Why would nuclear power be considered clean, considering all the waste?

Nuclear energy is a very misunderstood topic, whether it’s the risk of meltdowns, radiation, and especially how to deal with nuclear waste. So why do some people think that nuclear power is clean, considering all the waste?

“All the waste” from nuclear is still ridiculously less wasteful than burning fossil fuels.

Here’s why:

All this coal? It’s all going to be turned into waste. ALL OF IT. When this coal is used up, the waste need to go somewhere. And most of that waste is going into the atmosphere.

And it’s not just CO2. Sulfur. Lead. Mercury. Cadmium. Radon. Really nasty stuff.

Fossil fuels are messy things. But it works. Nuclear works even better.

The energy stored in these nuclear fuel pellets (which contains about 3 grams of uranium) is equivalent to about 3,000 kilograms of coal. These three pellets will supply the energy needs of an American house for about 7 months.

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In terms of gross mass, we’re talking about reducing 99.9999% of “all the waste.”

“But what about the RADIATION?!?”

People are very scared of radiation. But, people often understand the risks of radiation very poorly.

This banana is radioactive. True story. Eat bananas for their potassium? Well, some of that potassium is radioactive.

See, radioactivity is not just (ahem) magical death cooties. Radiation is a well-studied, natural phenomenon.

We’re swimming in radiation all the time. Light itself—the stuff hitting your eyeballs—is radiation. Fortunately, a lot of radiation is easily blocked. Ever held your hand over a flashlight?

Tada, you’re blocking radiation!

But there’s a specific kind of radiation that’s particularly harmful to living things: ionizing radiation, and often more specifically gamma radiation.

And yeah, that banana emits this harmful kind. (But not very much of it at all.)

A whole lot of things emit radiation. For example, your body is made out of a lot of carbon. Well, some of that carbon is radioactive too. So, your body itself is going to release radiation.

Now, when we think about nuclear fuel we really obsess about the radioactivity. And that makes sense because that’s exactly why we care about it: radioactivity means something is releasing energy. And we often think things like uranium therefore must be incredibly dangerous.

But they’re not. Go back up to the photo above: that person is quite obviously holding three uranium fuel pellets in his hand. Outside of a nuclear reactor, this material is pretty safe.

But the thing is… well, radiation is all over the place. Mining and burning coal (or any other fossil fuel) releases—go way back above—radon.

Radon is extremely radioactive and toxic. And if you live in many parts of the U.S., you already at risk to having radon exposure in your own home.

Using fossil fuels releases a lot of radon. So, it ends up that using fossil fuels releases a lot more radioactive material into the environment than using nuclear fuel.

It’s important to remember something: nuclear fuels are decaying whether we use them or not. They will decay (eventually), whether we use them or not. They will become “natural waste” (eventually), whether we use them or not.

And so the question is more like: should we extract the energy that’s going to be released by nuclear decay anyway?

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