I was at the MIT EmTech Digital 2019 conference. There was a lunch discussion which involved nuclear energy. A supercomputer and Artificial intelligence expert said that Nuclear Power was great except for the dangerous nuclear waste. Someone else at the table talked about using breakthroughs with rockets to send nuclear waste into the Sun or for nuclear waste to be dropped to the bottom of the ocean. These very intelligent people who have deep knowledge various technical topics have been misguided on key aspects of energy technology.
The truth is nuclear energy is already the safest energy based upon its historical track record. There were highly publicized incidents with nuclear power (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) but only Chernobyl had actual nuclear energy related deaths. Nuclear Power has generated about 85000 TWh over about 50 years of operation. Nuclear power has saved about 3 million lives. Nuclear power is generating over 2500 Terawatt hours per year. This is saving 50,000 to 100,000 people per year from air pollution deaths.
Nuclear waste is mainly unburned nuclear fuel. Used nuclear fuel is very hot and radioactive. Handling and storing it safely can be done as long as it is cooled and plant workers are shielded from the radiation it produces by a dense material like concrete or steel, or by a few meters of water. We do not have to go to more extreme measures to deal with what is already safe.
All unburned fuel and waste from commercial nuclear energy contained. How about the waste from other types of energy? Particulates from incomplete burning of coal, oil gas go into the air and everyone and every living creature on the planet breathes some into our lungs. In China, India and other countries, air pollution is like everyone smoking several cigarettes per day. This means the waste from coal, oil gas is breathed every day by babies, asthmatics and the elderly. This is why the deaths from outdoor air pollution about 3 million people per year. This does not include water pollution. All the mercury in fish is mainly from coal pollution. Mercury and toxic metals from fossil fuel air pollution no . It will stay dangerous for millions of years.
While standing exposed and very close to nuclear waste is dangerous, this does not happen. The fuel is stored at nuclear facilities. Nuclear facilities tend to be several square miles of land. The nuclear waste is about 100-200 tons per year per facility. However, Uranium is denser than lead. The 200 tons of material could fit into your garage.
The various types of coal pollution is measured in billions of tons, millions of tons or thousands of tons. 7.6 billion tons per year of coal becomes more CO2. The carbon from coal gets two Oxygen molecules added. Fossil fuel emissions (including cement production) accounted for about 91% of total CO2 emissions from human sources in 2014. This portion of emissions originates from coal (42%), oil (33%), gas (19%), cement (6%) and gas flaring (1%).
Nuclear Energy has been 10-20% of world electricity for four decades. This energy has prevented the use of coal and natural gas for electricity generation. Solar and wind have only recently reached 1-3% of world electricity. Nuclear Power has generated about 85000 TWh over about 50 years of operation. Nuclear power has saved about 3 million lives. Nuclear power is generating over 2500 Terawatt hours per year. This is saving 50,000 to 100,000 people per year from air pollution deaths.
Cement and Steel Used for Solar and Wind vs Nuclear Power
For every 10 tons of cement we produce, we release 9 tons of CO2. The average CO2 intensity for the steel industry is 1.9 tons of CO2 per ton of steel produced. Taking into consideration the global steel production of more than 1.7 billion tons, the steel industry produces over 3.5 billion tons of CO2.
A 1970-vintage U.S. nuclear power plants needed 40 metric tons (MT) of steel and 190 cubic meters (m3) of concrete per average megawatt of electricity (MW(e)) generating capacity. For comparison, a typical wind energy system operating with 6.5 meters-per-second average wind speed requires construction inputs of 460 metric tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete per average MW(e). Wind needs ten times more steel than nuclear and almost five times more concrete. Solar farms need even more steel and concrete than wind to generate the same power.
Wind turbines are about 50 stories tall and the blades are like the wings of a jumbo jet. Solar and wind take up way more land than nuclear power. Solar on building roofs cause more deaths because roofing is the fifth most dangerous profession. Falls cause deaths in solar and wind.
James Conca at Forbes cites Caithness Windfarm Information Forum 2013 (Wind Farm Accidents and Fatalities). James has written and provided additional information to my articles on deaths per terawatt hour. In England, there were 163 wind turbine accidents that killed 14 people in 2011. Wind produced about 15 billion kWhrs that year, so using a capacity factor of 25%. Wind produces 1,000 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced (the world produces 15 trillion kWhrs per year from all sources).
In 2011 coal produced about 180 billion kWhrs in England with about 3,000 related deaths. Nuclear energy produced over 90 billion kWhrs in England with no deaths. In that same year, America produced about 800 billion kWhrs from nuclear with no deaths.
The global averages in energy-related deaths are much higher than in the USA. Coal produces 100,000 deaths per trillion kWhrs (China is the worst), natural gas at 4,000 deaths, biomass at 24,000, solar at 440, and wind at 150. Using the worst-case scenarios with the highest estimates for eventual radiation-related deaths from Chernobyl and Fukushima would increase nuclear to 90 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced. Nuclear would still be the safest energy source.
Handling Unburned Nuclear Fuel
Water can provide both cooling and shielding, so a typical reactor will have its fuel removed underwater and transferred to a storage pool. After about five years it can be transferred into dry ventilated concrete containers, but it can safely remain in the pool indefinitely – usually for up to 50 years.
Currently, the majority of used fuel is not recycled. Reprocessing used fuel to recover uranium and plutonium avoids the wastage of a valuable resource. Most of the used fuel – about 96% – is uranium, and up to 1% is plutonium, with the remaining 3% being high-level waste. Both reprocessed uranium and plutonium have been recycled into new fuel. Plutonium mixed with uranium in their oxide forms is known as mixed oxide fuel (MOX).
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.