Blog 18.02.21

Nuclear waste: why worry?

Houston’s Arctic weather: standing in line for bottled gas. Picture: Houston Chronicle.

The sight this week of freezing Texans standing in line to buy liquid petroleum gas to heat their dark homes highlighted the importance of the energy mix most of us rely on for electricity, including nuclear.

Pro-fossil fuel politicians, like Texan governor Greg Abbot, were quick to weaponize the crisis by  (wrongly) blaming frozen wind turbines for crippling power cuts that left Texans shivering during the unexpected cold snap.

Yes, some wind generators (which provide 7% of the Texan electricity in the winter) did stop turning, but the main problem was frigid gas pipelines and frozen instruments, including those in  nuclear stations.  

The inability of nuclear to step up in a crisis highlights the many vulnerabilities of the technology and our hope for it to lead us out of the climate crisis.

All about waste

Nuclear’s chief problem remains its waste.  Or more pointedly, our perception of the hazards posed by the waste’s radioactivity. The globally unsolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste is once again up for public debate in Finland and the UK where there are plans for its burial. 

Throughout the world, highly toxic nuclear waste from weapons and power generation is stored above ground, awaiting political decisions on how to get rid of it.

Encasing it in something impermeable (like glass) and burying it very deep underground is the preferred option.  Finland is closest to achieving this.  Its deep vaults are awaiting their first shipments once the politicians give the green light to a system that must guarantee safe burial for 10,000 years.

The UK is asking communities in potential burial grounds to agree to host the waste for generations to come.  A few years back some of the same communities rejected similar plans.


Nuclear waste is a highly emotional issue, mainly because it’s so difficult for non-specialists to assess the true risks.  James Lovelock, the iconoclastic scientist whose research identified the hole in the ozone layer and who argues the planet should be seen as a self-regulating system (he calls it Gaia), rejects emotional concerns about nuclear waste. 

Now in his 102nd year, he has long teased anti-nuclear campaigners by offering to store all the waste of a nuclear power station in his back yard, happy to use the heat to warm his house.

He wants nuclear critics to put the impact of the waste into perspective, especially by comparing it  with pollution from fossil fuels.

“I find it sad, but all too human, that there are vast bureaucracies concerned about nuclear waste, huge organizations devoted to decommissioning nuclear power stations, but nothing comparable to deal with that truly malign waste, carbon dioxide,” he writes in The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity.

Carbon mountains

He says the burning fossil fuels produces 27,000 million tonnes of CO2 a year. If solidified, that would be enough to make a mountain nearly two kilometres high, from a base of 10 kilometres in circumference. 

The same amount of energy from nuclear power would create 14,000 tonnes of high-level waste, enough to be stored in a 16-metre cube.

“The carbon dioxide waste is invisible but so deadly that if its emissions go unchecked it will kill nearly everyone. The nuclear waste buried in pits at the production sites is no threat to Gaia and dangerous only to those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation,” he argues.

(His solution to the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest is to dump small quantities of nuclear waste throughout the forest to scare off developers.)

Chernobyl hero helicopter pilot Gen. Nikolai T. Antoshkin who died last week aged 78. Picture: Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS

Our inability to put risk into perspective will continue to blight the debate of what to do with our nuclear waste.  Perhaps the answer lies in doing as we have done till now and accepting that there are too few Lovelocks around to agree to bury it in the back yard.

Maybe the politicians should accept that in a democracy we will never agree to bury the waste. So,  let’s save a lot of money and hot air, dismantle the bureaucracies and spend the savings on upgrading existing waste storage.  Then spend the time dealing with the climate crisis.   

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