Inform Yourself About Nuclear Waste

The most common argument of Nuclear Power detractors is the production of large quantities of radioactive waste. I'm going to take a look at nuclear waste generation so that you can get a better feel for the issue.

Yesterday I received this document in the mail with my power bill. The second page contained these charts:This made me want to calculate the upper bound of my household's Nuclear Waste production. The reason I say 'upper bound' is because the values for nuclear waste generation are just given as an upper bound on how much waste per 1000 kilowatt-hours produced. The actual nuclear waste generation might be lower than this.

You might also notice that there are two types of nuclear waste. High-Level Nuclear Waste is what I would call the typical nuclear waste. It is the spent fuel, control rods and all other materials used directly in the fission reaction. High-Level Nuclear Waste accounts for 99% of the radioactivity of all nuclear waste[1]. The other type is called Low-Level Nuclear Waste. Low-Level nuclear waste is mostly things like radioactive protection suits and other things that are indirectly exposed to the radiation of a fission reaction. These materials account for only 5% of the radiation and are thus much easier to handle and transport safely.

Now back to the calculation. I looked at all my power bills from 2007 and totaled my kWh usage. In 2007, my house used 8208 kWh of electricity. Of that power, 7% of it was generated by Nuclear Power according to Ameren. So I take the total 1000 kWh (8.21) and multiply it by the total produced from known sources .0001 in the cases of both high and low. I get .000821 lbs of High Level Nuclear Waste and .000821 ft^3 of Low Level Nuclear Waste. One caveat on these numbers, as Ameren points out in their footnote, is that they didn't know the waste produced by 13% of their power because they bought it from other power companies. I neglect this mainly because I'm using .0001 as my figure for Nuclear Waste, even though the actual numbers may be lower.

Next, I decided to see what would happen if all of my power was generated by Nuclear. So I take .0001 and multiply by 100/7 to convert the waste numbers to 100% of the waste. I think this is pretty valid because the only other wastes from nuclear power operation seem to be water vapor and waste heat, which most people argue are not pollution. This gives me <.0014 lbs and <.0014 ft^3 for High and Low wastes respectively. Multiplying this out I get: .011726 lbs and .011726 ft^3 respectively again.

Since I found it hard to wrap my head around such small numbers, I decided to look at the entire state of Illinois, my home state. For this calculation, I assume my power consumption is representative of all of the people of Illinois of which there are about 12,831,970 at the time of writing. This gives us 75.23 tons of High Level Nuclear Waste per year, and 5573 cubic yards of Low Level Nuclear Waste per year. This is if all of our power was produced by Nuclear Power.

So 75.23 tons for Illinois sounds like a pretty big problem but let's look at a minimum of the amount of Carbon Dioxide emissions this would remove. Ameren claims that it emits 1574 lbs of CO2 per 1000 kWh so that gives me the total output of CO2 at current power consumption levels and distribution is 82,890,625 tons per year. By going to a full nuclear power generation model, we could be reducing the carbon footprint of Illinois by 82 Million tons!! So when deciding between Nuclear Power and other options we must weigh in our head the relative advantages of both. If you think that reducing the C02, Nitrogen Oxides, and Sulfer Dioxide in the air will help improve air quality and reduce the risk of global climate change, then you have to weigh this against the negatives of having Nuclear Waste around.

Some people think that this great reduction isn't worth the risk of Nuclear Waste. I do not. I think that humans, when given the chance to solve a problem will be able to come up with a workable solution to dealing with Nuclear Waste.

[1] N. Tsoulfanidis and R.G. Cochran, “Radioactive Waste Management,” Nuclear Technology, 93 (1991), pp. 263–304.

published 2008-02-02

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