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Nuclear Waste: Too much risk – Too little responsibility

Nuclear Waste

“For who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost …?” (Jesus, Modern English Translation of the Bible)


“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” (Ben Franklin)

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” (John Adams)


Nuclear waste is waste containing radioactive material. Usually a by-product of nuclear power plants that generate electricity, it must be handled and stored very carefully. Nuclear waste is hazardous to most forms of life and the environment, and can remain highly dangerous for millions of years.
Live Science, 3/15/11. Rettner, Rachael. “How does nuclear radiation harm the body?”
Wikipedia “Radioactive Waste” 

Nuclear waste is rated according its level of radioactivity. High Level waste is the radioactive material itself. Lower Level Waste includes items such as clothing and machinery that have been contaminated by contact with radioactive material.
Nuclear Energy Institute, April, 2014. “Fact Sheet – Disposal of Low Level Radioactive Waste” 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires ALL levels of nuclear waste to be specially packaged and isolated from people and the environment until the radioactivity has decayed to a safe level. For Lower Level waste, this can range from a few months to 500 years. High Level Waste can remain hazardous for millions of years.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Nuclear Waste” 

The US has produced 170 million pounds of High Level nuclear waste since the first nuclear plant was built 60 years ago.
Nuclear Energy Institute, “On-site storage of nuclear waste”
US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 11/30/16. “High Level Waste” 

Due to the lack of a required, permanent, underground storage facility, High Level nuclear waste has NEVER been able to be permanently, safely stored. For decades, High Level waste has been scattered around the US in temporary storage at the nuclear power plants where it was created.
US Government Accountability Office, “Disposal of High Level Nuclear Waste” 

An underground storage facility for High Level waste was approved in 1987 in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. After 30 years of government uncertainty and public resistance, nothing but a single exploratory tunnel has ever been built. Since then, Congress has spent $8 billion studying the site, which is currently boarded-up. The project, which would cost about $100 billion, has been abandoned since 2012.
Nuclear Energy Institute, “Top 10 Facts About Yucca Mountain”
Yucca Mountain.org, “FAQ’s”

For decades, 75% of all US nuclear plants have periodically leaked High Level radioactive materials into surrounding land and/or water sources.
US News and World Report, 3/15/16.

Lower Level nuclear waste can be permanently stored underground only at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), in New Mexico. The WIPP facility has had numerous safety problems and shut-downs since its opening in 1999.
The Atlantic, 11/2/16. Zhang, Sarah. “America’s nuclear waste plan is a giant mess”

Nuclear-generated electricity was originally seen as the inexpensive answer to US power needs for the future. It requires 2-to-3 MILLION times less raw material to produce 1 kilowatt hour of energy than either coal or oil. Nuclear power was also thought to be environmentally friendly because it creates no carbon emissions.
European Nuclear Society, “Fuel Comparison” 

In 1957, the first nuclear plant opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

In the following 60 years, applications were filed to build 252 more. Almost half were never built. 25% of the plants that WERE built were either prematurely shut-down or have had one-year-or-longer periods where they couldn’t produce electricity. Currently, 100 nuclear plants are producing about 20% of the nation’s electricity.
Reuters, 6/13/12. Nuclear Power History: Timeline from inception to Fukushima”
Wikipedia, “Nuclear power in the United States”
World Nuclear Association, 4/12/17. “Nuclear Power in the USA” 

Generating electricity with nuclear power can be 15% to 30% cheaper than using coal or natural gas. However, when the total production cost of nuclear power plants is factored in, nuclear energy is more costly than natural gas, less desirable than coal, and far more dangerous to the environment than either one. The total cost of nuclear power includes: billions of dollars to build new nuclear plants (up to 5 times more than gas plants), billions more to decommission and decontaminate the environment surrounding old plants, and the potentially deadly risk of accidents.
Forbes, 6/15/12. Conca, James. “The naked cost of energy: stripping away financing and subsidies”
Bloomberg, 10/25/16. Malik, N – Crawford, J. “End of nuclear seen in US by Carlyle Group, without subsidies” 

Three high-profile accidents at nuclear plants, each one more serious than the previous one, have increased public resistance to continuing with nuclear power. For the first time, polls show a majority of Americans are not in favor of continuing to develop nuclear power.

  • 1979 – Three Mile Island (PA). Minimal radiation escaped from a plant meltdown, but a serious accident was barely averted.
  • 1986 – Chernobyl (Ukraine). An explosion and fire in the plant killed 28 people, exposed hundreds of thousands more to excessive radiation and is blamed for countless other long-term illnesses. 12,000 square miles were contaminated and will not be habitable by humans for 3,000 – 20,000 years. Radioactive material drifted as far as Europe.
  • In 2011- Fukushima (Japan). A tsunami caused three reactors to melt down. 100,000 people were evacuated for at least six years, and a 25-square mile area surrounding the plant was declared contaminated. Scientists do not know how much radiation was released into the air. Six years later, radiation is still leaking from the plant. Fukushima’s radioactive material is increasingly being found on the US West Coast.

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Background on the Three Mile Island Incident”
The Christian Science Monitor, 4/24/16. Hinckley, Story. “Chernobyl will be uninhabitable for at least 3,000 years, say nuclear experts”
World Nuclear Association, January 2017 “Fukushima Accident”
CNBC 3/10/16. Ferris, Robert. “US Watches as Fukushima Continues to Leak Radiation”
Gallup Poll, 3/18/16. “For the first time, a majority in US oppose nuclear power” 


Opponents and supporters of nuclear energy both use the same arguments: economics and safety. Both are partially right. Nuclear power produces electricity significantly cheaper than traditional fuel sources, but NOT when you factor in huge costs of building and decommissioning plants, and the massive federal subsidies required for governmental oversight. While nuclear plants do not release carbon emissions into the atmosphere, nuclear accidents pose potentially catastrophic and irreparable environmental damage. Opinion polls show a growing number of Americans believe the benefits of nuclear power are NOT worth the potential risks.


Minimally, until an underground facility is built for safely and permanently storing High Level nuclear waste, no convincing argument can be made for continuing with nuclear power plants. The benefits of less expensive electricity and reduced carbon emissions pale in comparison to protecting our country from self-inflicted nuclear disasters. Existing nuclear plants should be required to be 100% safety compliant before any additional plants are built.

Brief #32A – May 1, 2017