Any criticism of nuclear power must be tempered by the facts of other industries. Industrial waste is an issue for every industry, including nuclear power, but nuclear power creates comparatively very little of it.
Only 3% of industrial nuclear waste is dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years, while the other 97% of nuclear waste is actually only hazardous for a few decades. Other industrial wastes, like cadmium and mercury, on the other hand, from thermostats, fluorescent lights, electronics and even solar energy, are hazardous indefinitely. A significant amount of radioactive waste doesn’t even originate from the nuclear power industry. Environmental hazards and waste at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and at the Maxey Flats Disposal Site are largely the result of Department of Defense operations and other industrial and nuclear technology applications. In fact, 40% of nuclear waste comes not from electrical power generation, but other sources like life-saving nuclear medicine, yet no one is seriously advocating for the abatement of radiation oncology or PET scans.
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While I’ve never advocated forgoing solar power, and while the benefits of small-scale renewable energy are undeniable, compared to nuclear, renewables create much more waste and are actually more harmful to the environment. Solar panels alone create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants. The materials needed to make renewable energy technologies and those for the batteries meant to store their power, also require extensive mining, including sulfide mining, a practice that invariably has led to water contamination in this country.
The site of the former town of Paradise, Kentucky, made famous in singer John Prine’s song, sits under a massive TVA power plant. Now inactive, It will be demolished and buried under the soil. Oct. 1, 2020
Even so, we know from examples in Germany and Japan, that, due to the unreliability of wind and solar, the result of limiting nuclear power is not a more renewable energy grid, but more fossil fuels, more pollution and more heaps of coal ash. Each year coal produces over 100 million metric tons of ash waste, as well as billions of tons of green-house gas emissions, compared with only 2,000 metric tons of highly regulated, meticulously stored, nuclear waste.
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