3 min read

Hidden Problems with Nuclear Power

Stylized image of nuclear plant with barrels of nuclear waste strewn about in front of it.
Credit: ELG21 via Pixabay

Our use of energy has become our greatest unconscious weakness.  

Less than 150 years since we first tapped the earth's veins to produce kerosene, we now expect the lights to be on and the gas to flow. We're so disconnected from the real costs of the energy we burn that Americans have been drag racing fully-loaded semis (2019).

The hard truth is that - either by choice or circumstance, we will all be using less energy in the years ahead.

But, primed by the steady drip of corporate PR pablum, we prefer to ignore this truth and instead imagine a Jetson's future in which energy is cheap and abundant.  

Enter nuclear power, still sold by many as a solution to our energy crisis.


Chernobyl.

3-Mile Island.

Fukushima.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

5 events that represent some of the most horrific and terrifying calamities in human history, and yet many persist in believing that nuclear power is a good idea. Here are 3 reasons why we cannot look to nuclear to save us:


1. We Have No Long Term Strategy for Storing Nuclear Waste

Spent fuel rods are highly radioactive and remain dangerous for thousands of years. Despite this, they are generally stored in water-filled, open ponds near nuclear sites, sometimes for 10-20 years.

Once the rods have 'calmed down' sufficiently, they are then stored in dry casks. There are 80 such sites in the US alone, producing 2,000 tons of nuclear waste a year, most of which is stored in temporary facilities.

The best thing to do with this irradiated waste is to bury it deep underground, with a variety of warnings that keep far-future visitors from exploring.

There  is a single facility on earth that is doing this effectively, a facility in Finland called Okalo, which is just beginning to bury this material deep underground. But efforts to build a similar facility in the US (at Yucca Mountain) have been met by stiff resistance.

And so the vast majority of nuclear waste remains on the surface, where it is leaks and spills, representing a threat to local habitats and residents. Such is the case at Hanford nuclear site in Washington, where 1/3 of the nearly 180 storage tanks are known to be leaking.

Nuclear waste is an existential threat to all living beings in it's immediate vicinity. It is difficult to transport, and extremely expensive (and so far impossible) to store safely.

We already have a huge problem with our existing nuclear waste. There is no reason to be creating more.

Spent Fuel Damage: Pool Criticality Accident
Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent #29 Disaster by Design Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent #26 described a progression leading to overheating and damage to a reactor core, often labeled a meltdown. Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent #27 described the damage to a reactor core that can result f

2. Uranium Mining Kills People

Uranium is radioactive. In the US alone, there are more than 10,000 abandoned uranium mines, which still correllate with cancer clusters, often in indigenous populations.

While widespread research into the long term effects of uranium mining has been supressed, the truth is quite obvious.

Everywhere we mine for uranium, people die slow and painful deaths.


3. Nuclear Facilities Require Highly Complex Societies, and Complex Societies are Not a Guarantee

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, readers are introduced to an old civilization which is no longer smart enough to really understand the complex technology that made it great. (This idea is also present in the Mike Judge film Idiocracy).

These films are prescient. There are currently 400 nuclear reactors operating around the globe, with an average age of 29 years.

These facilities are profoundly expensive to build and maintain, and require the coordinated efforts of thousands of highly-skilled people, even after they close.

Assuming that we will have the societal complexity to train and staff these facilities for thousands of years is profoundly short-sighted.

Nuclear facilities, even decommissioned, require water, power, and people to remain safe.

Given the short window of human history, and our inability to maintain complex societies over long time scales, betting on our ability to keep these facilities safe is insane.

These plants are safe within the confines of civilization, with a steady flow of electricity, water, and technicians to keep an eye on these things. But on the timescale of nuclear decay, we have no way of protecting ourselves from the threat.

Nuclear is a bad idea. We are laying dangerous traps for the future.