Never Mind CO2, What About Radioactive Waste?

i-6a3ebe4c13de5958d661825b5619c2eb-Radioactive.jpgI’m an archaeologist and I see things in the long perspective. Let me offer you a suggestion.

The CO2, greenhouse effect, climate issue is no cause for concern compared to the issue of radioactive waste.

I mean, long after our manipulation of the atmosphere’s composition and the sea levels has stopped, the waste from our reactors will be an absolutely lethal threat to ecology.

People 40 000 years from now won’t give a damn about our CO2 emissions. But our subterranean caches of radioactive waste will still be a huge problem. And I believe that we have a pretty heavy responsibility to them.

Dear Reader, am I missing something?

[More blog entries about , , , , ; , , , , .]


36 thoughts on “Never Mind CO2, What About Radioactive Waste?

  1. I think you fell off your rocker. Rad waste is actually a monor technologically solvable problem. Even if we do it poorly, there might be a few local problem spots. Worst case for GW could cause severe extinctions i.e. we lose yet more species, and these aren’t coming back.
    Even looking at the disastors we’ve had, such as Chernoble, these areas are a boon to nature, as the exclusion of humans has allowed nature to do its thing undisturbed.
    Our planet -born of the radioactive waste of supernovas will barely notice the small amount of rad-waste we generate.


  2. Well, for starters, the quantities of radioactive waste produced by modern civilization are miniscule compared to the quantities of chemical waste, including greenhouse gases.

    One of the consequences of the hysterical fear of radioactive waste is the resurgence of coal-fired electricity production, which produces massive quantities of greenhouse gases in addition to other pollutants.

    With radioactive waste, at least you know where it is (assuming you contain it prudently). The same can’t be said of chemical pollutants produced by burning coal: they go everywhere.

    Is radioactive waste bad? Certainly. Is it a greater threat than our current rate of CO2 emission? I seriously doubt that.


  3. I agree with bigTom. Radioactive waste is not that big of a problem. For once we have only used a couple of % of its total energy, you can extract the extremely radioactive isotopes from it and bury that, with an halflife of < 1000 years. And use the rest again, and again. This will also cut down the space needed for storage, which in turn makes it easier to store safe.

    If we are serious about GW and combatting it or atleast slowing it down/not doing more damage, we (the HUUMANS) will have to stop the emissions of CO2 from sources like oil, coal etc. And as I see it, Nuclear power is the only feasible powersource we have that can it replace all.

    The areal needed for enough biofuels to replace the fossilic fuels is also a problem, we simply cant grow enough with the areals we got today and still feed the worlds population.



  4. Radioactive waste may be a solveable problem, and it may be that one day we will be able to re-use it until only short-lived isotopes remain. But my point is that this problem is not yet solved. And before it is, I find it irresponsible to run fission reactors.

    You guys argue as if every kilogram of rad waste in the world were neatly accounted for and somebody responsible knew exactly where it was. Such is not the case. Most fission-using states have extremely lax security in this department. I mean, hello: the Ukraine, Belarus, Northern Korea? When the time comes to re-use the stuff, most of it will be in unknown locations, polluting the ground water.

    Rad waste may not be a big problem now or within the coming 50 years. But I’m more interested in our responsibility toward the far posterity, tens of thousands of years from now.

    Nuclear power may be the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels if we are to keep up our current energy use. But in the long-term perspective, it’s way too risky. In fact, there is no way that we can continue to use energy at current levels unless we get functioning fusion power.

    CO2 has no long-term negative consequences. It only hits two or three generations who have to move their cities because of the rising seas. Rad waste hits every generation to come for tens of thousands of years.


  5. You may be right… if you think what matters is the world in 40.000 years. If you take a more average stance, in which what happens in the next 30-200 years is more relevant, then radioactive wastes is absolutely negligible compared to global warming.

    Global warming is potential civilization-wrecker. Radiactive wastes is a mere nuisance in comparison.

    We need more nuclear power, not less. Fusion power would be even nicer.


  6. I’d be quite happy to save modern civilization if it could be done without fucking up the Earth’s ecology for aeons to come. But as it is, I find it better for our civilization to downscale and bow out gracefully in the near future and leave the planet in reasonable shape.


