Nuclear power is cheap and emission free but following fears of meltdowns and concerns about waste disposal, it is also vastly unpopular. Yet in spite of the environmental concerns it raises, nuclear energy still has huge economic viability and so remains an issue with states that are always searching for more affordable energy alternatives. Nuclear power plants also come up as a security concern, in spite of claims that power plants are largely terrorist-proof.
How much of our energy is nuclear energy (2002):
Cost of nuclear energy compared to other energies
(using 1997 info) (EIA)
- Nuclear fuel: $0.51 (per million Btu).
- Coal: $1.31 (per million Btu).
- Coke coal: $2.95 (per million Btu).
- Natural gas: $4.62 (per million Btu).
- Petroleum: $7.82 (per million Btu).
Two kinds of nuclear waste (NRC):
- High-level waste is the "spent" nuclear material that is no longer usable but is still highly radioactive.
- Low-level waste is material that has been exposed to nuclear material (clothes, etc.) that is now "contaminated."
How much nuclear waste we produce now:
- Low-level waste: about .3 million cubic feet a year (2000) (NRC), or 1 - 2 million cubic feet (NE) (out of a total of 350 billion cubic feet of garbage Americans produce each year).
- There is currently a total of about 49,000 metric tons of high-level waste. (OCRWM) (OCRWM says this is the equivalent of a football field piled ten feet high with nuclear waste.)
What we do with the high level waste:
- All high-level waste is now being stored in about 130 temporary sites (usually at the nuclear reactors) in 39 states (OCRWM), at a cost to the Energy Department of $500 million a year (NYT).
- The only current plan in the works for long term storage is to store high-level waste in Yucca mountain (up to 70,000 metric tons), but that plan is years behind schedule and still slowed by political and legal battles. (OCRWM) A private company, Private Fuel Storage, announced in 2006 that it will build its own spent fuel repository. (NYT)
The half life of common nuclear waste (half life is the length of time it takes half of a batch of nuclear material to naturally decay) (NRC):
- Cesium-137 and strontium-90: 30 years;
- Plutonium-239: 24,000 years.
For more information on kinds of nuclear waste, see US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Where the facts are from:
EIA - Energy Information Administration - government site
NE - Office of Nuclear Energy - government site
NRC - US Nuclear Regulatory Commission - government site
OCRWM - Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management - government site
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