Nuclear Power's Dirty Legacy

The problem with nuclear power isn't meltdowns, it's the waste

The trajectory of Japan’s nuclear crisis is a lot like last year’s gulf oil spill. It was bad from the start, but every time coverage starts to fade, some news breaks that reminds us that things aren’t going to be fixed any time soon.

Stocks dipped this week as Japan's government upgraded the severity level of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, putting it on par with Chernobyl. Given that the global community is poised to build more nuclear power plants, it is a good thing that people are being reminded of the risks of nuclear power. However, Fukushima has caused us to focus on the risks of operating a nuclear power plant, when what should really concern us is the waste.

It may seem surprising, given the coverage of the Fukushima disaster, but nuclear power plants are generally very safe to operate. Sure, countries that rely on nuclear power require monitoring agencies, regular repair bills, and contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. But compared to conventional coal-burning power plants, nuclear power generation is far less dangerous on a day-to-day basis and even less radioactive. Not only does coal cause a host of conventional problems, such as acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions, but a typical coal power plant also releases around 100 times as much radioactivity as a nuclear power plant of the same size. Fly ash released by coal-burning plants contains concentrated doses of radioactive isotopes naturally occurring in coal, and uranium from fly ash can leach into nearby soil and water to end up in crops.

Obviously, accidents happen, but operating a nuclear power plant safely simply means being prepared for worst-case scenarios. The disaster at Fukushima spiraled out of control because leaking radiation made it unsafe for humans to reach the reactors. Radiation-proof robots, either autonomous or controlled remotely by humans, would have been able to bring coolant to the reactors. Robots of this type were designed in Japan after an accident in 1999 left two operators dead from radiation poisoning, but they were not adopted because of their price tag. It isn't surprising that power companies don't want to spend millions on robots that cover a worst-case scenario they prefer not to think about, but governments can easily enforce these kinds of regulations. When nuclear plants become dangerous, it is due to human shortsightedness, not an unbreakable law of physics.

However, the same isn’t true for the mess that each plant leaves behind. A major issue with nuclear power that hasn't been discussed much in the debate over Fukushima is the long-term storage of spent fuel rods. In the US, the Federal government had planned to store nuclear fuel and high-level waste from weapons in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, funding was terminated in 2010 amid strong opposition from Nevada residents, meaning most waste is still being stored on-site in dry casks or pools.

But even if the government finds a big pit where we can chuck all of the nation's waste, the danger doesn't go away on any human timescale. While some radioactive substances, such as those used in medical imaging, break down in a matter of hours, the spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors will still be dangerous thousands upon thousands of years from now. There’s no guarantee that whatever warning signs or scary labels we put on the waste will be correctly interpreted by our descendants that far in the future. Long after the United States has fallen and English has died out as a language, the waste will still be there. Even we teach our grandchildren to stay clear of the repositories, curious people living millennia from now might accidentally dig it up for study or think it’s a nice place for a school.

Early nuclear scientists were optimistic that breakthroughs would help us permanently seal radioactive substances or render them inert. Some of the radioactive waste product can be re-used safely, and this process is carried out in Japan and France, but it is not cost-effective and only reduces the volume of the waste by a finite amount. Studies have also been done on reactors that transmute nuclear waste into less harmful by-products,. Yet it is still unclear whether we will be able to sanitize waste products completely.

Two nuclear power plants exist in Massachusetts, although one, the Yankee-Rowe facility, was decommissioned in 1992 due to a brittle reactor pressure vessel. The remaining nuclear power plant, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, will need to have its operating license renewed next year. The renewal of the 40-year-old reactor has faced opposition from local protestors, in no small part because it uses the same reactor design as the plant in Fukushima.

Both facilities store spent fuel rods on-site due to the failure of the Yucca Mountain project. It’s one thing to trust that the power plant will be operated safely over the next several decades, but it takes a pretty big leap of faith to trust that the site will remain forever protected and the waste forever sequestered from the public. Forever is a long time.

Given the problems of global warming and rapid industrialization in countries like China and India, nuclear power seems like a very useful tool. But in using it, we are creating a problem that will take several hundred times longer than our recorded history to disappear.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.