  7. Oh, and another thing: every true environmentalist must demand immediate damming of all major watercourses for hydroelectric power. Never mind the natural beauty of these places or a few populations of migrant fish. Any damage done by hydroelectric damming will be entirely obliterated within a few hundred years if the dams are not kept up.

    Saving a set of beautiful rapids isn’t environmentalism, it’s naive aestheticism.

    Take that, Northern Sweden!


  8. I gotta disagree with you here, Martin R. Because of the “advantages” of radioactive waste, it is in fact much easier to deal with than spewing gases into the atmosphere. CO2 emissions are like toothpaste – once it’s out of the tube, you’re kinda screwed. But radioactive waste stays in the tube. We just need to figure out what to do with the tubes.

    Radioactive waste, treated with current standards, will affect far smaller areas than greenhouse gases do. Rad waste might say, cause a few square miles of empty land to be permanently empty. Greenhouse gases, by your own admission, will destroy cities all over the globe.

    Nuke power produces far less waste, per kW generated, than coal or oil power. So it’s a smaller problem too!

    When we started burning fossil fuels, we didn’t much care about the environment. There was no push or incentive, or even consciousness, to fix the pollution problem. Only after the fact have resources been devoted to scrubbing emissions and developing processes that pollute less, but are still efficient. It’s a game of catch-up and band-aid fixes.

    With nuke power, we already are aware of the environmental impacts. So as nuke plants become more common, we can tackle the waste problem head-on, from the beginning. We won’t have to work backwards like has been done for fossil fuels.

    Necessity breeds invention. The more waste we produce, the faster we learn to deal with it. If we continue to produce very little, then no one will bother. And in time, more “orphaned” waste will be produced than if we had ramped up nuke power in the first place.

    There are some innovative ideas that need to be researched. There are also innovative new reactor designs (pebble bed, for instance) that are safer than the current working nuke plant population. Their waste is also more manageable. If we were ever able to get a space elevator, we could maybe fling the waste into the sun. Perhaps we could bury the waste deep near a subduction zone, so that it is taken deep into the earth and recycled that way. By the time any of it (if any was left) emerged again, it would be effectively inert.


  9. Idiots everywhere that buy into Liberal Light Science.
    Rad waste is small compared to all of the other wastes out there. Move away a few miles and it can’t harm you. CO2 supposedly harms the whole world, except that water vapor causes 99% of green house gas heating, so this too is bogus.
    Wake up people, everything “they” want is to change your behavior/buying habits/power structure – it has nothing to do with saving Mother Earth.
    Cheap energy = high standard of living and freedom. Think of this each time your local anti-nuclear movement tries to hinder new power plants.


  10. What would be most considerate of the creatures inhabiting the earth 40 000 years from now: extinguishing half of today’s biological species — including, possibly, humanity — through climate change, or riddling the planet’s crust with radioactive waste deposits? I don’t know. But as you point out above, Martin, there is a third way: downscaling our energy consumption. And since that can be done without real impairment to the things that make human existence worth while — love, art, science, the aesthetic appreciation of nature — and since we’re probably going to have to do it anyway, fossil and nuclear fuels being finite resources, the issue seems like a no-brainer to me.


  11. Biodiversity always returns after a great dying. It’s happened repeatedly. But this presupposes that the environment does not become radically more hostile for tens of thousands of years, as it would if we rad-poisoned the biosphere. Too high a mutation rate doesn’t lead to more rapid adaptation, it kills off the lineage.

    True, nuclear fuels are a finite resource, but I believe humanity is unlikely to quit using them before the deposits have all been converted into rad waste.


  12. To be realistic, there is of course no way to convince every state on Earth to turn off their reactors. But it’s my firm opinion that if you’re going to produce something as dangerous as rad waste, then you are morally bound to first develop safe disposal methods with no long-term radioactivity problem. It’s like building a railroad. First you set up safe crossings with bells and lamps and gates, then you start running the train.


  13. Cephyn, I understand your reasoning, but I have to repeat: most rad waste on Earth is not managed well. A lot of nuke plants are run by unpaid and permanently inebriated post-Soviet engineers.

