One gram of “garbage” per day: we should all be so lucky

Yesterday’s Toronto Star carried a curiously soft-hitting front page headline about nuclear “waste.” While trumpeting the fact that Canada has produced over 2 million bundles of it—which sounds like a lot—the Star gives no point of comparison with the waste products of other types of power plants. If comparators had been presented in the article, readers might get a better idea of how things really stack up.

Those 2 million used nuclear fuel bundles, each weighing about 20 kilograms, collectively weigh 40 million kilograms, or 40,000 metric tons. That’s from over four decades of operation.

If you think 40,000 tonnes over four decades is a lot, here is a point of comparison the Star could have provided. Gas-fired power plants in Ontario have dumped more than 5,300 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) between midnight September 1 and and 0830 September 2. They will likely have surpassed nuclear spent fuel by midnight tonight, i.e. within a single day. (They did surpass the weight of nuclear fuel, with extreme prejudice; see the Afterword below.)

Every year gas-fired plants dump literally millions of tons of CO2 into the air. Operators of gas-fired power plants could not possibly keep the stuff on site; at a production rate of thousands of tons of it per day, there is just too much of it. So those millions of tons of CO2 are simply dumped into our air. The now-unrecoverable CO2 will swirl around in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years before dissolving in ocean water, making it more acidic.

The Star article asks us to picture we have “lived in the same house for more than half a century, and never taken out the garbage.” That is essentially the case with spent fuel in Canadian nuclear plants. Just about every used fuel bundle is indeed stored at the same plant that burned it to make electricity.

But that is where the Star analogy stops working. Most of us produce kilograms of garbage every day. For our garbage situation to be analogous to Canada’s nuclear used fuel, then we would be producing about a gram of it per day, or around one-third of one kilogram per year. Over four decades, we would each have accumulated about 14.6 kilograms of garbage.

Would this constitute a real problem, let alone a crisis? If it were solid garbage, say metal or plastic or paper, maybe. Fifteen kg of paper would be bulky, and we would want to get rid of it to open up space. But if we had some way of compacting it into a block the size of, say, a cinder block, then it would be essentially inconsequential. We could go for another forty years, and have two solid blocks of garbage, each the size of a cinder block.

That is essentially the situation with Canada’s nuclear “waste.” Bear in mind that this stuff contains significant amounts of hugely useful isotopes of plutonium, uranium, cesium, and strontium. The first two could be used (and reused) as fuel, and the latter two have numerous uses, including in health care.

[Afterword: Ontario gas-fired power plants ended up dumping over 61,000 metric tons of CO2 into our air on September 2 2012. That is to say: in a single day, gas-fired plants in a single province—Ontario—produced 50 percent more garbage than the combined nuclear fleets of three provinces—Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick—have produced in over forty years of operation. And when I say the Ontario gas plants “dumped” 61,000 tonnes of CO2, I mean exactly that. Those 61,000 tonnes are now in our air, and it will be impossible to get them back.]

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