This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

Nuclear power generates electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or other air pollutants. Yet it hasn’t been extensively deployed to fight climate change because of safety fears, the high cost of construction and, perhaps most significantly, the hazardous waste, or spent fuel, reactors produce. Now, as the climate crisis worsens, pro-nuclear groups are speaking out.

One such group, Generation Atomic, argues that nuclear power doesn’t really have a waste problem. All 88,000 tons or so of waste produced by reactors in the U.S. could fit onto a single football field, stacked just 24 feet high, it says, with the waste produced by an individual’s lifetime energy consumption fitting in one soda can. Compare that to the 100 million tons of solid waste — about a 5-mile-high pile on a football field — that U.S. coal-fired power plants kick out each year.

These figures are accurate, but incomplete: They leave out several steps that precede the power generation phase, each of which produces sizable quantities of hazardous and radioactive waste. By omitting these, we risk ignoring the bulk of the nuclear industry’s human and environmental toll.

These figures are accurate, but incomplete: They leave out several steps that precede the power generation phase, each of which produces sizable quantities of hazardous and radioactive waste. By omitting these, we risk ignoring the bulk of the nuclear industry’s human and environmental toll.

NUCLEAR WASTE
Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station generates about 31,000 gigawatt-hours of power each year. That requires about 86 tons of uranium oxide, enriched to 3-to-5% uranium-235. In order to produce that, you need to:

... AND THEN THERE’S COAL
In order for a coal-burning power plant to produce 31,000 gigawatt-hours per year, or the same amount of electricity generated by Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, you would need to:

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey; Sources: Waste and Environment Safety Section of the International Atomic Energy Agency; U.S. Energy Information Administration; Generation Atomic; Nuclear Energy Institute; World Nuclear Association; Arizona Public Service; WISE Uranium Project.

Ignoring the destruction to lands and waterways from the exploration, mining and abandoned sites is a HUGE missing piece of this discussion. Check out https://www.src.sk.ca/blog/saskatchewans-uranium-mining-legacy-complex-r... to see what SOME of the public costs are to this dirty nuclear fuel industry. When comparing waste products, please include the all aspects of this urban myth about the poisons that nuclear creates for our children's and grandchildren's future .. Leave it in the ground!!

Brian Beaton, thank you for pointing out the huge cost to people and society of the nuclear fuel industry. The sun provides all the energy that Earth needs. The money put into fossil and nuclear fuels must be used to research better ways to capture solar energy.

Strongly recommend reading the original article in High Country News, so that you can click on the diagrams and read all the samall print.

The use of Thorium to produce nuclear power significantly lowers the risk of waste material. Of course, it is not mined in Saskatchewan, so that is not the way that they will go. Instead they will produce waste that takes ten lifetimes to dispose of, if ever. All to make some few extra dollars in the short term.

In Jonathan Thompon's comparison of the tens of thousands of tonnes of nuclear power's "hottest" -- most radioactive -- waste to much larger amounts of cooler stuff, we have, in the case of the very hot tonnage, the assurance that government cannot keep silent about the harm it does.

It cannot keep silent because in Canada, each tonne represents at least $100,000 in natural gas tax revenue it didn't get.