Eli5: What is so bad about the waste of nuclear power plants? Why are many governments so against it? What is so hard about storing the waste in a safe place?



Eli5: What is so bad about the waste of nuclear power plants? Why are many governments so against it? What is so hard about storing the waste in a safe place?

In: Technology

The waste from current nuclear power plants is highly radioactive and also toxic. It is stored on site under a pool of water until the worst of the radioactive isotopes have decayed but some of the particles will have half lives in the thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. This means the waste remains dangerous for thousands of years. Finding a place which is safe to store it is difficult, convincing locals to let you build that storage is even more difficult and then you have the cost of actually building long term storage.

There’s been serious talk about having absolutely huge sites deep under ground near bedrock and have different types of signs that will be understood by people 100.000 years from now. That no treasure or valuables are buried here. Only death that will get worse the closer you get to it.
And possibly even make a sort of religion around it to pass the knowledge to future generations.

Nuclear waste stays radioactive for a REALLY long time. During the first hundred years this presents little or no problems. BUT, after a while the drums sealed in concrete can and will begin to leak. Any leakage not only contaminates the the outer container but any surface the containers are in or on. That means you have to dig up the floor or dirt in the facility and recontain it and the original containers. This isn’t a big deal in the short term but over hundreds and hundreds of years it’s going to be a big problem! If 1 tom of waste is produced in the first years and each year there after: Year one = 1 ton of waste. Year two= 1 ton plus one ton equals 2 tons, Year three= 1 ton plus two tons, plus 2 tons, year four = 1 ton plus 3 tons equals four tons of stored waste. Still not a big deal, eh? Okay, lets say an accident occurs on year 8 and 44 tons of contaminated waste needs to be stored. Suddenly you have 54 tons of store waste!. Now, repeat this cycle every 20 years and by year 100 you have hundreds of tons of radioactive waste to watch over, contain and monitor. If an earthquake hits and damages the storage site you could have thousands of tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste to contend with. Politicians can safely say “they” have nothing to worry about whole ignoring the radioactive legacy they leave for our descents to live with.

Several items we call waste. First off the fuel which is highly radioactive is placed in dry cask containers, welded shut and filled with helium as a heat transfer medium. Casks are placed outside to continue to decay and you can walk right up to them. This is done all over the world. In the US there was discussion to consolidate the containers but currently the casks are stored on site. This is not hard and has been done for twenty years here in the US.

Second by product is contaminated waste which includes old components, consumables for service work. These get packaged up and sent to a burial site where they are sorted. Some of the old components are stored on site as they are too large to move so utilities make a bunker and let the part cool off radiologically.
All of the waste is monitored and disposed of safely and correctly with very few exceptions.

The largest risk of nuclear is not really the waste. It is the potential for a large scale issue like Fukushima which could impact the area.

Nuclear waste is really difficult to store, because it’s so radioactive, it destroys things that it’s in or next to. And then it’s out. So it’s hard to store.

However, we do have some places that we store it already. A cavern under a mountain is a popular choice.

The main problem is that if it gets into the ground water, it will contaminate the entire water table of that area, for a long long long time.

The main thing that really upsets people about nuclear waste is that it doesn’t stop being nuclear, and standing “near” it for a bit will kill you. Slowly and painfully.

Easy. encase the waste un glass, and burry it a kilometer deep in granit, seal the well, and never look back. we found it first at much shallower depths than that.

What really needs to happen: refine it, reuse it. This is possible and would save loads of money and prevent further spent fuel needing to be stored. This is completely possible and done in some countries-France for example, and should be an environmental priority.

Cause you have to store it essentially forever and nothing lasts that long. Look up the WIPP in New Mexico for some interesting thoughts on it. Essentially, our civilization and language will die out long before the waste is safe.

Nuclear waste is radioactive and harmful to people. Bad particles come out of it and if they hit you, they can really hurt your body.
Because of this, many people are scared of it. And it’s right to be scared of nuclear waste, it’s dangerous.
Thankfully, scientists have have worked really hard to make new technology so that the waste isn’t as dangerous. Nuclear reactors are more efficient now and we have storage containers that can stop the bad particles from getting out. The waste is still dangerous though, so we have to be really careful.

Since this is meant to be ELI5…

You know when mummy and daddy ask you to tody your room? And you just try to shoce everything under your bed, and hope that things work out? Unfortunately, thats about where we are with the solution to nuclear waste. Problem is, unlike your toys and dirty clothes, there’s a chance some of the nuclear waste can escape, or that people might find it in the future and be harmed by it. So until we can find somewhere better to put it than under the bed, it will remain a big problem to society.

Where do you think the nuclear fuel comes from? It’s mined from the ground. The ground is radioactive. Coincidentally, but unrelated, the sky is too. Bananas are radioactive. So are people. You are radioactive. (Go ahead and google something like “How Much Radiation Does the Human Body Emit?” if you’re curious.) It’s totally natural and nothing to be concerned about.

The problem with nuclear waste is just that it’s concentrated. It just so happens that it’s easy to concentrate, and that’s what we do to get power out of it. You have to concentrate it for that.

If you concentrate any dangerous thing (like a poison), then it’s not easy to dispose of safely. One accident with a concentrated poison could get into the groundwater and contaminate the drinking water for an entire region. And that’s exactly the fear of nuclear waste.