    But the subduction zone idea is way cool. Never heard of that before. Kind of hard though to make sure the waste only sinks and isn’t leached upward by sea water.


  14. Martin, I’m not trying to argue against your assessment of the relative merits of Schylla and Charybdis — my point is that we don’t need to pass through that strait in the first place.


  15. In principle we are of course entirely safe. But in practice, I am pessimistic about humankind’s capacity to turn that ship from its course toward the straits. I find it far more likely that the crew will start one big mutha of a brawl and simply let go of the rudder.


  16. OK, I realize now that what you’re discussing isn’t so much the moral question of what humanity ought to be doing as the empirical one of how things will actually play out. On that score, I think there is cause for cautious optimism: if current astrophysics is to be believed, bugs surviving the cataclysm will have another four billion years to evolve once more into something capable of enjoying existence.


  17. “most rad waste on Earth is not managed well.”

    That is a true statement, but it is true also because it is a substatement.

    “most WASTE on Earth is not managed well.”

    proper waste treatment is a newer field of technology. Plenty of dangerous things have been developed before the safety of it was hammered out. Cars used to drive on roads that didn’t have stop signs or traffic lights. life saving surgeries were done before antiseptics or anasthesia. progress should not be limited by what we do not know – it should be limited by what we cannot do. does anyone here believe that there is NO POSSIBLE SOLUTION to radioactive waste with current or near-current technology? unless that is your view, i can’t see why you would completely discount an otherwise excellent solution to the power generation/pollution problem. Radioactive fuel is a limited resource, but the limits are far broader than using oil and coal. How can we make more coal, more oil? We can’t. How can we make more radioactive fuel? Since it is non-organic, we could find it on places like the moon, asteroids, etc. Since it is a product of a physical reaction, we can create it using fusion and neutron bombardment. It is limited only by our willingness to create it, not by how many dinosaurs died in a marsh.

    As for the seawater leaching out the rad waste, yeah, it is a concern. But there are ways to seal things that you never want to open. They have the technology to seal in the beads from pebble bed reactors in thick glass that won’t degrade (or does so slow enough that it doesn’t matter) in water. And since we’re burying it deep in the earth, there shouldn’t be that much water to begin with that will leach up to the open sea. It’s a solvable problem, and a far smaller one than spewing CO2 and other gases everywhere.

    And real quick to the H2O greenhouse guy – yes, h2o vapor is a very effective greenhouse gas. But we are not increasing the amount of h2o vapor we are putting in the air, and even if we did, we have a water cycle that will handle that sort of thing, bringing back equilibrium. the earth handles water very well. CO2 has to be scrubbed out through other means – like plants, and we are slowly decreasing the number of plants on earth while drastically increasing CO2 output. it’s not a valid comparison.


  18. My argument is that rad waste is incommensurable with any other pollutant because it is both extremely poisonous and extremely long-lived. Therefore, it is morally worse to produce it before we know how to deal with it, than it is to produce any other junk.

    And Tor, I’m arguing about two different things. What we should do is achieve world peace and engineer societies with a really small invironmental footprint, then live the good simple life.

    What we most likely will do is fight each other rabidly for dwindling resources (Iraq, anyone?), pollute the environment insanely, and then drop back to the Iron Age, scavenging lamp posts and powerline struts for metal to forge swords and raid the neighbouring mutant tribe with.


  19. Hallo Martin!

    As a semi Geologist I must say that radwaste compared to CO2 is a small problem. I feel completely safe with Sweden’s way to handle the rad for ten thousands years to come. As for CO2 it could drown some of the poorest nations in the world, start wars and make the earth another planet as we know it. (if we are talking worst case scenarios.)


  20. OK, so rad waste is a local problem? There will be lethal rad zones in backwoods countries with poor waste management, but areas such as Sweden will be OK? No vacations in Crimea?


