Oftentimes, when people talk about nuclear energy, they think the process works like this:
Nuclear Fuel -> Energy + Nuclear Waste
While it’s true that the result of any particular nuclear reaction is energy and some by-product (which is itself usually radioactive), what people seem to miss is that the waste itself is nuclear fuel for another process.
There are, in all of existence, only so many elements. Each element has a number of isotopes, depending on how many neutrons are in the nucleus. Different isotopes behave differently.
- Some are stable or very stable. They do not change for a very, very long time. That means they are completely safe (from the perspective of radiation. They may have chemical properties that make them toxic.)
- Some are rather stable, meaning, they decay but very slowly. The nuclear fuels we use today fall in this category. Without coaxing, they will not decay very quickly at all, making them almost completely inert. However, when put in a particular configuration with other materials, they can be made extremely active, enough to heat isolated water that can be used to heat exterior water that can drive a turbine to create electrical energy.
- Some are very unstable, meaning they decay rather quickly and don’t sit around for long. These isotopes do have a use in medicine, but otherwise they are considered as a step in a larger process.
The other thing to consider is there are only so many types of decay that any isotope can exhibit.
- Neutron radiation, which accompanies a change in isotope or element. This is what plutonium and uranium exhibit. Neutrons are mostly harmless. Only some isotopes react with it, and only when the neutrons are traveling the right speed. This is why making a nuclear bomb or reactor is not simply a matter of making a big pile of uranium.
- Alpha radiation, which is basically a helium ion. Alpha radiation is harmless unless you eat something that emits it and it gets into your bones and vital organs.
- Beta radiation, or in other words, electron radiation. This will ionize chemicals, meaning, it will cause a chemical change to occur. Beta radiation is dangerous, and can penetrate the skin. A thin skin of lead or metal is enough to stop it, however.
- Gamma radiation, which is basically very powerful light waves, much more powerful than X-rays. These will cause all sorts of damage and are almost impossible to shield against, unless you have a lot of lead.
If you go through the chart of isotopes, you will see not only which isotopes are stable or unstable, but their half-life and decay possibilities. However, you will come to the same conclusion that all nuclear physicists come to:
Radioactive Isotope -> Energy + Another Isotope (which may be stable or radioactive)
I have heard it several times, and I believe it, that there is no such thing a nuclear waste. The reason why we “store” nuclear waste rather than “dump” it is not because it is dangerous. Many of the by-products of nuclear reactions are harmless and found naturally in the environment. We store nuclear “waste” because we know it is actually nuclear fuel for tomorrow’s reactors.
Now, some things to consider. We have, to date, as the human race, only built so many kinds of reactors. We’ve had obvious failures in the past — failures that have already been predicted and protected against. There are three that stand out in our minds today:
- Three-mile island: Lots of things went wrong, no one died, and we can’t even detect any effects at all, let alone pollution.
- Chernobyl: Things went catastrophically wrong in the most insane way imaginable, and only a few people died and we’re not even sure if there are going to be any long-term effects. All signs point to the environment around Chernobyl being perfectly safe.
- Fukushima: Things went horribly wrong, and there was an explosions spewing radioactive material everywhere. However, the net effect is basically nothing, and we can barely detect that anything happened at all.
It’s important to understand some things about radiation and reactors. When I say things went “wrong”, I am also saying that a lot of things went right. For instance, in the case of Fukushima, it was designed to explode in the case of catastrophic failure. Yes, it is bad, but there were worse alternatives. Nowadays, modern reactors are designed to fail. That is, even when everything goes wrong, it will be completely harmless. It’s not terribly difficult to build reactors like this, since getting the radioactive material to radiate is rather difficult and only occurs in specific circumstances.
It’s also important to note that we know two things about radiation:
- A little bit is harmless.
- A very large amount is harmful.
Unfortunately, we have very little data on the in-between, moderate radiation. We simply don’t know what happens because only a few people have every been exposed in that moderate range. There is a fear that it is harmful, which is why we don’t let people get exposed, and which is why we don’t have that data. I suppose we could do experiments to find out what happens, but that would be highly unethical. We know from history that over time, we’ll get the data through human error though.
Outside the immediate danger zone, Chernobyl experienced the moderate radiation. Over time, the highly radioactive isotopes have fizzled out, leaving more stable isotopes in their place. It was a worry that some of the more stable isotopes were elements that would work their way into our bones and vital organs, and so they would be harmful. However, the data simply isn’t showing any significant effects.
The key take-away is this: We know a little radiation is safe. We know a whole lot is dangerous. But we have no idea what happens in the moderate range. We erred to the side of caution, but the data suggests we may have been too sensitive.
Final note: It is simply a problem of engineering. Give engineers some money and some time, and they will figure out how to build a nuclear reactor for every isotope in the universe. We’ve already done it for uranium and plutonium. We have early designs for thorium. It’s not difficult to see how we can do the same for every other isotope that we call nuclear “waste” today.
If you are truly conscious about safety, the environment, and at the same time, want to make sure we have clean electricity that doesn’t come from coal, then you should be supporting nuclear power. It is truly the energy that will unlock a clean, cheap energy source that can power us for the foreseeable future.