Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Real Waste Problem:

Not Just a Nuclear Problem

A relatively new blog (at least to me) from "a couple of MIT engineers" has had several interesting posts lately.  Today, I want to comment on one that analyzes the waste streams from solar versus nuclear power

While most public attention focuses on the waste from nuclear power plants--it is dangerous, it lasts for hundreds of thousands of years, and we "haven't solved the problem of where to put it," some of us have long noted that it is not only nuclear power that produces wastes.  ALL sources of energy do.

The MIT post points out a number of facts that are useful in comparing the waste streams from nuclear power plants versus solar power plants:

•  The volume of waste from solar plants is many times that from nuclear plants.

•  Much of the waste from nuclear plants is not really waste.  It can be recycled.

•  The cadmium and lead wastes from solar power plants are poisonous.

•  Unlike nuclear power wastes, where the radioactivity decreases over time, the poisonous chemical wastes from solar power plants last forever.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with the last argument.  It is true, but on the time scales involved for the decay of radioactivity, the reality is that both waste streams need to be sequestered for a very long time.

While both nuclear and solar wastes can potentially be recycled, the blogpost notes that recycling solar panels requires a substantial amount of energy, while recycling used nuclear fuel results in a net energy gain.

These observations demonstrate that ALL energy sources have downsides.  Even energy sources that are often thought of as natural and benign in fact have their own environmental impacts.  This does not mean that we should not use solar power.  Likewise, the existence of nuclear wastes does not mean that we should not use nuclear power.  The point is that we all need to understand that no energy source is completely clean or safe.


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