  21. At some point I just accept that I can’t rule the universe I have enough trouble with paying the bills at time. There are tones of things I think is wrong in other countries (take Nuclear weapons for example)… what to do? maybe I will run for parliament some day but until then… I try not to worry about all that’s wrong in the world, I think it would make me insane…


  22. “My argument is that rad waste is incommensurable with any other pollutant because it is both extremely poisonous and extremely long-lived. Therefore, it is morally worse to produce it before we know how to deal with it, than it is to produce any other junk.”

    you forgot one part to add though – it is extremely poisonous and extremely long lived, but it is nowhere near a widespread poison as gases are.

    Why was the chernobyl disaster such a disaster? Not because of the meltdown so much as the highly radioactive cloud of gas it spewed out. the area around chernobyl is now quite polluted from the disaster. but how widespread is the pollution from fossil fuel plants?

    Id say the pollution from either plant is about the same. But the rad waste pollution is highly concentrated in comparison. This makes it easier to dispose of, easier to manage, easier to track, easier to predict effects of, and morally better to produce. The world would be a better place if we had an off limits zone of 100 square miles in the middle of the empty quarter, or sahara, or greenland, wherever, than polluting all of earth and (possibly irreversibly) damaging the climate. And I think we can find better ways to dispose of the waste than turning greenland into a green glowing dump. I find it morally far more palatable to permanently destroy a small patch of earth than to destroy the entire climate.


  23. Oh come on, we aren’t destroying the climate, we’re just changing it quite dramatically. Around where I live, we actually stand to get an improvement. I could definitely use a 5 centigrade raise. We’ll have to move a lot of coastal cities, but it’s not as if people are going to drown in sudden sea-level changes. Refugee streams from Bangladesh will become a problem, though.

    Ecological zones will shift a few hundred kilometres toward the poles, and the polar habitats will be erased with their species, but Earth has seen worse. I’d say the consequences of global warming are more of an inconvenience to humans than an ecological disaster.


  24. Martin, you’re an archaeologist. Do a little digging. Try googling OKLO. I think nature has already given us the answer to your concern.


  25. Martin:
    This ain’t one of your better days. I have to join the crowd jumping on you on this one.
    Of course work on hydroelectric power, solar, and other alernative fuels is necessary, but we don’t have them yet, at least in sufficient quantity.
    And downsizing is desireable, but sometimes I think it is overstated. Things like heating and air conditioning ARE important, if not, technically, for survival, at least for a decent level of civilized productivity. (There are major areas in the US that would be uninhabitable, again on a reasonable basis, without air conditioning.)
    It IS possible to develop a safe system for handling nuclear waste, and even to find most of what has been discarded in the past. It will take political will, money, and research, yes, but it is doable. It is not, as far as I know, possible to ‘scrub the atmosphere’ or otherwise reduce the PROGRESSIVE effects of global warming, and reverting from nuclear to fossil would continue the effect — and this could only be lessened. I’m afraid I am very much pro-nuke for power generation.
    And, btw, Dave, I am, and always have been a liberal.


  26. You’re just digging deeper and deeper here Martin R.

    What happens when it doesn’t stop at 1 degree? or 5? Or 20? Have you seen Venus? That’s what happens. And yes, its climate is destroyed beyond human convenience. That is what will happen if you keep spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an accelerated rate. And that can happen far faster than spreading nuke waste all across the planet. Put another way, steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions would make the earth inhabitable by humans far faster than nuke waste will, assuming comparable levels of waste treatment and power output. And I contend that nuke waste will be easier to deal with than greenhouse gases have been or will be.

    Secondly, sure, some eco zones shift, some animals die off, and a billion or two people have to just move. No big deal right? except, all the eco zones shift. So the tropics become deserts, all those animals die. the temperate zones become tropical, all those animals die. the polar becomes temperate, all those animals die. Not much left man. Many animals can’t just move a couple hundred kilometers north, especially if vegetation changes. And furthermore – global warming isn’t just a gradual increase in temperature – it is also about climate instability. No one really knows what would happen in a given area – but all sorts of things could happen, violent storms. Oh and if the Gulf Stream fails, you won’t be on your deck with a mai tai, it will be even colder where you are for a long time before the warming catches up.

