Eli5 Why is radioactive waste a problem?


Why can’t we dump it into a volcano or yeet it into space? Or for that matter, if it’s still radioactive, doesn’t that mean there is still more juice we could squeeze out of it?

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Volcano: Total lack of control over where it goes.

Space: SUUUUUUUPER expensive to move mass into space

Still has juice: This is actually a thing! Some newer reactor types are able to use refined waste/spent fuel from other reactors, thus increasing the amount of power we can generate for a given amount of reaction material.

To begin with: yeeting anything into space is really, really expensive, and if what you’re yeeting is super highly toxic (like radioactive waste) you don’t want to have even the slightest chance that something could go wrong and poison the entire planet (some of it really is that dangerous).

Could we throw it in a volcano? Maybe, but again: what would happen to it next? Would it vaporize and contaminate the atmosphere? This is way too risky.

To your third question, why can’t we squeeze out anymore radioactive juice? And the answer here is that we don’t know how, with these particular radioactive nope-fruits, to get more juice out of them – yet.

“Yet” is the key word: we think we might be better at this in the future, so a good solution would be to seal it up safely and put it somewhere that it can’t contaminate the atmosphere, or the water supply, but that we can still get back to it later when we have a safe way of using it or making it safer.

Heat of lava does not destroy radioactivity, and volcanoes shoot stuff into the air, where it forms dust clouds that rain dust over thousands of miles. Nobody wants that dust to be radioactive.

Stuff in space is technically safe, but getting it there is very expensive and risky, and even if you get it there, somebody can steal it.

You cannot get any more useful energy out of spent fuel, but you can use it to make nuclear weapons. So you really do not your nuclear waste floating in space where anybody can grab it.

it is perfectly safe store nuclear waste underground in earthquakes-free area, or even in building that are safe from natural disasters. Which is way cheaper and easier.

The hysteria about nuclear waste is kinda like hysteria over GMO, or vaccines, or 5G.

> Why can’t we dump it into a volcano

Contrary to popular belief, burning stuff doesn’t just make it disintegrate into nothingness. Reality works differently to Minecraft and volcanoes just contain really hot rocks. Burning radioactive waste would make a cloud of radioactive smoke which would drift through the air and contaminate a huge area. It would be a really bad idea.

> or yeet it into space?

“Yeeting into space” is incredibly expensive and fairly dangerous to boot. There is around 2000 tons of radioactive waste produced each year, and with a cost of $95 million per ton to even reach orbit that would mean $190 billion spent minimum, ignoring the weight of the craft to get there! And that is just for the waste alone to reach orbit, it needs to go a lot faster to actually continue away from Earth. Orbital velocity is about 8 kilometers per second, while escape velocity is 11 kilometers per second. If it was only put into orbit then not only would it clutter up the place it would also eventually fall back to Earth in an unpredictable location, spreading across the land in a giant radioactive plume. Again, a really bad idea.

> Or for that matter, if it’s still radioactive, doesn’t that mean there is still more juice we could squeeze out of it?

That is an idea which has been looked into but it just isn’t worth the effort at this point. It is much easier to just bury the waste deep underground where it won’t bother anyone than try to reprocess it into more fuel, or try any other crazy ideas which would likely lead to it poisoning large swaths of land and people.

It’s mostly NOT a problem. You could fit all the US nuclear waste ever generated onto a football field and it’d only be stacked 10 yards high ([source](https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/5-fast-facts-about-spent-nuclear-fuel)).

Breeder reactors re-cycle the fuel (not recycle, be re-use). The best approach is to design new reactors that operate on Thorium instead of enriched uranium.