Questions about waste from nuclear power plants

I recently saw the PBS Frontline documentary. It was S30E06 and was titled Nuclear Aftershocks. In that program, they focused on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. They discussed the danger to New York City because a similar plant (Indian Point) is located about 20 miles from Times Square in NYC. Excuse me please if I am not remembering those facts exactly correctly but it was close to that.

As a result of watching that program, I have two questions.

  1. What is the US currently doing with the waste byproducts from their nuclear power plants?

  2. How great would the risk be if they took that waste to a very under populated state such as Wyoming (582,658) or New Mexico (2,085,287) and went to the middle of an area that had zero population like perhaps a desert in New Mexico and dug a large hole in the desert and coated it with concrete and stored the waste there?

I’ve seen the way basements are dug for large steel building and concrete is poured for the underground parking areas. What would be the risk of storing nuclear waste in a structure like that?

Part of that Frontline program suggested that as a result of the Fukushima disaster, both Japan and Germany will no longer be creating any new nuclear power plants and will actually be shutting down all their existing plants as soon as possible. But they also seemed to predict the USA will never abandon nuclear energy and will be committed to it forever.

I’m not sure wheter to feel scared out of my mind by that. I live very close to a nuclear power plant and I just can’t imagine what I’d do if I woke up one moring and was told that I have to move at least 50 miles away from my current home and the city in which I currently live will not be habitable for the next 200 years. Talk about fear!

I cannot answer your specific questions but I’d like to put your mind at ease.

The first question is - how many people have died from radiation poisoning from Fukushima Daiichi ? Or from Three Mile Island?

Exactly none. No deaths. Nada. Not one person.

Nuclear radiation is awful but in reality its easy to avoid.

Each of us is exposed to nuclear radiation every moment of the day. It arrives from the Sun and also from the Earth which has plenty of radioactivity. Its around us every single moment.

You really don’t have anything to fear. Simply being human is risky - car accidents, cancer, driveby shootings things happen. But on a global perspective dying from nuclear radiation is a vanishingly small risk.

You have more to worry about if you lived downstream from a hydro dam.

The Yucca Mountain facility was supposed to be the nation’s designated nuclear waste dump, but a bunch of NIMBYs killed it. Despite the fact that it’s not in anyone’s back yard.

Most spent nuclear fuel is stored under water in big swimming pools (don’t go swimming there) at nuclear power plants. Some of it is transported to a big pool Illinois which is operated by GE.

France operates several plants. Where do they store the waste?

I’m fairly certain the program said that many thousands of people died in Japan. Something like 20 thousand or so. I’m sorry I can’t remember the exact number. I’m also not sure whether those people died as a result of the earthquake or as a result of nuclear energy. From what I recall, I would guess it would have had to have been as a result of the earthquake and resulting tsunami. But it’s still pretty terrifying for anyone living in an earthquake zone that is also near a large body of water. I sure do wish I had a transcript of that program so I could check on the exact numbers and exactly what was said.

I do recall they said the thing that most people were afraid of was not being injured as a result of the earthquake or tsunami. It was waking up and being told they must immediately move at least a hundred miles (just my guess) away from their home and they could never move back. They were afraid of that because it would completely ruin the quality of their lives and they would be ruined forever (or at least for 100 years or more).

Can you imagine someone telling you that you had an hour or two to move and you could never come back? It doesn’t sound as terrifying as it actually would be if it really happened to me. I have no idea how I would cope with that.

Oh my gosh! Stored under water? I would think it would be far more dangerous to store it under water than it would be to store it under concrete. I’m just guessing but in case of an accident, the water would be vaporized and would shoot up into the atmosphere and the result would be that all that radiation would mix with the water vapor over the nation and would then come down again in the form of rain. I suppose I must not understand something. It just seems so much more dangerous to me to store it underwater than under a desert. What is the danger of the sand becoming radioactive as compared to the water becoming radioactive and then shooting up into the atmosphere as steam? I must not understand something because I know you are correct about it being stored under water. I just can’t imagine why.

Since you are listed as living in Brooklyn, I’m guessing you have been witness to some kind of demonstrations about that Indian Point power plant. Is that true? Do you know just how far Brooklyn is from Indian Point? How do you feel about living that distance away from that power plant?

Imagine that. You watched a show that is anti-nuclear power and you know that 19,000 died and you aren’t sure if the nuclear power killed them or the earthquake/tsunami did. Lets clear that up right now:

earthquake/tsunami; 19,000 deaths
nuclear power: 0 deaths.

