pollution” which put the health of all animals and plants at risk¹. Oil is similar in that it has major carbon emission issues when burned. Also, Carbon emission is an issue both oil and coal burning add to. The largest risk associated with oil is generally with oil spills as a result of a burst or leak in midstream or upstream extraction. This basically is when oil companies are trying to obtain oil and the pipes carrying it from the ground have a crack and oil spills all over the surrounding environment. These oil spills contaminate groundwater, kill wildlife of all kinds ranging from the environment itself to the animals that inhabit it, and are pollution that cause permanent damage². So when comparing both these fossil fuels with nuclear, nuclear seems to be the lesser of the two evils. After the few major nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, not only are the amount of nuclear disasters fewer, but also the amount of directly associated deaths and observed environmental impacts have been less. However, it is important to remember that although nuclear waste is better in these ways and is more energy efficient(meaning you get more energy for less waste, need little Uranium to make a lot of energy, and need a little land to make a lot) than most fossil fuels, the costs of treating and disposing of nuclear waste are much higher than that of fossil fuels³.
The real question then becomes, how do we continue to use nuclear energy to avoid using up all our non-renewables without ruining environments everywhere? In other words, what do we do with nuclear waste storage and how can we get rid of nuclear waste?
Nuclear Waste Protocol as of Now
The entire nuclear industry produces “generates a total of about 2,000 – 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year”(4). To put that in perspective for you, one metric ton is equivalent to 1,000 kilograms; that is a lot of waste. What is currently being done with that waste? Well, currently in the United States we use a method called “Deep Geological Disposal” where nuclear waste is buried deep underground in areas generally far away from the general populace where the waste can live out its half-life and lose its radioactivity. To learn more about how waste management currently works check out this interactive timeline. Another form of waste management has taken the form of repurposing, which is something many countries in Europe have taken to, but because the United States does not approve of it we are forced to do something else with the growing amounts of waste we do have.
So where do we put these disposal sites and are they safe? This hotly debated issue has been greatly contested in the recent Yucca Mountain Project. Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada near the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, was a mountain selected under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to hold about 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste however with already more waste waiting for a home than the site can contain, the facilities intended capacity is essentially already reached. The way it works is that nuclear plants typically use Interim Dry Cask Storage to house waste short term but eventually that waste needs to be moved to a long-term storage facility as more and more waste is created. Yucca was to be among the only long-term nuclear waste storage centers in America; a necessity because of the long time that it takes for nuclear waste to become non-radioactive. The reason this waste has yet to be stored at Yucca is because of the large amount of backlash the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has received over environmental and safety concerns. Yucca Mountain has raised many concerns about radioactive leakage into groundwater for the population surrounding the mountain, but the largest concern being what would happen if there were an earthquake. Nevada, being an area where earthquakes are fairly commonplace could cause a rise in the groundwater table which could come into contact with the nuclear waste or even break storage canisters. Even all that aside, the Yucca Mountain could cave in! Yucca may not be the best long-term solution for environmental reasons, but with nuclear waste generation growing at its current rate, the Yucca facility wouldn’t even be enough to truly make a dent in housing all of our waste. With the immense backlash, federal funding was suspended and the US is now without any long-term nuclear waste storage facility for non-defense generated waste.
So what are we left with? The search for a long-term solution to nuclear waste storage that A. does not threaten humans safety and environment and B. is large enough to house or eliminate all the waste we currently have and waste we will generate by the time we find said solution. To make matters worse we need to keep in mind that waste production is constantly increasing. At the current rate of nuclear waste production with 70,000 metric tons currently being stored at reactor sites(making our formula: 70,000 metric tons currently + 2,150 metric tons per year multiplied by years), by 2050 we have 145,250 metric tons of nuclear waste to deal with.
A Future for Nuclear Energy or Rather, Better Containment?
However, not all hope is lost. More research has been done on a molten-salt reactor that could not only solve the waste problem, but also the safety problem we currently face in using nuclear power(5). The molten salt reactor is a kind of fission reactor with the primary coolant being a molten-salt mixture. They’re “ideally suited for thorium, an alternative nuclear fuel that is cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium” and we can forget about radioactive spills with this new foolproof reactor. They operate like bathtubs and if something goes horribly awry, a freeze plug in the reactor container melts and the reactor core drains out into an underground container. What else can it do, you ask? While they can create thermal power in a safe manner, they can also “consume nuclear waste from conventional reactors”. SO that means that they can produce energy, avoid mining for uranium which in and of itself destroys environments, can be catastrophe-proof, and can eliminate the current problem of what to do with nuclear waste. AND it still gets better! Researchers working on it now believe it could be made in ten years!
However, while I find this molten-salt reactor very exciting, there are plenty of critics. The biggest concern surrounding this molten-salt reactor is the fact that “radioactive fission products” they might not be properly contained. “Radioactive fission product” can be both radioactive and chemical that can be very problematic when the chemical elements eat away at the containment of the reactor. So while there may be some technical difficulties, I think the concept presented by this molten-salt reactor is very exciting and is good news for the nuclear community. Unlike other waste management solutions, this could be a better, more long-term, more sustainable solution to dealing with nuclear waste.
So remember, not all hope is lost and nuclear power may STILL be the way of the future, but it may take some time to iron out more final details!