How much carbon does the average American or European emit per year? How much does the world emit? And if you know the answers to those questions, maybe you can also tell Craig Morris how many tons of nuclear waste the world has? He tried, and failed, to find out.
Last week, we read alarming reports about CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are approaching 400 parts per million – and counting. In the run-up to the second anniversary of the disaster in Fukushima, we also read articles by proponents of nuclear power – such as this one from Sunday in New Scientist. In addition to reiterating the pro-nuclear argument that “relatively few people will suffer serious health effects from the nuclear fiasco,” the article states: “the world still fears nuclear technology more than it fears climate change.” Is that true?
Counting carbon emissions is no easy task. The shift from coal to shale gas, for example, has lowered the emissions we count, but questions remain about emissions we may not count, such as line losses and methane escaping from the mining process. To make things worse, small businesses (such as the small mines in China) have trouble estimating their carbon emissions.
You would think it would therefore be much easier to count nuclear waste. After all, there are not really any small businesses involved in the nuclear sector, and nuclear waste production is heavily monitored.
For instance, a Wikipedia site lists countries by per capita carbon dioxide emissions. A Google search reveals a wide range of websites and articles with related information.
Yet, there is no Wikipedia site on per capita nuclear waste production. The entry on radioactive waste does include a paragraph on “legacy waste,” which offers such scientifically exact estimates as “millions of gallons,” “thousands of tons” and “huge quantities.” Later, we see that “about 12,000 metric tons” of high-level waste are produced every year. Amazingly, the website includes a chart of “uranium and thorium release from coal combustion” (cumulatively 2.9 million tons up to 2040); apparently, coal plants release more radioactive material than nuclear plants do!
Good data are hard to find
Doesn’t the International Atomic Energy Agency provide updates every year? There is an estimation (PDF) with data from 2008 (published in 2010), and it shows that high-level waste is not the same as spent fuel, which is not the same as “LILW” (liquid intermediate level waste). The totals are then given in scientific notation, such as 1.8 E5 for MTHM – any questions?
We state emissions of heat-trapping gases in terms of carbon-equivalent emissions so people get the message. Is there no way to state the amount of nuclear waste for laypeople?
The study is not updated annually, but the IAEA does explain on its website that a 1,000 MW nuclear plant produces around “30 tons of high-level solid packed waste per year.” France has around 62,000 MW of installed nuclear capacity, so the country should therefore be producing 62×30 tons per year, or 1,860 tons – equivalent to 28 grams per Frenchman. So why does a presentation from 2006 (PDF) claim that the French “only” produce 10 grams of high-level waste – still just half of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s estimate of “20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel” from of “typical nuclear power plant in a year”?
If we were actually more concerned about nuclear risks than climate change, why would we know so much about carbon emissions and so little about nuclear waste production?
As you might expect, things are different in Germany. For instance, Volkswagen owns its own power plants and is pleased that it has lower nuclear waste production than the German power mix (see chart to the right). Do other power producers outside Germany report their nuclear waste production? Is anyone outside Germany counting it along with carbon emissions?