Radiation isn’t dangerous in natural amounts (well, it is, but no more so than just being in nature), but concentrated it can be much more dangerous. And we have to concentrate it to get that value out of it.

The other aspect is how long can it be safely stored? It can take a long time for radioactivity to degrade. And we’re a “buy a new phone every two years” society. We’re not really good at long-term projects that can be secure for multiple generations. There’s nothing technically stopping us, but human nature and our culture tends to ignore and neglect things that are old.

We’re fully capable of containing it safely, but not quite mature enough to do so.

Not here to argue. But I would like to share [this article here](https://www.cleveland.com/pdopinion/2009/02/nuclear_power_vs_clean_coals_d.html)

Just scroll down to read the radioactive waste from a coal plant, and compare it to a nuclear plant.

That said? Green all the way. Nuclear would be a *great* step away from coal though to help bridge the gap as far as carbon emissions go however. The article I’m sharing though is just to illuminate *how insanely bad coal is* compared to literally the most though of radioactive producer that actually isnt. Nuclear power just concentrates it incredibly.

Now, compare coal to green, and ask yourself why people still argue for coal….

Going to attempt an eli10 on this:

The waste is like the sun. It puts out light, and things like light, that you can’t see, and that light can hurt you just like too much sunlight can. Big governments aren’t as much against it as little governments are, like towns and councils, because people don’t want to hold onto it or have it stuck in the ground near their homes. Remember those X-rays you got? If you got way, way too many of those, you could get sick. That’s why doctors leave the room while they take the X-ray, because they might do a lot and be close to a lot, but you only get a couple a visit.

The X-ray is actually a lot like the stuff that comes out of the waste, and not just for how it can make you sick. We can block it with lead, and we can block it with other stuff as well. Water is pretty popular; it’s cheap, and it works pretty well for what we’re trying to do.

Another way the stuff it makes is like light is that it gets dimmer the farther away you go, and there’s only so much the source can give before it burns out. So, you can dig a big hole in the ground, build basically a big swimming pool, seal it to prevent leaks, put the waste in, and cover it with water. Then we watch it from a small distance to make sure nothing happens to it, and we let it burn itself out over time. After about 150 years, barely 3% of the waste is still dangerous. Once the material burns out, we can reuse it.

The hardest part in the whole thing is getting someone to agree to put such a pool in their town, because people mostly don’t know how it works, so it makes them afraid, but if the government wanted to pay me to hold onto it, and they gave me the money to dig the hole, build the pool, stick it all in, and then babysit it, I would. I worked with this stuff in the Navy. It got less radiation working in the plant than the guys working on the flight deck, because they were standing in the sun and I was deep below in the ship, surrounded by metal above and shielding around.

The next-hardest part is about making something that’ll last for that long without anything leaking, but that’s why we have to watch it and check it to make sure it doesn’t. We’re great at building stuff good enough for people that’ll last for hundreds of years, but not as good at building stuff that won’t ever spring a leak for that long. That’s one of the reasons why we have to watch it after we put it in the pool. The water itself doesn’t become *very* dangerous, but if we’re being responsible we have to make sure nothing corrodes and gets into water…

But that’s an engineering problem that you solve by building stuff, moving stuff, and being responsible. You can check how much radiation is coming off of the waste with a bunch of different detectors, the way the TV has a detector that checks for the signal coming off of the remote.

That’s the biggest danger out of all of them: People need to be responsible while they hold onto the stuff. It’s not anywhere close to as bad as you see on TV or in your games, but you can’t be stupid or careless with it either.

It’s fine. Like I said, I’d put some of it in my backyard if they gave me enough money to build what I need to build, and if they paid me to keep an eye on it.

Old reactors worked this way, definitely – they made spent fuel that is hard to safely store.

Modern reactors don’t. Heck, some modern reactors can use old-school spent fuel as secondary fissile (fuel) material! And then the waste they produce is pretty inert (harmless).

In short, nuclear science had come a long way, and modern reactor waste is not remotely as dangerous as old-school spent fuel.


Radioactive and toxic so gives everyone cancer and horrible poisoning.
Can take thousands or millions of years to break down so it keeps on poisoning everyone.
Storing it safely that won’t get flooded or earthquake or built on etc in all that millions of years is pretty hard to do.

Not an answer but a question instead… if we put it on a rocket and fire it up in space, wouldn’t that work?

I think people have covered with the waste is hard to deal with.

People also have a very negative response to nuclear power because when things go wrong the waste is no longer your only problem.

unrational fear of the people, and government workers are generally directly or indirectly elected by the people.

Older people know of chernobyl and younger people learned of it, and then saw fukushima, even though they are not related in the slightest.

They also see the direct deaths of chernobyl and not the indirect deaths of coal miners, oil harvesting and all the other side affects of dirty power.

So people are afraid, thus government has to act afraid, even though it would be better and much much safer.

Waste is not an issue, the world has thousands of sites we could easily store waste, and the waste created is very small amount.

How much nuclear waste is left once a plant is decommissioned?
I know it might be an insane idea but would it be possible to put it on a rocket and fire it into the sun?

And not to mention the more we make, means more waste sites, with more potential issues and environmental problems.