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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 17, 2023

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Last week, the subject of nuclear power came up on the culture war thread. As with all my other online places, all the comments when I looked were pro-nuclear. It seems that every place I see online has a pro-nuclear community.

I'm more of a fence-sitting non-expert, so I thought I would take this opportunity to ask about the give the anti-nuclear concerns that I don't usually see the pro-nuclear community addressing.

First off, safety: it's true that nuclear has a much better safety record so far, but nuclear seems to have the potential for black swan disasters in a way that coal is not. Is this true? If so, the record so far is not a good way to analyze risk. If nuclear power comes into common use, we should expect to have the power plants occasionally sabotaged or targeted in war and frequently run under oversight even less competent than the Soviet Union was, among other things. To bring me away from fence-sitting towards pro-nuclear, I would need to see a safety argument that addresses the disaster possibilities both accidental and intentional.

Second, what's up with nuclear waste? Specifically, if the waste is really a nothing burger, as I see argued often, why do I see (other) experts talking about how to communicate how bad it is to people ~10k years in the future. What are those other experts thinking and why are they wrong?

Second, what's up with nuclear waste? Specifically, if the waste is really a nothing burger, as I see argued often, why do I see (other) experts talking about how to communicate how bad it is to people 10k years in the future. What are those other experts thinking and why are they wrong?

There are three broad classes of radioactive nuclear waste (as opposed to material only relevant in the context of process accidents, such as Iodine-131), and one other class that's kinda been stuffed into the edge sideways.

  • Random garbage that has been somewhere near an NRC regulated environment. Mine tailings, spilled coolant fluids, used safety gear, so on. They're regularly bad stuff for other reasons, like lead or other heavy metal poisons, but in terms of radiation they're not very radioactive and sometimes not radioactive at all. Were they are radioactive, they have very low bioavailability and short half-lives. Most (though not all!) low-level waste falls into this category, including all Class A and nearly all Class B in the United States, there's a variety of EU classifications.

  • Very slightly radioactive stuff. Most class C or more-than-C (in the US) and intermediate waste (in EU) falls here, as do a few other industrial process stuff. This is generally actually radioactive and can have either very long or very short half-lives, but by definition it is not at risk of thermal runaway or criticality incident in any situation, and lacks other traits making it particularly dangerous to humans (ie, not very bioavailable). You don't actually get that much from nuclear power plants, so a lot of this is the aftermath of plutonium weapons production, but some amount is unavoidable. This stuff shouldn't be mixed into paving cement or pipe metal, but it's still generally pretty uninteresting.

  • Ultra-long-term waste. This mostly comes directly from 'spent' nuclear fuel, though there are some research and industrial sources, or production during criticality incidents. This is the stuff that could last hundreds of thousands of years and be meaningfully radioactive at the end of it, and it has some special safety concerns for storage as putting too much in one place can cause critical events. The good thing is that this stuff is as much an opportunity as a problem: it's mostly made of still-usable fuel, or material with other common uses (eg fuel for radiothermal generators, smoke detectors, food radiopastuerization, some industrial processes). Only a very tiny minority are genuine waste and these are generally pretty easy to isolate and store; we just don't separate them right now for political reasons. (Though there are some complicated parts to doing so: among other things, they come out of the 'oven' very hot and stay hot for years afterward, and by definition have a high risk of criticality incident if not stored well during processing.)

  • The actually hard one: material with moderate half-lives (10-100 years), high bioavailability, and moderate production amounts. For uranium-fueled plants, think Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, with a small scattering of other chemicals. Like the ultra-long-term waste, this mostly comes from spent fuel. These materials aren't readily useful for further fuel cycles, and aren't economical to use industrially (or don't have enough demand), and while they technically can be transmuted into other materials that are less obnoxious there's no practically economical way to do so that's been demonstrated. Deep geological storage is overkill -- the same thing that makes them dangerous means that they burn out faster -- but it does need further storage and constraints than normal industrial waste.

The steelman for anti-nuclear activists largely highlight two of these four categories. The ultra-long-term waste has special safety concerns and could be used in a matter of dangerous ways, and anti-nuclear activists regularly operate under the assumption that we would not reprocess or reuse it (tbf, we aren't right now!). Meanwhile, strontium-90 and cesium-137 are genuinely bad stuff, and while mixing it into glass works okay, we're not doing that very well either; that most of the radioactivity only lasts a few hundred years or so isn't actually that reassuring for people alive today.

((To be less charitable, some anti-nuclear activists lump all four together, so they can use the volume or mass amounts for the piles of scrap lead shielding or precautionary-principled dirt as if it were glowing corite.))

On the flip side, from the pro-nuclear perspective the reasons we're not solving these problems right now largely revolve around political decisions and simply not needing to solve any. All of the spent fuel ever produced could fit volumetrically into a football field and not even get that deep (though this would be a very bad idea!). As it is, we've sat it in a few dozen ponds across the planet, instead, none of which have gotten very full. Even including the nasty intermediate waste still just isn't that much material, and it's very easy to keep it away from any place people go. That's especially true given the security situation around these plants: there's an old joke about how unsafe waste fuel cooling ponds can be to swim in, because you'd be filled with bullets before you reached the water.