    Any degree of dramatic climate change (dramatic being your word, dont forget) will have cascading effects beyond the immediate alterations. Cause and Effect. And it’s not like the seas will slowly rise and we can all just move our deck chairs out of the way – when the ocean breaches a levee (natrual or manmade), its a sudden flood. it doesn’t creep over it like molasses. Either you’re dry – or you’re not.


  27. There are new types of nuclear reactors (Integral Fast Reactors) that recycle the transuranic elements to cut down the half life of their waste. The result is waste that is dangerous for about 300 years. Now 300 years is a long time, but on your timescale just a trivial as global warming.

    The thing about technology is you generally have to experiment to improve. If not for the old, dirty reactors we wouldn’t get new, cleaner ones. And were it not for Chernobel and 3 Mile island we probably wouldn’t have passive controls either.

    The real problem with nuclear power is that with so many activists poisoning the well ti is really hard to build new ones. Tat means the dirty ones run for longer.


  28. I think your archaeological perspective is underestimating the effects of rising sea levels and shifting climate zones on contemporary people and nations. Consider the Migration period at the beginning of the European middle ages. Here we had, what, perhaps a few million people or so shifting about in the course of a couple of hundred years. This destroyed empires and redraw politics. There were wars. Still, these wars and upheavals were limited in scope, there is only so much damage you can do with swords, axes and setting fire to towns.

    Consider instead what will be happening in our era. You have dozens of cities with populations of tens of millions of people each that will have to move somewhere else (preferrably somewhere with arable land) over the course of a century or less, at the same time as agricultural production will be dropping. (And I just realised, near and in those cities are toxic waste sources – chemical plants, landfill areas, etc – that suddenly will be in the sea.) There will be wars, but this time around many of the combattants will have nuclear weapons. Isn’t that a much more worrying kind of nuclear waste to worry about?

    That said, I don’t think fission power is anything but a temporary stopgap solution, but at our current technical ability it’s the least unsatisfactory alternative.


  29. OK guys, thank you; you’ve kind of convinced me and eased my mind. Rad waste will be a perennial problem, but not around my neighbourhood. CO2 is gonna be worse, yet not too bad.

    And really, why worry? The most effective way I can personally contribute to solving any environmental problem is through my quadrannual parliamentary vote. Running for office myself would probably not be effective given my low boredom threshold and poor diplomatic skills. I’ll just continue voting red & green every few years and leave my residual 80s nuke fear behind.


  30. Martin, I think you are quite right to point out that the problem of radioactive waste hasn’t been solved (regardless of how the problem compares to CO2). Witness the Yucca mountain fiasco in the US. Figuring out how to store this stuff safely for tens of thousands of years is an enormous, unsolved problem, and we won’t actually “solve” it; we’re effectively just leaving a messy experiment for future generations to deal with. Helen Caldicott’s recent book “Nuclear Power is Not the Answer” is good reading on this subject, though of course she’s quite opinionated/one-sided. There have been other recent books and studies published that are more rigorous.


  31. Martin,

    You seriously overestimate the danger of radioactive waste. While it may contain _detectable_ levels of radioactivity for hundreds of thousands of years, radwaste will decay to activity levels comaparable to the ore it came from within a few thousand years. Remember, highly active (and presuambly the most dangerous) isotopes are also the ones that decay away the quickest.

    There is very little long-term ecological harm caused by this stuff – witness the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where a mere 20 years after the disaster, wildlife is thriving. And make no mistake, a lot more stuff was released in that indicent than you’d ever expect to leech out of Yucca mountain.

    Personally I am more worried about some of the chemical waste we’ve released into the air and water – that stuff _never_ decays.


  32. Chemical waste tends to accrete in lake and ocean sediment. That’s where most of the PCB and mercury emitted in Sweden in the 50s and 60s is now. I’m pleasantly surprised at how fast populations of top predators such as birds of prey and seals have returned since we got wiser. But as you say, those compounds don’t just go away, and if the sediments are disturbed on a large scale, then the cycle starts again, at least locally.


  33. My argument is that rad waste is incommensurable with any other pollutant because it is both extremely poisonous and extremely long-lived. Therefore, it is morally worse to produce it before we know how to deal with it, than it is to produce any other junk.

    This is also my argument.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s