Nuclear waste will last a lot longer than climate change

[ Anyone who survives peak fossil fuels and after that, rising sea levels and extreme weather from climate change, will still be faced with nuclear waste as both deadly pollutant and potential weapon.  The worst last an awfully long time.

According to Archer (2008): “Most of the radioactive products of nuclear fission are relatively short-lived. The highest activity nuclides in the Chernobyl reactor, for example, were xenon-133 (5 days), neptunium-239 (2.3 years), molybdenum-98 (66 days), and cerium-141 (32 days), in decreasing order of activity (Kirhner and Noack 1988). However, there is a component of nuclear material that has much longer lifetime, such as the isotopes plutonium 239 (24,000 year half-life), thorium 230 (80,000 years), and iodine 129 (15.7 million years). Ideally, these substances must be stored and isolated from reaching groundwaters until they decay, but the lifetimes are so immense that it is hard to believe or to prove that this can be done”.

This is a summary (excerpts and paraphrased) of the 7 March 2012 Newscientist article Resilient reactors: Nuclear built to last centuries by Fred Pearce.  Nuclear waste can last thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, yet nothing has been done to protect future generations from these toxic pollutants. Yucca mountain remains shut down with no new repositories in sight (the most comprehensive account of the nuclear waste debacle is Alley’s “Too Hot to Touch“).   I don’t have much hope that the waste will ever be stored after reading Alley’s book.

Conventional oil peaked in 2005 and once the exponential decline begins, unconventional oil will be unable to fill in the gap.  Add on a corrupt financial system about to break and it is clear we will be both too energy and monetarily poor in the future to take on this task. Governments will be too busy trying to feed people to prevent social unrest and fighting wars to get more oil, so the bulk of the remaining oil will be diverted to agriculture and the military, fixing infrastructure, heating homes and buildings, and a million other things.  Cleaning up nuclear waste is not likely to be on the “to do” list.  Alice Friedemann]

All nuclear plants have to be shut down within a few decades because they become too radioactive, making them so brittle they’re likely to crumble.

Decommissioning can take longer than the time that the plant was operational.  This is why only 17 reactors have been decommissioned, and well over a hundred are waiting to be decommissioned (110 commercial plants, 46 prototypes, 250 research reactors), yet meanwhile we keep building more of them.

Building longer lasting new types of nuclear power plants

[ This section offers potential techno-fixes for stronger materials.  Whether such materials are ever discovered AND cheap enough to use at this very late date remains to be seen, see the article if that interests you. I seriously doubt new plants of any kind will be built because the billions in capital required and the many years of getting approval and building are far more than a new natural gas plant. The liability is so costly that companies would have to have any liability waived to get the funding. Nuclear power can not balance variable wind and solar power, only natural gas and hydropower are suited for that.  So many nuclear plants are falling apart, that on top of the cost to dismantle them there’s the chance of a failure and the public adamantly fighting against new plans as happened in the 1980s. There are other issues with alternative reactors as well ].

Fast-breeders were among the first research reactors. But they have never been used for commercial power generation. There’s just one problem. Burke says the new reactors aren’t being designed with greater longevity in mind, and the intense reactions in a fast-breeder could reduce its lifetime to just a couple of decades. A critical issue is finding materials that can better withstand the stresses created by the chain reactions inside a nuclear reactor.Uranium atoms are bombarded with neutrons that they absorb. The splitting uranium atoms create energy and more neutrons to split yet more atoms, a process that eventually erodes the steel reactor vessel and plumbing.

The breakdown that leads to a reactor’s decline happens on the microscopic level when the steel alloys of the reactor vessels undergo small changes in their crystalline structures. These metals are made up of grains, single crystals in which atoms are lined up, tightly packed, in a precise order. The boundaries between the grains, where the atoms are slightly less densely packed, are the weak links in this structure. Years of neutron bombardment jar the atoms in the crystals until some lose their place, creating gaps in the structure, mostly at the grain boundaries. The steel alloys – which contain nickel, chromium and other metals – then undergo something called segregation, in which these other metals and impurities migrate to fill the gaps. These migrations accumulate until, eventually, they cause the metal to lose shape, swell, harden and become brittle. Gases can accumulate in the cracks, causing corrosion.

A reactor that does not need to be shut down after a few decades will do a lot to limit the world’s stockpile of nuclear waste. But eventually, even these will need to be decommissioned, a process that generates vast volumes of what the industry calls “intermediate-level” waste.

Despite its innocuous name, intermediate-level waste is highly radioactive and will one day have to be packaged and buried in rocks hundreds of meters underground, while its radioactivity decays over thousands of years. It is irradiated by the same mechanism that erodes the machinery in a nuclear power plant, namely neutron bombardment.

Toxic legacy

Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and remains lethal for thousands of years and is without doubt nuclear energy’s biggest nightmare. Efforts to “green” nuclear energy have focused almost exclusively on finding ways to get rid of it. The most practical option is disposal in repositories deep underground. Yet, seven decades into the nuclear age, not one country has built a final resting place for its most toxic nuclear junk. So along with the legacy waste of cold-war-era bomb making, it will accumulate in storage above ground – unless the new reactors can turn some of that waste back into fuel.

Without a comprehensive clean-up plan, the wider world is unlikely to embrace any dreams of a nuclear renaissance.


Archer, D., et al. 2008. The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2. Climactic Change 90: 283-297.

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2 Responses to Nuclear waste will last a lot longer than climate change

  1. sheila chambers says:

    I think that when we collapse, & we will because we are so very overpopulated & essential resources are in decline, those 400+ nuclear plants will be abandoned as their former workers try to survive that collapse.
    These 420+ reactors will lose their coolant because their auxiliary backup will have shut down for lack of fuel. The reactors will then overheat & melt through their containment vessel releasing vast amounts of radiation into the air, water & soil.
    This radiation could cause the extinction of any survivors by causing mutations that cripple or kill.
    As this isn’t enough by itself to do us in, there is climate change that will collapse our agricultural system even if it doesn’t get hot enough to cook us to death, we will end up starving, fighting resource wars or dying of diseases that were once treated with our oil derived drugs & now quiet drug manufacturing plants.
    Solar panels & wind turbines are neither “green,” “clean” or “renewable”. Advanced countries moved their manufacturing to dirty, unregulated China, that’s where their pollution is being generated.

    China’s air is unbreathable, their water is dangerous & dead of life. That is what those greedy manufacturers would have done to us if permitted, but we have environmental regulations & worker safety laws, China doesn’t.
    They are not “renewable” because they are made with non renewable materials, they need OIL for their manufacture, maintenance & as a raw material & they are a weak, erratic unreliable source of just some electricity & NO raw materials, they need a reliable back up like COAL, NATURAL GAS OR OIL!
    People who keep pushing for more “green, renewable” energy don’t realize the vast amount of energy we use each day.
    There is no way we could build enough of these so called “renewable energy” sources to even replace the electricity we use now, TEMPORARILY.

    Those who survive the future I see ahead will be having a tough time trying to survive with lethal radiation, no domesticated animals or plants available, no or very little wild life, we would have already eaten most of them, extreme heat so agriculture would be virtually impossible.

    We could have had a much better future than this if only we had been wise & NOT RELIGIOUS!

  2. Rice Farmer says:

    I have long held that hardly any nuclear power plants will be properly decommissioned. For almost all of the hundreds of plants around the world, “decommissioning” will consist of two steps: (1) Lock the doors. (2) Pray to your favorite deity. It’s an unmitigated global disaster, and it’s just getting started. Have a nice day!