While you are frightened about earthquakes and nuclear power, you don’t seem to loose sleep over the weakening of the ozone layer or 13,000 to 24,000 people that die each year due to electric power generation due to coal.

Why is that?

Here’s some info - it’s not like they’re inflatable above ground pools…

Actually it would be perfectly safe to swim in a nuclear waste storage pool as long as you didn’t dive right down and touch freshly stored fuel rods. Divers do actually go into pools to do regular maintainance.

See this:

Have you ever heard the Uncle Remus fable about the tar baby? It’s not that well known so you may not have heard about it.

But I don’t think it would be wise for me to try and answer your question.

I have tried to be honest and I’ve said that I don’t know the reasons behind this story. I’m certainly willing to accept what you say. Specifically, I believe you when you say there have been zero deaths because of the radiation and the other deaths have been caused by the earthquake and/or tsunami.

I think it would be best to leave it at that and wish you well.

Thanks very much. I enjoy learning new things and that was a real eye opener.

they have to be kept in water until the decay heat drops enough to move them to dry storage. even spent fuel assemblies will melt down if not cooled sufficiently.

I wasn’t familiar with the tar baby. Learned something new.

No need for trepidation. A good back and forth discussion is helpful to all.

My point was if there was a magic, plentiful source of energy, we’d all be using it to the exclusion of all else. And while nuclear isn’t the end all be all, there is more disinformation on that than on anything else.

Nuclear can kill, and can kill a lot in one spot quickly. But it just hasn’t happened yet. it might, but it hasn’t thus far. Coal kills much more quietly, and it does very single day. It just isn’t discussed as much.

The trick to deep underground storage is to locate a geosphere that has been stable and impermeable for a billion years or so. As far as close containment within a geosphere and sealing the access point go, compacted bentonite clay works better than concrete as a containment material, particularly because it expands if it gets wet. Presently, Ontario is developing such deep underground storage sites. Reports | The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO)

When a spent fuel rod is removed from a reactor, it must cool for a decade or two before it can be recycled or placed in permanent storage. Just like you and I can hop in a pool to cool down, spent fuel rods are placed in pools to cool them down. The water blocks the radiation.

Pools are subject to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and poor maintenance due to any number of reasons, so pond storage is not appropriate for long term storage. Unfortunately, concerns over the safely of long term storage have delayed the building of long term storage facilities, resulting in nuclear waste being stored in far less safe ponds longer than is necessary.

Oh well, that sounds much more reasonable. I was scared that no matter what I said, you would jump down my throat. That is why I didn’t want to answer.

I have watched many Frontline episodes and although I’m certain you are correct insofar as some of the episodes are biased, they almost always seem to me to be very even. They present both sides of the issue and often then leave it to the viewer to decide for themselves.

Your point about coal killing slowly every day is completely correct. Moreover, I have to agree with you in that it would seem that the deaths associated with nuclear accidents are almost always caused by the inital problem - be it an earthquake or Tsunami.

I can’t recall any deaths ever due to a nuclear explosion since Aug. 9, 1945. Although I’m certainly no expert and may well be wrong.

However, it was good to meet you and I’m glad we were able to have this back and forth and not wind up screaming at each other.

That depends on what you mean by “due to a nuclear explosion”. Nobody’s been directly blown up by a nuclear bomb since then. But there have been many other nuclear explosions since then, some of which have produced considerable fallout, and many people have died due to that fallout. Including, incidentally, John Wayne.

Note that all of these nuclear explosions have been due to bombs, and thus, exploding is them working as intended. There is no circumstance under which a power plant would explode like a bomb. Even Chernobyl, bad though it was, wasn’t a nuclear explosion.

Nuclear power actually saves lives if the replacement for that power generation was coal.

Living next to a nuclear power plant is far safer than living next to a coal power plant. Indeed coal power plants produce more radioactive waste than nuclear power plants do.

Chronos and Whack-a-Mole,

Quite right and thank you for your input.

It is true we are surrounded by all sorts of radiation all the time. However, the kind of radiation we are exposed to constantly is not the kind to be generally worried about. Radiation from nuclear waste is of a sort that you definitely do not want to be exposed to.

In this case the nuclear waste produces ionizing radiation which is the kind of radiation that can damage DNA and cause cancer and other nasty things to happen.

Non-ionizing radiation not nearly as dangerous (although it can be too). For instance sticking your hand in a microwave will not make you radioactive nor will it damage your DNA but it WILL burn you as it starts to cook your hand (really no different than sticking your hand in an oven…just faster). No radiation poisoning though.