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The 100,000 Year Hangover: The Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy

a guest article by Frank Bozzo

The first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize was also the first person to be honored by winning it twice: once for Physics and once for Chemistry. What did Marie Curie center her work on? The study of Radium. She loved the element so much that she carried bits of it around in her pocket. Although her studies were groundbreaking, they did, in the end, kill her. The radioactive material that she dealt with has a half life of 1,601 years: some of her belongings are still untouchable to this day.

Though there have been many scientific advances in this field, the disadvantages of nuclear energy still overwhelm the topic, as we still do not have a safe way to dispose of radioactive material, a problem that grows larger as we continue to create more and more waste.

Let's look at exactly what we are dealing with:

Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy: Accidents

The first nuclear accident to attract worldwide attention took place 36 years ago at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. While three decades might seem like a long enough amount of time to deal with the waste created by the meltdown, both of the reactors have yet to be decommissioned. A full dismantling and restoration of the site is planned for 2054, 75 years after the incident. Three Mile Island's Reactor Two is now permanently sealed and off-limits to human visitation. A key element of that crisis was that officials minimized the danger to the public - a mistake American nuclear officials said they will not make again.

Just a short seven years later, another accident took place... this one far worse. What do you get when you combine an empire on its knees, a bureaucracy built on secrecy and a culture of non-responsibility? You get the Soviet Union of 1986, and Chernobyl, the worst nuclear contamination the world has ever experienced. This disaster was one of only two events to be ranked as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Now off-limits to human visitation for at least 20,000 years, the Chernobyl explosion caused many deaths in Ukraine and untold birth defects across Europe. Not only did this cause inconceivable misery when it happened, but the crippled reactor still has the ability to kill today. One of the reasons this event was so catastrophic was that officials did not treat it as the emergency that it was. As with Three Mile Island, they went on to assure the public that this would not happen again.

Fast forward 24 years and the disadvantages of nuclear energy strike again. An underwater earthquake knocks out power to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The earthquake creates a tsunami which floods the plant's backup generators, and this "perfect storm" of events causes a meltdown.

The Fukushima meltdown occurred in 2011, and yet the plant is still producing around 300 tons of radioactive water a day. There are plans in place by Tepco to contain and minimize this issue, but as of yet, the situation is still unresolved.

Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy: Waste

Even in the (hopeful) absence of another meltdown, the already existing nuclear waste products will remain radioactive for between 10,000 and 100,000 years. On top of that, much of this waste will generate significant amounts of heat for many years to come, thus it must be stored in water that is continually circulated to keep these materials cool.

What could possibly go wrong with nuclear waste cooling ponds like the one described above? In 2014, The Guardian newspaper ran images of tanks that have held nuclear waste in the UK since 1962. This goosed the British government into speeding up its program to put this waste in casks that would be ready for burial.

If successfully moved into casks, where will they be stored? There is only one place, and it is currently only half built, to contain high-level nuclear waste. Named Onkalo ("hiding place" in Finnish), it is under construction in Finland, and will be for years to come. You can watch the extraordinarily beautiful and thought-provoking film about Onkalo, Into Eternity.

Hiding waste for 100,000 years raises philosophic, as well as safety questions:

  • Will anyone know it's there in even 10,000 years, let alone 100,000?
  • Is it ethical to just hide it and hope no one ever digs there?
  • Or will it become a legend, and could that legend transmute the "hiding place" from "buried danger" into "buried treasure"?
  • How do you make a warning sign anyway, for people who will have a language you can't know and a culture you can't understand?

Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy: The Kitty Litter

The following is an excerpt from a Forbes article that was printed last year:


"You might have heard that the most likely culprit for the Valentine's Day radioactive leak was...kitty litter!

"Yes. The wrong kitty litter was probably used to treat some of the nuclear waste recently disposed in the world's only deep underground nuclear waste repository, near Carlsbad in New Mexico. Cat litter has been used for decades in radiochemistry labs and nuclear facilities to stabilize certain radwastes, like liquid scintillation solutions, evaporator bottoms, and other materials that have nitrate salts in solution.

"...Unfortunately, someone working with this waste, before it was to be shipped to WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] , used a new "green" cat litter, made with materials like wheat or corn. These organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way."

It is kind of funny, except it isn't. The number of nuclear reactors is growing all the time, while human inexactitude and lack of caution is the same as it always was, promising to complicate the disadvantages of nuclear energy even further. According to this article on the Emerging Markets website, Russia alone, which competes with France and the U.S. to sell nukes worldwide, is building plants in Hungary and Jordan (two each), Egypt and Iran, while pitching their nuclear wares in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina.

So, is it really worth it?

It's clear that although nuclear energy can be seen as a savior from the horrors of fossil fuels, it comes with it's own share of complications and uncertainties. Whether you think that nuclear energy is the future of clean energy, or you think that it is far too impractical, we all need to take steps to ensure that the nuclear waste that has already been created does not harm people in the future. This is the first time in human history that we are making decisions which have such far reaching consequences. At this time of change, we must weight the disadvantages of nuclear energy choose wisely.

Frank Bozzo is the Social Media Coordinator for This Planet, sold the bulk of his worldly possessions and moved from the northeastern United States to a small town in Ecuador to pursue a location independent lifestyle... a pursuit that he chronicles at Wealthy in Ecuador. Frank is a freelance writer, developer and entrepreneur.

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