This is a chart showing how much nuclear “waste” there is in the world right now in terms of volume. Why am I just dumping this here without some kind of explanation first? Because I want people to really see these numbers and hold them in their heads until they can understand that even after 60 years of operation worldwide in hundreds of reactors that there is barely any nuclear “waste”.
But how big are these numbers really? It’s all well and good to throw out numbers but they are hard to grasp. Well for example, the total volume of LILW is about 7.3 Million cubic meters which works out to about 3 Great Pyramids of Waste. Now remember, not all waste is created equal, and the vast, vast, vast majority of the low level waste decays away within days or weeks. So since those 3 pyramids of garbage have been accumulated over 60+ years most of it would just be regular garbage now. Stinky, but not very radioactive. Now while the HLW would be only slightly more than 10% of that volume, about another 1/3 of a pyramid, it would be a significantly more radioactive chunk of pyramid. About 33 times more radioactive than the other 3 pyramids if you wanted some actual numbers.
So what the hell am I trying to suggest about there being barely any waste? Didn’t I just showed how there are Multiple Great Pyramids of it? Well lets look at some other kinds of waste that Canada produces and just compare it against our numbers up above. For example, Canada apparently produces about 31 Million tonnes of garbage per year and only recycles about 10 million tonnes of it. Alberta alone produced almost 4 Million tonnes of waste in 2010. and since average garbage is about 0.481 tonnes per cubic meter that means that Alberta alone produces about 2 & 1/4 Great Pyramids of garbage Every year and Canada makes 17 & 1/3. And I feel I have to reiterate that this is comparing against the Total Worldwide cumulative amount of nuclear “waste”.
But the real kicker is in the spent fuel column. Let’s give the anti-nukes the benefit of the doubt and ignore the possibilities of recycling this “waste,” or reprocessing it, or even closing the fuel cycle to get the most efficiency out of it. Yup, real worst case scenario comparison here. So with this set of assumptions we find that there is 180,000 tonnes of spent fuel in the world, an unavoidable waste product of producing energy through nuclear means. Guess what else is an unavoidable waste product of producing energy in our current world? Carbon Dioxide. And worldwide, we make over 37 Billion tonnes of it per year…
And unlike nuclear “waste”, there is no regulation requiring emitters of CO2 to prevent its release into the atmosphere without regard, or for the collection and storage of it in a secure location to prevent its release into the environment.
Now finally there is the last column of the nuclear “waste” chart, and it’s by far the largest. It is the tailings and mining waste. Almost 2 billion cubic meters of cast off rock and powder from extracting fissile material over 60 years. That’s enough to build almost 700 barely radioactive Great Pyramids. Wait wait wait… Barely radioactive? Is what I hear some people say in my imagination where I am talking to all of you face to face. Yes, barely radioactive. In fact, almost 100x less radioactive than the low and intermediate waste great pyramids in total, and almost 100,000x less radioactive per cubic meter. I know I’ve made this comparison before but it’s only slightly more radioactive than your granite countertops in your kitchen. Enough that you probably wouldn’t want to lick it, but not enough to actually harm you, plus who licks rocks anyways?
I know this article seems to smack of Whataboutism, like I’m a metaphorical matador trying to distract people from nuclear “waste” by pointing out other larger, flashier piles of garbage. But I actually want people to focus on nuclear “waste” and to realize that in 60 years of worldwide operation we have made such a tiny, tiny amount of waste from this massively productive industry. In a world where we are almost physically beginning to choke out other species with our waste, I cannot imagine any argument for something that makes more waste in any form than absolutely, minimally necessary.