Nuclear Waste

Most high-level radioactive waste comes from the fuel in the core of nuclear power reactors. Irradiated fuel is the most radioactive fuel on the planet and accounts for some 95% of radioactivity generated in the last 50 years from all sources, including nuclear weapons production. Once removed from the core, irradiated fuel is stored in cooling pools on the nuclear reactor site. Each 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant produces about 500 pounds of plutonium annually and about 30 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste.

Environmental Costs

While electricity generated from nuclear power does not directly emit carbon dioxide (CO2), the nuclear fuel cycle does release CO2 during mining, fuel enrichment, and plant construction. Uranium mining is one of the most CO2-intensive industrial operations, and as demand for uranium grows because of new electricity generation and new plant construction, CO2 levels will also rise.

In a case study in Germany, the Oko-Institute determined that 34 grams of CO2 are emitted per generated kilowatt (kWh). Other international research studies show much higher figures (up to 60 grams of CO2 per kWh). Compared to renewable energy, energy generated from nuclear power releases 4-5 times more CO2 per unit of energy produced, considering the entire nuclear fuel cycle.

US government regulations allow radioactive water to be released at “permissible” levels into the environment. Accurate accounting of all radioactive wastes released into the air, water, and soil from the nuclear fuel cycle is simply unavailable. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission relies on self-reporting and computer modeling from reactor operators to track radioactive releases and project dispersions.


It has been scientifically established that low-level radiation damages tissues, cells, DNA, and other vital molecules. Effects of low-level radiation doses cause cell death, genetic mutations, cancers, leukemia, congenital disabilities, and reproductive, immune, and endocrine system disorders.

Radioactivity is measured in “curies.” An average operating nuclear power reactor core has about 16 billion curies at its heart, equivalent to the long-lived radioactivity of at least 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. In comparison, a large-sized medical center with as many as 1000 laboratories in which radioactive materials are used has a combined inventory of about two curies.

The following scenarios are comparative examples of the amount of radiation a person receives:

  • Coal plant, living within 50 miles: .03 mrem

    There is much thorium and uranium in coal. Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant adds .009 mrem of exposure. Both figures are considered deficient levels.

  • Porcelain teeth or crowns: 0.1-1 rem

    Uranium is often added to these dental products to increase whiteness and fluorescence.

  • Air Travel: 1 mrem per 1000 miles

    Thirty thousand feet above the ground, you’re closer to the sun’s ionizing radiation (high-energy gammas and particles).

  • Sleeping next to someone for 8 hours: 2 mrems

    Exposure comes from the naturally radioactive potassium in the other person’s body

  • Living in a masonry home: 7 mrems

    stone, brick, and adobe have natural radioisotopes.

  • Grand Central Station, NYC: 120 mrem for employees

    Its granite walls have a high uranium content.

  • Living on the Earth: 200 mrems

    We are living in a sea of radon. It is made from the natural decay of uranium and thorium in the soil, left over from the solar system’s creation. Radon is a rare gas that diffuses from the earth and into the air. It contributes more than half of our background exposure.

  • Brazil Nuts: 660 rem

    This is the world’s most radioactive food due to high radium concentrations 1000 times that of average foods.

  • Smoking: up to 16,000 mrems

    The tobacco leaf acts like the absorbing surface of charcoal in a radon test kit. It collects long-lived isotopes of airborne radon, like lead-210 and polonium. Small portions of the lungs can get relatively whopping doses compared to background levels.

  • The US Capitol Building in Washington DC: 30 microrems per hour

    This building is so radioactive due to the high uranium content in its granite walls it could never be licensed as a nuclear power reactor site.

Nuclear Safety

The nuclear industry has had repetitive problems with security, safety, and environmental impact. Radioactive contamination does not discriminate between national borders, and nuclear power plants threaten the health and well-being of all surrounding environments.

Nuclear Sustainability

Nuclear power plants produce extremely toxic radioactive wastes that are long-lived and have no safe disposal means. The disposal is neither scientifically credible nor are there any sustainable options for interim storage. Producing long-lived radioactive wastes with no solution for their removal will leave severe and irreversible environmental damage and degradation for generations to come, contrary to sustainability principles.

An Endless Source of Energy?

There have been several failures in breeder reactor programs. Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor was closed in 1995 until recently because of a severe accident. The French and UK breeder reactor programs have also been permanently closed. There is also no foreseeable commercial development of fusion reactors.

Additionally, uranium supplies are rapidly diminishing. The combined effects mean that nuclear power will not be able to supply the long-term needs of the world’s energy demands.

Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed on July 1, 1968, and entered into force on March 5, 1970. Its initial duration was 25 years. 1995 was extended indefinitely, with a review conference every five years. At the heart of the NPT is a central bargain in which the Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) agreed to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons. In exchange, the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) pledged to end the nuclear arms race and to negotiate nuclear disarmament (Article VI). As an incentive, the NNWS was promised assistance with research, production, and use of atomic energy for “peaceful” purposes (Article IV). Each NNWS also agreed to accept “safeguards” under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. These safeguards do not apply to the NWS. The treaty defined an NWS as one that had manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or another nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967. However, in theory, any country with a nuclear reactor can produce a nuclear weapon.


MOX, or mixed oxide plutonium, is an experimental fuel in which plutonium, usually from dismantled nuclear weapons, is mixed with uranium for use in commercial nuclear reactors. The MOX projects require transporting plutonium by rail, ship, or truck. Using plutonium MOX fuel creates serious security threats, as the transportation of plutonium increases the possibilities for theft and diversion of plutonium.

In a study conducted in 1999, the Nuclear Control Institute determined that a severe accident at a civilian reactor powered by plutonium or MOX fuel could cause twice as many fatal cancers as an identical accident at a reactor that uses uranium fuel. MOX plutonium fuel produces more radioactivity than uranium fuel.

Plutonium MOX fuel also dramatically exacerbates the problem of storing and disposing of high-level radioactive waste. Plutonium in a nuclear reactor will not get rid of plutonium, which is an impossible goal. The idea behind using MOX plutonium is to render it less approachable by terrorists or “states of concern” because it is so lethal.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Governors’ Designees Receiving Advance Notification of Transportation of Nuclear Waste:

On January 6, 1982 (47 FR 596 and 47 FR 600), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published in the Federal Register final amendments to 10 CFR parts 71 and 73 (effective July 6, 1982) that require advance notification to Governors or their designees by NRC licensees before transportation of specific shipments of nuclear waste and spent fuel. The advance notification covered in part 73 is for paid nuclear reactor fuel shipments, and the information for part 71 is for large quantities of radioactive waste (and of spent nuclear reactor fuel not covered under the final amendment to 10 CFR part 73).

Aside from the government’s concern about nuclear power, the public also expressed a strong opinion of the matter: Public Attitudes to Nuclear Power

Sources: Living with Radiation, the First Hundred Years, America the Powerless, Los Alamos Science, Bluebells and Nuclear Energy