Radioactive Waste Dangers

Sylvie Sherman
December 7, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: Nuclear Reactor in North Korea. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear power is the energy contained in atoms, which can be harnessed to generate electricity through a series of chemical reactions that occur in a nuclear reactor. The nuclear energy debate has gained traction in the past few decades as many countries, such as India, China, and Britain, have begun to use nuclear energy on a large scale. [1] In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 50 countries will have nuclear reactors by 2030, and that in the next few decades, the 436 nuclear reactors that exist today will be joined by 500 more. [1] Nuclear energy has many possible benefits: it can enhance domestic energy security, produces large amounts of energy, and emits very low greenhouse gas byproducts. [1] However, the issue of whether or not to use nuclear energy is complicated, because the advantages of nuclear energy are accompanied by serious dangers. There are many concerns surrounding the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy, and we must further examine these dangers in order to come up with a sustainable plan for the future.

Dangers of Radioactive Waste

Costs of nuclear energy include the continued risk of reactor accidents and the dangers of transporting nuclear fuel, but perhaps the biggest concern is how to deal with hazardous nuclear waste, which can survive for hundreds of thousands of years. [1] High-level waste is produced as part of the nuclear fuel process and needs to be considered in order to avoid permanent damage to living organisms and the environment. [2] These dangerous byproducts remain intensely radioactive for a long time. For example, Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, Tc-99 has a half-life of 220,000 years, and I-129 has a half-life of 15.7 million years. [3] As a result of the hazards that long-lived radioactive waste poses to society, disposal regulations require isolation of these wastes for tens of thousands of years. [3] How to keep this radioactive waste in storage is another issue that must be taken into account when considering nuclear energy use.

Potential Solutions

In order to come up with a long-term solution regarding the storage of radioactive nuclear waste, policymakers must consider the large volume of nuclear waste that is produced, the extremely long half-life of nuclear waste, and the sustainability of a long-term plan. [2] Temporary storage solutions include onsite storage pools at reactor sites, where spent nuclear fuel is stored and cooled, and dry casks, which have an average storage time of 8-12 years. [3] However, neither dry casks nor storage pools are sustainable techniques for waste disposal in the long term. [3] Long-term storage solutions include burial in the sub seabed and launching waste into outer space, but perhaps the safest solution is geological isolation. [3]


Since nuclear waste can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, the choices that we make today affect future generations. Thus, the issue of nuclear energy is a moral one. Many argue that people living today should deal with the burdens of nuclear power since we will be reaping the majority of the benefits. [1] However, others argue that to reduce long-term concerns for future generations, we jeopardize our own short-term safety and economic security. [1] Radioactive waste is an unavoidable reality that accompanies nuclear energy use, and the techniques surrounding safe production and storage must be sustainable in order to protect current and future generations.

© Sylvie Sherman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Taebi, "The Burden of Nuclear Waste," New York Times, 29 Aug 10.

[2] S. Ali, "Nuclear Waste Disposal Methods," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[3] B. Madres, "Storage and 'Disposal' of Nuclear Waste," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.