What Kind of Toxic Wastes Are Produced by Nuclear Energy?

The next step in the evolution of technology brought us the implementation of nuclear power plants. While nuclear energy is an alternative to burning coal, a method that plays a significant role in carbon emissions and subsequent climate changes, the waste left behind poses another serious threat to the environment.

The volume of nuclear waste is smaller than other industries that generate electricity but producing nuclear energy is not risk-free. Leaks of nuclear waste could damage the environment for decades until it finally breaks down into harmless isotopes. Strontium-90 and Plutonium-239 are some of the most radioactive materials in the world; Strontium-90 decays in over 30 years while Plutonium-239 takes 24,000 years to merely break down. Plus, the 1984 Chernobyl accident released four times more radioactive material than an atomic bomb and the recent Fukushima disaster will affect the cancer rate in the Japanese population for the next decades.

Any small mistake, either from the staff or the design of the plant, could result in an irreversible disaster. Thus, workers need to handle nuclear waste with the utmost care to limit as much as possible the potential damages. So, in this article, we’re going to look at what kind of toxic wastes are produced by nuclear energy, how are they disposed of and how it affects humans and the environment.

Types of Nuclear Waste

nuclear power plant affecting the environment

The advantage of nuclear power is that the energy is produced with the help of very little fuel. However, the waste produced by generating electricity is radioactive and has to be handled properly to avoid the potential damages. What workers do is dilute or isolate the nuclear waste until the radioactive concentration goes down to harmless levels. So essentially, all nuclear waste must be contained before disposal, with some needing to be permanently buried due to their extremely slow rate of radioactive decay.

High-Level Waste

According to the World Nuclear Association, the electricity generated for one person produces 30 grams of used fuel. Used nuclear fuel contains 95% of the radioactivity occurring in the nuclear generator. Therefore, nuclear used fuel is qualified as a high-level waste. Despite its radioactive content, according to the World Nuclear Association, high-level waste makes only 3% of the volume of nuclear waste. Because used fuel is extremely hot and radioactive, the plant workers have to handle the material while shielded from it either by concrete or water. So, normally, workers remove the fuel underwater to both cool the material and shield themselves from its radioactivity. From there, workers move the fuel in a storage pool. Workers can leave the material in the pool to shed its radioactivity up to 50 years or store it in concrete containers.

Currently, high-level waste cannot be recycled. Workers can reprocess the fuel to recover uranium and plutonium to avoid wasting the resource.

Intermediate-level waste

Intermediate-level waste materials represent 7% of the total nuclear waste and have only 4% radioactivity. This type of waste does not come from a reactor. The radioactivity results from different industries such as oil and mining. Intermediate-level waste generally represents resins, chemical sludges or contaminated materials after a reactor’s decommissioning.

While the heat is not as high, due to its radioactivity, workers have to shield themselves during disposal.

Low-level waste

Low-level waste materials represent 90% of the total nuclear waste and have only 1% radioactivity. These items do not pose a serious threat to human life. Workers do not need special shielding to dispose of this material. Similarly to landfills, workers deposit low-level waste close to the surface, after incineration.

Possible Dangers of Nuclear Waste Disposal

nuclear waste sign

While there are plenty of advantages of relying on nuclear power, the dangers the materials pose are significantly high. Chernobyl and Fukushima have been the worst-case scenarios. But even without direct human intervention, problems might arise. Below, we’ve listed some of the dangers.

  • The main issue is that the radioactivity of nuclear waste takes thousands of years to decrease to harmless levels. If there is a breach in the containment, the effects of radiation remains a serious health hazard. Potential uses in a terrorist attack is also a cause for concern for many.
  • Currently, workers contain high-level nuclear waste in concrete structures and then deposit them into stable geologic formations. This is linked to the issue of their prolonged radioactivity. For how long will this practice go on? There have even been debates over the ejection of nuclear waste into space in the 70s. Countries have previously dumped radioactive materials into the ocean. Even now, in the case of the Fukushima waste, authorities are going to dump it into the Pacific soon. The Fukushima waste contains tritium which is toxic to humans if ingested in large quantities. Yet, this is a practice that should not exist.
  • Leaks that might occur from the containers can poison animal and plant life. It is well-established that exposure to radioactive materials leads to cancer growths and genetic mutations. The leaks can contaminate surface water as well as underground reservoirs, which in turn affects residences and local animals.
  • The expenses in case of a nuclear waste accident might outweigh the benefits of nuclear power. Apart from the physical costs for the damages, securing the area and making it habitable again could take years. Some sites are still uninhabitable decades after the accident, such as Pripyat in Ukraine, the most affected area after the Chernobyl disaster.

Final Words

We’ve taken a look at what kind of toxic wastes are produced by nuclear energy and their impact on human life and the environment. While there are advantages that could help reduce climate change and prevent the depletion of natural resources, the dangers these chemicals pose could be disastrous for humanity. The slightest error brings irreparable damages, with Fukushima as a modern example of what could occur even without human intervention. The debate is still ongoing and it should, taking into consideration the potential for destruction.

Read more on nuclear energy and how sustainable such a practice is. Moreover, we’ve also covered the advantages and disadvantages of relying on nuclear energy.

Image source Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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